Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The truth about torture

Steven Aftergood of "Secrecy News" called attention a few days ago to a little-noticed study by the Intelligence Science Board that found there was no scientific validity to the "coercive" interrogation methods that have been used against "high value" terrorist detainees held by the United States.

This is not news to any professional military, intelligence, or law enforcement interrogator. A few years ago I was talking to one U.S. Army intelligence officer who mentioned Sherwood Moran, a World War II Marine language expert who was legendary for getting Japanese prisoners to talk. A short paper that Moran wrote explaining his methods had become a kind of "cult classic" among present-day experts, this officer told me, who were appalled by the practices initiated by the Bush administration to use stress, humiliation, and physical torture — yes, waterboarding by any sane definition is physical torture — to try to elicit information from Al-Qaeda prisoners.

Moran demonstrated again and again that an interrogator who used his brains always got infinitely more out of his subjects than one who tried to bully or abuse them; in fact demeaning or harassing a prisoner only reinforced his "fallback" position of resistance. Moran's secret was thorough understanding of the enemy's language and culture; hours of preparation for each hour of interview; playing on the prisoner's need to tell his story; and using knowledge to keep the upper hand at all times. Another famous World War II interrogator, the Luftwaffe's Hans Scharff, employed much the same approach; his "we already know everything" method often got captured Allied airmen to reveal things without even knowing they'd done so.

The Intelligence Science Board report makes almost exactly the same points. The report also demolishes the "ticking time bomb" scenario beloved of television drama. It notes that using physical stress actually hands all the power of the interaction to the prisoner. And while the Board acknowledged that there is of course no certainty that non-coercive methods will work, it reveals that in several recent cases, non-coercive interviewing methods did indeed elicit critical information from Al-Qaeda detainees.

The full report (pdf file) is posted on the Secrecy News website here.