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Posted by on May 19, 2009 in At TMV | 8 comments

WaPo: The CIA Is Hampered By Ban on Torture

Walter Pincus sympathetically passes on the “fears” of CIA officials that, without torture, they will not be able to do their jobs right:

Battered by recriminations over waterboarding and other harsh techniques sanctioned by the Bush administration, the CIA is girding itself for more public scrutiny and is questioning whether agency personnel can conduct interrogations effectively under rules set out for the U.S. military, according to senior intelligence officials.

Harsh interrogations were only one part of its clandestine activities against al-Qaeda and other enemies, and agency members are worried that other operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan will come under review, the officials said.
[…]
The Obama administration’s decisions to close the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, make public Justice Department memos sanctioning harsh interrogation, and ban techniques authorized by the Bush administration are affecting the agency’s operations.
[…]
Another intelligence official, who also asked not to be identified, said waterboarding and other harsh techniques “were meant to get hardened terrorists to a point where they were willing to answer questions.” That capability, the official said, “is now gone.”

Ohmygod, where to begin?

Okay, how about this: The CIA is worried that it won’t be able to conduct interrogations effectively under the new rules. That is very puzzling, in light of Greg Miller’s recent article in the Los Angeles Times, in which he reported that, from the earliest days of using harsh interrogation techniques torture, CIA officials showed no interest whatsoever in evaluating the effectiveness of those techniques:

The CIA used an arsenal of severe interrogation techniques on imprisoned Al Qaeda suspects for nearly seven years without seeking a rigorous assessment of whether the methods were effective or necessary, according to current and former U.S. officials familiar with the matter.

The failure to conduct a comprehensive examination occurred despite calls to do so as early as 2003. That year, the agency’s inspector general circulated drafts of a report that raised deep concerns about waterboarding and other methods, and recommended a study by outside experts on whether they worked.

That inspector general report described in broad terms the volume of intelligence that the interrogation program was producing, a point echoed in smaller studies later commissioned by then-CIA Director Porter J. Goss.

But neither the inspector general’s report nor the other audits examined the effectiveness of interrogation techniques in detail or sought to scrutinize the assertions of CIA counter-terrorism officials that so-called enhanced methods were essential to the program’s results. One report by a former government official — not an interrogation expert — was about 10 pages long and amounted to a glowing review of interrogation efforts.

“Nobody with expertise or experience in interrogation ever took a rigorous, systematic review of the various techniques — enhanced or otherwise — to see what resulted in the best information,” said a senior U.S. intelligence official involved in overseeing the interrogation program.

As a result, there was never a determination of “what you could do without the use of enhanced techniques,” said the official, who like others described internal discussions on condition of anonymity.

The CIA never knew how to conduct interrogations effectively. They didn’t even know how to go about finding out how to conduct interrogations effectively. They turned to two psychologists who claimed they knew exactly how to get information, despite the fact they had no experience with conducting interrogations at all:

According to current and former government officials, the CIA’s secret waterboarding program was designed and assured to be safe by two well-paid psychologists now working out of an unmarked office building in Spokane, Washington.

Bruce Jessen and Jim Mitchell, former military officers, together founded Mitchell Jessen and Associates.

Both men declined to speak to ABC News citing non-disclosure agreements with the CIA. But sources say Jessen and Mitchell together designed and implemented the CIA’s interrogation program.
[…]
Former U.S. officials say the two men were essentially the architects of the CIA’s 10-step interrogation plan that culminated in waterboarding.
[…]
Both Mitchell and Jessen were previously involved in the U.S. military program to train pilots how to survive behind enemy lines and resist brutal tactics if captured.

But it turns out neither Mitchell nor Jessen had any experience in conducting actual interrogations before the CIA hired them.

“They went to two individuals who had no interrogation experience,” said Col. Kleinman. “They are not interrogators.”

The new documents show the CIA later came to learn that the two psychologists’ waterboarding “expertise” was probably “misrepresented” and thus, there was no reason to believe it was “medically safe” or effective. The waterboarding used on al Qaeda detainees was far more intense than the brief sessions used on U.S. military personnel in the training classes.

As for this:

Another intelligence official, who also asked not to be identified, said waterboarding and other harsh techniques “were meant to get hardened terrorists to a point where they were willing to answer questions.” That capability, the official said, “is now gone.”

Well, yeah, there’s a whole lot of things we could do if we didn’t have to obey the law. Guess the CIA will just have to find other ways of persuading hardened terrorists individuals suspected of having committed terrorist acts or of having information about terrorist activities to answer questions — ways that don’t violate our own laws or the international agreements we have sworn to be bound by.

One way to more effectively get useful information from “hardened terrorists” might be to stop calling them and thinking of them as “hardened terrorists.” In point of fact, they are not hardened terrorists or any kind of terrorists until there actually is evidence to charge them with acts of terrorism. Until then, and until these suspected terrorists have been tried in regular civilian federal criminal courts, just like the United States has been trying suspected terrorists for years before 9/11, they are not terrorists, hardened or otherwise.

Why is this relevant to interrogations? Simply because what you already believe to be true will blind you to any other possibilities. It’s a lot easier to mistreat hardened terrorists than it is to mistreat people you have in your custody but don’t assume are guilty of atrocities. If you know someone is a “hardened terrorist,” then why even consider the possibility that this person you have before you does not know what you are convinced he knows, or has not done what you are convinced he has done? Purely from a practical standpoint, that increases the likelihood that you will miss, or make it much more difficult to find out, the real, legitimate information that can save lives.

Something like this is exactly what happened in the case of Abu Zubaydah. As Ali Soufan, the FBI agent who helped to interrogate Zubaydah using traditional non-coercive methods, testified at congressional hearings last week, his team was getting incredibly good, valuable information from Zubaydah — until the CIA, convinced that Zubaydah knew more than he was telling, took over and started torturing him:

The testimony of a key witness at a Senate hearing Wednesday raised serious questions about the truthfulness of former President George W. Bush’s own personal defense of the CIA’s brutal interrogation program. Former FBI agent Ali Soufan also indicated that the harsh interrogation techniques may actually have hindered the collection of intelligence, causing a high-value prisoner to stop cooperating.

In the first congressional hearing on torture since the release of Bush administration memos that provided the legal justification for torture, Soufan told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the CIA’s abusive techniques were “ineffective, slow and unreliable, and as a result harmful to our efforts to defeat al-Qaida.” According to Soufan, his own nonviolent interrogation of an al-Qaida suspect was quickly yielding valuable, actionable intelligence — until the CIA intervened.

Soufan was with the FBI on March 28, 2002, when the United States captured its first suspected al-Qaida operative after 9/11, a man named Abu Zubaydah, held at a secret location overseas. Soufan had investigated terrorism cases dating back to the East Africa embassy bombings in 1998, and he was one of the first experts called after Zubaydah’s capture.

Soufan, who testified at the hearing from behind a partition to hide his identity, worked on a small team of interrogators utilizing tried-and-true techniques that emphasize knowing the detainee’s language, understanding his culture, leveraging known information about a detainee, and sometimes using a bit of trickery. The method is based on rapport and is believed by experienced interrogators to result in the most reliable actionable intelligence. “It is about outwitting the detainee by using a combination of interpersonal, cognitive and emotional strategies to get the information needed,” Soufan said in written testimony, which he paraphrased on Wednesday.

“For example,” Soufan told the committee, “in my first interrogation of the terrorist Abu Zubaydah … I asked him his name. He replied with his alias. I then asked him, ‘How ’bout if I call you Hani?'”

“[Hani] was the name his mother nicknamed him as a child,” recalled Soufan. “He looked at me in shock, said, OK,’ and we started talking.”

“Within the first hour of interrogation,” Soufan said, “we gained actionable intelligence.” Soufan could not say what that information was because it remains classified. Zubaydah had been injured during his capture, and Soufan’s team arranged for medical care and continued talking to the prisoner. Within the next few days, Soufan made one of the most significant intelligence breakthroughs of the so-called war on terror. He learned from Zubaydah that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the mastermind behind the attacks on 9/11.

Then, however, a CIA interrogation team from Washington led by a contractor arrived at the secret location. Zubaydah was stripped naked and the contractor began a series of coercive, abusive interrogations, based on Cold War-era communist techniques designed to elicit false confessions. During the Korean War, for example, Chinese interrogators employed the measures to get captured American pilots to make false confessions. “The new techniques did not produce results, as Abu Zubaydah shut down and stopped talking,” Soufan explained. “After a few days of getting no information, and after repeated inquiries from D.C. asking why all of a sudden no information was being transmitted … we again were given control of the interrogation.”

As Soufan and his team resumed their interrogation, Zubaydah revealed information about Jose Padilla, the alleged “dirty bomber.”

But after that, the CIA and the contractor again took over, using what Soufan called an “untested theory” that the Cold War techniques might work for getting good information. “Again, however, the technique wasn’t working,” Soufan recalled.

Soufan’s team was brought back yet again. “We found it harder to reengage him this time, because of how the techniques had affected him,” Soufan noted. “But eventually, we succeeded.”

A third time the CIA and the contractor team took over, using increasingly brutal methods. Soufan reported what he called “borderline torture” to his superiors in Washington. In protest of the abuse, former FBI Director Robert Mueller pulled Soufan out of the location.

Former Pres. Bush’s account of Abu Zubaydah’s capture and intelligence included none of this backstory:

On Sept. 6, 2006, President Bush revealed the network of secret CIA prisons set up under his command and defended the CIA’s interrogation program. On Wednesday, Soufan described Zubaydah as a cooperative prisoner who became uncooperative when abused. Three years ago, Bush described a recalcitrant Zubaydah who accidentally revealed the name of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and then clammed up — having been trained to resist traditional interrogation techniques — forcing the CIA to get rough.

“Within months of Sept. 11, 2001, we captured a man named Abu Zubaydah,” Bush said. The president said the CIA arranged medical care for the suspected terrorist’s injuries. “After he recovered,” Bush said, “Zubaydah was defiant and evasive.”

“During questioning, he, at first, disclosed what he thought was nominal information and then stopped all cooperation,” Bush said, noting that Zubaydah had revealed the role of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Bush did not mention the FBI.

“We knew that Zubaydah had more information that could save innocent lives,” the president added. “But he stopped talking. As his questioning proceeded, it became clear that he had received training on how to resist interrogation,” Bush went on. “And so, the CIA used an alternative set of procedures.”

Of course, you will not find out any of this from reading Walter Pincus in the the Washington Post. But don’t judge him too harshly. Stenography is so much less stressful and time-consuming than actually going out and investigating the accuracy of your sources’ claims.

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