This August, torture is once again on our minds. On the heels of President Obama’s rather callous admission that “we tortured some folks,” the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) is now seeking to unearth details about the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program in the face of sweeping CIA redactions. Meanwhile, debates on the merits of torture continue down the same old fault lines. Advocates of torture are quick to defend the CIA’s behavior as both legal and moral. The Bush-era DOJ, they argue, made the practice legal through a series of now-famous memos, and the mandate to protect American lives made the practice a moral imperative. On the other side, opponents of torture call into question the legitimacy of the DOJ’s memos, just as they discount the absolute morality of American exceptionalism. The problem with discussions of torture’s legality and morality, in my opinion, is that they marginalize the issue of effectiveness. Owing to a lack of public information about effectiveness, legality and morality continue to dominate the discussion of torture as interrogation practice. For interrogators themselves, however, effectiveness is the real elephant in the room.
I conducted over 1,000 interrogations in Iraq from 2007-2008, using the Arabic language without interpretation, and gathering tactical intelligence to support Coalition Special Forces. I never tortured a single person, nor ever felt that I needed to. And although my experience with interrogation is firsthand, I must acknowledge that my experience is limited to the single context I encountered. It is purely anecdotal. But, I suspect, so too is that of my torturer counterpart. My claims about effectiveness are just as trustworthy (and as dubious) as his or hers. The difference between us is that I am willing – dare I say even excited – to talk about everything I did in order to get detainees to talk. Detainees talked to me because I spoke to them like human beings, in their own language, without prejudice, and with a stern but respectful expectation for the truth. Often, the only time I touched a detainee was when we shook hands at the end of a session.
I found that my detainees were “at their best,” meaning they were most useful for debriefing – and therefore most valuable to me – when they were relatively comfortable and well-rested. Sleepy and uncomfortable detainees can’t remember the things that interrogators want them to remember. To test this, try reciting your brother’s phone number out loud. Now imagine being slapped by a hostile stranger who accuses you of lying, and then try again. I doubt it would jog your memory.
Ultimately, “cooperation” – the interrogator’s prize – is the product of a detainee’s willingness and ability to provide timely and accurate information. Torturers do a great job gaining a detainee’s willingness to provide information, but, in the process, they reduce a detainee’s actual ability to do so. The trick is to increase both at the same time. And so, I always made sure that my detainees were comfortable, not because I felt they necessarily deserved it in every case, but because comfortable detainees are often the most willing and able versions of themselves. They are the versions I want and need them to be during an interrogation.
Regarding the SSCI’s pending report on CIA interrogation practices, I don’t share the opinion of many in the human rights field who feel that CIA interrogators should be retroactively prosecuted for torture. That’s not why we should encourage the SSCI to fight for full transparency. For better or worse, I tend to concede that torture was probably legal in the years after 9/11, and I believe the Bush-era DOJ was both diligent and cunning enough to insulate torturers from adverse legal action no matter what would come to light. The single most compelling reason why the report should be declassified in full has nothing to do with legal scrutiny, but instead comes from a professional curiosity. We interrogators who have never tortured – despite all our successes with non-coercive methods – must admit the possibility that we have unfairly maligned torture as a technique! Of course, while I don’t personally think torture is the right way to interrogate, I cannot claim firsthand that torture never works. I can only claim that plenty of non-coercive techniques work just fine.
My point is that if torture really was as effective as its defenders repeatedly claim, why wouldn’t torture advocates want to teach us how to do our jobs better? The reason can’t be operational security. Actionable intelligence is long gone. And as for revealing interrogation tradecraft to the enemy, the Army Field Manual on interrogation has long been unclassified, and military interrogators have achieved tremendous victories following it and nothing more. The truth is that with the right combination of approaches, any interrogator worth his salt can extract information from even the most “prepared” detainee. And so the fight to keep the SSCI’s report classified, I must conclude, is an effort merely to conceal the embarrassment that torture never worked as its advocates allege. I invite the CIA to prove me wrong, to teach me to be better at what I do. In the meantime, however, I’ll stick to what I know.