The Magazine

Interrogating Terror

How tough justice keeps us free.

Jul 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 43 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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This volume hints at being a memoir of a young Puerto Rico-born spook rising to the top of Langley’s white-bread operations directorate. But the personal gives way quickly to a professional cri de coeur against those who have aspersed the clandestine service under George W. Bush as torturous and incompetent. 

A prisoner is led away

Jose Rodriguez focuses on the aggressive interrogations used against senior members of al Qaeda. This former head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center and Directorate of Operations, who received a letter of reprimand from Director David Petraeus for destroying interrogation videotapes, is proud of, and unapologetic for, the way in which Langley fought the war against Islamic terrorism after 9/11: 

The result was, beyond a doubt, the most effective and carefully managed program I was involved with in my thirty-one years at the CIA. But I also say that without doubt it remains the most maligned, misunderstood, and mischaracterized mission in the Agency’s mystery-clouded history.

It’s a good guess that Rodriguez’s views represent those of most case officers involved directly in counter-
terrorism. It’s also a good guess that the issue of aggressive interrogation will immediately return to the limelight if the United States again sustains a high-casualty terrorist attack.  

Rodriguez makes no excuses for the unpleasantness of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques: “The EITs were employed by our officers with great reluctance and solemnity,” he writes. “No one enjoyed doing it, but we were absolutely convinced that people like [Abu Zubaydah] had information in their heads that would save countless American lives. We were right.” Rodriguez is also adamant that Langley’s techniques weren’t torture. Historically, he has a strong case. 

Consider the massive lawyering of enhanced interrogation by the agency and the Justice Department; the assiduous medical attention given to the detainees; the extensive deliberations about whether the CIA should use this technique or that one, on this detainee or that one; the fastidious counting of each small splash of water in the waterboarding process; the extremely restricted use of waterboarding (only three members of al Qaeda got the treatment); the fact that the Air Force waterboarded thousands of its own in POW training, and that the CIA has for decades dished out to its junior officers sleep deprivation, electronic sound bombardment, freezing, prolonged hooding, chihuahau-size sweat boxes, the denial of food and water, and lots of psychological humiliation—all of this does not suggest, as the New York Review of Books would have us believe, that the Bush administration was on the slippery slope to moral collapse and a police state.  

The CIA interrogation methods used on al Qaeda jihadists seem to be from a different moral planet than the tactics used by the British and French in their colonial counterinsurgencies, and in a completely different ethical universe from the routine tactics used today by police services throughout the Muslim Middle East. But enhanced interrogation strikes some Americans as wicked—although this obviously does not include the senior Democratic members of Congress who expressed no objection when Rodriguez briefed them in detail, on September 4, 2002, on the techniques used. Such sensitivity, even when delivered with breathless left-wing hypocrisy, reflects the admirable Western evolution toward applying to war, covert action, and espionage ever-higher ethical standards. 

Before al Qaeda, the United States had never been confronted by terrorists who sought to slaughter civilians on a mass scale on American soil. As Rodriguez points out, the CIA did not lead with enhanced interrogation against Osama bin Laden’s inner circle: It went soft before it went hard. But the Bush administration did not want to depend on interrogations that relied only on the tactics the FBI used in criminal questioning. As Rodriguez emphasizes, the political establishment was convinced, after 9/11, that America didn’t have all the time in the world. 

What if a captured holy warrior just told them to bugger off? Langley actually encountered this situation with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 9/11 mastermind who is believed to have personally hacked off Daniel Pearl’s head. Referred to as “pure evil” and “the al Qaeda Hannibal Lecter” by the officers who dealt with him, KSM “was very strong-minded and gave every sign of having had considerable training in how to resist interrogation”: 

Even the most severe technique, waterboarding .  .  . did not produce immediate results. KSM seemed to have figured out that we weren’t going to push things too far. While strapped down on a gurney and as water was being applied, he used his fingers to tick off the seconds. What eventually brought KSM to the compliant stage was more sleep deprivation. .  .  . As with the others, once KSM reached the compliant state, the EITs stopped. .  .  . The information that came from KSM, like that from Abu Zubaydah before him, was a treasure trove.

The CIA produced thousands of intelligence reports through EIT interrogations. The FBI, having opted out of the aggressive interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, wanted back in when the flood of intelligence started pouring forth from Zubaydah and Mohammed. The quality and quantity of the intelligence produced (according to Rodriguez) silenced whatever concerns the bureau may have had about methods. Langley decided, however, not to let the FBI return. 

Rodriguez, who has the direct, earthy manner typical of case officers who’ve risen through the Latin America division, isn’t kind in describing how the FBI initially handled itself with Zubaydah, the first of the big al Qaeda targets to be captured. He gives examples of FBI interrogation methods, which so many journalists and counterterrorist pundits have decided are superior to the CIA’s more aggressive approach. It’s worthwhile to hear Rodriguez at length:

Despite the current claims by former FBI agents that they had bonded with AZ and were able to charm information out of him, the facts are quite different. .  .  . AZ told CIA interrogators that he respected all of our team, especially the female chief of base (whom he called “the Emira,” Arabic for “princess” or “leader”) of the black site. He respected them all, he said, except for a Muslim FBI agent [Ali Soufan], who had offended him early on. The agent, it turned out, had tried to debate Islamic theory with AZ, who thought the agent had insufficient grounding in the facts. .  .  . At one point the Bureau guys decided to try to “recruit” AZ. .  .  . [T]he Arab-American agent [Soufan] told AZ, “Don’t pay attention to those CIA people .  .  . you work with me,” and he gave him a candy bar. .  .  . The FBI man tried to use his Arab heritage as an opening to get AZ to talk, but it turned out to be counterproductive. “You are the worst kind of Arab,” AZ told [Soufan], “you are a traitor!” “Look,” the FBI agent told him, “America knows who its friends and who its enemies are. Work with us and we can make you a wealthy man.” AZ responded, “What makes you think I would turn my back on Allah for money?”

As Rodriguez underscores, the FBI and CIA have two fundamentally different missions. The bureau is always thinking about criminal prosecutions. (Read Ali Soufan’s The Black BannersThe Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda; the FBI’s clear focus on prosecuting jihadists is omnipresent through this agent’s solipsistic voyage through American counterterrorism.) But unless the CIA is operationally subordinate to the FBI, Langley couldn’t care less; it’s after “actionable intelligence.” Both organizations obviously want to stop future terrorist attacks, but the approaches are invariably different. Indeed, the British use MI5 in fundamentally different ways than they use Scotland Yard precisely because Parliament has recognized the superiority of intelligence methods against certain targets, including jihadists. And the British public is willing to tolerate MI5’s very intrusive methods because they know it has no law enforcement, judicial, or prosecutorial powers. 

Different missions attract and build different personalities, which has further complicated the tense, historic relationship between case officers and G Men. Although Rodriguez doesn’t dwell on FBI-CIA relations, Hard Measures reveals clearly that the two organizations still don’t work well together. Read between Rodriguez’s lines, where he talks about most FBI and CIA officers working collegially side by side, and it’s a good guess that, since 9/11, greater familiarity has actually bred greater contempt.  

As a rule, case officers are not inclined toward sustained reflection, and Hard Measures doesn’t dilate upon the psychological, philosophical, and historical intersection of pain and interrogation. A more reflective book might have recast the aggressive-interrogation controversy as an extended reflection on the CIA’s place in American society. What the CIA philosophically admitted after 9/11, which much of the FBI and most of the liberal intelligentsia still refuse to recognize, is that what is most “American” may not necessarily work. Most opponents of EITs have asserted that such tactics can never be effective; Soufan goes so far as to suggest that EITs were the principal reason why it took so long for Americans to kill Osama bin Laden. These critics argue that there is indeed a perfect overlap between their morals, their methods, and excellent results. No crise de conscience. Our cherished laws at home will work just fine abroad, even against terrorists who live to slaughter. Ticking-time-bomb scenarios just aren’t possible.  

Rodriguez and his colleagues had the historical temerity to say “no.” The CIA knows that bad guys have effectively used pain to pull the truth, repeatedly, from good men—its foreign agents. It knew that the Air Force had stopped using waterboarding against its own precisely because it was so effective; the “training” was too short. The clandestine service knows, even if it refuses to admit it, that rendition was used, in part, to have foreign intelligence and security services pull information from detainees in ways that were, to put it politely, beneath it.

Pain has always been an elemental part of interrogation, and this is true not just because the human species is depraved and deluded but because pain works—and the fear of pain works better. The fundamentals of interrogation, of how an interrogator verifies the truth, do not differ in a setting that involves no physical duress. But it may involve mental coercion or proffered friendship, and duress that includes waterboarding, electronic sound bombardment, limited sleep deprivation, or real torture. 

Interrogators are always after a means to get their subjects talking. Whether they always tell the truth isn’t the point: A person may say anything to stop the pain, as he may say something untruthful to a case officer who has become his friend or father-confessor. What’s important is that only the truth sticks. Even a brilliantly deceptive jihadist with a stunningly good memory will make lots of mistakes recounting his mundane and operational lives. With the truth, there are fewer gaps since it actually happened. Falsehoods are not so tightly bound since fiction must marry fact. All the colors—the backdrop of our memories and the all-important sequence of events—just aren’t there, even with the best liar. 

Rodriguez does a good job of explaining all this to the uninitiated, and of taking firm aim at the critics—especially Soufan, who was probably the anonymous, working-level FBI source for journalists on the counterterrorist/intelligence beats when CIA black sites and enhanced interrogations dominated the news.

What Rodriguez tried to find, after 9/11, was an acceptable way for a liberal democracy to apply physical pain to mass-murdering holy warriors in order to prevent further slaughter. In 2002, the CIA thought it had reached an understanding within the organization, and with its political overlords in the White House and Congress, on how to proceed. But, as Rodriguez feared at the time, politicians can be fickle. And he probably didn’t imagine that the next president would turn on him and his colleagues as if they were Spanish inquisitors reborn.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA case officer, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.