THE BLOG

The Art of Politics; the Science of Interrogation

05/11/2011 10:05 am ET | Updated Jul 11, 2011

In his May 4th column in the Washington Post, "Obama owes thanks, and an apology, to CIA interrogators," former White House speechwriter Marc Thiessen observed, "in normal times, the officials who uncovered the intelligence that led us to Osama bin Laden would get a medal. In the Obama administration, they have been given subpoenas."

I would submit that in normal times, Mr. Thiessen's column would have offered an interesting albeit primarily subjective perspective on the issue of interrogation doctrine. In the current context surrounding the finding, fixing and finishing of Osama bin Laden, it instead co-opts a critical discussion with partisan rhetoric, and does so insidiously by conflating disparate facts to fit an unsubstantiated position.

While Mr. Thiessen is correct regarding President Obama's action to end the CIA's interrogation program, he failed to disclose that the president concomitantly established the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG), which brought together and re-focused the personnel and resources of several agencies within the U.S. Intelligence Community, including the FBI, CIA and Department of Defense. Not only was this a prudent move to instill much-needed discipline into an interrogation effort that had fallen into entropy, it also took the bold - if long overdue - step of creating a robust research capability that has already begun to provide policy makers and operators alike with an unprecedented, evidence-based understanding of the complex dynamic that is interrogation. Through this synergy of science and objective field research, the type of anecdotal arguments Mr. Thiessen offers will be quickly dismissed in light of a more meaningful understanding of the craft's complexities.

Not surprisingly, this organizational redress failed to stem the vociferous debate over the efficacy and suitability of coercive interrogation methods as national policy. Today, the renewed interest issues from the many conflicting reports covering the intelligence puzzle that led SEAL Team Six to a secure compound in Abbottabad. That a man of Mr. Thiessen's obvious intellectual talent could draw such a faulty nexus between the more coercive elements of the "enhanced interrogation" paradigm and the successful raid speaks volumes about how little the public -- and most public officials -- understand about either the intelligence process or the nature of interrogation.

Leon Panetta, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, offered his belief that information obtained from CIA interrogation programs provided a vital link in locating bin Laden. It is important to note -- as this is where Mr. Thiessen's premise begins to unravel -- that Mr. Panetta never once suggested the waterboard, or any other coercive method, had been key to eliciting this information. It must be understood that while such condemnable practices were an inherent component of the enhanced interrogation model, CIA interrogators primarily employed the type of systematic, intelligence-driven questioning that forms the basis for all interrogation.

It remains to be seen if the public, or the Intelligence Community, will ever know with certainty if coercive measures played a direct or meaningful role in obtaining the intelligence necessary to find the al Qaeda figurehead. What can be established with confidence, however, are the following indisputable facts:

• The sole objective of interrogation is to elicit reliable, comprehensive and timely information stored in the memory of a detainee.

• Scientific literature is unequivocal in demonstrating how coercive interrogation methods - including sleep deprivation, dietary manipulation, threats and extended isolation - are likely to substantially diminish an individual's ability to recall information reliably, comprehensively and expeditiously.

• Alternative approaches (most notably the cognitive interview model now employed in the United Kingdom and Singapore and which is currently the focus of robust research in this country) exist that not only avoid creating circumstances that can undermine memory, but also demonstrably enhance the accuracy and scope of memory.

• Exploring the fullness of an individual's knowledgeability (the complete scope of information they possess) simply cannot be accelerated through methods that induce compliance (which, in the vernacular of resistance to interrogation training, connotes being forced to act against one's will, most commonly to make false confessions or produce propaganda). Rather, it requires a useful level of cooperation wherein the individual not only correctly answers the questions posed, but also offers to address areas of knowledge the interrogator did not presume they possessed.

• A fundamental organizing principle of interrogation is that cooperation is something than can only be fostered and often requires time and patience. It most definitely cannot be forced through coercion, which invariably engenders deeper levels of resistance.

The "ticking time bomb" scenario, an exceedingly rare event, has long taken center stage in the debate over the employment of coercion. What led the SEAL team to bin Laden has now assumed a similar level of fixation. The operational truth that all too often falls on the deaf ears of the public and policymakers alike is that interrogation will rarely prove to be the vaunted silver bullet in the former case, but can be indispensable in the latter. Interrogation is fundamentally a tool, one that, with a sophisticated appreciation for its strengths and weaknesses, may serve as a focal point of intelligence collection or in a peripherally supporting role. Because there is a broad set of circumstances where interrogation may be of marginal value, the U.S. spends billions annually on an array of technical intelligence collection and advanced analytical systems.

Despite this fact, the debate continues to hover around authorizing or outlawing coercive interrogation practices. This, then, begs a simple question: if the safety of a city or the location of a wanted terrorist balance solely on whether or not a detainee is tortured, shouldn't the American people demand an in-depth audit of how those funds are being invested?

Steven Kleinman is a senior strategist on national security with The Soufan Group. He has over 26 years of experience in human intelligence, strategic interrogation, special operations and counterterrorism.