Wednesday, October 31, 2007

But Don't Take MY Word for It...

I keep harping on the fact that torture is wrong and doesn't work. But why take my word for it? I'm no expert. Guess what? Even professional interrogators say that. Here's an excerpt from a column by retired Army colonel Stuart Herrington, who "served 30 years in the U.S. Army as an intelligence officer, which included extensive experience as an interrogator in Vietnam, in Panama and during the 1991 Gulf War."

The piece is called "Two problems with torture," and you may already have guessed what those two things are: "It's wrong and it doesn't work." Go figure.

Here's more detail on how it's supposed to be done, and how it's being done now:

In interrogation centers I ran, we called prisoners "guests" and extended military courtesies, such as saluting captured officers. We strove to undermine a prisoner's belief system, which we knew instructed him that Americans are unschooled infidels who would bully him and resort to intimidation, threats and brutality. Patience was essential. We rejected the view that interrogators could merely "take off the gloves" and that information would somehow magically flow if we brutalized our "guests." This notion was uninformed and counterproductive, not to mention illegal, and we made sure our chain of command understood that bowing to such tempting theories would result in bad information.

Persuasive? I'd always thought so, and it certainly worked for us in contingency after contingency in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. But when I explained these immutable principles to an auditorium of young Army interrogators last year, one reaction puzzled me. "Sir," a young soldier queried, "that 'tender-loving-care approach' sounds all well and good, but it takes time. What do we do when the chain of command sends out a requirement and says they need the information by the end of the day, and that thousands of lives may depend upon it?"

The very question tells us that intelligence professionals have failed to educate their commanders that detainee interrogation is not like a water spigot. "Give the inquisitors the freedom to push the envelope of brutality and good information will follow" seems to have become the watchword since 9-11.

The blog post at LGM that pointed me to Herrington's article suggests that gathering intelligence isn't actually the point:
In fact, torture (in the contemporary American context) is designed to demonstrate masculinity and Will; to sort of those who are "serious" about protecting America from those who aren't.
I'm not sure I buy that entirely. Certainly there are some who use brutality as the ultimate form of bluster and swagger. But I tend to think it's more about putting up the appearance of effectiveness, in a shallow, TV melodrama sort of way. As anyone who watches TV these days can tell you, you just rough people up, they give you information, and you solve all your problems in a matter of hours, if not minutes. Never mind that this is not how the real world works: it's how a lot of people perceive the world as working. After all, the closest most of us will ever get to an interrogation is watching it portrayed on TV.

And as the self-same TV tells us, image is everything, and perception is reality.

But they are not. Turn off the TV and think a little, OK? Thank you.

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