Spencer Ackerman | CIA Largely in the Dark on Interrogation Tactics

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    CIA Largely in the Dark on Interrogation Tactics
    By Spencer Ackerman
    The Washington Independent

    Monday 28 January 2008

Bush tasked agency to build a robust system, despite its limited history.

    In a bucolic field two miles north of Mount Vernon, beside a baseball diamond in Fort Hunt Park, Va., about 20 veterans of a secret World War II intelligence unit gathered together last year for the first time since 1946. The National Park Service was holding a ceremony to commemorate their service. The men, mostly in their eighties, had never before told their stories. During the war, Fort Hunt was a secret interrogation center, where some 4,000 German and Italian military officers, high-ranking government officials and scientists were debriefed. A few years ago, Park Rangers responsible for the area learned of Fort Hunt's critical intelligence role in recently declassified documents, and they decided to create a memorial and reunite the unit's veterans. The dedication ceremony was held over two balmy, peaceful days last October.

    Col. Steve Kleinman, a U.S. Air Force Reserve interrogator, 50, who had served in Panama and both Iraq wars, was one of the speakers that fall day. In a conversation earlier this month, Kleinman said he was horrified by America's turn to what Dick Cheney has called "the dark side" in the war on terrorism: indefinite detention in the name of national security, torture in the name of intelligence collection. And so he fought against it. Kleinman joined an effort, sponsored by the Intelligence Science Board-an interagency intelligence-advisory panel-to get the intelligence community to finally renounce torture. His speech at Fort Hunt was a subtle rebuke of the use of torture, comparing the war on terrorism to an earlier era, when interrogators shunned brutality.

    Suddenly, at Fort Hunt that October day, a veteran approached Kleinman. "I never laid a hand on one of my prisoners," the older man said. "That allowed me to do my job and retain my humanity." Kleinman was moved. "I thought, when's the last time I heard an interrogator concerned about that?" he recalled.

    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.

    In short, despite innumerable statements from the Bush administration about the value of the CIA's interrogation program, U.S. interrogators are still mostly in the dark-in the dark not only about al-Qaeda, but about how to effectively elicit vital national-security information from the detainees in its custody.

    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.

    That, of course, is not how the Bush administration has portrayed the CIA's interrogations. "This program has been, and remains, one of the most vital tools in our war against the terrorists," President Bush said in his September 2006 acknowledgment of its existence. In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations a year later, Gen. Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, said that the intelligence produced by the interrogation program "is absolutely irreplaceable." This month, Hayden's boss, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, told Lawrence Wright of The New Yorker, "Have we gotten meaningful information [from the program]? You betcha. Tons!"

    Yet, until 9/11, the agency had limited experience with interrogation, and had few people on staff who had even conducted one. Most of the CIA's experience had involved consulting with partner intelligence agencies on how to torture, sometimes using methods learned from the Nazis, instead of conducting interrogations itself-as demonstrated by the infamous Kubark torture instruction manual of the 1960s.

    Young CIA officers weren't trained in interrogations. "How to resist torture was the only thing related to interrogation at the training program," said one former senior official in the Directorate of Operations. "There was no thought, no commentary, or any practicality on how to apply it." The landmark Church and Pike commissions of the 1970s that examined illegal CIA programs further reinforced the CIA's impulse to avoid, whenever possible, activity with a high political cost and marginal benefit.

    The exception was one obscure office: the Polygraph Unit in the Administrative Directorate. There, employees-who were not case officers or intelligence analysts-would perform the closest thing to interrogations as existed institutionally in CIA. Usually, the unit's job was to polygraph officers in the U.S. and abroad as part of the agency's defense against enemy penetration. Less often, it would vet the agents or defectors that case officers ran. "Very, very few interrogations were done in CIA," said John Sullivan, who performed an estimated 5,000 polygraph tests in the unit during a 31-year career. "Most of what we did was elicitation. Interrogation involves people who don't want to give you information. In my case, about 20 percent of my tests involved some form of interrogation." None of those interrogations involved anything physical or psychological pressure. "I was never aware of any agency employee being involved in torture. Never. And I spent four years in Vietnam," Sullivan said. "I was disgusted by Abu Ghraib. It broke my heart."

    But 9/11 changed all that. Despite having nearly no off-the-shelf experience, the CIA was tasked by President Bush to come up with a robust interrogation program for the most important al-Qaeda captives. So the agency turned to its partners for assistance in designing its interrogation regimen: Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia-all countries cited by the State Department for using torture-among others. Additionally, as Mark Benjamin has reported for Salon, two psychologists named Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, who worked as contractors for CIA, helped the agency "reverse-engineer" the military and CIA training on resisting torture for use on detainees. Suddenly, waterboarding, an illegal practice of simulating or in some cases inducing drowning, became an American-administered practice.

    Interestingly, one place that the CIA didn't look for help was the place where interrogations have been performed, lawfully, for decades: the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "In terms of actual interrogations, when you have a suspect in custody, the FBI does that hundreds of times a day, 365 days a year, for 90 years," said Mike Rolince, who spent over three years as Special Agent in Charge of counterterrorism at the FBI's Washington field office before retiring in October 2005. "The FBI brought serious credibility and a track record to the table. That said, the U.S. government decided to go about [interrogations] in a different way. The results speak for themselves. I don't think we need to be where we are."

    The former senior CIA official disputes that. "I don't remember them coming to us with help," the ex-official said. "The FBI has this incredible PR machine, and they started saying after all this happened a lot of stuff like, 'We could do it, we have great expertise,' but, again, they've suffered from the same [impediments], typically the language thing."

    The agency's turn to interrogation was internally controversial. The CIA sought and obtained approval from administration lawyers in the White House and the Justice Dept. in early 2002 for every interrogation technique it used-legal guidance that the White House has since refused to release to Congress. Several CIA officials expected the agency would take the fall if the program ever became public. "We knew that five, 10 years down the road, our people were going to get screwed, like they always do," the former senior official said. The administration "wanted information, and they don't give a damn how they get it. They just don't want dirt on their plate."

    The former senior official in operations recalled taking his concerns about torture to colleagues at the agency. "I made it clear that I thought it was unwise," he said. "To a senior level. This was no later than 2003. I am being candid-it's not like there was an argument. Everyone was like, 'We got into this goddamn thing, and there was not any choice.'"

    That fear has been realized in the case of Jose Rodriguez. The same Justice Dept. that repeatedly approved the agency's interrogation regimen now has a criminal investigation into Rodriguez, a former head of CIA operations, for the 2005 destruction of videotapes recording the brutal interrogations of at least two al-Qaeda members. There is no investigation open into any of the former or currrent administration lawyers, like John Yoo, David Addington or Alberto Gonzales, who approved the torture nor of Bush, who lent it his imprimatur.

    Contained in the program were techniques with a dubious history of success. "It would seem to be a situation where people picked up things on the fly, where one might perhaps impolitely say there was an emphasis on John Wayne movies," said an intelligence consultant who is trying to overhaul the interrogation program and who would not speak for attribution. "It was not one based on data, not one based on the considerable research on changing people's behavior, or on behaviorial-science research."

    Kleinman agrees. "The nation was frankly angry," he said, emphasizing that he's speaking for himself and not the Defense Dept. "The psychologists come in, when in fact they don't know what they're talking about. There was a lack of understanding of what resistance is all about. It's designed to cause propaganda, not to get them to tell the truth-what we trained our people to resist."

    Naturally, the CIA rejects the characterization. "The agency's terrorist detention and interrogation program has been implemented lawfully, with great care and close review-including within the Executive Branch and oversight from Congress," CIA spokesman George Little said. "It has produced vital information that has helped our country, and others, disrupt terrorist plots and save innocent lives."

    The former senior CIA official rejected rejected the idea that behavioral scientists know more about interrogation than interrogators. "Some of these people are like sex experts who know 80 ways to make love but don't know any girls," he said.

    What isn't in dispute is that in many interrogations that the Bush administration has called vital sources of intelligence, brutality was part of the package. Last month, John Kiriakou, who led the CIA team that in 2002 interrogated Abu Zubaydah, then the head of al-Qaeda's military committee, told ABC News that his men waterboarded the terrorist. Two years before, ABC reported that around the same time, the CIA and its allies also waterboarded Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, another senior al-Qaeda terrorist, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of 9/11. Reportedly, the CIA has abandoned the practice, which in 2004 the agency's inspector general warned appeared to violate the Geneva Conventions, although Kiriakou-who called it "torture"-said it was necessary to break Abu Zubaydah.

    But what exactly that breaking yielded is the subject of both controversy and obfuscation. Bush has said those interrogations provided "vital information necessary to ... protect the American people and our allies." But FBI agents familiar with the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah have claimed that the waterboarding was worthless-and that the only valuable information from Abu Zubaydah came from documents captured from him. "He was talking before they did that to him, but they didn't believe him," FBI agent Dan Coleman told The Washington Post. "The problem is they didn't realize he didn't know all that much."

    Similarly, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed stated at a Guantanamo Bay hearing that he murdered the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Karachi in 2002, though Pakistan has already convicted a terrorist named Omar Saeed Sheikh for the slaying, casting doubt on the information Mohammed gave his interrogators under torture. Perhaps most infamously, al-Libi told interrogators that al-Qaeda received training in weapons of mass destruction from Saddam Hussein, which never happened. al-Libi recanted his claim in 2004, about a year after Colin L. Powell cited al-Libi's false, torture-derived information to the United Nations as he made the case for invading Iraq.

    The former senior intelligence official contends that torture is a tricky and subjective category. "Some of this stuff is bizarre," the ex-official said. "You can't take a fundamentalist Islamist and put a good-looking nude woman in front of him because it'll embarrass him and cause him stress. Well, you can put her in front of me." But this official, who was active at CIA during the interrogations of Zubaydah, al-Libi and the man that the CIA calls "KSM" suggested that their interrogations didn't provide the intelligence treasure troves that Bush has claimed. "We didn't have any extraordinary breakthroughs," he said. "We didn't know if we had the right people under control, and don't know if these people didn't know anything, or we just didn't have the right skill sets to get it out of them."

    Also unclear is who exactly conducted the interrogations, and what skill sets they had. Many senior CIA officials were left in the dark. "It was such a compartmented program that even as a division chief I didn't know," said Tyler Drumheller, who was European Division chief at CIA's Directorate of Operations from 2001 to 2005. "I know people don't believe this, but it was a very compartmentalized program."

    Intelligence reports that Drumheller saw would only say that information came from "a reliable source," and did not specify whether interrogations were performed at all. According to a currently serving intelligence analyst, that's still the case. "It'll say 'from a detainee,'" the analyst said. "There's never any discussion of any techniques used. To be honest, after the whole Abu Ghraib thing, everyone went into apeshit mode. They make sure everything's on the up and up." The analyst acknowledged that he's not in a position to know that for sure, "but I consider it generally trustworthy."

    Hayden, in his Council on Foreign Relations address, said that CIA interrogators receive 240 hours of training-though he didn't specify what that training entails. The role of the Polygraph Unit in post-9/11 interrogations is also not known. CIA spokesman Little did not answer a question about whether polygraphers assisted in Abu Zubaydah's interrogation. On advice from his lawyer, Kiriakou declined to speak for this story. But both the former senior Operations official and Sullivan said that if they were asked to pull experienced interrogators off CIA's bench in a pinch after 9/11, the Unit is where they'd turn. "If you're looking for interrogators, that's where you'd go," Sullivan said. "That's what we did for a living."

    The former senior Operations official speculated that the agency might have turned to the military's Special-Forces community for assistance. "You detail," he explained. "You call [the Department of Defense] and say, 'Gimme 50 Green Berets,' and they put on civilian clothes."

    The question of what the administration calls "enhanced interrogation techniques" have actually gained the U.S. continues to roil many at Langley. Around 2005, members of both civilian and military intelligence agencies asked the Intelligence Science Board to conduct a study about the current state of scientific knowledge relevant to interrogations. The resulting multi-volume study, "Educing Information," was published in December 2006. It's practically a cri de coeur against torture, urging intelligence agencies instead to rely on 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. "We tried to write it very carefully," said one of its authors, who asked for anonymity as to not alienate the intelligence community. "We used terms like 'we've been unable to find' [that torture works] or 'this looks promising.'" A subsequent volume is due out, perhaps later this year.

    Few involved with the project have direct knowledge of interrogations, but most are highly skeptical of claims made by the Bush administration that the brutal interrogations have yielded valuable information. "Look at George Tenet's book," said one. "He says, it would have been good if we stopped 9/11 and we blew it on WMD, but we got good info from KSM. Well, I read it. He's not gonna say we went oh-for-three.

    "But even if we did [get solid information from torture]," he continued, "we don't have a basis for knowing that. Look at the language choice: 'break.' If I break someone, how do we know if he told us everything? Does that fit in with human experience? It doesn't fit in with my experience. Even the notion of breaking someone, it doesn't connect, though its a pop-culture stereotype out there. A subject is responding to questions, but they have very important information they never offer up because you didn't ask the right questions, and because you 'broke' them."

    An assistant to Tenet's spokeswoman at his publisher, HarperCollins, said the former CIA director is no longer granting interviews.

    Nearly seven years after 9/11, the Intelligence Science Board finds CIA interrogations are still on a poor footing. The legacy of torture will be with the U.S. in myriad ways for a long time: perhaps through a prosecution of Rodriguez, or even interrogators themselves; perhaps through innocent Iraqis tortured by U.S. officials who then become terrorists and seek revenge; perhaps through its effect on interrogators themselves. "You don't torture people and lead a normal life afterwards," the former senior Operations official said.

    What's more, there is no consensus on how long it will take the agency to right itself. Asked if CIA interrogations have grown more sophisticated in the year since the Intelligence Science Board report came out, one of its authors said, "I don't know."

    Kleinman, who brought the influence of Fort Hunt and the history of successful, non-coercive interrogations to bear on the report, said he doesn't have a good sense whether the intelligence community realizes how little it still knows about interrogation. "Not to be flippant," he said, "but my best guess is that [fixing interrogations] will take somewhere between six months and 1000 years. It doesn't seem like anyone has their hair on fire to really solve this."

Last modified on Monday, 21 April 2008 16:17