The subtleties of interrogation nothing like 24

Marc Thiessen dispels the notion that actual intelligence experts conduct interrogations of terrorists in any fashion like the popular series 24 — and explains that most people don’t really know what interrogation does.  It does not produce the information that discloses the ticking time bomb.  Rather, it allows our agents to know when a subject has truly decided to become cooperative — and when to start a much less aggressive de-briefing session.  In neither case do agents go Jack Bauer on a subject, despite the fantasies of war critics:

They began by clarifying precisely how the program actually worked. While 24 depicts violent scenes where interrogators inflict severe pain to get time-sensitive intelligence on terrorist dangers, in the real world, they told me, this is not how interrogations take place.

They explained, for example, that there is a difference between “interrogation”  and “debriefing.”  Interrogation is not how we got information from the terrorists; it is the process by which we overcome the terrorists’ resistance and secure their cooperation — sometimes with the help of enhanced interrogation techniques.

Once the terrorist agreed to cooperate, I was told, the interrogation stopped and “de-briefing” began, as the terrorists were questioned by CIA analysts, using non-aggressive techniques to extract information that could help disrupt attacks.

The interrogation process was usually brief, they said. According to declassified documents, on average “the actual use of interrogation techniques covers a period of three to seven days, but can vary upwards to 15 days based on the resilience” of the terrorist in custody.

In at least one case, the interrogators were thanked for their efforts:

Indeed, the first terrorist to be subjected to enhanced techniques, Zubaydah, told his interrogators something stunning. According to the Justice Department memos released by the Obama administration, Zubaydah explained that “brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardship.” In other words, the terrorists are called by their religious ideology to resist as far as they can — and once they have done so, they are free to tell everything they know.

Several senior officials told me that, after undergoing waterboarding, Zubaydah actually thanked his interrogators and said, “You must do this for all the brothers.” The enhanced interrogation techniques were a relief for Zubaydah, they said, because they lifted a moral burden from his shoulders — the responsibility to continue resisting.

Whether or not one agrees with waterboarding, I think we can all agree that letting terrorists captured by intel agents to “lawyer up” prior to interrogation and debriefing will not meet that threshold by which terrorists feel free to share information.

The poor understanding of American interrogation techniques has generated a lot of misinformation about the process.  For instance, as people assume the US uses torture in its interrogations and that rogue intel agents can free-lance their techniques, people assume that the information retrieved is faulty and unreliable.  But as Thiessen explains, that confuses interrogation with debriefing.  The point of interrogation is to confirm cooperation first:

Critics have charged that enhanced interrogation techniques are not effective because those undergoing them will say anything to get them to stop. Soufan, the FBI agent and CIA critic, has written: “When they are in pain, people will say anything to get the pain to stop. Most of the time, they will lie, make up anything to make you stop hurting them. . . . That means the information you’re getting is useless.”

What this statement reveals is that Soufan knows nothing about how the CIA actually employed enhanced interrogation techniques. In an interview for my book, former national-security adviser Steve Hadley explained to me, “The interrogation techniques were not to elicit information. So the whole argument that people tell you lies under torture misses the point.” Hadley said the purpose of the techniques was to “bring them to the point where they are willing to cooperate, and once they are willing to cooperate, then the techniques stop and you do all the things the FBI agents say you ought to do to build trust and all the rest.”

Former CIA director Mike Hayden explained to me that, as enhanced techniques are applied, CIA interrogators like Harry would ask detainees questions to which the interrogators already know the answers — allowing them to judge whether the detainees were being truthful and determine when the terrorists had reached a level of compliance. Hayden said, “They are designed to create a state of cooperation, not to get specific truthful answers to a specific question.”

And one way of determining that reliability has already been compromised, as Thiessen explains:

Another reason the program was so effective, Harry and Sam explained, was that because the terrorists were in a secure location, CIA officials could also expose sensitive information to them — asking them to explain the meaning of materials captured in terrorist raids, and to indentify phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and voices in recordings of intercepted communications. This could never be done if the terrorists were being held in a facility where they had regular contact with the outside world. The danger of this information getting out would have been far too great.

Harry and Sam told me that the agency believed without the program the terrorists would have succeeded in striking our country again.

With the current administration sending KSM and others who have seen this information into criminal court, how many of these intelligence officers will ever be comfortable with that process in the future?  And how much can KSM expose while in open court?

Tomorrow, I will interview Marc and ask these questions and many more on The Ed Morrissey Show as we discuss his book, Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama Is Inviting the Next Attack.  Be sure to join us.

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John Sexton 10:00 PM on June 02, 2023