What does the report say about American Values..
I was having dinner with a friend the other night and his response to the media coverage of the report was disgust. He stated “it was the first time in my life that I am ashamed to be an American“. My suspicion is that people simply do not think through the impact of what they are saying when they make a blanket statement like that. I can understand the concern, disgust, and anger over the actions described in the report. I can understand being ashamed of fact that these events occurred. These actions may not be in line with what we as a society value, but America has much to be proud of. I am not ashamed to be associated with our Nation in the least. Having read the report in its entirety has not changed that one bit. It is however something every American should be familiar with and make a judgement around weather or not what occurred is in line with or out side of what we consider to be American values.
This is the first in a four-part series in which we will take a look at different aspects of the report in order to allow you to develop an informed opinion on how and why these actions were taken. As I look at the media circus surrounding the release, the production of this report and process by which this information become public, we can see a highly politicized agenda. It is important that we as a society extract the lessons and make the judgement of what we will and will not do when it comes to the treatment of prisoners and detainees. Unfortunately, our politicians are incapable of providing useful guidance on this issue. I find that many people simply have an unrealistic and quite inaccurate idea of both the purpose and the process of interrogation.
That is where part one will focus. The goal is that we can understand the purpose, process and result of an interrogation. It is only through that lens that we can intelligently evaluate the techniques used to get there. Next we will look at the “enhanced” interrogation techniques that were used to understand the potential for utility in meeting the goals of interrogation. In part three, we will look at how these techniques were applied to the individuals we interrogated. In part four we will attempt to evaluate if they rise to the level of torture, consider what the alternatives are, and try to judge if those actions are in line with American values.
Why do we interrogate prisoners?
The purpose of an interrogation is to extract information. The concept that we can simply ask nicely, as if we are having a cup of coffee with a friend is naive. The subject that we are interrogating is typically an unwilling participant in the process. Providing the information we desire is typically a betrayal of their core belief system, their comrades and the underpinnings of their psyche. If we had no reason to need the information, we would not expend the resources to get it. Conversely, if the subject was providing the information freely and willingly, we would apply the process of debriefing, which is more effective in cases of willing subjects and much less resource and time intensive than interrogation.
The value of information has a shelf life. Understanding the networks and mechanisms by which 9/11 occurred was considered critical to the process of preventing future similar events. The shelf life of information is pretty short; especially at the point of stopping an attack. This is what places the element of exigency into the equation. We want information from a person who is disinclined to provide it, and we want it now… Existing interrogation tactics involve building rapport, and cooperating with the subject, etc… It is possible to potentially construct a system that over an unlimited time frame would produce the same result with little or no physical discomfort associated with it. That was considered inadequate to or unlikely to meet our requirement for timely information.
In theory, we conduct interrogation to gather information that saves American lives, helps locate and target our enemies, protects our allies and reduces the effectiveness of adversaries. What level of unpleasantness society will accept, in order to make another human being betray their belief system, is the question we are struggling with. The concept that there are “nice” or pleasant means of accomplishing the same goal is an inaccurate, Pollyanna view of the world. If those techniques existed, and could be effectively employed to produce timely information, we would use them.
Making Human Beings Talk…
The key to successful interrogation is first to get the subject talking. If the subject will not or cannot talk, or communicate in some form, we cannot extract the information we need. Skilled interrogators will lead a communicative subject along an inevitable path by which they will extract the information they desire. They do so by a number of techniques and approaches. These techniques are at times deceptive, unpleasant and psychologically and physically uncomfortable for an uncooperative subject. Ultimately, a system of rewards and punishments is established to condition the subject to desire to respond truthfully to questions. A system of only rewards and rewards will not create the same result.
There are a number of useful conditions that will accelerate the conditioning process. The first is creating an environment where subject is no longer in control of anything, and they feel helpless. Things like food, water, use of the bathroom, light, temperature, sleep, activity, possessions, and others are all manipulated to instill the concept that the interrogator literally controls every aspect of a subject’s life. An interrogator will then use that control to set up system of rewards and punishments that effectively conditions the subject to respond in the manner he desires. With enough time and control, you could condition a human being to do or say nearly anything.
Another psychologically useful tool is the sense that the Interrogator has unlimited resources and time to invest in the process. Ideally, the subject will also believe that the interrogator has no limitations on his behavior. Making the interrogator appear all powerful makes the concept of resisting more challenging, and capitulation seemingly inevitable. The goal is to coerce the subject into believing that the choice not to cooperate has consistent and unending negative consequences. Additionally, he must believe that the choice to cooperate has positive consequences of some sort. The last piece is critical to the process. You want the subject to feel helpless to resist, but not completely hopeless.
To be clear, none of that applies to a cooperative or willing subject who is sharing useful information. That is when the system of reward and more rewards is effective. Non compliant subjects typically require some negative reinforcement to move them in the desired direction.
The military has a published set of rules that apply to setting those conditions, and they are laid out in detail in the Human Intelligence Collector Operations Manual. This is the one time I will refer you to that scholarly journal Wikipedia. A description of the techniques is provided and it is adequate to give some insight into how these techniques can be applied so that we can move on to to the discussion of whether or not the process we actually applied is in line with our values.
The key pieces to take away from the above are that interrogation is conducted to condition another human being to divulge accurate, timely information. Typically the subjects belief system is going to make him consider providing that information a betrayal of his core values. If a detainee is talking, providing accurate information and cooperating, it is in our best interests to reward that behavior. If he is not, the question we are asking is at what point do the negative incentives rise to the level of discomfort (psychological or physical) that it becomes torture?
Is the process of interrogation torture?
Mirriam Webster defines torture as:
: the act of causing severe physical pain as a form of punishment or as a way to force someone to do or say something
: something that causes mental or physical suffering : a very painful or unpleasant experience
By conducting interrogations, we are creating an environment that is sufficiently unpleasant to cause the subject to betray their core beliefs. These are not teenagers acting out. These are hardened terrorists who are every bit as committed to their cause as U. S. service members and government agents are to stopping them. It is difficult, if not impossible for me to consider forcing a person to live in an environment so unpleasant that they are willing to betray their core beliefs, something less than torture based on the above dictionary definition.
The practical question to ask is, is there a less intense means of accomplishing the same goal? Ultimately the answer is no. We do not have a better means of extracting information from an unwilling subject that I am aware of. If there were a truth serum, we would use it because it is much easier. If we could read a person’s memories like a hard drive we would do so as it would be more accurate. The reality is that we can’t. That leaves us with two choices. Forgo information, or create a system of rewards and punishments, but limit the amount of pain and unpleasantness to level that is “acceptable” to our society. Without some level of pain or unpleasantness the system of extracting information from completely non compliant subjects does not work.
What we are debating is the level of pain and unpleasantness that is acceptable? It is not an easy question, and certainly there are many differing opinions. The reason we require the information should not, in my opinion, factor into the equation of how severe we are willing to be in acquiring it. There is a level of pain or suffering we as a society are willing to inflict on other human beings to enhance our safety – or there is not… The exigency of a new or emerging threat, the source of the threat or the character of the actors associated with the threat should not change that societal value. It is a value that we internally determine, and allowing external pressures to modify our internal values is a recipe for failure.
If we accept interrogation as a legitimate means of gaining information, we as a society are accepting the fact that our agents will at times inflict a specified level of pain and unpleasantness to achieve our goals. If we are not willing to establish that baseline, then we should not, and cannot interrogate. If we are willing as a society to do so, then there is one maximum value to which we are willing to go.
The key points in the first article of this series is that in order for interrogation to be effective, you have to create a system of rewards and punishments that result in a desired response. The punishments must be sufficiently unpleasant to cause a human being to betray their core beliefs. The question we are really trying to quantify is what level of suffering are we as a society willing to inflict on another human being to achieve our goals. The concept that we would abandon our values because of a threat, or because of the character of the subject of the interrogation is indefensible. It is not about who they are or what they did; it is about who we are as Americans.
Next we will look at the “enhanced” interrogation techniques. We will look at what they consist of and where and how they originated. We will take a look at the likely impact that each technique may have contributed to or detracted from the process as well. Finally, we will identify some properties of the developed system that both improved and detracted from its success.