October 31, 2007

Interrogators Against Torture

Following Abu Muqawama's post on the (il)legality of waterboarding, is Stu Herrington's excellent weekend op-ed about his 30 year career as an Army interrogator. His view on torture: keep the gloves on. Or in his words, "it's wrong, and it doesn't work."

Alongside Col. Herrington's strong moral center is an excellent description of an interrogator's professional tradecraft. Not the kind practiced by Jack Bauer, but the painstaking "recruitment" of a captured enemy to provide you with the information he has and you need.

In interrogation centers I ran, we called prisoners "guests" and extended military courtesies, such as saluting captured officers. We strove to undermine a prisoner's belief system, which we knew instructed him that Americans are unschooled infidels who would bully him and resort to intimidation, threats and brutality. Patience was essential. We rejected the view that interrogators could merely "take off the gloves" and that information would somehow magically flow if we brutalized our "guests." This notion was uninformed and counterproductive, not to mention illegal, and we made sure our chain of command understood that bowing to such tempting theories would result in bad information.


When a professional interrogator sits across from a captured Iraqi general who possesses information about the Iraqi nuclear program, or who knows why Saddam did not toss nerve gas at our massed forces, the interrogator knows he is facing a formidable adversary, an educated, trained professional strongly inclined by his Iraqi patriotism and survival instincts to deny his interrogator such information. The interrogator's challenge in such situations is to assess and manipulate the situation, somehow persuading his captive to make disclosures in spite of the prisoner's visceral fear of the consequences if he helps the enemy. The role of the interrogator is, in essence, that of a recruiter. The prisoner must be convinced that if he reveals state secrets, his captor will handle his trust with discretion and take care of him.

Generations of professional interrogators have possessed such skills, and used them to obtain information vital to our country. Those who have not mastered these techniques fall back on the ultimate admission of incompetence and resort to brutality. Once this moral frontier is crossed, captives on the receiving end of such treatment respond to their survival instincts. Spurred by cunning and fueled by the hatred stoked by their tormentor's brutality, they respond as our American aviators responded in the Hanoi Hilton, showing their contempt by lying, invention, stalling -- anything to stop the abuse -- or by accepting death before dishonor.

Torture is wrong, and it doesn't work. Would that the amateurs understood that as well as the professionals.