“Americans should be ashamed!” “The Democrats are endangering our servicemen and our allies!” Such is the extreme spread of opinion and reaction to the release yesterday of a 522-page report from the Democrat-led Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Standard narratives oscillate between condemning any use by America of tactics such as waterboarding, to those who see the release as a potential trigger for attacks against US interests around the world.
But what are the facts? In my career, I have trained US federal law enforcement agents in the principals of how to effectively interview Jihadist suspects. Before, that I was involved in the training of British special forces (SAS), in helping them resist interrogation by the enemy. Here is what I know:
- Professionals do not use violence when interrogating “bad guys.” Even the most heinous terrorists. Why? Because most humans do not like pain and you never know if your prisoner actually has the information you need. As a result, when they “break,” you have no idea if they are inventing information just to make you stop hurting them. Subsequently, you may take that fabricated information and plan future operations around them, thus endangering the lives of your own people because the information was false.
- Torturing people, or even “just” waterboarding them– a procedure which makes the subject feel as if they are drowning– may break a subject, but it will most often engender even greater hatred. That hatred cannot be controlled, especially if you are in an extra-judicial situation, or in a battlefield environment, which may lead at some point to the release of your prisoner. As a result, you may take a lowly foot-soldier who was just fighting you to feed his family and turn them into a person totally committed to the destruction of the United States. Remember the head of ISIS/The Islamic State, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, was once our prisoner.
- The “ticking time-bomb” scenario is a powerful argument, but by its nature should not be used as a justification for standing policies. The idea that the interrogator can “step over the line” when the threat is dire and imminent is sympathetic to many reasonable people. However, there is no way to codify dire and imminent in an operationally useful fashion. A nuclear bomb timed to explode in New York ? Sure. But what about a car bomb in a “major” US city by April? Can I torture then? (One approach has been suggested by a kidnap case in Europe in which the victim was expected to die imminently and the perpetrator was in custody. The officer in charge, using the ticking time bomb analogy, decided to use violence. But first he told all his colleagues to leave the room and formally accepted all the legal ramifications of hurting the prisoner. And he was in fact prosecuted for his actions although he made the suspect talk. Note: his actions were never used as an argument for a permanent change in policy. The individual knew that what he was doing was wrong and he was prepared for the consequences).
- The argument that we did “bad” things as a nation for the greater good in the past is not sound either. Yes, we interned Japanese Americans, and our allies, the British, tortured SS officers. So what? Do we really think that American citizens should have been treated differently because of their skin color or where they grandparents came from? And yes, the Nazis were incarnate evil, and the SS the worst of all, but does that really mean ALL options are open? Can I parade the prisoner’s children into the cell and proceed to threaten their lives, or physically hurt them to get him to talk? Surely, if the war against Global Jihadism has any meaning, it is because we posit ourselves as morally good and the enemy as evil. Does that distinction end when the door to the cell is slammed shut?