The Magazine

What's the Matter with Gitmo?

From the July 4 / July 11, 2005 issue: Detention, torture, and other illiberal things.

Jul 4, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 40 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Although a commendable sense of liberal guilt is undoubtedly behind the quick assertions suggesting America's behavior at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo has damaged the cause of democracy, this conclusion is in fact insulting to Muslims who've watched their countries become ever uglier since World War II. It ignores 200 years of history in which Muslims swallowed, often enthusiastically, dictatorial ideologies and learned the dark side of the modern centralized state. Shiite Muslims in Iraq and especially their religious brethren in Iran have openly striven for democracy. They have not done so because they necessarily admire or wish to emulate the United States. They want to try democracy overwhelmingly for reasons unconnected to America. The leftist "red mullah" hard core among Iran's revolutionary clergy--who once hated the United States as viscerally as any Sunni jihadist in al Qaeda, and still often reflexively recoil from any "pro-American" thought--have irreversibly if imperfectly embraced the idea of democracy because their own former Weltanschauung has collapsed as clerical rule has failed. Philosophically and politically, they have nowhere else to go. Nor do Sunni Muslims have a special anti-American gene that overrides their own self-interest. Like Shiite Muslims, they've seen the pursuit of happiness--probably the most powerful of all American exports--vanish as their own dictatorships grew more entrenched, wealthy, and dynastic. It's a good guess the democratic opposition in Egypt--which now ranges from liberal secularists to the Muslim Brotherhood--would gladly live with the "hypocrisy" of our prison camps in exchange for the United States ending its support of President Hosni Mubarak's regime.

We can only hope that prominent Democratic senators and liberal columnists will be ready to say about American aid to Cairo, after Mubarak cheats in the upcoming presidential elections, "Just shut it down." The generation of bin Ladenism is specifically connected to dictatorship in Egypt, where the regime's convoluted double game of simultaneously supporting and suppressing Islamic fundamentalism has succeeded in gutting what was once the most vibrant, talented, and hopeful society in the Muslim Middle East. The U.S. policy of rendition undermines the cause of democracy in Egypt even as it binds us to the regime's most benighted side. Unintentionally but quite perversely, the current liberal outcry against Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo could well increase the use of rendition, a bipartisan policy dating to the mid-1990s, which the congressional intelligence committees, both Republican and Democratic members, whether they admit it publicly or not, have blessed. For a Bush administration under siege, rendition may well seem a safer, quieter way of doing what the CIA and the military deem necessary.

The administration can, of course, avoid this trap. It always takes time to develop effective tactics against determined enemies. And the war against Islamic holy warriors--which in practice, as President Bush clearly understands, is a battle also against the failed political systems that spawn them--presents unusual challenges. Stateless warriors who live to kill civilians defy the morality and legal conventions the West has advanced to mitigate human conflict. With that said, the administration has needlessly jeopardized its own moral standing in the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo debates because of its fondness for secrecy and its general inability to articulate well its developing strategy and tactics for arresting and detaining young Muslim males it knows or suspects are jihadists. The administration has so far not convincingly explained why it put a counterterrorist prison in Cuba and why it allowed secret CIA detention facilities to sprout up overseas that are not directly tied to frontline combat operations. It is very hard not to conclude that those facilities are where they are because the Bush administration wanted them located where outside observation, access, and protests could be easily denied or controlled.

Guantanamo really ought to be in Leavenworth, and the CIA's counterterrorist interrogation centers that don't pertain to the tactical requirements of ongoing joint operations with U.S. Special Forces ought to be at "the Farm," the espionage training facility in the swamplands of Virginia. (Training city-based spooks in this environment has always been bizarre; incarcerating jihadists among so much greenery has a certain poetic appropriateness.)

THE FIRST AND MOST IMPORTANT RULE for terrorist detention should be: Do nothing overseas that we would be embarrassed to do on U.S. soil. If the war with Nazi Germany had been a 30-year struggle, we would have kept German soldiers in prison until they were old and gray. We may well do this with some of the Islamic "enemy combatants" we've got locked up in our counterterrorist prisons. So be it. If we cannot repatriate detainees to their homelands after we've exhausted their intelligence value because we fear their home countries will allow them to rejoin jihadist groups, lock them up for 10 years till their testosterone drops, and then revisit the question. Frontline holy warriors over the age of 40 are few and far between.

The Pentagon and the CIA should admit, however, that their intelligence officers can regularly make mistakes in their interrogations and debriefings. Interrogation is an art, not a science. Even in the best of hands, judgments can always remain uncomfortably subjective. We should be honest and say that we don't always have the best of hands doing the questioning. I have spoken to two European intelligence officials who have participated in interrogations at Guantanamo. Each of these men is linguistically and educationally what you would want in an intelligence official targeted against jihadists. Both came away from Guantanamo with the same impression: Most of the American interrogators they observed were ill-versed in their subject matter. This is not surprising, since radical Islam was uncharted territory for virtually everyone in the U.S. government before 9/11. It is, however, a shortcoming to be acknowledged.

Almost all of the American interrogators my informants observed required the assistance of interpreters. Rarely did the interrogations proceed in a rigorous manner, with details of detainees' personal histories or local attachments skillfully exploited, and digressions pursued, aggressively or kindly, to trigger the process of confession. These Europeans found the Americans too considerate in their efforts, allowing their subjects too much breathing space. The all-critical mission of surrounding detainees with disorienting loneliness didn't seem to be a primary objective. They did not, by the way, find the routines observed to be physically abusive. Indeed, one of the European intelligence officials, who comes from a country where physical pain is not an unknown tool in terrorist debriefings, thought the Americans were not using enough physical duress in their efforts, and were certainly not marrying well coercive methods with strictly mental seduction and intimidation. European hubris aside, the critiques of these observers are probably not far off the mark.

One conclusion, then: We are all always rightly concerned about the operational morality of America's intelligence agencies; we should probably be more concerned about their competence. It's not at all unlikely that however much military and CIA officers have had recourse to physical intimidation and pain in their interrogations, this choice is probably more common more quickly among officers who don't have the necessary background and linguistic skills to deconstruct effectively their detainees through mental seduction, intimidation, and fatigue.

Has the Pentagon or the CIA introduced standard procedures to review the quality of the product of its interrogations--or even to listen to the tapes of those interrogations? Has it developed performance reviews for its interrogators? It's a good bet that neither the Senate and House intelligence oversight committees, nor the senior reaches of the administration, have any firm idea of who the interrogators are at the secret CIA facilities, or their preferred methods. It's now almost four years after 9/11. How many case officers fluent in Arabic and with an educational background sufficient to allow them to go head to head against reasonably well-educated jihadists have we actually drafted into service as full-time interrogators? These individuals are perhaps the most important operatives today in the war on terror. How often are these men and women rotated out? Too rapid rotation and the consequent loss of experience has been a constant problem for Agency officers in Afghanistan and Iraq. It's a decent bet the same problem exists among the counterterrorist officers who are interrogating the jihadist elite and hoi polloi.

The devil is in the details, and a trusting attitude within and outside Langley and the Pentagon does no one any good. Throughout the Cold War, the CIA was plagued with translation problems. Not infrequently the CIA allowed officers who were not linguistically or educationally up to snuff to handle important cases where greater precision and sophistication should have been deployed. This problem cropped up repeatedly in the 1980s and 1990s against the Iranians, when they were America's most challenging terrorist enemy. Perhaps this has all changed at the secret interrogation sites; maybe an institution that was routinely a bit sloppy has become more serious, now that case officers live in more serious times. Active-duty CIA officers to whom I've spoken since 9/11, however, give the impression that the organization still is too loose in its assignment of officers to critical counterterrorist tasks. And remember, the CIA has generally been more rigorous in its professional standards than its military counterparts. Operational sloppiness, of course, spills over into sloppiness about ethics.

The administration understandably does not want to introduce a judicial review process run by civilian courts into the detention and interrogation of Islamic holy warriors--doing so could easily turn the war against jihadists into a set of criminal proceedings, which is exactly what happened under the Clinton administration. This would inevitably have a deterrent effect on our actions overseas, which may well be what the cleverer antiwar Democratic critics of the administration have in mind. But the Bush administration certainly needs to have somebody--someone not employed by the CIA or Pentagon--review the intelligence officials' judgments on enemy combatants.

According to Senator Leahy, he "urged President Bush to work with Congress to fashion appropriate rules and procedures for detaining and punishing suspected terrorists" as long ago as October 2001. Pennsylvania's Republican senator Arlen Specter apparently did the same. The administration was unwise to reject their offers. Historically, Congress has had an essential moral and legal role in determining how America fights its wars. The Bush administration should have welcomed Congress as a partner in this battle against Islamic terrorism, making sure this war was America's commitment, not a Republican president's. Even now, the administration should encourage Congress's intelligence oversight committees to establish staffs assigned to review the circumstances of detention--the who, what, when, where, and why of enemy-combatant designations. The Combatant Status Review Tribunals, which the Defense Department implemented after a series of court cases in the last year led to questions about the adequacy of the Pentagon's procedures, have been doing this at Guantanamo and are well and good. But civilian overseers also have a job to do. Let them review the debriefings and information coming from foreign intelligence services that have allowed the CIA and the Pentagon's intelligence agencies to conclude we've got holy warriors in custody. Challenge the oversight committees to approve all interrogation tactics that the U.S. government is using against terrorists and suspected terrorists.

If the CIA believes it's necessary to "water-board" a chief al Qaeda operative who may have information about a devastating terrorist strike, then the administration should make the case before Congress, or at least before the intelligence oversight committees, that simulated drowning is morally and operationally justified. It should have done this prospectively, starting in September 2001, since the CIA must have the right to respond immediately, without lengthy outside review, to captured jihadists who may have information about a terrorist strike. The administration should also consider challenging Congress to make membership in several Islamic extremist groups punishable by death or life imprisonment. If the administration intends ever to try senior members of al Qaeda for terrorism, war crimes, or whatever, then it ought to clarify beforehand with Congress the laws that would allow American intelligence officers to interrogate these men aggressively, as well as the laws under which they could be convicted. And if that is an insurmountable hurdle--which it may well be--then the administration should obviously be exceedingly selective with its rougher interrogations. It would be a pity to catch Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda's brainy number two, and have his conviction overturned because we'd "water-boarded" him.

The administration should demand of itself very high intelligence standards for ascertaining whether someone belongs to al Qaeda, or Algeria's vicious and al Qaeda-aligned Armed Islamic Group, or just the often intellectually ugly but nonlethal Tabligh fundamentalist movement. This could be excruciatingly difficult, as deadly Islamic holy warriors and nonlethal Islamic militants can look almost the same. And foreign intelligence and security services, on which the CIA has been increasingly dependent since 9/11, may not be sticklers for parsing the differences among militant Islamic groups. Rarely will we be so fortunate as to collide with card-carrying members of Osama bin Laden's organization.

The Bush administration should minimize the possible intrusion of the courts into the strategy and tactics of the war on terror and enlist Congress's help in setting up the institutions and procedures that will make the system more accountable to more of the people's elected representatives. If the White House doesn't cut its losses and move firmly in this democratic direction, it risks further undermining essential congressional and popular support for the counterinsurgency in Iraq and the all-important cause of politically transforming the Middle East. However valuable the administration may think Guantanamo Bay and the CIA's secret facilities are in the war on terror, they are sideshows to what is transpiring in Iraq, and what, in the wake of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's remarkable visit, may soon transpire in Egypt.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.