Sunday, September 24, 2006

President Bush's advocacy of "alternative interrogation practices" in the fight against terrorism has moved beyond legality and morality -- to focus on practicality. "The information that the Central Intelligence Agency has obtained by questioning men like Khalid Sheik Mohammed has provided valuable information and has helped disrupt terrorist plots, including strikes within the United States," Bush said in a Sept. 15 news conference. "By giving us information about terrorist plans we couldn't get anywhere else, this program has saved innocent lives. In other words, it is vital."

In a recent statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee, a group of former Army interrogators disagreed. "Prisoner/detainee abuse and torture are to be avoided at all costs, in part because they can degrade the intelligence collection effort by interfering with a skilled interrogator's efforts to establish rapport with the subject," they wrote.

We spoke with three of the signers about their experience as interrogators and why they signed.

-- Rachel Dry

Peter Bauer, Army interrogator, 1986-1997

I conducted interrogation operations and training, and served as an interrogator near the front lines during Operation Desert Storm. When prisoners of high intelligence value were captured, they were brought to me immediately. I often just glared at them and in a stern voice asked their name, their rank, their unit affiliation, and then questions related to the intelligence collection mission. Direct questioning is usually effective.

With the [Iraqi] Republican Guard officers, I had to use some of the approaches from the field manual. I used "love of comrades" a couple of times: I would tell somebody, "You know that if you can help us end this war sooner, fewer of your own people will die." When I saw them, they were still reeling from the shock of battle and capture. You should never underestimate the power of one's own imagination to create danger. If you ask, "Do you know what can happen to you under the Geneva Conventions if you don't tell me your name?" the answer is "nothing." But that question put to somebody who's not familiar with the Conventions just opens up doors in their mind. Most terrorists should be no more difficult to interrogate than other fanatics we've dealt with -- including Viet Cong, Soviet spies and Iraqi Republican Guard officers.

I know the techniques in the field manual work, and I know torture isn't as effective. I was stationed in Europe almost all of my career and I did resistance-to-interrogation training for NATO forces. We simulated the sort of abuse they could expect should they fall into the hands of the Warsaw Pact. This treatment is quite similar to the sort of techniques described as the CIA's "alternative interrogation procedures." We invariably obtained more reliable information using our own techniques than we did using the abusive procedures. I cannot name one instance in which abuse was successful after standard interrogation techniques failed. When you abuse or degrade somebody, the reaction of the source is: "You're putting ladies' underwear on my head. [Expletive] you." In the hands of a skilled and trained interrogator, you wouldn't have to torture. Not a single military interrogator with whom I have communicated expressed anything but contempt for the idea that torture could be more effective than standard interrogation techniques.

Chief Warrant Officer Marney Mason (retired)

I've been doing the interrogation thing since the early 1970s. I was a Cold War interrogator in Europe in the 1970s and '80s, and I've trained interrogators at Fort Hood, Tex., and Fort Bragg, N.C. -- teaching them how to conduct interrogations and how to resist them. In some training sessions, I've even administered mild forms of torture. And I think anyone who believes torture is a useful means of extracting information has been watching too many Sly Stallone movies.

A good interrogation is like a seduction. You sit down. You ask the person questions. You try to develop a very intense personal relationship with another human being so they'll part with information they'd rather not part with. You wheedle, cajole, trick, lie. The point is to collect usable, actionable information. Sure, if you start pulling a guy's fingernails out, he'll start talking -- it may not be the truth, but he's going to tell you exactly what you want to hear.

In a training environment (a mock prisoner-of-war camp), my students would be subjected to hostile forms of interrogations: loud noises, fake burials, 15- to 20-volt electric shocks. And I got people to confess to things that they absolutely did not do. The information you receive is worthless.

Travis W. Hall, former Army interrogator and captain in the Army's Judge Advocate General's Corps

Over my 14 years of military experience, both as an interrogator and as a JAG, I observed a degradation in the respect of service members for the laws of war since 9/11. When I attended interrogation school in 1992, all the attendees had 40 hours of classroom time on the Geneva Conventions followed by a written exam on all the rights and obligations of the military personnel under the Conventions.

What I saw firsthand as an interrogator and, later, as a JAG in Iraq in 2003 working on detainee issues, has left me with a strong belief that torture is counterproductive. What has proven effective in interrogation, time and again, regardless of what culture the detainee is from, is building a positive relationship with an individual. Americans really want their soldiers to not only come home, but come home with honor. I would challenge the current administration to come up with one example where torture in interrogation has produced actionable intelligence that saved American lives in the United States.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company