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Too Nice for Our Own Good

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Too Nice for Our Own Good

January 6, 2005
Urban PolicyCrimeOther

Senate Democrats plan to turn the confirmation hearings of Alberto Gonzales into a referendum on the war on terror -- specifically, on the Bush administration’s decision that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to al Qaeda terrorists. They will argue that the denial of prisoner-of-war status to al Qaeda fighters resulted in the torture of prisoners in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.

This “torture narrative” is gospel truth among elite opinion-makers, yet it is false in every detail. It relies on ignorance of the actual interrogation techniques promulgated after 9/11. However spurious, the narrative has had a devastating effect on interrogators’ ability to get intelligence from detainees.

Soon after the Afghanistan fighting began, Army interrogators realized that their part in the war on terror was not going according to script. Pentagon doctrine, honed in the Cold War, held that 95% of prisoners would break upon straightforward questioning. But virtually no al Qaeda and Taliban detainee was giving up information -- not in response to direct questioning, and not in response to army-approved psychological gambits for prisoners of war.

Some al Qaeda fighters had received resistance training, which taught that Americans were strictly limited in how they could question prisoners. Failure to cooperate, they had learned, carried no penalties and certainly no risk of torture -- a sign, al Qaeda said, of American weakness. Even if a prisoner had not previously studied U.S. detention policies, 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,” explains an Afghanistan interrogator. “They realized: ’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 . . . we can wait them out.’” Traditional appeals to a prisoner’s emotions, such as playing on his love of family or life, had little effect. “The jihadists would tell you, ’I’ve divorced this life, I don’t care about my family,’” recalls an interrogator at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Frustrated interrogators across the globe concluded that their best hope for getting information was to recreate the “shock of capture” -- that vulnerable mental state when a prisoner is most uncertain and most likely to respond to questioning. Many argued for a calibrated use of “stress techniques” -- prolonged questioning that would cut into a detainee’s sleep schedule, for example, or making a prisoner kneel or stand.

A crack interrogator from Afghanistan 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, this Army reservist maintains. “The guy knows: You just broke your own rules, and that’s scary.”

Such treatment, though far short of torture, probably violates the Geneva Convention’s norms for lawful prisoners of war, who must be protected from “any form of coercion.” But terrorists fail every test for coverage under the Geneva Conventions: They seek to massacre civilians, they conceal their status as warriors, and they treat their own prisoners to such niceties as beheadings. President Bush properly found that terrorists do not qualify as Geneva-protected prisoners of war.

In April 2003, the Pentagon finalized the rules for questioning unlawful combatants in Cuba, following a fierce six-month debate. The approved techniques were in many respects more restrictive than the Geneva conventions themselves. Providing a detainee an incentive for cooperation -- a McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich or a Twinkie, say -- was forbidden unless specifically cleared by the secretary of defense, because not every prisoner would receive the goodie. Other longstanding army psychological techniques, such as attacking a detainee’s pride or the classic good cop/bad cop routine, also required a specific finding of military necessity and notice to Donald Rumsfeld.

The only nonconventional “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, and convincing a detainee that his interrogator is not from the U.S. And those mild techniques could only be used with extensive bureaucratic oversight and medical monitoring to ensure “humane,” “safe,” and “lawful” application.

The decision to exclude terrorists from Geneva coverage and the interrogation methods approved for unlawful combatants in Cuba had nothing to do with the Abu Ghraib anarchy. Military commanders in Iraq emphasized repeatedly that the conflict there would be governed by the Geneva Conventions. The interrogation rules developed for Iraq explicitly stated that they were promulgated under Geneva authority. Except for the presence of dogs, none of the behavior in the photos was included in interrogation rules. Mandated masturbation, dog leashes, assault, and stacking naked prisoners in pyramids -- none of these was approved (or even contemplated) interrogation practice in any theater of conflict.

The Abu Ghraib abuse resulted rather from the Pentagon’s failure to respond adequately to the Iraq insurgency and its inability to maintain military discipline in the understaffed facility. As the avalanche of prisoners taken in the street fighting overwhelmed the minimal contingent of soldiers at Abu Ghraib, order within the ranks broke down as thoroughly as order in the operation of the prison itself. The guards’ sadistic and sexualized treatment of prisoners was just an extension of the chaos they were already wallowing in with no restraint from above. Almost all the behavior 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.

* * *

Equally irrelevant to the prisoner abuse scandal is the infamous torture memo written by Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee in August 2002. The CIA had asked him for guidance in interrogating al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah. Mr. Bybee responded that a U.S. law against torture forbade only physical pain equivalent to that “accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death” and that anti-torture conventions may not even bind the president during war. The Bybee opinion had no effect on interrogation practices among Pentagon interrogators in Afghanistan, Cuba or Iraq. Army interrogators were perfectly ignorant of executive-branch deliberations on the outer boundaries of pain and executive power, which were prepared for and seen only by the CIA.

In the wake of the Abu Ghraib disaster and the ensuing media storm, the Pentagon has 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. Interrogation plans have to be triple-checked all the way up through the Pentagon by bureaucrats who have never conducted an interrogation in their lives.

To succeed in the war on terror, interrogators must be allowed to use carefully controlled stress techniques against unlawful combatants. Stress works, say interrogators. The techniques that the military has used to date come nowhere near torture; the advocates can only be posturing in calling them such. These self-professed guardians of humanitarianism need to come back to earth. Our terrorist enemies have declared themselves enemies of the civilized order. In fighting them, we must hold ourselves to our own high moral standards -- without succumbing to the utopian illusion that we can prevail while immaculately observing every precept of the Sermon on the Mount.