How to Break a Terrorist (Ethically)

Postby Monocheres » Wed Jun 03, 2009 7:12 pm

Okay, I'm an asshat. I can't defend the indefensible. I can't rationalize torture and abuse. Those aren't the values I hold dear. That's not the America I grew up in, nor want my kid to grow up in.

But I don't want to be left with nothing but, "you can't do that, it's unethical, it won't work anyway, it's counterproductive." All that says to me is, fold your hands and give up. We've got to be able to defend our country, somehow. (We had that discussion before.) Defense includes extracting intelligence out of captured terrorists. So I need to know what would be an ethical and effective form of interrogation. I did some homework, starting with what Jennifer pointed at. But I dug a little further.

Well, it turns out the alternative to torture is really tried-and-true stuff, practices that apparently some members of the military, intelligence, government, and the public have forgotten. But other's haven't. In fact, it seems that there may even have been an internal struggle over this all throughout the Bush presidency, with different elements of his administration trying to get away from the torture culture and get back "our core values".

Strange_person, you sort of were on the right track, except that you can't reason a terrorist out of their world-view, and you really can't expect to make a them your friend. Instead, the goal is to make them your willing tool. To get there, you could try being "nice", but that's just part of an elaborate con-game to get inside their head, find out what makes them tick, and exploit that to mess with their mind:

Scott Horton wrote:How to Break a Terrorist

Early in June 2006, I was in Amman, Jordan when word arrived that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has been killed. He died when an American F-16 dropped two 500-pound bombs on the house where he was staying. Al-Zarqawi hailed from the Amman suburb of Zarqawi, and the news provoked a great deal of tension. In no time, public security officials in the Hashemite Kingdom were busily arranging an anti-al Zarqawi demonstration in downtown Amman, and anxiously keeping the lid on things. Back in the United States, however, the news was received with loud celebration. It was one of the increasingly rare good news days for an administration trapped in a very difficult position in Iraq.

The May issue of The Atlantic features Mark Bowden's engrossing account of how U.S. Forces in Iraq came by the information that enabled them to kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian thug who morphed into the founder of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. We are introduced to the interrogation team (they tag themselves as the “Gators”) of Task Force 145, a Special Operations Command unit charged with tracking down America's most wanted terrorists, and given a very good sense of how they went about their work.

The crux of Bowden's piece is a description of the techniques used by the Gators to secure the intelligence used in the end to track down and kill al-Zarqawi.

Mark Bowden wrote:The interrogation methods employed by the Task Force were initially notorious. When the hunt started, in 2003, the unit was based at Camp Nama, at Baghdad International Airport, where abuse of detainees quickly became common. According to later press reports in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other news outlets, tactics at Nama ranged from cruel and unusual to simply juvenile—one account described Task Force soldiers shooting detainees with paintballs. In early 2004, both the CIA and the FBI complained to military authorities about such practices. The spy agency then banned its personnel from working at Camp Nama. Interrogators at the facility were reportedly stripping prisoners naked and hosing them down in the cold, beating them, employing “stress positions,” and keeping them awake for long hours. But after the prisoner-abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib came to light in April 2004, the military cracked down on such practices. By March of last year, 34 Task Force members had been disciplined, and 11 were removed from the unit for mistreating detainees. Later last year, five Army Rangers working at the facility were convicted of punching and kicking prisoners.

The unit was renamed Task Force 145 in the summer of 2004 and was moved to Balad, where the new batch of gators began arriving the following year. According to those interviewed for this story, harsh treatment of detainees had ended. Physical abuse was outlawed, as were sensory deprivation and the withholding or altering of food as punishment. The backlash from Abu Ghraib had produced so many restrictions that gators were no longer permitted to work even a standard good cop/bad cop routine. The interrogation-room cameras were faithfully monitored, and gators who crossed the line would be interrupted in mid-session.

The quest for fresh intel came to rely on subtler methods. Gators worked with the battery of techniques outlined in an Army manual and taught at Fort Huachuca, such as “ego up,” which involved flattery; “ego down,” which meant denigrating a detainee; and various simple con games—tricking a detainee into believing you already knew something you did not, feeding him misinformation about friends or family members, and so forth. Deciding how to approach a detainee was more art than science. Talented gators wrote their own scripts for questioning, adopting whatever roles seemed most appropriate, and adjusting on the fly. They carefully avoided making offers they could not keep, but often dangled “promises” that were subtly incomplete—instead of offering to move a prisoner to a better cell, for instance, a gator might promise to “see the boss” about doing so. Sometimes the promise was kept. Fear, the most useful interrogation tool, was always present. The well-publicized abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere put all detainees on edge, and assurances that the U.S. command had cracked down were not readily believed. The prospect of being shipped to the larger prison—notorious during the American occupation, and even more so during the Saddam era—was enough to persuade many subjects to talk. This was, perhaps, the only constructive thing to result from the Abu Ghraib scandal, which otherwise remains one of the biggest setbacks of the war.


This account rings true to me with one small quibble—the suggestion that the “good cop/bad cop” technique was out of bounds. It clearly wasn't. This canard was used by the administration as part of their plea for latitude. The “good cop/bad cop” technique was incorporated in Field Manual 34-52 (“Intelligence Interrogation”), and was always in the safe zone. And from my sources, its use in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo was never interdicted.

Bowden then comes to focus on a detainee code-named Abu Hadyr, who proved the ultimate goldmine.

Mark Bowden wrote:“We both know what I want,” Doc said. “You have information you could trade. It is your only source of leverage right now. You don’t want to go to Abu Ghraib, and I can help you, but you have to give me something in trade. A guy as smart as you—you are the type of Sunni we can use to shape the future of Iraq.” If Abu Haydr would betray his organization, Doc implied, the Americans would make him a very big man indeed.

. . .

Doc pressed his advantage.

“You and I know the name of a person in your organization who you are very close to,” Doc said. “I need you to tell me that name so that I know I can trust you. Then we can begin negotiating.” In fact, the American had no particular person in mind. His best hope was that Abu Haydr might name a heretofore unknown mid-level insurrectionist.

Ever circumspect, Abu Haydr pondered his response even longer than usual.

At last he said, “Abu Ayyub al-Masri.”


This was the break-through moment.

Bowden's account made me think immediately of discussions I had with an FBI interrogator [*] who stressed that the key to success was not violence and intimidation, but developing a special rapport and winning the prisoner's confidence. The tools used here are all standard elements of the military interrogator's arsenal. All were well within legal and ethical bounds.

Back in 2003, Bowden gave us “The Dark Art of Interrogation,” a somber (if not distressing) essay on the use of torture and torture-light in the interrogation process. It remains one of the most important works in the torture library. This article is also a significant contribution—demonstrating in a very compelling way that the old techniques, skillfully deployed, can yield the needed results.


[*] The FBI interrogator Holden refers to might be Jack Cloonan, who has some very cogent things to say as well. Since he's domestic law-enforcement rather than foreign intelligence, his approach necessarily involves more carrot and less stick, but it's still a mental game.

All of that makes a hell of a lot of sense to me.
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Re: How to Break a Terrorist (Ethically)

Postby Monocheres » Wed Jun 03, 2009 7:49 pm

Now that Obama's gone back to basics, you can almost feel everyone's relief. Like General Petraeus in this interesting interview, in which he agrees with his new Comander-in-Chief that we should "live our values" -- to the apparent discomfiture of the Fox gal interviewing him. Perhaps she was looking for a different answer. Well, Petraeus is a good soldier.

I know some of you here may feel the urge to bitch-slap that Fox reporterette. Just realize that I feel exactly the same urge towards the ... um, lady ... at MSNBC who put her own snide framing around the same interview.

//]
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Re: How to Break a Terrorist (Ethically)

Postby Monocheres » Wed Jun 03, 2009 8:52 pm

Here, for the record, is that OLC memo from 2005 that Obama recently declassified, which spells out all the "enhanced interrogation techniques." Makes for an ... interesting read. So clean and clinical and precise, laying out the conditions and limitations and safeguards on brutality. Guarantees of oversight, assurances of restraint and containment. Especially amazing is the section towards the end, with all the tortured (heh) reasoning about why it's all legal -- so long as you do it at places like Guantanamo which aren't technically under US "jurisdiction." Nice loophole there. Right up there with what the meaning of "is" is.

However, while I no longer fault Obama for changing the policy, I still fault him for declassifying this memo. It wasn't necessary. Even his new CIA director, Leon Panetta objected to that. It's not a good idea to reveal to the enemy such detailed information about what your techniques and practices are now/were then. Plus it seems possible this could be used for propaganda purposes by the terrorists: "See how coldly and systematically the Great Satan brutalized our brothers. They flattered themselves they could keep a lid on it, but we all know they got sloppy, let it spread. The elite echelon were so impressive with their cowardly shows of machismo, that their running-dog lackeys thought to get some glory for themselves by emulating them, with our innocents as their victims." It's also not a good idea to expose to all the world exactly what your CIA agents might be/might have been doing or not doing, especially if you're also making noises about prosecuting people involved in authorizing or legitimizing or perpetrating these practices. Great way to decrease CIA morale. Not very good leadership when you're asking them to do a dirty-but-necessary job for you.
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Re: How to Break a Terrorist (Ethically)

Postby Monocheres » Wed Jun 03, 2009 9:02 pm

Jennifer Diane Reitz wrote:Those given power are those that MUST be held accountable, because they are the only ones that can be held accountable. They have the power. If they didn't know, they should have known, and when they did know, they should have done something to stop it all. That didn't happen, so anyone involved is guilty as sin. Period.


I quite agree. And with our system of checks and balances, there should have been a legislative counterweight to Bush and Cheney dragging us down this dark path. Putting myself into a Democratic mind-set, if I were a Democratic senator or congressman on an intelligence committee getting top-secret briefings on this in 2002-2003, I would think I'd have been deeply suspicious of it, and incredulous at the audacity of skirting American and international law like that. I would have been very skeptical about the idea that such abusive practices could really be kept under tight control. At the very least, if I were uninformed on the subject, I would hope I'd have been curious to learn more about standard interrogation techniques, and probe why anyone would think they'd need to be "enhanced". I might have at least had my congressional aides research the matter for me and see if there was any history of how other Western democracies (like Israel, or France in Algeria) had fared when they had ventured into using such abusive techniques.[1]

In fact, current Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was one of those Democratic legislators who got briefed back then. Not only did they[2] not raise objections, they were very concerned whether the enhanced techniques were tough enough, and wanted to know what Congress could do to help strengthen the program. Now Pelosi is the lead in the pack talking about crucifying the members of the Bush administration who made all this possible. Yet she is hypocritically trying to weasel out of her own responsibility, by claiming that she didn't know about it, and accusing the CIA of lying about her involvement. This has forced Obama's new CIA chief, Leon Panetta, to scramble to contradict her, and try to rescue his organization's plummeting morale with a pep-talk memo defending their integrity and professionalism.

[1] I've lost the reference now, but I came across the factoid that, while the Israelis started off reassuring themselves they'd limit it to only "high-valued terrorist operatives", there was so much pressure to get more and more results, that they eventually found themselves torturing nearly 85% of all their prisoners. One big reason they quit the whole thing. If only we could have learned from their mistake, rather than repeating it.

Mark Twain wrote:History doesn't repeat itself -- but it does rhyme.


[2] With the exception of Rep. Jane Harman (D). She wrote a classified letter of objection. Good on her.
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