Finally an Intellectually Honest Critic of EITs


In 2007, WaPo ended an article quoting a CIA officer as saying in 2005, “The larger problem here, I think is that this kind of stuff just makes people feel better, even if it doesn't work.” in regards to the question of whether torture works or not. Now we have Gregg Bloche, a physician and a professor of law at Georgetown University, writing for WaPo, saying the reverse: That those who say “torture doesn't work” are saying it to make themselves feel better. Finally, we have a critic of the CIA enhanced interrogation program who isn't launching into hyperbole and distorted assumptions, but is taking an honest look at it, while remaining a critic:

The idea that waterboarding and other abuses may have been effective in getting information from detainees is repellant to many, including me. It’s contrary to the meme many have embraced: that torture doesn’t work because people being abused to the breaking point will say anything to get the brutality to stop — anything they think their accusers want to hear.

One of the memes from critics is that torture doesn't work because the person being tortured will tell you anything you want to hear to make the pain stop, including false confessions and false information.

Two things:

1)Torture doesn't work

John McCain claims as much; and yet, as one commenter on a WaPo article pointed out, torture did work on McCain:

McCain in his 1999 autobiography, “Faith of My Fathers,” McCain describes

“Eventually, I gave them my ship’s name and squadron number, and confirmed that my target had been the power plant.”

McCain said: “I regret very much having done so. The information was of no real use to the Vietnamese, but the Code of Conduct for American Prisoners of War orders us to refrain from providing any information beyond our names, rank and serial number.”

“I had learned what we all learned over there,” McCain said. “Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine.”

But let's agree for now that in general, whether torture works or not, torture is morally repugnant to us and against our values. Which is why Bush, Cheney, and the CIA would all disagree with the claims that the CIA interrogation program = torture. Those who created and endorsed the program went through great lengths to make sure that they did not cross a line. If anything, the OLC memos released by the Obama Administration weren't “torture” memos, but “How not to torture” memos. We can have an honest discussion about where that line in the sand should have been drawn; but to lay claim that Bush and company are no different than al Qaeda using power drills on its victims or that waterboarding was conducted no differently than the water torture employed by the Spanish Inquisition is to launch into exaggeration and dishonesty.

2) Those who are tortured will confess to anything and give false information to make the pain stop

This is a misunderstanding of the purpose of EITs (enhanced interrogation techniques). The 30 HVTs (high value terrorists) who were subjected to EITs under the CIA program were put through it with the goal in mind of obtaining cooperation, not information. Bloche elaborates upon the reasoning behind the use of EITs further:

But this position is at odds with some behavioral science, I’ve learned. The architects of enhanced interrogation are doctors who built on a still-classified, research-based model that suggests how abuse can indeed work.

I’ve examined the science, studied the available paper trail and interviewed key actors, including several who helped develop the enhanced interrogation program and who haven’t spoken publicly before. This inquiry has made it possible to piece together the model that undergirds enhanced interrogation.

This model holds that harsh methods can’t, by themselves, force terrorists to tell the truth. Brute force, it suggests, stiffens resistance. Rather, the role of abuse is to induce hopelessness and despair. That’s what sleep deprivation, stress positions and prolonged isolation were designed to do. Small gestures of contempt — facial slaps and frequent insults — drive home the message of futility. Even the rough stuff, such as “walling” and waterboarding, is meant to dispirit, not to coerce.

Once a sense of hopelessness is instilled, the model holds, interrogators can shape behavior through small rewards. Bathroom breaks, reprieves from foul-tasting food and even the occasional kind word can coax broken men to comply with their abusers’ expectations.


It’s been widely reported that the program was conceived by a former Air Force psychologist, James Mitchell, who had helped oversee the Pentagon’s program for training soldiers and airmen to resist torture if captured. That Mitchell became the CIA’s maestro of enhanced interrogation and personally waterboarded several prisoners was confirmed in 2009 through the release of previously classified documents. But how Mitchell got involved and why the agency embraced his methods remained a mystery.

The key player was a clinical psychologist turned CIA official, Kirk Hubbard, I learned through interviews with him and others. On the day 19 hijackers bent on mass murder made their place in history, Hubbard’s responsibilities at the agency included tracking developments in the behavioral sciences with an eye toward their tactical use. He and Mitchell knew each other through the network of psychologists who do national security work. Just retired from the Air Force, Mitchell figured he could translate what he knew about teaching resistance into a methodology for breaking it. He convinced Hubbard, who introduced him to CIA leaders and coached him through the agency’s bureaucratic rivalries.

Journalistic accounts have cast Mitchell as a rogue who won a CIA contract by dint of charisma. What’s gone unappreciated is his reliance on a research base. He had studied the medical and psychological literature on how Chinese interrogators extracted false confessions. And he was an admirer of Martin Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist who had developed the concept of “learned helplessness” and invoked it to explain depression.

Mitchell, it appears, saw connections and seized upon them. The despair that Chinese interrogators tried to instill was akin to learned helplessness. Seligman’s induction of learned helplessness in laboratory animals, therefore, could point the way to prison regimens capable of inducing it in people. And — this was Mitchell’s biggest conceptual jump — the Chinese way of shaping behavior in prisoners who were reduced to learned helplessness held a broader lesson.

To motivate a captive to comply, a Chinese interrogator established an aura of omnipotence. For weeks or months, the interrogator was his prisoner’s sole human connection, with monopoly power to praise, punish and reward. Rapport with the interrogator offered the only escape from despair. This opened possibilities for the sculpting of behavior and belief. For propaganda purposes, the Chinese sought sham confessions. But Mitchell saw that behavioral shaping could be used to pursue other goals, including the extraction of truth.

Did the methods Mitchell devised help end the hunt for bin Laden? Have they prevented terrorist attacks? We’ll never know.

Yet we do know. Enhanced interrogations worked on the likes of Abu Zubaydah and KSM, leading to revelations of operatives and more information, which in turn led to other terrorists killed and captured along with more intell information and subsequently more plots foiled. These might not have directly involved EITs and are 7 degrees of separation; but they originally stemmed from the information gleaned from HVTs who were subjected to the CIA program. Again, EITs only were necessarily applied to the very few hardened terrorists who were resistant (and trained) to standard interrogation practices. Before this, little was known about how al Qaeda operated. By 2006, over half of what was learned came out of the CIA interrogation program.

As Michael Hayden puts it in today's WSJ:

The recent dispute over what strains of intelligence led to the killing of Osama bin Laden highlights the phenomenon. It must appear to outside observers like a theological debate over how many angels can reside on the head of a pin. So we see carefully tailored arguments designed to discount the value of enhanced interrogations: the first mention of the courier's name came from a detainee not in CIA custody; CIA detainees gave false and misleading information about the courier; there is no way to confirm that information obtained through enhanced interrogation was the decisive intelligence that led us directly to bin Laden.

All fair enough as far as they go. But let the record show that when I was first briefed in 2007 about the brightening prospect of pursuing bin Laden through his courier network, a crucial component of the briefing was information provided by three CIA detainees, all of whom had been subjected to some form of enhanced interrogation. One of the most alerting pieces of evidence was that two of the detainees who had routinely been cooperative and truthful (after they had undergone enhanced techniques) were atypically denying apparent factual data—a maneuver taken as a good sign that the CIA was on to something important.

So that there is no ambiguity, let me be doubly clear: It is nearly impossible for me to imagine any operation like the May 2 assault on bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that would not have made substantial use of the trove of information derived from CIA detainees, including those on whom enhanced techniques had been used.

It is easy to imagine the concerns at the political level as the CIA built its case that bin Laden was in the Abbottabad compound, and it became obvious that detainee data was an important thread of intelligence. To his credit, and obviously reflecting this reality, White House spokesman Jay Carney has not denied that fact but correctly pointed out that there were multiple co-dependent threads that led to this success.

In response to a direct question on the CBS Evening News about enhanced interrogation and the bin Laden success, CIA Director Leon Panetta confirmed on May 3 that, “Obviously there was some valuable information that was derived through those kind of interrogations.” He also added that it was an “open question” whether the information could have been elicited through other means, implicitly contradicting those who claim that other means would have produced the same information.

Let me add that this is not a discussion about the merits or the appropriateness of any interrogation technique. Indeed, I personally took more than half of the techniques (including waterboarding) off the table in 2007 because American law had changed, our understanding of the threat had deepened, and we were now blessed with additional sources of information. We can debate what was appropriate then, or now, but this is a discussion about a particular historical fact: Information derived from enhanced interrogation techniques helped lead us to bin Laden.

And so those who are prone to condemn the actions of those who have gone before (while harvesting the fruits of their efforts) might take pause. I've been personally asked about the appropriateness of waterboarding and—recognizing the immense challenge of balancing harsh treatment with saving innocent lives—usually respond: “I thank God that I did not have to make that decision.” At the same time, I thank those who preceded me, made such decisions and thereby spared me the worst of the dilemma. Those who deny the usefulness of enhanced interrogation techniques might consider similar caution.

But if they cannot or will not, shouldn't they be true to their faith? If they truly believe that these interrogations did not and could not yield useful intelligence, they should demand that the CIA identify all the information derived directly or indirectly from enhanced interrogation. And then they should insist the agency destroy it. They should also insist that significant portions of the 9/11 Commission Report be rescinded, as it too was based on this data. This would be perfectly consistent with the interrogation deniers' transcendental faith that nothing of use could have come from enhanced interrogations after 9/11.

It must be remembered that Hayden came aboard as director of the Central Intelligence Agency in 2006, non-partisan to the debate. As Marc Thiessen writes in Courting Disaster, pg 116-117,

Another person who conducted an independent review of the classified evidence is Mike Hayden. When Hayden became CIA Director in 2006, he did not have a dog in the fight over the CIA program. He was not with the agency when it authorized the interrogations, and the program had been suspended before he arrived at Langley. He could easily have recommended to the president that they just leave the program dormant and move on.

Instead, he spent the summer studying the effectiveness of the interrogations. He approached it with an outsider's objectivity. He asked agency officials for details of the intelligence the program produced, and their assessments of how valuable the intelligence had been. Hayden explains: “I said, 'OK what have we got?' And they showed me, and I said, 'Whoa, that's really a lot.'” After examining the facts, Hayden says, “I was convinced enough that I believed that we needed to keep this tool available to us.” He says his view at the time was, “I really wish this decision wasn't mine, but given what I now know, I cannot in conscience say, 'We can do without this.'”

Returning back to Bloche's WaPo article, in conclusion:

So we’re left with the unsavory possibility that torture-lite works — and that it may have helped find bin Laden. It does no good to point out, as some human rights advocates have, that the detainees who yielded information about his courier did so after the abuse stopped. The model on which enhanced interrogation is based can account for this. The detainees’ cooperation could have ensued from hopelessness and despair, followed by interrogators’ adroit use of their power to punish and reward.

This possibility poses the question of torture in a more unsettling fashion, by denying us the easy out that torture is both ineffective and wrong. We must choose between its repugnance to our values and its potential efficacy. To me, the choice is almost always obvious: Contempt for the law of nations would put us on a path toward a more brutish world. Conservatives are fond of saying, on behalf of martial sacrifice, that freedom isn’t free. Neither is basic decency.

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Excellent work Word, I like how you offered both pieces. One is the nuts and bolts of the program, the other is the results of it.

As for “basic decency,” I am not up for the loss of anyone I love, neighbor with, casually know, etc. to be murdered in mass numbers for the sake of a terrorist killer’s comfort. So, I guess I would be one that would be considered by the anti-EIT crowd as not decent.

I see no reason why these animals should be allowed to sit in their cells with knowledge of death to innocents plots swirling around in their heads, praying that their devastating plots succeed and we are helpless to do anything about it. Knock off the elitist snobbery and use the tools when necessary!

To me, actually causing physical damage to someone is torture. While water boarding and other psychological techniques are much more than unplesant, they do not cause physical damage to one. If psychological techniques are torture, please arrest my exwife! Good post Word!

Count me with @Randy here. My notion of torture extends to maiming, crippling, removal of limbs etal… not psychological. Guess that makes me with you, Word da man… a “torture denier”.

I remember the yellow pack meals we were distributing to the displaced Iraqis. MREs were a banquet compared to them, yet they ate them. MATA, glad to have you on board. I also believe if I were in the position that LTC Allen West was in , I would do something similar. Does scaring the contents of someones bowels out of his body and into his pants equal torture? Word, very thoughtful and complete.

As to torture the red wire goes on the left nut, the black wire to the tongue…

In one of the Matt Helm books, Helm quotes something his boss once said on the matter of getting information; don’t have the book handy, but went something like
“Take a man, set him down at a table, treat him like an officer and gentleman and then stick splinters under his fingernails and set them on fire, and most of the time he’ll spit in your face while his fingertips burn. But rough him up a bit, show him his dignity means nothing, make him uncomfortable long enough and you’ll get him to talk.”
Sounds like the author may have read of something like this before writing that.

@Firehand: One of the western writers (May be Louis Lamour, Skook) mentioned that when you had a fight with someone and you had them down, always give him the boots. That way you will never have to watch your back. If I recall, Matt Helm was a very ruthless man who knew how to get the job done! We need some people like that.

Always liked the Helm novels, and that was a big reason why: get the job done, with whatever level of nastiness needed.