What Really Happened In The CIA’s “Enhanced" Interrogations?

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Jan. 30 2013 2:37 PM

The Case for Torture

What really happened in the CIA’s “enhanced" interrogations? Three former officials tell their stories.

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9. The library became less necessary as we developed other sources. Hayden said he re-evaluated the program in 2006 based in part on the declining need for it: “How much more did we know about al-Qaida now? How many more human and other intelligence penetrations of al-Qaida did we now have, compared to where we were, almost in extremis, in 2002?” There was less need to keep the human books on the shelf, now that the CIA could download information through other channels.

10. EITs liberated detainees from religious bondage. Rodriguez said Abu Zubaydah eventually “told us that we should use waterboarding … on all the brothers,” because

the brothers needed to have religious justification to talk, to provide information. However, they would not be expected by Allah to go beyond their capabilities [of] resistance. So once they felt that they were there, they would then become compliant and provide information. So he basically recommended to us that we needed to submit the brothers to this type of procedure. … As a matter of fact, it would help them reach the level where they would become compliant and provide information.

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Hayden said the Abu Zubaydah story “was important for my own soul-searching on this.” The detainee’s view of the interrogators, he said, was that “Allah expects us to obey him, but he will not send us a burden that is greater than we can handle. You have done that. Therefore you have freed my soul, that I can speak to you without fear of hell.”

11. The liberation rationale may not apply to future conflicts. EITs were “peculiarly well suited to this group, whose belief was founded on … obedience to the will of God,” said Hayden. That doesn’t mean “what we were doing was universally applicable for all detainees in all circumstances for all future crises.”

12. If you refuse to exploit prisoners, you’ll end up killing your enemies instead. All three panelists trashed the Obama-era conceit that we’re a better country because we’ve scrapped the interrogation program. What we’ve really done, they argued, is replace interrogations with drone strikes. “We have made it so legally difficult and so politically dangerous to capture,” said Hayden, “that it seems, from the outside looking in, that the default option is to take the terrorists off the battlefield in another sort of way.” Rizzo agreed, and he paraphrased The Godfather to suggest that the new policy is bloody and stupid: “You can’t kill everybody.”*

13. Face the dilemma. The panelists welcomed moral debate about EITs but scorned the delusion that these methods hadn’t produced vital information. Candor about the cost of your principles, they argued, is a basic rule of moral health. “We need to be honest with ourselves,” said Rodriguez.

What can these disclosures and reflections by former leaders of the CIA teach us? Several things. First, when you’re under pressure and fear, as the CIA was after 9/11, it’s easy to talk yourself into anything. You tell yourself it’s OK to waterboard detainees because we’ve waterboarded U.S. soldiers—never mind that the soldiers knew it was just an exercise. Second, it’s possible to partially dehumanize people—in this case by treating them as library assets—while still drawing up rules to limit your exploitation of them. Third, those rules are constantly at risk, because you always have an incentive to leave loopholes so you can instill fear. Fourth, the right question to ask about the EIT program isn’t whether people lie under torture but whether using torture to train human beings in obedience is wrong despite the payoffs. Fifth, instead of congratulating ourselves for shutting down the detention program, we should ask whether its closure is leading us to kill people we might otherwise capture. And sixth, even when we decide that brutal interrogation methods are justified, it’s always important to specify the reasons and acknowledge the costs, so that the brutality expires when the reasons no longer suffice.

Correction, Jan. 31, 2013: The article originally said John Rizzo quoted the line, “You can’t kill everybody.” That line appears in a Godfather prequel, The Family Corleone. In The Godfather, the line spoken by Tom Hagen to Michael Corleone is, “You want to wipe everybody out?” (Return to the corrected sentence.)

William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:

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