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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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.