2005 January 13 Thursday
Heather Mac Donald: How to Interrogate Terrorists

In the Winter 2005 edition of City Journal Heather Mac Donald says that in response to the Abu Ghraib abuses of prisoners by prison guards even previously acceptable interrogation techniques were ruled off-limits in the US government. Even before the Abu Ghraib scandal the existing approved and accepted interrogation techniques were totally failing against Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners.

The interrogation debate first broke out on the frigid plains of Afghanistan. Marines and other special forces would dump planeloads of al-Qaida and Taliban prisoners into a ramshackle detention facility outside the Kandahar airport; waiting interrogators were then supposed to extract information to be fed immediately back into the battlefield—whether a particular mountain pass was booby-trapped, say, or where an arms cache lay. That “tactical” debriefing accomplished, the Kandahar interrogation crew would determine which prisoners were significant enough to be shipped on to the Guantánamo naval base in Cuba for high-level interrogation.

Army doctrine gives interrogators 16 “approaches” to induce prisoners of war to divulge critical information. Sporting names like “Pride and Ego Down” and “Fear Up Harsh,” these approaches aim to exploit a detainee’s self-love, allegiance to or resentment of comrades, or sense of futility. Applied in the right combination, they will work on nearly everyone, the intelligence soldiers had learned in their training.

But the Kandahar prisoners were not playing by the army rule book. They divulged nothing. “Prisoners overcame the [traditional] model almost effortlessly,” writes Chris Mackey in The Interrogators, his gripping account of his interrogation service in Afghanistan. The prisoners confounded their captors “not with clever cover stories but with simple refusal to cooperate. They offered lame stories, pretended not to remember even the most basic of details, and then waited for consequences that never really came.

The US military interrogators in Afghanistan were expected to follow Geneva Convention rules in their treatment of prisoners even though the Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters did not qualify to be treated according to Geneva rules.

The Geneva conventions embody the idea that even in as brutal an activity as war, civilized nations could obey humanitarian rules: no attacking civilians and no retaliation against enemy soldiers once they fall into your hands. Destruction would be limited as much as possible to professional soldiers on the battlefield. That rule required, unconditionally, that soldiers distinguish themselves from civilians by wearing uniforms and carrying arms openly.

Obedience to Geneva rules rests on another bedrock moral principle: reciprocity. Nations will treat an enemy’s soldiers humanely because they want and expect their adversaries to do the same. Terrorists flout every civilized norm animating the conventions. Their whole purpose is to kill noncombatants, to blend into civilian populations, and to conceal their weapons. They pay no heed whatever to the golden rule; anyone who falls into their hands will most certainly not enjoy commissary privileges and wages, per the Geneva mandates. He—or she—may even lose his head.

I personally see no advantage to the US in forgoing the practice of torture against terrorists. The only reason I'd hesitate would be in the cases where the prisoners might not really be terrorists. I would have imposed tough criteria for identifying someone as a potential Al Qaeda member. However, once such an identification was made with a high degree of certainty then I do not see a moral reason for refraining from torture. Though there is a practical reason to refrain from torture. See my previous post about Mark Bowden's writings on torture for an explanation of why the infliction of pain should be refrained from as long as possible. In a nutshell: some people who fear pain will be unbearable find that they can bear it once it is inflicted. So best to hold off on inflicting pain. But the possibility of infliction of pain has to be made credible for the fear of it to be effective.

US military terrorist interrogators decided that anything the US Army inflicted on US soldiers was acceptable to do to terrorists. This decision provided a fairly large set of unpleasant and stressful interrogation techniques.

Even so, terror interrogators tried to follow the spirit of the Geneva code for conventional, uniformed prisoners of war. That meant, as the code puts it, that the detainees could not be tortured or subjected to “any form of coercion” in order to secure information. They were to be “humanely” treated, protected against “unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind,” and were entitled to “respect for their persons and their honour.”

The Kandahar interrogators reached the following rule of thumb, reports Mackey: if a type of behavior toward a prisoner was no worse than the way the army treated its own members, it could not be considered torture or a violation of the conventions. Thus, questioning a detainee past his bedtime was lawful as long as his interrogator stayed up with him. If the interrogator was missing exactly the same amount of sleep as the detainee—and no tag-teaming of interrogators would be allowed, the soldiers decided—then sleep deprivation could not be deemed torture. In fact, interrogators were routinely sleep-deprived, catnapping maybe one or two hours a night, even as the detainees were getting long beauty sleeps. Likewise, if a boot-camp drill sergeant can make a recruit kneel with his arms stretched out in front without violating the Convention Against Torture, an interrogator can use that tool against a recalcitrant terror suspect.

Did the stress techniques work? Yes. “The harsher methods we used . . . the better information we got and the sooner we got it,” writes Mackey, who emphasizes that the methods never contravened the conventions or crossed over into torture.

It says something about the Geneva Convention that what the US Army can legally do to US soldiers is, strictly speaking, a violation of the Geneva rules.

Under a strict reading of the Geneva protections for prisoners of war, probably: the army forbids interrogators from even touching lawful combatants. But there is a huge gray area between the gold standard of POW treatment reserved for honorable opponents and torture, which consists of the intentional infliction of severe physical and mental pain. None of the stress techniques that the military has used in the war on terror comes remotely close to torture, despite the hysterical charges of administration critics. (The CIA’s behavior remains a black box.) To declare non-torturous stress off-limits for an enemy who plays by no rules and accords no respect to Western prisoners is folly.

One has to wonder what the CIA is up to. Heather quotes one source that claims Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was subjected to dunking under water and that is supposedly the most extreme measure being used by the CIA in conducting interrogations.

The most important point that Heather makes is that what military police did at Abu Ghraib is unrelated to the rules that were governing interrogators at Guantanamo, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. But the political reaction to Abu Ghraib caused further restrictions on real interrogators working on real Al Qaeda terrorists.

The idea that the abuse of the Iraqi detainees resulted from the president’s decision on the applicability of the Geneva conventions to al-Qaida and Taliban detainees is absurd on several grounds. Everyone in the military chain of command emphasized repeatedly that the Iraq conflict would be governed by the conventions in their entirety. The interrogation rules that local officers developed for Iraq explicitly stated that they were promulgated under Geneva authority, and that the conventions applied. Moreover, almost all the behavior shown in the photographs occurred in the dead of night among military police, wholly separate from interrogations. Most abuse victims were not even scheduled to be interrogated, because they were of no intelligence value. Finally, except for the presence of dogs, none of the behavior shown in the photos was included in the interrogation rules promulgated in Iraq. Mandated masturbation, dog leashes, assault, and stacking naked prisoners in pyramids—none of these depredations was an approved (or even contemplated) interrogation practice, and no interrogator ordered the military guards to engage in them.

The invasion of Iraq, by leading to the events of Abu Ghraib and the resulting political fall-out and further restrictions on interrogators, has hampered the fight against terrorists. Of course the invasion of Iraq has also harmed US interests in other ways related to the battle against terrorists. Also, even without Abu Ghraib the rules controlling interrogators were far too limiting. So the Iraq invasion made a bad situation even worse.

Restrictions on interrogation techniques in Iraq are surely costing many American lives and Iraqi lives as well.

That experiment is over. Reeling under the PR disaster of Abu Ghraib, the Pentagon shut down every stress technique but one—isolation—and that can be used only after extensive review. An interrogator who so much as requests permission to question a detainee into the night could be putting his career in jeopardy. Even the traditional army psychological approaches have fallen under a deep cloud of suspicion: deflating a detainee’s ego, aggressive but non-physical histrionics, and good cop–bad cop have been banished along with sleep deprivation.

Can the US government stop terrorism without getting useful information from terrorists via interrogation? I guess we are going to find out.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 January 13 07:27 PM  Terrorists Western Response

Stephen said at January 13, 2005 8:03 PM:

Interrogator: Are you Osama Bin Laden?
Subject: No.
Interrogator waterboards the subject.
Interrorgator: Are you Osama Bin Laden?
Subject: Yes.
Interrogator waterboards the subject.
Interrogator: Are you Osama Bin Laden?
Subject: No.

Torture doesn't get you truth - it only gets the subject to say whatever he/she thinks will stop the torture.

As for the cell block antics, I'll bet that it will ultimately be revealed that the guards were told to do some softening up between interrogations. Sure they were having fun at the same time, but nevertheless...

Also, the story makes the claim that normal interrogation methods didn't work, but torture did, and now that torture isn't allowed the intel is drying up. If this were correct I'd expect to have seen the Iraqi situation improve during the torturing period - say some masterminds being captured etc - can't say I've seen any evidence of that.

Stephen said at January 13, 2005 10:22 PM:

On reflection the transcript would probably be more like this:

Interrogator: Are you Osama bin Laden?
Translator: Your grandfather stole a goat from my family.
Subject: No, that's some other family - you are mistaken.
Translator: Sir, he said that your mother fucks camels.
Interrogator: I'll teach the cheeky bastard...
Interrogator waterboards the subject
Interrogator: Ask him again, is he Osama bin Laden!
Translator: You come from a family of theives.
Subject: No, honestly, it wasn't my grandfather.
Translator: Sir, he said you are a fat ugly american with no balls.
Interrogator: Thats it, I'm going to teach this bastard some respect - get the electrodes...

crush41 said at January 14, 2005 3:47 PM:

Also, the story makes the claim that normal interrogation methods didn't work, but torture did, and now that torture isn't allowed the intel is drying up. If this were correct I'd expect to have seen the Iraqi situation improve during the torturing period - say some masterminds being captured etc - can't say I've seen any evidence of that.

I heard a radio interview with a former military interrogater in Afghanistan that mirrors what Mackey says (it may have in fact been him, I forget the name). Nowhere is it confirmed that true torture has been applied by the US in the war on terror, so I assume you're referring to stress techniques such as sleep deprivation, head dunking, etc. Interestingly, we do allow information obtained through the use of torture by a foreign nation to be used and acted upon by the US. Clearly, their is value in using extreme measures to obtain information or we wouldn't be acquiescing it.

In any case, the issue with the US military is not one of torture but of stress techniques versus grade-school verbal interrogation. ME culture understands and respects force more than anything else, so it's no surprise that more intensity leads to better information. It's insane to think that softer treatment of suspected terrorists is going to be reciprocated--the Wahhabi indoctrination isn't going to suddenly vanish. And even if we treat terrorists like Martha Stewart, Al Jazeera and company isn't going to relay that to the Islamo-fascists. If you're trekking around the streets of Tehran or Riyadh and an armed gang of swarthy hood-wearers comes after you, do what you can to get away right then because even a bullet in the head is preferable to what's coming. That's not going to change whether we give detainees a lollipop or we give them brass-knuckles.

Torture doesn't get you truth - it only gets the subject to say whatever he/she thinks will stop the torture.

Were the use of torture authorized against those not covered under Geneva guidelines, the penalty for misinformation should be less desirable than "saying anything to make the torture stop". Just because a detainee spews out something under pressure doesn't mean he's going anywhere, and if what he says turns out to be bunk, he should be physically excoriated for it.

I'm not sure why you're "dialouge" gives the benefit of the doubt to the detainee instead of our military, but this PC crap is deathly dangerous. You can't win a war if you don't go all out, as contemporary history has shown and continues to show us.

PacRim Jim said at January 14, 2005 3:49 PM:

Captive terrorists need not be interrogated. Properly motivated, they will beg to spill their guts. Ask the Germans.

Randall Parker said at January 14, 2005 4:12 PM:


You say:

Torture doesn't get you truth - it only gets the subject to say whatever he/she thinks will stop the torture.

No, it is not that simple. A lot of information is verifiable. If the interrogation subject wants better treatment he can give verifiable information. This starts with real basics like what is the guy's real name, where is he from, and who can verify his identity. A lot of these guys wouldn't even reveal their real identities.

Also, the story makes the claim that normal interrogation methods didn't work, but torture did, and now that torture isn't allowed the intel is drying up. If this were correct I'd expect to have seen the Iraqi situation improve during the torturing period - say some masterminds being captured etc - can't say I've seen any evidence of that.

You are painting with too broad a brush. She is saying that even many techniques short of torture were not allowed or were greatly circumscribed. She is also saying that the threat of torture is helpful (which is true) and that the absence of such a threat and Al Qaeda knowledge of the meekness of the allowed interrogation techniques encouraged the terrorists to keep their mouths shut.

Have you read her full article? Also, have you read the Mark Bowden article that I link to via my link to my previous post about Bowden on interrogation and torture?

Stephen said at January 14, 2005 7:23 PM:

Crush, your assumption appears to be that the tortured person has information to give - what if they don't? In your scenario, if they say, "I don't know anything", then the interrogator simply increases the pain, and when the subject confesses something and the info doesn't pan out, well the interrogator simply increases the pain again. When does the cycle stop? (PS: 'pain' is easier to type than 'excoriated')

Also, in an atmosphere of torture how do you go about checking out of the information? How's this for a scenario: Person being tortured is desperately looking for something to say and blurts out, "My next door neighbour! Its him, he said that he hates Americans, oh, and I think he knows people in the resistance." Instant reward - the pain stops. Some GIs rush out and arrest the neighbour - neighbour denies everything - bastard, lets torture him - after a bit of waterboarding the neighbour admits that he hates Americans (indeed that's probably true now) and blurts out that the baker down the road is also anti-american - GIs rush out and arrest the baker... the cycle continues. Torture does not work because you can never rely on the information, but for supporters of torture that only means that you need to increase the torture - it becomes a destructive, self-sustaining cycle.

Also, there appears to be an assumption that the people subject to this torture are al Qaeda - why? Its pretty obvious that those in Iraq are likely to be local resistance fighters.

Pacrim, the Nazis did a lot of nasty stuff when they caught someone from the French (or any country's) resistance - and look how well it paid off for the Nazis.

Randall, why would anyone want to torture someone just to find out their name, rank and serial number? Is the intel value of that sufficient to justify torturing someone? I know I'm being overly pedantic in picking on that one example, but it raises the question - what info is sufficiently valuable to justify torture, and when do you increase the torture, and when do you give up?

As for al Qaeda writing manuals about US interrogation practice - well, logically where does it end? Assume edition 1 of the manual says that the US will only threaten to use 'stress positions', and the interrogators conclude that this threat doesn't work because the subject has read the manual. Okay, the interrogator decides to implement the threat. Sooner or later the manual will be updated (edition 2) to say that captives can expect to experience the 'stress positions'. Eventually, the interrogator realises that stress positions don't work because the subject has read the latest edition, so the interrogator ups the ante and threatens to use waterboarding. The manual is subsequently updated and edition 3 is issued... Where does it stop?

By the way, a culture of torture is a difficult to stop once it has started - a lot of experienced interrogators would refuse to participate and would tend to leave or be fired. Interrogators who aren't so squeamish would be hired in their place. Eventually, interrogators are hired mainly based on their ability to torture, not because they have an ability to talk someone into spilling the beans. Suddenly we find ourselves with interrogators who have no other tools to extract information except by torture - as they say, "When you only have a hammer, everything is a nail".

Stephen said at January 14, 2005 7:24 PM:

Phew, I wrote quite a bit up there...

Stephen said at January 14, 2005 7:55 PM:

PS I've been reading the commentary of the Huygens landing on Titan. I had excitement shivers down my spine as the mission controllers displayed the first images. http://www.planetary.org/news/2005/huygens_blog.html

Invisible Scientist said at January 15, 2005 2:24 AM:

So far, it appears that the kind of torture that the interrogators have used were not
as brutal and sophisticated as the Ancient Inquisition Torture that still defies
imagination (at least the events that are reported in the Middle East suggest this,
maybe the top AL Qaeda prisoners were interogated clandestinely and terminated afterwards.)
Similarly, the ancient Chinese methods were also very advanced and highly effective in
breaking the will of the prisoner. But both the Spanish Inquisition and the ancient Chinese
methods required very professional interrogators who took special pleasure and pride in
their profession, and such people are not yet trained by the CIA.

Alan Kennedy said at January 15, 2005 3:11 PM:

There is evidence that torture does provide less helpful information

here in the UK, back in the 1970s, the army used stress positions against the IRA and it turned out that the info gained from torture was of no use and not any more useful than info that would have been gained from normal interrogation

also in one article where iraqi police were talking about techniques for prisoner interrogation, one policeman mentioned that " what he admired most about the US style was that they could get prisoners to confess to crimes without punching the prisoner up, it was like magic"


crush41 said at January 15, 2005 4:27 PM:

Stephen, beware of becoming too quixotic. That torture be permitted in dire circumstances does not mean it is mandated in all interrogation. Your reasoning seems to be that because detainees will probably lie, it is counterproductive to try to get anything out of them against their will. Basically then, all interrogation is useless--the only way is if they voluntarily give information. If there is even a slim shot in hell of getting the stop on another 9/11, where do you place the civil liberty concerns of thugs?

I'm uneasy with the idea of torture, but quitting stress techniques that field guys say has been effective to placate a fatuous public and appease the PC media is... frustrating.

Stephen said at January 15, 2005 6:42 PM:

I just had a thought (!!! yes, I'm as amazed as you are !!!). I wonder if prisoner intel gathering might be more effective if we were to create an economic market in prisoner intel? At the moment the currency being used is pain, but what if we changed the currency to money, freedom, new identity, visa etc?

For instance, we could have some TV monitors in the cell block that offers specified amounts of money & guaranteed freedom within a certain amount of time for certain intel. However, the deals would only be available to randomly chosen prisoners and only for a certain amount of time (this is necessary to create a perceived scarcity and window of demand for a prisoner's information).

Every day each prisoner is taken to a room where they are asked if they want to sell their intel. If they don't, then they just sit there for two hours. However if the prisoner does want to sell intel then a transaction is undertaken. If the intel pans out then the prisoner is rewarded as per the agreement.

In order to stop prisoners being identified as informers (ie reducing the prisoner's perception of the cost of being a snitch), all prisoners are regularly moved randomly between cells and prisons. That way, if a prisoner disappears he or she won't necessarily be suspected by the other prisoners of having been an informer.

Sure, some people might say its immoral to pay prisoners to give intel, but its certainly no less immoral than torture. Also, we'd be playing on our strong suit (the good life) rather than our weak suit (oppression).

Just a thought.

Old Fogey said at January 15, 2005 6:50 PM:

The object is to gain information from more than one subject. The information is cross checked with what is already known. This is particulary useful when you have more than one subject that will have knowledge of the same information set. You keep going back and forth, god cop, bad cop, your buddy ratted you out, why don't you do the same to him. At first you really don't care what the guy says as long as he talks. Some time it's easy to get them started, sometimes not. If you have enough time you can drain everything a guy knows. On some you have to squeeze a little harder than others. The crux of this comes down to time. How much time do you have to get what you need? Some times you have to push harder when the time is short. If it takes kindness, give it, if it takes stress, apply it, if it takes pain, inflict it. You have to make that first break. Once he talks, check it with known facts, if true give a reward, if false, squeeze harder. Once he starts down that path of giving good information, its unlikely he will go back.

gcochran said at January 16, 2005 12:41 AM:

Cross-checking ought to work, if the torturee actually knows anything. Consider, however, the common situation in which we don't like what he has to say, even though it's true. For a long time, we refused to believe Iraqi scientists who said that there were no WMD programs: it's not just that the interrogators thought there must be, their _bosses_ thought there must be - and you have to keep the bosses happy. We could have tortured them to a fare-thee-well and it wouldn't have done anybody a bit of good.

In Algeria, the Para leadership was sure that all the trouble was stirred up by Communist and Nasserite agitators: but there was no truth to that. It was something they needed to believe, or at least wanted to believe, so they believed it.

Back in Iraq: we've captured thousands of insurgents and still keep saying that we don't really know anything about the insurgency. I don't believe it. Even with zero torture, you would inevitably get a pretty good general picture of what's going on, from prisoners who sold out and from people who just talk too much. Arabs talk. We have plenty of info, it's just info that the bosses don't like.

Torture might occasionally help you get tactical information, but it won't give you the big picture when you don't want to hear it. And of course, it makes you enemies everywhere. It makes me your enemy, for example.

T. J. Madison said at January 16, 2005 3:00 AM:

>>Torture might occasionally help you get tactical information, but it won't give you the big picture when you don't want to hear it. And of course, it makes you enemies everywhere. It makes me your enemy, for example.

And me as well. Few things annoy me more than having my money used to torture innocent people.

If the USG fought clean, and behaved well, eventually MidEast locals would be eager to rat out our enemies to us, or at least they'd sell us good information for less money. Turning to The Dark Side just isn't a smart move.

When Ahmed Q. Muslim views Americans as "those crazy foreigners who buy all our oil" and views Al-Qaeda and other unpleasant insurgents as "those murderous bastards who live down the block" we'll be in a winning situation. Torture and other naughty behavior doesn't move us closer to that situation.

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