Vive le rubber 'ose: 'The Interrogators' and 'Torture': Hard Questions

R.A. Hettinga rah at
Sat Jan 22 16:17:28 PST 2005


The New York Times

January 23, 2005

'The Interrogators' and 'Torture': Hard Questions

Inside the Secret War Against Al Qaeda.
 By Chris Mackey and Greg Miller.
Illustrated. 484 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $25.95.

A Collection.
 Edited by Sanford Levinson.
319 pp. Oxford University Press. $29.95.

T a time when neither a large national economy nor a modern military is
required to produce and deploy a weapon that can destroy a medium-size
American city, a good interrogator constitutes a better defense against
catastrophe than soldiers or marines. No group of people in the defense
establishment get to know the enemy better on a personal level than
interrogators do. As the Abu Ghraib scandal reveals, some guards and
interrogators can be sadistic ghouls; but many other interrogators could
qualify as the most liberal people in the armed services since, for one
thing, they have spent years studying the language and the history of their
captives. As one Special Forces officer told me in Afghanistan, ''In order
to defeat the enemy you first have to love him, and his culture.''

 Competent interrogation is less about breaking a prisoner down to learn a
single fact than about engaging him in hours upon hours of conversation,
and comparing his responses on seemingly irrelevant details with those of
others revealed under questioning. It is about looking for one plot and
finding another; or rather not finding a plot at all, but happening upon --
for example -- the travel patterns and safe houses of a group of Muslim
terrorists of one nationality and deducing how that group differs from

 Real interrogation is about finding shards of evidence in a desert, in
which a vital fragment will come not from a high-level Qaeda operative, but
from a midlevel functionary who spends weeks in captivity before anyone
realizes his importance. In ''The Interrogators: Inside the Secret War
Against Al Qaeda,'' Chris Mackey (the pseudonym of an Army interrogator)
and Greg Miller, a Los Angeles Times correspondent, write that as a
prisoner in Afghanistan reached for his glasses (by now long lost) when he
went to examine a photograph, that ''absent-minded move'' alerted
interrogators to the fact that he was ''accustomed to poring over

 Interrogators can use many tools that do not involve actual physical
abuse. They spread rumors among detainees, wear them down through
repetitive questioning and threaten to turn them over to other intelligence
services known to employ torture -- all of which cause interrogators
constantly to ask themselves where, exactly, does the slippery slope toward
real abuse begin? Sadly, it is no use saying torture never works, because
as the French authorities learned in Algeria, as the Filipinos learned with
their own Muslim insurgents and as the Dubai authorities learned with a
Qaeda terrorist, it periodically does work, and in some instances can
possibly avert a major attack. While it is true that the threat of torture,
as Mackey and Miller report, induces more anxiety among detainees than
torture itself, that threat over time will carry little weight if it
becomes widely known that the jailers have no record of following through.
''Fear is often an interrogator's best ally,'' the authors note, ''but it
doesn't have a long shelf life.'' A captured Qaeda manual even advises
Muslim prisoners that people in the West don't ''have the stomach'' for
torture, ''because they are not warriors.''

 Machiavelli famously said that good men bent on doing good must know how
to be bad. And because we all share a social world, he goes on, the virtue
of a policy maker resides not in his moral perfection but in the communal
result of his act. If one is not already ill at ease with such maxims,
consider this: In the ultimate hypothetical case, if a terrorist with hard
intelligence about an impending large-scale terrorist strike could be
broken by torture, shouldn't it be used? That nauseating question forms the
theme of ''Torture: A Collection,'' edited by Sanford Levinson, a professor
of government at the University of Texas. What's most striking about these
essays is that despite their abstract and theoretical content, they
generally do not contradict the depiction of actual interrogators described
by Mackey and Miller. The wall between the liberal campus and a
conservative, utilitarian-minded military breaks down because the questions
are so serious that few of this book's contributors want to engage in
polemics, and few -- to their credit -- ever seem completely comfortable
with their own conclusions.

 To follow Machiavelli further: it is not simply and crudely that the ends
justify the means. It is that evil, if it is to be employed, should be used
only to the minimum extent necessary, and then only to accomplish a
demonstrably greater amount of good. As the Princeton professor Michael
Walzer writes, ''It is important to stress Machiavelli's own commitment to
the existence of moral standards.'' But knowing what that minimum extent
is, and knowing with reasonable certainty that a greater amount of good
will result, thwarts scholars and interrogators alike.

 The Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz argues for legally sanctioning
torture in ''ticking bomb'' cases. ''At bottom, my argument is not in favor
of torture of any sort,'' he says. ''It is against all forms of torture
without accountability.'' His rationale is that in ticking bomb cases the
idea that torture in some form will not be used is illusory, and the
government should not be able to walk away from responsibility for it.
That, in effect, would leave the interrogators with all of the legal and
moral blame. Jean Bethke Elshtain, a professor of ethics at the University
of Chicago, counters that torture is so extreme that it should remain
''tabooed and forbidden,'' and that any attempt to legitimize torture even
in the rarest of cases risks the slippery slope toward normalizing it.
Seeking a middle ground, Miriam Gur-Arye, a criminal law professor at the
Hebrew University of Jerusalem, argues that in the absence of a concrete
terrorist threat, only a specific self-defense argument can justify force
in an interrogation: it cannot be justified by the more general and
utilitarian -- that is, Machiavellian -- argument of necessity.

 Interrogators themselves are not above such hairsplitting. After an
intense discussion about how humane it would be to deprive prisoners of
sleep, and just how much sleep deprivation constituted cruelty, Mackey came
to the conclusion that ''if the interrogator followed the exact same regime
-- slept, ate . . . and took breaks on the same schedule as the prisoner --
there was no way to argue'' that such treatment was cruel. There is even a
name for an interrogator staying with a prisoner until one or the other of
them breaks: it's called ''monstering.'' Double-teaming a prisoner, in
which different interrogators take turns sleeping, was considered immoral,
Mackey says. Because monstering was so hard for an interrogator to endure,
it was used only when something important was at stake and the prisoner
seemed close to breaking. One interrogator kept a prisoner in a booth for
29 straight hours. It was worth it, Mackey reports: the prisoner had been a
translator for Osama bin Laden and disclosed a Qaeda plot to use the
chemical agent ricin.

 But what if the prisoner hadn't confessed? Should he have been
double-teamed for 48 hours and beaten? Such questions demand answers, and
yet are unanswerable. My own experience covering the military suggests a
different approach to the issue. As Mackey and Miller themselves note, the
effectiveness of interrogators is regularly undermined by a host of
problems that have nothing to do with torture. Rarely do military
interrogators get all the language training they need. Their offices are
understaffed. When they walk into an interrogation room they often lack
vital information about the detainee that another agency in the United
States government already possesses, and won't share. Embedded with Army
Special Forces in Afghanistan a year ago, I was shocked by how a creaky
bureaucracy was stalling the hunt for terrorists on the Pakistani frontier.
An administration that dynamically addresses such problems will provide the
public with a wider cushion of protection than one that stretches the
boundaries of what constitutes physical abuse.

 No matter how wise those drawing up the guidelines are, however, the art
of interrogation does not lend itself to micromanagement from above.
Interrogators will forever be forced to make split-second decisions with
grave life-and-death consequences. The way toward public safety and out of
the moral abyss will come less from philosophy than from sturdy
bureaucratic reform: correcting, for example, the broken reserve system
that contributed directly to the abuses at Abu Ghraib. An interrogator
armed with fluent Arabic and every scrap of intelligence the system can
muster, who has mastered the emerging science of eye movements and body
signals, who can act threatening as well as empathetic toward a prisoner,
should not require the ultimate tool.

 Robert D. Kaplan, a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, is the author
of many books, including the forthcoming ''Imperial Grunts: The American
Military on the Ground.''

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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