THE BLOG
04/19/2011 12:32 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2011

The Truth Behind U.S. Interrogation Policy

by Joe Navarro

Has the CIA been displaced from its rightful role as global terrorist jailer and interrogator, a shift that may make the United States less safe as a result? Those reading Ken Dilanian's recent Los Angeles Times story "CIA has slashed its terrorism interrogation role" may have that impression from the sources he quotes - both Republicans and unnamed Obama Administration officials. As someone who spent nearly three decades as an FBI interrogator, I am compelled to set the record straight.

The CIA's role in countering terrorism has never traditionally included detention and interrogation.  Instead, the CIA has typically focused on what it's good at: clandestine intelligence gathering. 

It was only after 9/11 that the CIA began detaining and interrogating terrorism suspects.  At that time, the CIA had literally no detention and interrogation experience, so it hired contractors to reverse-engineer interrogation methods from the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program-a program designed in part to prepare American soldiers to resist torture and other abusive interrogation methods if captured.  As a result, the CIA came up with an interrogation program that relied heavily on unlawful, secret detention at "black sites," where terrorism suspects were tortured or subjected to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.  

Moral considerations aside, nearly 10 years after 9/11 we have no reason to believe that these CIA interrogations yielded any additional actionable intelligence that kept us safer.  To the contrary, interrogation experts report that abusive interrogation methods either lead terrorism suspects to say whatever is necessary to reduce or eliminate their pain and suffering, or they ultimately refused to cooperate with interrogators.  Torture as I have often said, guarantees pain but never the truth.

As a professional interrogator, I know that successful interrogations rest on building rapport with detainees and convincing them that cooperation is in their best interests.  This process works well when done within the criminal justice system, where terrorism suspects have provided substantial amounts of actionable intelligence information in return for reduced sentences or other forms of favorable treatment.  This process has yielded - among other actionable intelligence information - telephone numbers and email addresses used by al Qaeda and its affiliates, al Qaeda security protocols, al Qaeda recruiting and financing methods, the location of al Qaeda training camps and safe houses, information on al Qaeda weapons programs, the identities of operatives involved in past attacks, and information about future plots to attack U.S. interests. 

I was somewhat surprised to read the quotes from Republican lawmakers lamenting that high-value terrorism suspects like Umar Patek - who allegedly coordinated the 2002 bombings in Bali, Indonesia and is thought to have substantial intelligence on al Qaeda - could be turned over to foreign authorities.  Members of Congress should know that worries about terrorism suspects ending up in the hands of foreign governments are overblown.  The FBI, along with other departments and agencies within the United States government, has a long history of working with foreign security officials to interrogate and facilitate the transfer of terrorism suspects to the United States for prosecution, when appropriate.   

In the case of Patek, he will rightfully be transferred to Indonesia, where he allegedly committed his horrific acts of terrorism. He will face questioning and ultimately be brought to justice in a trial conducted by Indonesian authorities. In return, Indonesian authorities are expected to provide to the CIA intelligence information from his interrogations, which the United States still has the opportunity to help shape. The FBI has relationships with many countries and is prepared to do additional interviews which may be of lead, intelligence, or probative value.

His case and others like it in which international terrorists were transferred to foreign authorities do not make the case for a return to the CIA interrogation program or any other worldwide detention regime.  Other countries are also rightfully worried about the threat of international terrorism. The United States should work with these foreign governments to secure and provide intelligence information to further disrupt al Qaeda and its affiliates.

The bottom line is that a sensible and sustainable counterterrorism policy requires that the world share the burdens and benefits of combating terrorism.  This can only be done by leaving the failed post-9/11 detention and interrogation policies behind us once and for all and moving towards counterterrorism policies that operate within the rule of law.

The FBI has a long history of conducting interrogations that stand up to judicial scrutiny. 9/11 did not change human brains, interrogation is still about getting inside the human head and exacting cooperation, not just compliance. Proven methods of getting information through rapport building will guarantee success without having to debase ourselves by relying on methods from the Gestapo playbook.

Joe Navarro spent 25 years working as an FBI special agent in the area of counterintelligence and behavioral assessment and is a founding member of the National Security Division's Behavioral Analysis Program. Navarro authored the book that the FBI uses to train advanced interrogators. He is author of a number of books about interviewing techniques and practice including Advanced Interviewing, which he co-wrote with Jack Schafer, and Hunting Terrorists: A Look at the Psycopathology of Terror.