10 March 2011

Enhanced Interrogation Techniques

Stephen Kershnar
Enhanced Interrogation Techniques: Taking Off the Gloves
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
March 6, 2011

An important fight has broken out over the Bush administration’s use of hardball tactics when interrogating al Qaeda suspects. In Courting Disaster (2010), Bush administration speechwriter Marc Thiessen argues that the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) was spectacularly effective.

The CIA started using EITs after the 9/11 attacks. According to the Justice Department (cited by Thiessen), high-value detainees who would not cooperate with interrogators were subjected to “conditioning” techniques. These included nudity, sleep deprivation, and a diet limited to Ensure dietary shakes. If these didn’t work, “corrective” techniques were used. These included a face slap and a forceful head grasp. If this didn’t work, “coercive” techniques were used. These involved being put in uncomfortable stress positions, forced to stand against a wall, being slammed into a flexible wall, and being doused with cold water. Finally, if all else failed, detainees were waterboarded. Strict conditions governed this last technique. The CIA was required to have credible intelligence that a terrorist attack was imminent. It was also required to have substantial and credible evidence that the subject had information that could prevent, disrupt, or delay an attack and that other methods were unlikely to work.

Thiessen points out that of the tens of thousands captured in the war on terror, the CIA only held about one hundred terrorists, only about thirty were subjected to EITs, and only three were waterboarded. In 2006, the Bush administration reluctantly scaled back the program to “conditioning” and “corrective” techniques. In his first two days in office, President Obama shut it down.

Thiessen provides four reasons to think EITs worked. First, he points out that in the decade before the CIA began using EITs, al Qaeda launched a number of successful attacks against U.S. interests: the first World Trade Center bombing, bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, an attack on an American destroyer (USS Cole), and the 9/11 attacks. In the eight years since the CIA began using EITs, he claims, al Qaeda did not launch a single successful attack on American soil or against American interests abroad.

Second, Thiessen notes, the FBI questioned suspects after al Qaeda attacks with its gloves on. He claims that the FBI failed to get information needed to prevent the 9/11 attacks. By contrast, he claims, since the CIA started using EITs, dozens of senior al Qaeda leaders have been captured and a number of attacks prevented.

Third, Thiessen argues, the use of EITs was based on behavioral science and years of study through the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training. He claims that the U.S. government learned from SERE training water boarding is highly effective. According to the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, by 2001 all the military services except the Navy stopped using waterboarding in SERE trainings because it was too effective and thus not useful for training. Thiessen argues that if waterboarding is this effective against our military personnel, it is likely effective against terrorists.

Fourth, he argues, virtually every knowledgeable person who has looked at the reports concluded that the EIT program produced vital intelligence that saved lives. For instance, he argues, until the EIT program was temporarily suspended in 2006, intelligence officials say that over half of the information our government had about al Qaeda – how it operates, how it moves money, how it communicates, how it recruits operatives, how it picks targets, how it plans and carries out attacks – came from the CIA’s interrogation, which included EITs.

This information, Thiessen claims, prevented attacks including ones on a Los Angeles skyscraper, Heathrow airport and Canary Wharf in England, the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, a U.S. Marine base in Djibouti, and a high rise building, as well as an anthrax attack. It also led to the capture of a sleeper suspect who was thought to be considering attacking the New York Stock Exchange, U.S. military academies, and water reservoirs.

Thiessen’s arguments have come under fire from a number of people. Writing in the New Yorker, Jane Mayer (author of The Dark Side, which also covers the war on terror) argues that Thiessen’s arguments fail. Mayer argues that in the eight years that the CIA used EITs, while there were no attacks on American soil, American interests were attacked. She mentions attacks on Egyptian and Indonesian hotels, the U.S. consulate in Karachi, and the Bagram Air Base, as well as an assassination of a U.S. diplomat. Thiessen dismisses her list because it includes attacks that were not carried out by al-Qaeda or did not target Americans.

Mayer seems to argue that al Qaeda did not successfully launch an attack on U.S soil after 9/11 because of tightened surveillance, hundreds of billions spent to improve intelligence, and better coordination between the CIA and FBI, not because of EIT use. Given Thiessen’s specific claims about what terror suspects were identified and which attacks defused, Mayer’s argument works only if we have reason to disbelieve the CIA’s reports and the experts Thiessen cites. These include two former CIA Directors, three former Directors of National Intelligence, and a Homeland Security Advisor. It is worth noting that Mayer has her own experts who are critical of the program, including a FBI Director and four chairmen of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Writing in Slate, former senior military interrogator Matthew Alexander (a pseudonym) argues that Thiessen’s reliance on the use of CIA interrogators’ opinions is unreliable because they used torture and thus are worried about being prosecuted for war crimes. He also argues that the military and FBI would have gained better information and done so more quickly without using EITs. Given the FBI’s track record, this claim needs evidence that Alexander doesn’t provide.

In a slightly different context, Harvard University English professor Elaine Scarry points out that we have good reason to be wary of expanding the government’s interrogation powers given its recent history of dragnet searches and failure to police itself. In a 2004 article, she points out that in the 2 ½ years following 9/11, 5,000 foreign nationals suspected of being terrorists were detained without access to counsel. She notes that only of three were ever charged with terrorism-related acts and two were acquitted. She also notes that the court set up to issue warrants using secret information (operating via the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) declined only one requested warrant in an estimated 25,000 requests. Thiessen would likely respond that these concerns are legitimate, but not on point for the small and tightly monitored CIA program.

The balance of the evidence appears to suggest that EITs provided information that prevented attacks on U.S. interests home and abroad. The best argument the critics have been able to provide is that less coercive methods would have worked as well, but they have scant evidence. The real objection to such EITs, especially water boarding, is that they are immoral, illegal, or that the costs outweigh the benefits. The first objection is implausible. If EITs work and prevent the deaths of innocent victims and far more Qaeda members, the program is legitimate self-defense. The other two objections are best left for another day.

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