Australia/Israel Review

Essay: The Right Questions

Feb 14, 2005 | Heather MacDonald

How to interrogate a terrorist


It didn’t take long for interrogators in the war on terror to realise that their part was not going according to script. Pentagon doctrine, honed over decades of cold-war planning, held that 95 percent of prisoners would break upon straightforward questioning. Interrogators in Afghanistan, and later in Cuba and Iraq, found just the opposite: virtually none of the terror detainees was giving up information-not in response to direct questioning, and not in response to army-approved psychological gambits for prisoners of war.

Debate erupted in detention centres across the globe about how to get detainees to talk. Were “stress techniques” – such as isolation or sleep deprivation to decrease a detainee’s resistance to questioning – acceptable? Before the discussion concluded, however, the photos of prisoner abuse in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison appeared. Though they showed the sadism of a prison out of control, they showed nothing about interrogation.

Nevertheless, Bush-administration critics seized on the scandal as proof that prisoner “torture” had become routine. A master narrative – call it the “torture narrative” – sprang up: the government’s 2002 decision to deny Geneva-convention status to al-Qaeda fighters, it held, “led directly to the abuse of detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq,” to quote the Washington Post.

This story’s success depends on the reader’s remaining ignorant of the actual interrogation techniques promulgated in the war on terror. Not only were they light years from real torture and hedged around with bureaucratic safeguards, but they had nothing to do with the Abu Ghraib anarchy. Moreover, the decision on the Geneva conventions was irrelevant to interrogation practices in Iraq.

No matter. The Pentagon’s reaction to the scandal was swift and sweeping. It stripped interrogators not just of stress options but of traditional techniques long regarded as uncontroversial as well. The need for rethinking interrogation doctrine in the war on terror will not go away, however. The Islamist enemy is unlike any the military has encountered in the past. If current wisdom on the rules of war prohibits making any distinction between a terrorist and a lawful combatant, then that orthodoxy needs to change.

The interrogation debate first broke out on the frigid plains of Afghanistan. Marines and other special forces would dump planeloads of al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners into a ramshackle detention facility outside the Kandahar airport; waiting interrogators were then supposed to extract information to be fed immediately back into the battlefield-whether a particular mountain pass was booby-trapped, say, or where an arms cache lay.

Army doctrine gives interrogators 16 “approaches” to induce prisoners of war to divulge critical information. Sporting names like “Pride and Ego Down” and “Fear Up Harsh,” these approaches aim to exploit a detainee’s self-love, allegiance to or resentment of comrades, or sense of futility. Applied in the right combination, they will work on nearly everyone, the intelligence soldiers had learned in their training.

But the Kandahar prisoners were not playing by the army rule book. They divulged nothing. “Prisoners overcame the [traditional] model almost effortlessly,” writes Chris Mackey in The Interrogators, his gripping account of his interrogation service in Afghanistan. The prisoners confounded their captors “not with clever cover stories but with simple refusal to cooperate. They offered lame stories, pretended not to remember even the most basic of details, and then waited for consequences that never really came.”

Some of the al-Qaeda fighters had received resistance training, which taught that Americans were strictly limited in how they could question prisoners. Failure to cooperate, the al-Qaeda manuals revealed, carried no penalties and certainly no risk of torture – a sign, gloated the manuals, of American weakness.

Even if a prisoner had not previously studied American detention policies before arriving at Kandahar, he soon figured them out. “It became very clear very early on to the detainees that the Americans were just going to have them sit there,” recalls interrogator Joe Martin (a pseudonym). “They realised: ‘The Americans will give us our Holy Book, they’ll draw lines on the floor showing us where to pray, we’ll get three meals a day with fresh fruit, do Jazzercise with the guards … we can wait them out.'”

Battlefield commanders in Afghanistan and intelligence officials in Washington kept pressing for information, however. The frustrated interrogators constantly discussed how to get it. The best hope, they agreed, was to re-create the “shock of capture” – that vulnerable mental state when a prisoner is most frightened, most uncertain, and most likely to respond to questioning. Uncertainty is an interrogator’s most powerful ally; exploited wisely, it can lead the detainee to believe that the interrogator is in total control and holds the key to his future. The Kandahar detainees, however, learned almost immediately what their future held, no matter how egregious their behaviour: nothing untoward.

Many of the interrogators argued for a calibrated use of “stress techniques” – long interrogations that would cut into the detainees’ sleep schedules, for example, or making a prisoner kneel or stand, or aggressive questioning that would put a detainee on edge.

Joe Martin – a crack interrogator – explains the psychological effect of stress: “Let’s say a detainee comes into the interrogation booth and he’s had resistance training. He knows that I’m completely handcuffed and that I can’t do anything to him. If I throw a temper tantrum, lift him onto his knees, and walk out, you can feel his uncertainty level rise dramatically. He’s been told: ‘They won’t physically touch you,’ and now you have. The point is not to beat him up but to introduce the reality into his mind that he doesn’t know where your limit is.” Grabbing someone by the top of the collar has had a more profound effect on the outcome of questioning than any actual torture could have, Martin maintains. “The guy knows: You just broke your own rules, and that’s scary. He might demand to talk to my supervisor. I’ll respond: ‘There are no supervisors here,’ and give him a maniacal smile.”

The question was: Was such treatment consistent with the Geneva conventions?

President Bush had declared in February 2002 that al-Qaeda members fell wholly outside the conventions and that Taliban prisoners would not receive prisoner-of-war status – without which they, too, would not be covered by the Geneva rules. Bush ordered, however, that detainees be treated humanely and in accordance with Geneva principles, to the extent consistent with military necessity. This second pronouncement sank in: all of the war on terror’s detention facilities chose to operate under Geneva rules. Contrary to the fulminations of rights advocates and the press, writes Chris Mackey, “Every signal we interrogators got from above from the colonels at [the Combined Forces Land Component Command] in Kuwait to the officers at Central Command back in Tampa had been… to observe the Conventions, respect prisoners’ rights, and never cut corners.”

As interrogators tried to overcome the prisoners’ resistance, their reference point remained Geneva and other humanitarian treaties. But the interrogators pushed into the outer limits of what they thought the law allowed, undoubtedly recognising that the prisoners in their control violated everything the pacts stood for.

The Geneva conventions embody the idea that even in as brutal an activity as war, civilised nations could obey humanitarian rules: no attacking civilians and no retaliation against enemy soldiers once they fall into your hands. That rule required, unconditionally, that soldiers distinguish themselves from civilians by wearing uniforms and carrying arms openly.

Obedience to Geneva rules rests on another bedrock moral principle: reciprocity. Nations will treat an enemy’s soldiers humanely because they want and expect their adversaries to do the same. Terrorists flout every civilised norm animating the conventions. Their whole purpose is to kill non-combatants, to blend into civilian populations, and to conceal their weapons.

Even so, terror interrogators tried to follow the spirit of the Geneva code for conventional, uniformed prisoners of war. That meant, as the code puts it, that the detainees could not be tortured or subjected to “any form of coercion” in order to secure information. They were to be “humanely” treated, protected against “unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.”

The Kandahar interrogators reached the following rule of thumb, reports Mackey: if a type of behaviour toward a prisoner was no worse than the way the army treated its own members, it could not be considered torture or a violation of the conventions. Thus, questioning a detainee past his bedtime was lawful as long as his interrogator stayed up with him. Likewise, if a boot-camp drill sergeant can make a recruit kneel with his arms stretched out in front without violating the Convention Against Torture, an interrogator can use that tool against a recalcitrant terror suspect.

Did the stress techniques work? Yes. “The harsher methods we used … the better information we got and the sooner we got it,” writes Mackey, who emphasises that the methods never contravened the conventions or crossed over into torture.

Stress broke a young bomb maker, for instance. Six months into the war, special forces brought a young Afghan to the Kandahar facility, the likely accomplice of a Taliban explosives expert who had been blowing up aid workers. Joe Martin got the assignment.

“Who’s your friend the Americans are looking for?” the interrogation began.

“I don’t know.”

“You think this is a joke? What do you think I’ll do?”

“Torture me.”

So now I understand his fear, Martin recollects.

The interrogation continued: “You’ll stand here until you tell me your friend.”

“No, sir, he’s not my friend.”

Martin picked up a book and started reading. Several hours later, the young Taliban was losing his balance and was clearly terrified. Moreover, he’s got two “big hillbilly guards staring at him who want to kill him,” the interrogator recalls.

“You think THIS is bad?!” the questioning starts up again.

“No, sir.”

The prisoner starts to fall; the guards stand him back up. If he falls again, and can’t get back up, Martin can do nothing further. The interrogator’s power is an illusion; if a detainee refuses to obey a stress order, an American interrogator has no recourse.

Martin risks a final display of his imaginary authority. “I get in his face, ‘What do you think I will do next?’ “he barks. In the captive’s mind, days have passed, and he has no idea what awaits him. He discloses where he planted bombs on a road and where to find his associate. “The price?” Martin asks. “I made a man stand up. Is this unlawful coercion?”

Under a strict reading of the Geneva protections for prisoners of war, probably: the army forbids interrogators from even touching lawful combatants. But there is a huge grey area between the gold standard of POW treatment reserved for honourable opponents and torture, which consists of the intentional infliction of severe physical and mental pain. None of the stress techniques that the military has used in the war on terror comes remotely close to torture, despite the hysterical charges of administration critics. (The CIA’s behaviour remains a black box.) To declare non-torturous stress off-limits for an enemy who plays by no rules and accords no respect to Western prisoners is folly.

Halfway across the globe, an identical debate had broken out, among interrogators who were encountering the same obstacles as the Afghanistan intelligence team. The US base at Guantanamo was supposed to be getting the Afghanistan war’s worst of the worst: the al-Qaeda Arabs and their high Taliban allies.

Osama bin Laden’s driver and bodyguard were there, along with explosives experts, al-Qaeda financiers and recruiters, would-be suicide recruits, and the architects of numerous attacks on civilian targets. They knew about al-Qaeda’s leadership structure, its communication methods, and its plans to attack the US And they weren’t talking. “They’d laugh at you; ‘You’ve asked me this before,’ they’d say contemptuously,” reports Major General Michael Dunlavey, a former Guantanamo commanding officer.

Even more than Afghanistan, Guantanamo dissipated any uncertainty the detainees might have had about the consequences of non-cooperation. Consistent with the president’s call for humane treatment, prisoners received expert medical care, three culturally appropriate meals each day, and daily opportunities for prayer, showers, and exercise. They had mail privileges and reading materials. The captives protested every perceived infringement of their rights but, as in Afghanistan, ignored any reciprocal obligation. They hurled excrement and urine at guards, used their blankets as garrotes, and created additional weapons out of anything they could get their hands on-including a sink wrenched off a wall.

Gitmo personnel disagreed sharply over what tools interrogators could legally use. The FBI took the most conservative position. When a bureau agent questioning Mohamedou Ould Slahi-a Mauritanian (an al-Qaeda operative who had recruited two of the 9/11 pilots) was getting nothing of value, an army interrogator suggested, “Why don’t you mention to him that conspiracy is a capital offense?” “That would be a violation of the Convention Against Torture,” shot back the agent – on the theory that any covert threat inflicts “severe mental pain.” Never mind that district attorneys and police detectives routinely invoke the possibility of harsh criminal penalties to get criminals to confess.

Top military commanders often matched the FBI’s restraint, however. “It was ridiculous the things we couldn’t do,” recalls an army interrogator. “One guy said he would talk if he could see the ocean. It wasn’t approved, because it would be a change of scenery” – a privilege that discriminated in favour of a cooperating detainee.

Frustration with prisoner stonewalling reached a head with Mohamed al-Kahtani, a Saudi who had been fighting with Osama bin Laden’s bodyguards in Afghanistan in December 2001. By July 2002, analysts had figured out that Kahtani was the missing 20th hijacker. He had flown into Orlando International Airport from Dubai on August 4, 2001, but a sharp-eyed customs agent had denied him entry. Waiting for him at the other side of the gate was Mohamed Atta.

Kahtani’s resistance strategies were flawless. Around the first anniversary of 9/11, urgency to get information on al-Qaeda grew. Finally, army officials at Guantanamo prepared a legal analysis of their interrogation options and requested permission from Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to use various stress techniques on Kahtani. Their memo, sent up the bureaucratic chain on October 11, 2002, triggered a fierce six-month struggle in Washington among military lawyers, administration officials, and Pentagon chiefs about interrogation in the war on terror.

To read the techniques requested is to understand how restrained the military has been in its approach to terror detainees-and how utterly false the torture narrative has been. Here’s what the interrogators assumed they could not do without clearance from the secretary of defence: yell at detainees (though never in their ears), use deception (such as posing as Saudi intelligence agents), and put detainees on MREs (meals ready to eat – vacuum-sealed food pouches eaten by millions of soldiers, as well as vacationing backpackers) instead of hot rations.

The most controversial technique approved was “mild, non-injurious physical contact such as grabbing, poking in the chest with the finger, and light pushing,” to be reserved only for a “very small percentage of the most uncooperative detainees” believed to possess critical intelligence. A detainee could be poked only after review by Gitmo’s commanding general of intelligence and the commander of the US Southern Command in Miami, and only pursuant to “careful coordination” and monitoring.

None of this remotely approaches torture or cruel or degrading treatment. Nevertheless, cautious Pentagon lawyers revolted, claiming that the methods approved for Kahtani violated international law. Kahtani’s interrogation hung fire for three months, while a Washington committee, with representatives from the undersecretary of defence, the Defence Intelligence Agency, the air force, army, navy, and marine corps, and attorneys from every branch of the military, considered how to approach the 20th hijacker.

The outcome of this massive deliberation was more restrictive than the Geneva conventions themselves, even though they were to apply only to unlawful combatants, not conventional prisoners of war, and only to those held at Guantanamo Bay. It is worth scrutinising the final 24 techniques Rumsfeld approved for terrorists at Gitmo in April 2003.

The torture narrative holds that illegal methods used at Guantanamo migrated to Iraq and resulted in the abuse of prisoners there. So what were these cruel and degrading practices? For one, providing a detainee an incentive for cooperation – such as a cigarette or, especially favoured in Cuba, a McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich or a Twinkie unless specifically approved by the secretary of defence. In other words, if an interrogator had learned that Osama bin Laden’s accountant loved Cadbury chocolate, and intended to enter the interrogation booth armed with a Dairy Milk Wafer to extract the name of a Saudi financier, he needed to “specifically determine that military necessity requires” the use of the Dairy Milk Wafer and send an alert to Secretary Rumsfeld that chocolate was to be deployed.

Similar restrictions – a specific finding of military necessity and notice to Rumsfeld – applied to other tried-and-true army psychological techniques. These included “Pride and Ego Down” – attacking a detainee’s pride to goad him into revealing critical information – as well as “Mutt and Jeff,” the classic good cop-bad cop routine of countless police shows. Isolating a detainee from other prisoners to prevent collaboration and to increase his need to talk required not just notice and a finding of military necessity but “detailed implementation instructions [and] medical and psychological review.”

The only non-conventional “stress” techniques on the final Guantanamo list are such innocuous interventions as adjusting the temperature or introducing an unpleasant smell into the interrogation room, but only if the interrogator is present at all times; reversing a detainee’s sleep cycles from night to day (call this the “Flying to Hong Kong” approach); and convincing a detainee that his interrogator is not from the US.

Note that none of the treatments shown in the Abu Ghraib photos, such as nudity or the use of dogs, was included in the techniques certified for the unlawful combatants held in Cuba. And those mild techniques that were certified could only be used with extensive bureaucratic oversight and medical monitoring to ensure “humane,” “safe,” and “lawful” application.

After Rumsfeld cleared the 24 methods, interrogators approached Kahtani once again. They relied almost exclusively on isolation and lengthy interrogations. They also used some “psy-ops” (psychological operations). Ten or so interrogators would gather and sing the Rolling Stones’ “Time Is on My Side” outside Kahtani’s cell. Sometimes they would play a recording of “Enter Sandman” by the heavy-metal group Metallica, which brought Kahtani to tears, because he thought (not implausibly) he was hearing the sound of Satan.

Finally, at 4 am-after an 18-hour, occasionally loud, interrogation, during which Kahtani head-butted his interrogators – he started giving up information, convinced that he was being sold out by his buddies. The entire process had been conducted under the watchful eyes of a medic, a psychiatrist, and lawyers, to make sure that no harm was done.

Since then, according to Pentagon officials, none of the non-traditional techniques approved for Kahtani has been used on anyone else at Guantanamo Bay.

The final strand in the “torture narrative” is the least grounded in actual practice, but it has had the most distorting effect on the public debate. In the summer of 2002, the CIA sought legal advice about permissible interrogation techniques for the recently apprehended Abu Zubeidah, Osama bin Laden’s chief recruiter in the 1990s. The CIA wanted to use techniques on Zubeidah that the military uses on marines and other elite fighters in Survive, Evade, Resist, Escape (SERE) school, which teaches how to withstand torture and other pressures to collaborate. The techniques are classified, but none allegedly involves physical contact.

In response to the CIA’s request, Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee produced a hair-raising memo that understandably caused widespread alarm. Bybee argued that a US law ratifying the 1984 Convention Against Torture – covering all persons, whether lawful combatants or not – forbade only physical pain equivalent to that “accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death,” or mental pain that resulted in “significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years.” More troubling still, Bybee concluded that the torture statute and international humanitarian treaties did not bind the executive branch in wartime.

This infamous August “torture memo” represents the high (or low) point of the Bush administration’s theory of untrammelled presidential war-making power. But note: it had nothing to do with the interrogation debates and experiments unfolding among Pentagon interrogators in Afghanistan and Cuba. These soldiers struggling with al-Qaeda resistance were perfectly ignorant about executive-branch deliberations on the outer boundaries of pain and executive power (which, in any case, were prepared for and seen only by the CIA). “We had no idea what went on in Washington,” said Chris Mackey in an interview. Interrogators in Iraq were equally unaware of the Bybee memo.

Nevertheless, when the Bybee analysis was released in June 2004, it became the capstone on the torture narrative, the most damning link between the president’s decision that the Geneva conventions didn’t apply to terrorists and the sadistic behaviour of the military guards at Abu Ghraib.

But not only is the Bybee memo irrelevant to what happened in Abu Ghraib; so, too, are the previous interrogation debates in Afghanistan and Cuba. The abuse at Abu Ghraib resulted from the Pentagon’s failure to plan for any outcome of the Iraq invasion except the most rosy scenario, and its failure to keep military discipline from collapsing in the understaffed Abu Ghraib facility. Interrogation rules were beside the point.

As the avalanche of prisoners taken in the street fighting overwhelmed the inadequate contingent of guards and officers at Abu Ghraib, order within the ranks broke down as thoroughly as order in the operation of the prison itself. Soldiers talked back to their superiors, refused to wear uniforms, operated prostitution and bootlegging rings, engaged in rampant and public sexual misbehaviour, covered the facilities with graffiti, and indulged in drinking binges while on duty. No one knew who was in command. The guards’ sadistic and sexualised treatment of prisoners was just an extension of the chaos they were already wallowing in with no restraint from above.

The idea that the abuse of the Iraqi detainees resulted from the president’s decision on the applicability of the Geneva conventions to al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees is absurd on several grounds. Everyone in the military chain of command emphasised repeatedly that the Iraq conflict would be governed by the conventions in their entirety. The interrogation rules that local officers developed for Iraq explicitly stated that they were promulgated under Geneva authority, and that the conventions applied. Moreover, almost all the behaviour shown in the photographs occurred in the dead of night among military police, wholly separate from interrogations. Most abuse victims were not even scheduled to be interrogated, because they were of no intelligence value.

Reeling under the PR disaster of Abu Ghraib, the Pentagon shut down every stress technique but one – isolation – and that can be used only after extensive review. An interrogator who so much as requests permission to question a detainee into the night could be putting his career in jeopardy. Even the traditional army psychological approaches have fallen under a deep cloud of suspicion: deflating a detainee’s ego, aggressive but non-physical histrionics, and good cop-bad cop have been banished along with sleep deprivation.

In losing these techniques, interrogators have lost the ability to create the uncertainty vital to getting terrorist information. Since the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, the military has made public nearly every record of its internal interrogation debates, providing al-Qaeda analysts with an encyclopedia of US methods and constraints. “In reassuring the world about our limits, we have destroyed our biggest asset: detainee doubt,” a senior Pentagon intelligence official laments.

And now the rights advocates, energised by the Abu Ghraib debacle, are making one final push to halt interrogation altogether. In the New York Times’ words, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is now condemning the thoroughly emasculated interrogation process at Guantanamo Bay as a “system devised to break the will of the prisoners [and] make them wholly dependent on their interrogators.” In other words, the ICRC opposes traditional interrogation itself, since all interrogation is designed to “break the will of prisoners” and make them feel “dependent on their interrogators.” But according to an ICRC report leaked to the Times, “the construction of such a system, whose stated purpose is the production of intelligence, cannot be considered other than an intentional system of cruel, unusual and degrading treatment and a form of torture.”

But contrary to the fantasies of the international-law and human rights lobbies, a world in which all interrogation is illegal and rights are indiscriminately doled out is not a safer or more just world. Were the United States to announce that terrorists would be protected under the Geneva conventions, it would destroy any incentive our ruthless enemies have to comply with the laws of war. The Washington Post and the New York Times understood that truth in 1987, when they supported President Ronald Reagan’s rejection of an amendment to the Geneva conventions that would have granted lawful-combatant status to terrorists.

The Pentagon is revising the rules for interrogation. If we hope to succeed in the war on terror, the final product must allow interrogators to use stress techniques against unlawful combatants. The stress techniques that the military has used to date are not torture; the advocates can only be posturing in calling them such.

Human Rights Watch, the ICRC, Amnesty International, and the other self-professed guardians of humanitarianism need to come back to earth – to the real world in which torture means what the Nazis and the Japanese did in their concentration and POW camps in World War II; the world in which evil regimes, like those we fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, don’t follow the Miranda rules [requiring prisoners be read their rights] or the Convention Against Torture but instead gas children, bury people alive, set wild animals on soccer players who lose, and hang adulterous women by truckloads before stadiums full of spectators; the world in which barbarous death cults behead female aid workers, bomb crowded railway stations, and fly planes filled with hundreds of innocent passengers into buildings filled with thousands of innocent and unsuspecting civilians. By definition, our terrorist enemies and their state supporters have declared themselves enemies of the civilised order and its humanitarian rules. In fighting them, we must of course hold ourselves to our own high moral standards without, however, succumbing to the utopian illusion that we can prevail while immaculately observing every precept of the Sermon on the Mount.

Heather MacDonald is the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. She is the author of Are Cops Racist? and The Burden of Bad Ideas. © City Journal (, reprinted from the Winter 2005 edition by permission, all rights reserved.



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