The Torture History

Spencer Ackerman has a big ol' feature on the recent history of CIA interrogations putting the use of brutal and illegal contexts in broader context. Specifically, putting them in the broader context of the fact that the CIA actually has very little experience with interrogations and with best practices involved in doing them correctly. Consequently, you have an equation that involves people who don't really know what they're doing working under intense pressure with little practical constraint and faced with an objectively difficult task -- torture is the result. What isn't the result is much in the way of usable intelligence. Specifically, there's no way to tell what's accurate and what's not:

Many interrogators today are, in fact, concerned about that. But the program that developed within the Central Intelligence Agency after 9/11 has left the intelligence community playing a fateful role. Surprising as it may be, the CIA has never really been in the interrogation business. After 9/11, it turned its back on its own limited history of interrogations and never consulted those in the U.S. with solid experience in that difficult art. Even in the seven years since it has built an interrogation capability mostly from scratch, the agency has never applied the best practices in behavioral science to improve its regimen. The result has been to privilege brutality out of ignorance, which, according to many experts and insiders interviewed, means that interrogation practices that produce faulty information are now at the very heart of the U.S. efforts against a mysterious and still-unfamiliar enemy. [...]

Those with intimate knowledge of the program say that in many cases, U.S. interrogators haven’t even been able to learn the basics about many of those they hold or have held, to say nothing of whatever crucial information they possess. "How do you separate the sheep from the wool? There’s no fingerprints, no DNA," said a former senior intelligence official who helped set up the CIA’s interrogation program, and who would not speak for attribution. "You don’t know if you have Osama bin Laden or Joe Shit the rag-man."

Worse than a crime, to paraphrase Tallyrand, interrogation by the CIA has been—and remains—a blunder.

I had always thought "it was worse than a crime, it was a mistake" was something Joseph Fouché said (and his background in the secret police is more apropos given the subject of the article) but besides that it's an absolutely excellent piece. One area of inquiry that, for now, must remain shrouded in mystery and speculation is to what extent the problems with this approach are precisely what made them appealing to Bush. The US government has, after all, plenty of agencies who interrogate prisoners routinely and lots of interrogations have been done historically. If I had been President, I would have tasked such agencies with the new job.

That would have resulted in "non-physical, non-coercive techniques like building rapports with detainees—much like the FBI does, and much like what worked 60 years ago at places like Fort Hunt against hardened, sadistic Nazi officers." And it wouldn't have even resulted in that outcome because I'm an especially humane kind of guy. It's just that that is, in fact, what the FBI does and what the military did when it had to interrogate Nazis, etc. That's the process, the process works, and it doesn't raise any moral or legal qualms so it's all good. Why on earth would I turn to the CIA and have them re-invent the wheel? Well, I suppose Bush might have if deep down he's just the sort of person who likes the idea of torture and brutality; someone who at some level would be disappointed to hear an agency official not respond to 9/11 by immediately requesting permission to start torturing people.

But whatever the reason, it's just a huge, huge, huge mistake. Just as with surveillance policy, the Bush administration seems incapable of processing the idea that a certain level of formal constraint on what the security services are allowed to do may be necessary to make them work properly. Instead, the underlying presumption seems to be that transparency, the rule of law, accountability, etc. are all incredibly weaknesses in a system of government and that liberal democracies have been prevailing for the past couple of centuries despite the integral features of such a political system rather than because of them.