"The Dark Art of Interrogation" offers a comprehensive survey of the world of torture and coercion. Bowden interviewed professional interrogators, such as Michael Koubi, a former interrogator for Israel's General Security Services, and Jerry Giorgio, the New York Police Department's "legendary third-degree man," along with prisoners, soldiers, and human-rights activists. Bowden also describes the forms of coercion the United States is likely employing against captured terrorists: cramped quarters, isolation, sleep deprivation, infrequent meals, and rough handling. But most of all, the article presents Bowden's struggle to understand torture—when it might be appropriate and the implications of employing it. While Bowden concedes that opposition to all forms of torture is an admirable belief, he argues that "few moral imperatives make such sense on a large scale but break down so dramatically in the particular." Is it morally right to protect a terrorist from torture if "we pay for his silence in blood"? How can the United States extract information from captured terrorists while maintaining individual rights? How can the nation permit torture in certain cases without letting it become a "shortcut for a lazy or incompetent investigator"?
Some will find the answers Bowden offers wholly sensible; others will find them morally repugnant. Regardless of whether one agrees with its conclusions, however, "The Dark of Interrogation" is an examination into an important aspect of the war on terror that many Americans—and certainly the nation's leaders—would prefer to avoid discussing.
Mark Bowden is the author of six books, including Black Hawk Down (1999) and Killing Pablo, which won the Overseas Press Club's Cornelius Ryan Award as the best book of 2001. He is also a national correspondent for The Atlantic.
We spoke recently by telephone.
—Alexander Barnes Dryer
The people you interviewed—for example, Michael Koubi, the former chief interrogator for Israel's security service—practice what you call a rare art. These people seem to inhabit a small and secretive world. How did you, as a reporter, break into this world?
I just became curious about it. I'd read about all these top terrorist leaders being captured, and I kept reading accounts that they were providing useful information. It surprised me that someone who was suicidally motivated and fanatical would be cooperating with the people who had arrested him within weeks of being picked up.
So I started asking around to find out if that was, in fact, likely. I found people on both sides—some who were very skeptical of printed reports, saying that they didn't really believe that American interrogators were getting much from the terrorists, and some who were confident that the techniques that were employed worked. So I got really curious to discover what those techniques might be. It was not an easy thing to do, because no one involved in the current practices would talk to me. The White House refused to be interviewed on the subject, and the Justice Department, the FBI, the CIA, and the military—all the various government agencies that have a role—refused to comment. So my assistant and I did a fairly exhaustive amount of research, and we were able to unearth a great deal of material that has been freed up from the government through the Freedom of Information Act. We also found books and articles detailing what past practices have been. It's fairly clear that starting in the mid-1970s, when there was a general crackdown on the CIA, the United States stopped using coercive methods of interrogation for a long period of time—although I believe they started up again after September 11. So it seemed to me that the material that was put together for the CIA, the Justice Department, and the Army back in the fifties and sixties would still be relevant—with such a long hiatus, it was doubtful that those methods had been substantially changed or altered in the interim.