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”: