Politics & Policy

Interrogate This

A tortured narrative.

The release of another previously classified Justice Department memo on the interrogation of terrorists (here and here) has reignited the specious “torture narrative,” propounded gleefully by Bush-administration critics. The narrative holds that the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib was the direct and even intended consequence of a set of executive-branch legal opinions on the status of terrorist detainees and the president’s wartime authority. The New York Times announced in an April 4 editorial that the latest declassified memo leaves no doubt that the “abuse of prisoners” was “calculated policy” rather than “rogue acts.” “When the abuses at Abu Ghraib became public, we were told these were the depraved public actions of a few soldiers,” the editorial concludes. “The Yoo memo makes it chillingly apparent that senior officials authorized unspeakable acts.”

#ad#Besides smearing the Bush administration, the torture narrative aims to discredit the use of stress-interrogation techniques by equating such techniques with torture. The persuasiveness of this equation rests on one crucial condition: ignorance of the actual techniques that the Pentagon approved for use on captured terrorist suspects. Those techniques, designed to overcome the detainees’ fierce resistance to traditional interrogation methods, had nothing to do with the Abu Ghraib sadism and are light years from torture. Nor do they depend on the controversial claims about executive power in this latest DOJ memo and others like it. Nevertheless, thanks to unimpeded agitation by rights activists and administration opponents, the use of stress techniques is now wholly discredited, despite their reported efficacy and necessity.

The newly released memo was written in March 2003 by the Left’s favorite pariah, then-Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, of DOJ’s elite Office of Legal Counsel. (The New York Times editorial on the memo misidentifies Yoo as a “Pentagon lawyer.”) Like much of Yoo’s work for Justice, the March memo reaches breathtakingly broad conclusions about the president’s military authority.

Yoo argues that Congress may not regulate the commander-in-chief’s wartime power. Thus, wartime interrogations of enemy combatants held abroad are not governed by domestic criminal or constitutional law. Military interrogations are covered by the Convention Against Torture, but the president may override the Convention if doing so is necessary to defend the nation against attack.

Yoo’s analysis was likely driven by a felt need to carve out the largest possible space for executive action in what looked like a struggle for national survival, as well as by a more abstract commitment to the theory of unfettered executive discretion. Those twin impulses resulted in language that overshot the immediate circumstances confronting the president.

The seven additional interrogation methods that the Secretary of Defense authorized in April 2003 for use on resistant detainees at Guantanamo Bay, relying in part on Yoo’s March 14 memo, fell far short of the outer boundaries of presidential power. They did not violate any laws against torture or criminal assault. Since the proponents of the torture narrative work so hard to keep those methods (since withdrawn) out of the public eye, it is worth reprinting them in full:

–Change of Scenery Up: Removing the detainee from the standard interrogation setting (generally to a location more pleasant, but no worse).

–Change of Scenery Down: Removing the detainee from the standard interrogation setting and placing him in a setting that may be less comfortable; would not constitute a substantial change in environmental quality.

–Dietary Manipulation: Changing the Diet of a detainee; no intended deprivation of food or water; no adverse medical or cultural effect and without intent to deprive subject of food or water, e.g., hot rations to MREs [meals ready to eat].

–Environmental Manipulation: Altering the environment to create moderate discomfort (e.g., adjusting temperature or introducing an unpleasant smell). Conditions would not be such that they would injure the detainee. Detainee would be accompanied by interrogator at all times.

–Sleep Adjustment: Adjusting the sleeping times of the detainee (e.g., reversing sleep cycles from night to day.) This technique is NOT sleep deprivation.

–False Flag: Convincing the detainee that individuals from a country other than the United States are interrogating him.

–Isolation: Isolating the detainee from other detainees while still complying with basic standards of treatment. [Caution: The use of isolation as an interrogation technique requires detailed implementation instructions, including specific guidelines regarding the length of isolation, medical and psychological review, and approval for extension of the length of isolation by the appropriate chain of command. This technique is not known to have been generally used for interrogation purposes for longer than 30 days. Those nations that believe detainees are subject to POW protections may view use of this technique as inconsistent with the requirements of Geneva III.]

The foregoing guidelines insist that interrogators take care to avoid inflicting any injury on a detainee. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reiterated that “U.S. Armed Forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely, and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of the Geneva Conventions.” All interrogation methods — whether conventional or supplementary — required a specific interrogation plan, the presence or availability of qualified medical personnel, appropriate supervision, and senior approval.


The torture narrative implies that the additional interrogation ploys — which of course it never discloses — are virtually indistinguishable from the Abu Ghraib offenses. Let’s recall some of the outrages committed in Abu Ghraib: punching detainees, jumping on them, beating them with batons, compelling them to masturbate, and forcing them into naked dogpiles. None of these sadistic behaviors was sanctioned by the additional interrogation rules, to say the least. Nor were the Abu Ghraib abuses committed as part of interrogations. Most of the victims were not even scheduled for questioning; their tormentors were almost always prison guards, not interrogators.

#ad#The Abu Ghraib abuse represented an inexcusable breakdown of military control; it had nothing to do with interrogation. Culpability lies with the military chain of command that responded so ineptly to the Iraqi insurgency and that allowed order within the prison to disintegrate completely. The soldiers working there didn’t know who was in charge — indeed, practically speaking, no one was. Soldiers talked back to their superiors, refused to wear uniforms, operated prostitution and bootlegging rings, engaged in rampant and public sexual misbehavior, covered the facilities with graffiti, and indulged in drinking binges while on duty. The guards’ brutal treatment of the prisoners was just an extension of the chaos.

Gender imperatives undoubtedly played a role in this debacle of leadership, ensuring that Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski was left in charge long after her inability to maintain order had become glaringly apparent. As the Abu Ghraib independent-review panel, led by former defense secretary James Schlesinger, delicately put it in its August 2004 report: Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez’s “attempt to mentor Karpinski, though well-intentioned, was insufficient in a combat zone in the midst of a serous and growing insurgency.”

When torture-narrative proponents are not implying that the Pentagon actually authorized the Abu Ghraib assaults, they tone it down to the allegation that the Yoo memos “helped create a legal environment that allowed prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib,” as the Washington Post put it in an April 2 news article. This thesis is absurd: the boorish guards in the Iraqi jail, amusing themselves by humiliating detainees in the dead of night, were 100 percent ignorant of Office of Legal Counsel theorizing. Moreover, Yoo’s March 2003 memo and the seven additional interrogation gambits approved for Guantanamo detainees were directed at unlawful combatants, not the Iraq theater of war.

The torture narrative sidesteps an inconvenient reality. The traditional Army interrogation techniques for lawful prisoners of war weren’t working against the al-Qaeda operatives and Taliban fighters the military was picking up in the fall of 2001. Army lore held that 95 percent of lawful prisoners of war would divulge information upon direct questioning. In Afghanistan, this ratio was reversed: Almost none of the terror detainees was giving up information.

Tried-and-true approaches like appealing to a prisoner’s love of family often had little purchase. If an interrogator offered a Jihadist prisoner contact with his wife or children in exchange for information, the Jihadist might respond: “I’ve divorced this life; I don’t care about my family.” Some of the detainees had been trained in resistance techniques and knew the strict limits of American interrogation rules. Others quickly found those limits on their own.

So the interrogators began cautiously experimenting with stress techniques, such as lengthy questioning sessions that deprived a detainee of sleep, or aggressive, non-injurious behavior to put a detainee on edge. The theory of the “unitary executive” had nothing to do with this grass-roots experimentation. The aim was to recreate the shock of capture, that vulnerable mental state in which a prisoner is most frightened, uncertain, and likely to respond to questioning.

An interrogator facing a resistant Taliban explosives maker, for example, might angrily hoist the prisoner up by his collar, and storm out of the interrogation booth. The detainee had previously understood that American interrogators couldn’t so much as lay a finger on him, so suddenly he doesn’t know what the interrogator’s limits were. That frightening uncertainty can change his calculations about whether to cooperate.

According to interrogators in Afghanistan and Guantanamo, stress worked. “The harsher methods we used . . . the better information we got and the sooner we got it,” writes Chris Mackey in The Interrogators, an account of his interrogation service in Afghanistan. Mackey testifies to how “ineffective schoolhouse methods were in getting prisoners to talk.” He warns that his team “failed to break prisoners who I have no doubt knew of terrorist plots or at least terrorist cells that may one day do us harm. Perhaps they would have talked if faced with harsher methods.”

The torture narrative has foreclosed any debate on whether marathon questioning, say, is an acceptable means of getting potentially life-saving information. The new rules for interrogation, issued in September 2006, are even stricter than the previous ones interrogators found so useless. If the country is attacked again on a large scale, however, the country will have to reopen these debates and answer some hard questions.

– Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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