May 25, 2009

Interrogation without torture

Expert interrogators know that torture is not an effective method to get reliable information. What does work? Here's how the pros handle getting reliable and actionable information.

Jack Cloonan was a special agent assigned to the FBI Osama bin Laden unit from 1996 to 2002. He was the fellow called for advice by the first interrogators who talked to al-Libi when he was captured on December 18, 2001. And he was angry and disappointed when the Washington decided that the CIA would use torture to question the detainees they scooped up.

In January 2008, when he was asked to provide his perspective to a Washington Monthly discussion on Torture, he talked about what he and his team did to get real information from the members of al Qaeda they interrogated.

One man we captured was Ali Abdul Saoud Mohamed, an al-Qaeda operative behind the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Ali Mohamed had fully expected to be tortured once we took him in. Instead, we assured him that we wouldn't harm him, and we offered to protect his family. Within weeks, we had opened a gold mine of information about al-Qaeda's operations.

Ali Mohamed wasn't unique. We gave our word to every detainee that no harm would come to him or his family. This invariably stunned them, and they would feel more obligated to cooperate. Also, because all information led to more information, detainees were astonished to find out how much we already knew about them—their networks, their families, their histories. Some seemed relieved to reveal their secrets. When they broke, the transformations were remarkable. Their bodies would go limp. Many would weep. Most would ask to pray. These were men undergoing profound emotional and spiritual turmoil—the result of going from a belief that their destiny was to fight and kill people like us to a decision that they should cooperate with the enemy.

He notes that when members of foreign intelligence agencies would sit in on the interrogations, they were surprised to see how effective this method was. And then he concludes:

I've mentioned that we assured our detainees that we wouldn't harm them or their families. One of our techniques for breaking them was repeating that powerful promise again and again and again. But who would believe us now?

Why did this method work when Cloonan was interrogating his subjects? Well, because it was built on interrogation methods that had been shown to be effective in World War 2. As Henry Porter wrote, Major Sherwood Moran found that he could get reliable information from his Japanese prisoners of war while in the midst of the battle for Guadalcanal using humane techniques.

He quickly found himself in the Pacific as part of the First Marine Division. He landed on Gaudalcanal in the first wave on August 8th, 1942. He and the other Marines were stuck on Guadalcanal with no leave, relief, rest, laundry or toilets. They were lucky to get two meals a day as they lived for months in the jungle fighting for control of Henderson Field. Half a world away, a baby girl made him a grandfather. He did not know that at the time. He was busy doing his job. His job was to interrogate the Japanese prisoners captured in combat.

Now remind me again... what are the advocates of torture saying about "ticking time bombs", "imminent threats", "ruthless enemies"? Forgive me if I say the imagery seems a bit shallow when you deliver those lines to men spending months sleeping, fighting and dying under continuous fire in the mud half a world away. It's enough to drive a person mad. So let's consider how Sherwood Moran reacted.

It wasn't until the Marines were evacuated to Australia that his superior officer, Lt. Col. Edmund Buckley, sent word of his interview style and impressive results back to headquarters. Moran was called back to Washington DC. awarded a Citation and a Bronze Star by Admiral Halsey. In DC he lectured, retrained interrogators, and revised the manual. Part of his rewrite effort was the newly transcribed memorandum, "Suggestions for Japanese Interpreters Based on Work in the Field."

I am going to publish it here in full because this document is hard to find, easy to overlook and needs to be made widely available. As his grandson notes, the document is important because of its "clear, emphatic, and persuasive explanations of why sympathetic, familiarly grounded prisoner interrogation was altogether preferable to its opposite." That is why this document is still being taught today within the US military for its intended purpose, and, as has been pointed out by many others, is perhaps more important than ever given our present circumstances.

Major Moran was humane and respectful of his captive subject. He brought his intelligence and his compassion with him to work.

I can simply tell you what my attitude is; I often tell a prisoner right at the start what my attitude is! I consider a prisoner (i.e. a man who has been captured and disarmed and in a perfectly safe place) as out of the war, out of the picture, and thus, in a way, not an enemy. (This is doubly so, psychologically and physically speaking, if he is wounded or starving.) Some self-appointed critics, self-styled "hard-boiled" people, will sneer that this is a sentimental attitude, and say, "Don't you know he will try to escape at first opportunity?" I reply, "Of course I do; wouldn't you?" But that is not the point. Notice that in the first part of this paragraph I used the word "safe". That is the point; get the prisoner to a safe place, where even he knows there is no hope of escape, that it is all over. Then forget, as it were, the "enemy" stuff, and the "prisoner" stuff. I tell them to forget it, telling them I am talking as a human being to a human being, (ningen to shite). And they respond to this.

When it comes to the wounded, the sick, the tired, the sleepy, the starving, I consider that since they are out of the combat for good, they are simply needy human beings, needing our help, physical and spiritual. This is the standpoint of one human being thinking of another human being. But in addition, it is hard business common sense, and yields rich dividends from the Intelligence standpoint.

He inspired the manual with its golden rule ("the golden rule is that if we would not want a technique applied to our service members, we don't apply it to the detainees") that the Army used until the Bush administration, captured by the will to power and the dark side, infected it with their torture tools.

We must return to our earlier, more effective, and more humane methods of getting information.

Posted by Mary at May 25, 2009 08:38 PM | Recommended Reading | Technorati links |

I liked your analogy of "prisoner", really insighful and very well put.
Law of Attraction

Posted by: soulgeek at May 28, 2009 02:29 AM