Torture Wrong and Doesn’t Work
Stuart Herrington, a retired Army colonel and former professional interrogator, argues that torture is wrong and doesn’t work.
Herrington undermines his case a bit by prefacing it with the suggestion that a sophomoric lesson that he learned in a freshman ethics course — “[E]thical principles were absolute. Right was right; wrong was wrong.” — was a given. Still, the meat of his essay comports with what I was taught as a cadet and junior Army officer twenty-odd years ago:
I and other authentic practitioners of the interrogation art respect our adversaries, however wrong we may deem their cause. We know that obtaining information from a captive who is motivated by his beliefs, his country, his honor or perhaps by the very human desire to live a full life with his family, is an elusive task that requires a patient, systematic approach.
One has to “go to school” on each captive. Who is he? Can I communicate with him in his language? What are his core beliefs? His loves? Hates? Fears? Where do his loyalties lie? Does he have a family, an inflated ego, perhaps some other core vulnerability? Does he have a hobby or some passion that might get him talking? What do we know about his activities before he fell into our hands? What about his religion? Sect? Tribe? Culture? Or the history of his movement? What have other captives in our hands said about him? Did he have documents or a computer that were seized with him? What drives this unique individual?
Professional interrogation is thus a developmental process, requiring extensive preparation. It requires in-depth assessment of the prisoner, all complemented by a healthy measure of guile, wits and patience.
Seasoned interrogators know that an important first step is to disarm one’s adversary by resorting to the unexpected. Treat a captured general or colonel with dignity and respect. Better yet, treat a sergeant like he is a colonel or general.
In interrogation centers I ran, we called prisoners “guests” and extended military courtesies, such as saluting captured officers. We strove to undermine a prisoner’s belief system, which we knew instructed him that Americans are unschooled infidels who would bully him and resort to intimidation, threats and brutality. Patience was essential. We rejected the view that interrogators could merely “take off the gloves” and that information would somehow magically flow if we brutalized our “guests.” This notion was uninformed and counterproductive, not to mention illegal, and we made sure our chain of command understood that bowing to such tempting theories would result in bad information.
He rightly notes that, “10 years ago the notion we would even be having such a dialogue was unthinkable.” Then again, 9/11 changed everything, including rendering some of our basic value assumptions open to discussion.
Via Andrew Sullivan