On secrecy of interrogation techniques

| Comments (8) | Misc
DOJ has refused a request by Senator Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee to turn over the CIA General Counsel's opinion about what interrogation techniques are permissible.
In his address to the Nation, the President acknowledged the existence of the CIA program, but there are many details about the program that he did not, and could not, share publicly. One example is the specific interrogation techniques that were authorized for use on these high-value terrorists. As the President explained, to disclose that sensitive operational information would be to "help the terrorists learn how to resist questioning, and to keep information from us that we need to prevent new attacks on our country," Id. Al Qaeda seeks information on our interrogation techniques—their methods and their limits&mdsah;and trains its operatives to resist them. We must avoid assisting their effort.

There are two ways in which this argument could make sense. The first is that there are some techniques which we use that Al Qaeda doesn't know about. If they did know about them, they could potentially train their operatives to resist them. The second way is that knowing that we don't use technique X would allow Al Qaeda to save training effort by not training their operatives to resist X. I don't find this second theory very strong: even assuming there's some set of officially off-limits techniques if I were an Al Qaeda planner I wouldn't want to count on some American interrogator not exceeding those limits.

This leaves us with the possibility that there are some secret techniques which we'll stipulate can be resisted if you're trained for it. If there are techniques which can't be resisted there's not too much point in keeping them secret (though it might be useful to keep the fact that you had irresistible technques secret if you thought that the enemy would assume otherwise and continue with plans known to people you'd captured).

In any case, there can't be an unlimited number of these techniques, which creates the question of what you do once you've applied them. It only takes one released victim of technique X to tell everyone in Al Qaeda that you're using X. You don't even have to release him; if you let him come in contact with other prisoners and he tells them about X, then they can tell others if they're eventually released. At the end of the day, this logic leads to keeping anyone you use X on in solitary confinement more or less for the rest of their lives. As I understand the current state of the law, even suspected "high-value terrorists" are entitled to some review of their status. What happens if they're determined to be innocent?

8 Comments

The problem with revealing what techniques are permissible and what techniques aren't isn't just a matter of training. Everything I've read about interrogation makes it very clear that uncertainty is a huge advantage for the interrogator. If the subject knows the interrogator's entire permitted repertoire--and in particular, that that *is* the interrogator's entire permitted repertoire--then that severely limits the degree to which the interrogator can be surprise the subject, knock him or her off balance, or puncture his or her confidence. These are major handicaps for an interrogator.

Disclosing our interrogation techniques to the public (say, on CNN) would raise issues of telling Al Qaida what we're doing. But why would disclosing our techniques to Congress be that big a risk. Couldn't they do it in closed session? This sounds like an attempt to prevent political fallout, not to protect our intelligence secrets from being leaked to the enemy.

My guess is that the problem is that the Judiciary Committee isn't set up to handle secrets safely, and therefore would routinely be denied access to classified documents--unlike other committees, such as Intelligence and Armed Services, which are properly cleared for, and routinely obtain, access to highly classified material.

If I'm right, then Leahy is simply grandstanding, making a request that he knew full well would automatically be turned down coming from him, and acting as though the problem is what branch of the government he's part of, or what party he belongs to, rather than what committee he's on.

The problem is that torture techniques are most effective on innocent victims, as opposed to those who are highly dedicated to a cause (especially to death, as most of Al-Quaeda seems to be).

There is an unclassified study done by the CIA (trying to find the link) regarding torture by them in Vietnam that takes as its classic case one high level Viet Cong who resisted torture for several years, including at least a few occasions where he duped his interrogators into following up on bad leads (even years after capture), and who was eventually released when we left Vietnam.

Most of Al-Quaeda also likely knows many torture methods (at least according to various news reports), so there is probably little we could surprise them with (especially since we often farm out torture to other, middle east countries via rendition). On the other hand, those who know they are innocent of the accusations will often tell their torturers anything they think they want to hear to avoid further punishments because they feel their innocence will later protect them. This is why evidence produced by torture has long been abolished in reputable courts of law--it is not accurate and will not turn a truly dedicated opponent (Jack Bauer notwithstanding).

I think you are overanalysing here. The reason for keeping the torture techniques (lets use the correct term) secret is to protect those giving the orders, nothing more.

The problem with torture as an interrogation technique is that everyone talks but except in rare instances there is absolutely no way to know whether what they are saying is the truth or not. Not so long ago we were going on amber alert every few weeks as they found some new victim to waterboard.

I have lived with terrorism my entire life. When I first came to Boston some of the bars still collected money for NORAID, the fundraising arm of the IRA. They shut that down quick enough after 9/11.

The Baader-Meinhof gang were every bit as committed as Al Qaeda and just as dangerous. They did not kill people in such large numbers but they killed many.

The Baader-Meinhof gang were taken down by police work. So were the Italian neo-fascists, so was much of the IRA. The IRA would never have grown as large if the initial blunder of internment had not occurred.

Why is the US so sure that only it knows how to fight a terrorist war when it has zero experience of success in them?

The problem of deciding whether a given piece of intelligence is accurate--whether obtained under interrogation, regrardless of the methods used, or by some other means--is difficult but well-understood. The idea that the use of torture to obtain a piece of information makes it inherently less accurate than the use of many, many other intelligence-gathering techniques--such as paying informants, or simply trusting sources who may have their own motives--is patently absurd. What matters is how internally consistent and convincing the information is, what corroborating information is available, and how plausible it is (always an extremely difficult question, as one man's inherent plausibility is another man's false preconceived notion).

As for terrorist movements like the IRA, Baader-Meinhof and so on, because they were all overwhelmingly domestically-based, domestic law enforcement agencies had all sorts of tools at their disposal that are simply not available when dealing with terrorists based in (not just funded from) countries or regions where the authorities are at best indifferent to the terrorists. In particular, it's much, much harder to cultivate informants and use large-scale electronic surveillance in places where you don't have the authorities on your side. These techniques were crucial in breaking up the aforementioned domestic terrorist organizations. Without them, interrogations of captured operatives become a much more important source of information.

But, again, torture doesn't prevent a dedicated, intelligent foe from giving a coherent, false story.

Finally, say you do capture a high level al-Quaeda operative and settle him down for some Syrian torture. Al-Quaeda is very likely aware of the capture. Knowing that their operative will be subjected to torture/interrogation, and could break, they would change or alter their plans so that any information that is gained would be useless. It doesn't matter whether we use the thumbscrews, waterboard, or just some polite conversations; a captured operative is compromised.

The use of torture also presumes guilt. We are building up a litany of stories of people with the wrong name in the wrong place (for them) who are captured, tortured, and released. It is easy to say that these are not US Citizens, but once you build up the Other outside, then you can worry about the Other inside (oh, wait, illegal wiretaps, opening mail, inaccurate data mining--we're already there).

I agree with you on moral and practical grounds--I don't want to see the US using torture on any kind of official basis. (There will still be abuses, but we can keep the level low by punishing them when we discover them.) But your argument for why torture won't be useful would only make sense if the terrorists always instantly knew when someone was captured, and always instantly could change all their arrangements and plans. They presumably don't have an infinite number of safehouses, bank accounts, meeting places, friendly mosques, etc., and they presumably can't entirely scrub all evidence away from those places when they're compromised. So beating the location of the safehouse in Madrid out of some guy probably does help the authorities--the terrorists don't have the safehouse anymore, and the authorities can probably learn interesting information from the safehouse--who owns or rents it, who's been seen around there, what got left behind in the rush to get out before the cops arrived, etc.

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