When the CIA asked President George W. Bush if they had the authority to waterboard suspected Al Qaeda operative Khalid Sheik Muhammed in 2003, President Bush did not hesitate. "Damn right!" the President now says his response was, according to reports about his forthcoming memoirs due to be released this week.
Echoing remarks he made in Grand Rapids, Michigan in June, President Bush says he "would do it again to save lives."
But many senior interrogators who have questioned high level Al Qaeda operatives do not believe that waterboarding Muhammed was an operational success.
"The purpose of any interrogation is to work your way up," Matthew Alexander, a U.S. Air Force interrogator who spearheaded efforts to find al Zarqawi, the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, told me recently. "You want to get the information that allows you to cut off the head of the snake."
Alexander wrote a book about his experience chasing al Zarqawi, the former leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq who is best known for making films of his victims as he cut off their heads. Alexander's book, How to Break a Terrorist, is intended to show how effective non-coercive methods of interrogation can be. The book begins with Alexander and a partner interrogating a junior Al Qaeda operative. In a matter of months Alexander and his team are able to convince one Al Qaeda operative after another to provide them with key information until they daisy-chain their way to al Zarqawi.
"Anything can work," Alexander explained. He notes that one of his best sources in Iraq was a 12-year-old who liked to brag that his father used to bring him to Al Qaeda planning meetings. Alexander and his team would challenge his importance. "In return he told us of all the places he'd been and people he had met with his father," Alexander explained.
The trick is to find the best possible technique (or combination of techniques), interrogators say, which allows you to learn as much as you possibly can from a source.
"I don't want to just know where the bomb is," Joe Navarro, a retired FBI special agent who has worked on terrorism cases in South America, Central America, Europe and the Middle East, explained. "I want to know who built the bomb? Who paid for the bomb? Who decides where to put it? Why there? I want to know everything that a guy knows."
Challenging someone's credibility creates the possibility that he will tell you everything he knows. Waterboarding a suspect ensures that he will, at best, only tell you what he needs to in order to make the pain stop.
Most scientists agree that more research is needed to understand better the complicated dynamic that takes place during an interrogation. But the limited research that is available suggests that torture is not an effective way to try to find out even the most basic facts from a hostile subject.
Educing Information, a 336-page report produced for the Defense Science Board in 2006, explains, "The scientific community has never established that coercive interrogation methods are an effective means of obtaining reliable intelligence information." (130)
The same report also details scientific evidence that suggests the use of sleep deprivation, isolation, and other forms of discomfort simply increases the chances that a detainee will provide inaccurate responses to questioning.
"The notion of making a subject miserable by keeping him standing, by sleep deprivation, by the application of transparent ploys, or other techniques to humiliate or discomfort him is rightly regarded by professional interrogators as 'amateur hour,'" Colonel Stuart Herrington, a U.S. Army intelligence officer who interrogated detainees in Vietnam, Panama and Iraq, told me. "Since successful interrogation involves establishing a relationship of control, artfully disguised as a sort of subtle seduction, no savvy interrogator would kick off the process by treating the subject shabbily."
The difference between cooperation and compliance
For Eric Maddox, the U.S. Army interrogator who spearheaded the hunt for Saddam Hussein, trust is a key ingredient in any interrogation. Maddox said he would never waterboard a prisoner.
"Water boarding? Give me a break!" Maddox told me. "Why would I do something to an individual where first of all they think they are going to die and second you don't follow through on the threat. I mean once you pull them up they are not dead, everything the interrogator does is a farce from then on."
"I am not trying to make the guy like me," Maddox continued. "But he has to believe me. If I tell him that I can make everything OK for him or his family, if he works with me, he has to take me at my word."
Maddox wrote a book about his experiences called Capturing Saddam: The Hunt for Saddam Hussein. An important breakthrough occurs when Maddox convinces a key insurgent to "join his team" by promising him his freedom if the dictator is captured.
The former insurgent strategizes with Maddox and participates in interrogations. He is able to help direct Maddox's line of questioning and pinpoint lies quickly. Ultimately he plays a key role in helping Maddox "break" a detainee who points to the hole where Saddam is hiding.
"Torture may get you compliance," explains Colonel Steve Kleinman, an Air Force intelligence officer, who has studied interrogation techniques for the Defense Science Board. "But it won't get you cooperation."
Improving the Art of Interrogation
Waterboarding is, on some level, simply a distraction.
Hollywood would have us believe that interrogators face two choices. They can either abuse a detainee to make him talk or sit politely across the table from him and ask, "can you please tell me where the bomb is?"
Interrogators with significant experience in the field describe a much more complicated dynamic.
"The road to a detainee's cooperation leads through his ego, his narcissism, his human need for someone to understand his self-perceived brilliance, his courage and sacrifices, or his need for comfort in his time of utmost vulnerability," Colonel Herrington explained to me in an email recently. "The seasoned practitioner uses his assessment skills, acting abilities, and deep knowledge of his subject and his subject's cause as the principal tools to gain control."
This complicated dynamic is often called "a dance" and Herrington says the real pros engage in it in a way that could be called "interrogating without interrogating."
Ali Soufan, a former FBI Special Agent, told a Senate subcommittee how he was able to begin this process with Abu Zubaydah.
In my first interrogation of the terrorist Abu Zubaydah, who had strong links to al Qaeda's leaders and who knew the details of the 9/11 plot before it happened, I asked him his name. He replied with his alias. I then asked him, "how about if I call you Hani?" That was the name his mother nicknamed him as a child. He looked at me in shock, said "ok," and we started talking.
The Obama administration has directed the Justice Department to study how pros like Soufan, Herrington, Maddox, and Alexander interrogate. The results are intended to be widely distributed.
And Alexander has launched a website intended to share "approaches" with interrogators who seek information about how to best use non-coercive techniques.
Having tried, and failed, using waterboarding, efforts like these may help ensure that the next time the U.S. captures a high level Al Qaeda operative, he will be questioned using an approach that can truly save lives.
David Danzig is a senior advisor to Human Rights First.