After the Waterboarding

Today's New York Times fronts an important article by Scott Shane on the CIA's questioning of suspected 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed following his capture in March 2003.

The article's most important fact is this: All of this questioning occured after his torture by American intelligence officers and their surrogates.

Following that, the rest of the article reads like a paean to softer interrogation practices, such as building rapport, using incentives (like fruit and cookies) and establishing a long-term relationship between the questioner and the captive:

The interrogator, Deuce Martinez, a soft-spoken analyst who spoke no Arabic, had turned down a C.I.A. offer to be trained in waterboarding. He chose to leave the infliction of pain and panic to others, the gung-ho paramilitary types whom the more cerebral interrogators called "knuckledraggers."

Mr. Martinez came in after the rough stuff, the ultimate good cop with the classic skills: an unimposing presence, inexhaustible patience and a willingness to listen to the gripes and musings of a pitiless killer in rambling, imperfect English. He achieved a rapport with Mr. Mohammed that astonished his fellow C.I.A. officers.

A canny opponent, Mr. Mohammed mixed disinformation and braggadocio with details of plots, past and planned. Eventually, he grew loquacious. "They'd have long talks about religion," comparing notes on Islam and Mr. Martinez's Catholicism, one C.I.A. officer recalled. And, the officer added, there was one other detail no one could have predicted: "He wrote poems to Deuce's wife."

Mr. Martinez, who by then had interrogated at least three other high-level prisoners, would bring Mr. Mohammed snacks, usually dates. He would listen to Mr. Mohammed's despair over the likelihood that he would never see his children again and to his catalog of complaints about his accommodations.

"He wanted a view," the C.I.A. officer recalled.

The story of Mr. Martinez's role in the C.I.A.'s interrogation program, including his contribution to the first capture of a major figure in Al Qaeda, provides the closest look to date beneath the blanket of secrecy that hides the program from terrorists and from critics who accuse the agency of torture....

Mr. Martinez's success at building a rapport with the most ruthless of terrorists goes to the heart of the interrogation debate. Did it suggest that traditional methods alone might have obtained the same information or more? Or did Mr. Mohammed talk so expansively because he feared more of the brutal treatment he had already endured?

This story was likely pushed to the Times by members of the intelligence community with several goals in mind. First, to rebut the developed narrative that the CIA has tortured detainees to get information. Second, to show that the most abusive interrogation practices (like waterboarding) may not be effective. Third, to show the agency is capable of old-fashioned Human Intelligence (HUMINT) practices, and that it can be effective when given latitude to do things its way. And fourth, to reassure an incoming Obama or McCain administration that the CIA is not in need of purging; that the rank-and-file intelligence officers are professionals who can be trusted.

I'm not sure how well this story does any of those things. For starters, it should be noted again that the torture did happen -- and that it produced little or no valuable intelligence in return. That fact needs to be weighed heavily, because it's entirely possible that the strategic costs of that act (i.e. blowback, shifts in global opinion, etc.) may outweigh anything produced by subsequent questioning efforts.

Second, I'm told by a knowledgeable colleague in the human rights community that there are serious factual errors in the Times story, relating to the timeline and the locations of various events. This probably relates to the intense secrecy surrounding the whole affair. And it's unlikely that we'll ever know the full truth because of that secrecy. Consequently, I think the article's effect will be limited. In short, how do we know we can believe it?

And finally, there's the culture of the CIA and the question of whether it can do these kinds of things effectively. The American intelligence community has been whipsawed by the Bush administration about as badly as the military, and maybe worse because it's all been out of public view. For years, the CIA has accepted and implemented many of the administration's stupidest policies, especially in the interrogation realm. This article may reflect the feelings of a few within the CIA, but it does not reflect the dominant organizational sentiments. The next administration will need to rebuild a great deal at Langley, focusing on the agency's organizational culture and the way approaches human intelligence operations.

By Phillip Carter |  June 22, 2008; 10:59 AM ET  | Category:  Torture
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For starters, it should be noted again that the torture NOT did happen -- and that NON TORTURE INTERROGATION DID produce valuable intelligence in return.

Glad to fix that for you.

Posted by: Dawnsblood | June 22, 2008 2:33 PM

Dawnsblood - Actually, for YOU for starters I strongly adviss consulting a therapist or even a psychiatrist concerning your tendency to engage in magical thinking.

Carter: I may not agree with everything you write [for example on telco immunity] but you are clearly a rational responsible writer & I very much enjoy your posts.

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Posted by: bookxde | June 23, 2008 6:49 AM

Our "techniques" were copied from the Soviets, who wanted confessions so that the executions that followed would be "legal." The Soviets were not after useful intelligence. What Stalin did manage to do, of course, was to decimate his army leadership just before World War II.
For McCain to vote against extending the guidelines of the Army Field Manual to the CIA is inexcusable. This is particularly true after McCain's eloquent speach about torture in Dec. 07. Of course, the Democratic candidate will be too timid to attack McCain on this issue, but it is important to many of us who served in uniform. Bush's policies have put the military doubly at risk. Their deployment for partisan ends is despicable and their vulnerability if kidnapped or captured is greatly increased by our own policies.

Posted by: H R Coursen | June 23, 2008 8:46 AM

The Times article did not, in fact, say that torture, or enhanced interrogation techniques, produced no valuable intelligence. It suggested a procedure in which harsh treatment was combined with more conventional interrogation, plainly suggesting that FBI and some CIA personnel objected to the former and rather looked down on its practicioners but leaving open the possibility that the combination was effective in some important cases.

Now, Carter's question here (how can we believe this piece, or more precisely how much of it can we believe?) is obviously a key one. We are after all talking about a subject shrouded in secrecy. Also, my personal inclination, like Carter's, is to be very skeptical that "enhanced interrogation techniques" are ever likely to produce information anywhere near valuable enough to compensate for the damage their use does us.

Do I know this is right, though? I don't. I know what I'd prefer to believe, am sure that "the big picture" shows abusive interrogation practices wound up getting used on many detainees who had no useful information, and am about as sure that this outcome was, if not inevitable, very hard to have avoided. Having said all that, though, I can't exclude the possibility that the damage done to the organization responsible for 9/11 and much else in the first years of this decade was done in part through the use of practices uncomfortably close to what most Americans consider torture. I know that some Americans would respond to this possibility with the view that another terrorist attack would be a small price to pay for not having darkened our name and betrayed our principles in this manner. I also know that most of these Americans would abandon this view fairly quickly if another terrorist attack actually occurred, especially if it occurred close to them or to people they knew.

Posted by: Zathras | June 23, 2008 10:38 AM

Dawnsblood appears to be a bit behind the times. See:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/7229169.stm

which contains:

"CIA head Michael Hayden told Congress it had only been used on three people, and not for the past five years.

He said the technique had been used on high-profile al-Qaeda detainees including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed."

Of course the CIA might have been lying. Or the BBC.

Cheers,

JP

Posted by: almost drafted | June 23, 2008 11:32 AM

Even though Phillip Carter makes the point up front that useful information was acquired after the torture of Mohammed, the rest of his post seems to miss that point entirely.

The article clearly states, more than once, that useful information was acquired by first applying torture to induce the subject to cooperate, then following up with soft interrogation techniques. In other words, the overall strategy was classic good cop - bad cop, where the bad cop's bag of tools included waterboarding and other applications of extreme pain and fear. There was a pattern here, and Martinez was just one part of the pattern, according to the article.

Carter speculates that the article was placed by CIA supporters, in his words, "First, to rebut the developed narrative that the CIA has tortured detainees to get information. Second, to show that the most abusive interrogation practices (like waterboarding) may not be effective."

But that's not what the article does. In fact, Scott Shane very clearly writes that torture was routinely used and that it was very effective at producing a cooperative state in its subjects.

For example, here are the second and third paragraphs of the article:

"The interrogator, Deuce Martinez, a soft-spoken analyst who spoke no Arabic, had turned down a C.I.A. offer to be trained in waterboarding. He chose to leave the infliction of pain and panic to others, the gung-ho paramilitary types whom the more cerebral interrogators called "knuckledraggers."

"Mr. Martinez came in AFTER THE ROUGH STUFF [emphasis added], the ultimate good cop with the classic skills: an unimposing presence, inexhaustible patience and a willingness to listen to the gripes and musings of a pitiless killer in rambling, imperfect English. He achieved a rapport with Mr. Mohammed that astonished his fellow C.I.A. officers."

And again:

"The C.I.A. program worked differently. A paramilitary team put on the pressure, using cold temperatures, sleeplessness, pain and fear to force a prisoner to talk. When the prisoner signaled assent, the tormenters stepped aside. After a break that could be a day or even longer, Mr. Martinez or another interrogator took up the questioning."

And again:

"...Mr. Kiriakou, who was not present for the waterboarding but read the resulting intelligence reports, said he had been told that Abu Zubaydah became compliant after 35 seconds of the water treatment.

"It was like flipping a switch," Mr. Kiriakou said of the shift from resistance to cooperation. He said he thought such "desperate measures" were justified in the "desperate time" in 2002 when another attack seemed imminent."

Even though the Times reports the misgivings of Mr. Kiriakou and others about using torture, there's no question that the article promotes the efficacy of it.

That shines an entirely different light on what the motives of the article might be. The tension in the article is between the efficacy of torture and the damage done to the US reputation and to the psychology of the country. On balance, I read the article as arguing for the use of torture in extraordinary times, kind a sophisticated version of Dick Cheney's Meet the Press statement that "We also have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We've got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world." It's "24 hours" in real time.

Are the facts in the article accurate? I don't know but I have no reason to believe that they came from any sources other than the ones that have been lying to us for the last eight years.

Posted by: redplanet | June 23, 2008 11:36 AM

Having said all that, though, I can't exclude the possibility that the damage done to the organization (Uh, damage? What damage? Bin Laden and al Zawahiri are still on the loose, al Qaeda has a zillion new recruits, and most of the hits they've taken seem to have been set up through intercepted electronic signals, not via aged intel gotten via torture.) responsible for 9/11 (And yet the FBI hasn't charged bin Laden due to a lack of evidence, a good number of the "hijackers" are still alive, etc.) and much else in the first years of this decade was done in part through the use of practices uncomfortably close to what most Americans consider torture (Let's just call it what it is: torture). I know that some Americans (Some? How about "a lot," or millions) would respond to this possibility with the view that another terrorist attack would be a small price to pay for not having darkened our name and betrayed our principles in this manner (Not to mention preserving our Constitution, habeus corpus, and the rights that made America what it is?). I also know that most of these Americans would abandon this view fairly quickly if another terrorist attack actually occurred (because most Americans you know are spineless, I suspect; the rest of us aren't a likely to panic about another terrorist attack), especially if it occurred close to them or to people they knew (You bet. If nothing else, Americans are really easy to frighten. Well, the wingnuts are...).

Posted by: NoOneYouKnow | June 23, 2008 2:53 PM

No politician should be able to take a stand on this issue until they are water boarded, just to see how much fun it really is. Besides, sleep and human contact deprivation can achieve the same results given a little more time.

Posted by: Truth hurts | June 23, 2008 3:13 PM

Water boarding is not touture in the sense that alot of folks are making it out to be. It is easly defeated with proper resistance training particularly if you are familar with "shallow water blackout".

Not easy to endure but very possible to resist with the correct focus. Of course this assumes you are very good at breath holding and gag reflex control!

Posted by: Anonymous | June 29, 2008 10:34 PM

TORTURE is always TORTURE and is ALWAYS UNACCEPTABLE. Before he was for it McLame was against it..sound familiar? Just like before he was for tax breaks for the rich he was against them..But he has been consistent on Bush's war of choice...Speaking of war's of choice why haven't we invaded Saudi Arabia..15 of 19 9/11 hijackers are from there, Osama Bin Laden is also. The mastermind of the USS Cole attack is another Saudi. They are the primary funder of international terrorism..but Saddam attempted to have Bush sr. killed..(nuf said)

Posted by: apissedtaxpayer | July 3, 2008 3:19 PM

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