Did “enhanced interrogation techniques” help us find Osama Bin Laden and destroy al-Qaida? Were they torture? Were they wrong? Yesterday, three former CIA officials grappled with those questions in a forum at the American Enterprise Institute. The discussion was supposed to be about Zero Dark Thirty. But it was really a chance to see in person the thinking of the people who ran and justified the detainee interrogation program. It’s also a chance to examine our own thinking. Do we really understand what the CIA did and why? Was the payoff worth the moral cost? And what can we learn from it?
Former CIA director Michael Hayden led the panel. He was joined by Jose Rodriguez, who ran the agency’s National Clandestine Service, and John Rizzo, who served as the CIA’s chief legal officer. The stories they told, and the reasons they offered, shook up my assumptions about the interrogation program. They might shake up yours, too. Here’s what they said.
1. The detention program was a human library. The panelists didn’t use that term, but it reflects what they described. After detainees were interrogated, the CIA kept them around for future inquiries and to monitor their communications. Sometimes this yielded a nugget, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s message to his fellow detainees: “Do not say a word about the courier.” Rodriguez said this incident shows “the importance of having a place like a black site to take these individuals, because we could use that type of communication. We could use them as background information to check a name.”
2. EITs were used to break the will to resist, not to extract information directly. Hayden acknowledged that prisoners might say anything to stop their suffering. (Like the other panelists, he insisted EITs weren't torture.) That’s why “we never asked anybody anything we didn’t know the answer to, while they were undergoing the enhanced interrogation techniques. The techniques were not designed to elicit truth in the moment.” Instead, EITs were used in a controlled setting, in which interrogators knew the answers and could be sure they were inflicting misery only when the prisoner said something false. The point was to create an illusion of godlike omniscience and omnipotence so that the prisoner would infer, falsely, that his captors always knew when he was lying or withholding information. More broadly, said Hayden, the goal was “to take someone who had come into our custody absolutely defiant and move them into a state or a zone of cooperation” by convincing them that “you are no longer in control of your destiny. You are in our hands.” Thereafter, the prisoner would cooperate without need for EITs. Rodriguez explained: “Once you got through the enhanced interrogation process, then the real interrogation began. … The knowledge base was so good that these people knew that we actually were not going to be fooled. It was an essential tool to validate that the people were being truthful. “
3. The human library was part of the will-breaking process. “Because we had other prisoners in our black sites, we would be able to check information against others. And they [detainees] knew that,” said Rodriguez. In this way, simply holding detainees in opaque confinement gave interrogators leverage.
4. We had tested EITs on ourselves. Rodriguez said he quickly accepted the use of EITs in part because “I knew that many of these procedures were applied to our own servicemen. Tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers had gone through this.” If these methods were safe and moral to use on Americans, weren’t they safe and moral to use on our enemies?
5. Freelancing was forbidden. Rizzo outlined some rules for EITs: No interrogator was allowed to use a waterboard without first submitting written justification, and only the CIA director could approve it. So, for what it’s worth, there were internal checks on the practice, at least because the CIA would be politically accountable for what its interrogators did.
6. Rules were a weakness, and ambiguity was leverage. While citing the program’s rules as a moral defense, the panelists also groused that the rules cost them leverage. KSM, for instance, noticed a time limit on waterboarding. “Pretty quickly, he recognized that within 10 seconds we would stop pouring water,” said Rodriguez. “He started to count with his fingers, up to 10, just to let us know that the time was up.” Hayden said that when the incoming Obama administration ruled out EITs, he requested a caveat: “unless otherwise authorized by the president.” This, he explained, would create “ambiguity” so that anyone captured in the future couldn’t be “quite sure what would happen” to them.
7. EITs were useful as an implicit threat. Hayden said only a third of the detainees required EITs. But he acknowledged that “the existence of the option may have influenced" the rest.
8. The library rationale withered. The detainees’ value as constantly accessible sources didn’t mean they could be kept forever. They were human beings, too, and this created political and international problems. Over time, their intelligence value sank below the PR cost of keeping them at black sites. “When I became director in 2006, I concluded that, number one, we are not the nation’s jailers,” said Hayden. “We are the nation’s intelligence service. And so there just can’t be an endless detention program.” Accordingly, he transferred a dozen detainees out of CIA custody, “not because their intelligence value had become zero … but because the intelligence value of most of them had edged off to a point that other factors were becoming more dominant in the equation.”