It’s murky business, but some methods work better than others
Ask veteran interrogators about torture, and they will tell you that real professionals don’t need to use it. They get better information without resorting to extremes, they say. That’s the official line. But the more desperate the war and the more elusive the enemy, the faster that line melts away.
Since 9/11, America has let its interrogation standards slide because it’s hard to get information from religious extremists and insurgents. Yet information is the thing most necessary to prevent guerrilla attacks on the battlefield and terrorist attacks at home. And no matter what anyone says, there is just no attractive way to extract information from people who don’t want to give it. “This is tough, tough business,” as Major General Geoffrey Miller, the new commanding officer at Abu Ghraib, told reporters last week. Here is what the business looks like, separate and apart from the brutality documented at Abu Ghraib prison: since 9/11, according to U.S. officials and former prisoners, detainees under U.S. supervision in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and at undisclosed other locations have been stripped naked, covered with hoods, deprived of sleep and light, and made to stand or sit in painful positions for extended periods. Some have been drugged. Sexual humiliation is not unheard of. Even the Federal Bureau of Prisons has lent a hand in this enterprise. According to a Justice Department inspector-general’s report, Muslim detainees at the Brooklyn, N.Y., Metropolitan Detention Center after 9/11 were physically and verbally abused by some staff members. Meanwhile, there have been at least 32 suicide attempts by Guantanamo detainees, and one of those who tried to commit suicide ended up in a coma. In three cases in Iraq and Afghanistan currently under investigation by the Justice Department, detainees died during or after questioning by the CIA.
None of those techniques are legal under strict readings of international law. The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment is perhaps the most relevant legal baseline, and it was interpreted by the first Bush Administration to mean that detainees should be protected from cruel and unusual punishment. The Geneva Conventions are also quite clear: “Prisoners of war who refuse to answer may not be threatened, insulted, or exposed to any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind.” Then again, the Geneva Conventions also require that prisoners be paid a daily wage. Much of the language is too utopian to be taken literally by most nations at war, and since 9/11 the U.S. has ignored the conventions when convenient.
If such interrogation tactics are legally questionable, are they at least useful? Is there any reason to believe that discomfort, nudity and sexual humiliation actually persuade men to share secrets? The answer is yes—sometimes—but not without great risk. Over the years, the U.S. government has spent a lot of time searching for a “truth serum,” experimenting with electroshock and lsd without success. “Drugs in particular held out the highest hope,” says Mark Bowden, who wrote a landmark story about interrogation in the October 2003 Atlantic Monthly. “But the human mind is more complex than that. There’s no magic bullet.” Over time, most intelligence professionals have settled on tools in the torture lite category. The fbi’s methods fall on the genteel end of the spectrum. “Convicted felons have explained that they more likely would confess to an investigator who treated them with respect,” according to a November 2002 issue of the fbi Law Enforcement Bulletin. The interview should be a seduction, not a showdown. Suspects should be encouraged to explain their crimes as somehow rational. As any cop or reporter will tell you, most people want to tell their story, given the right incentive. Extremists and guerrilla warriors tend to be less malleable than criminals, however. And since the military and government agencies operating abroad function with fewer legal constraints, they take more risks. Last spring the Department of Defense finalized a secret “stress matrix” detailing dozens of tactics that could and could not be used at Guantanamo. The document, described to Time by a lawyer close to the process, permits sleep and sensory deprivation, among other things, under certain conditions. Depending on the personality of suspects, these strategies can be effective, experts say. The idea is to disorient prisoners to the point at which they lose all sense of time, normality and control—to break them, that is. The CIA isolates key al-Qaeda operatives so that the interrogator becomes the only human they see each day.
The Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic-security service, plays loud rock music and ties prisoners in uncomfortable positions for long periods, according to former and current agents. Interrogators tell prisoners their comrades have ratted them out, then leave them together in a cell and tape their conversations. All of this is downright charitable compared with other countries’ practices. Many Arab governments, including the Palestinian Authority, beat and mutilate suspects on a fairly regular basis. Interrogators in other parts of the world aren’t even coy about their work. Says a Philippine government interrogator: “Just the very act of stretching your arms will send shivers among suspected terrorists. Then you can also ask [them], ‘Which do you prefer that I use—this wooden stick or this hanger?’” If that doesn’t work, wires carrying low-voltage surges of electricity can be attached to the genitals, he says.
How do the images out of Abu Ghraib prison fit into the canon of torture tactics? Soldiers claim they were told by military intelligence officers to “soften up” the detainees for questioning. Certainly, putting hoods over prisoners’ heads and stripping them naked would conform to common, if primitive, interrogation-prep tactics. Ilan Kutz, an Israeli psychiatrist who has witnessed military training for interrogations, confirms that sexual humiliation is also a well-known tool. “The idea of interrogation is to break down the person so all his resistance is shot, and then he’ll tell you anything,” he says. “In the process, sexual humiliation is certainly not excluded, sadly. You are leading people to a precipice where suddenly they glimpse their powerlessness. Especially if it’s against their religious rules—if you force a Jew to eat a pig or force a person to engage in sexual acts against his will, it is pretty effective in terms of grinding the person’s resistance to the ground.”
But the trick is knowing when to stop. The behavior of the military police at Abu Ghraib seems to blur into hazing, sadism and mockery. Whatever the motives, says Kutz, the soldiers virtually guaranteed that the inmates would be susceptible to post-traumatic stress—and useless to interrogators. “This is stupidity. It’s not useful. In fact, it’s harmful,” says a former Israeli military intelligence interrogator. “After a man’s humiliated like this, if there was a chance he’d open up, now there’s no way. If there was a chance to recruit him and send him back to the field as your source, now there’s no chance.” Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a visiting professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has studied torture victims who came out of communist China in the 1950s. Under severe treatment, he found, people said what their interrogators wanted to hear. “They come up with so-called wild confessions,” he says. In the 1980s the Israeli Supreme Court restricted interrogators to using “moderate physical pressure” in order to reduce the number of false confessions obtained under torture. But in 1999, after a prisoner died under “moderate pressure,” the court banned the practice. The Shin Bet still justifies its use for “ticking bombs,” suspects who may know something about an imminent attack.
The pictures streaming out of Iraq suggest to some that the U.S. has adopted a culture of commonplace coercion. “If the Army is doing this and all evidence suggests it has become widespread, then there is a very serious problem with the U.S. military and its methods,” says Bowden, who advocates coercion in rare cases only. “They can lay out a 50-point or 2,000-point matrix to try to draw a line, and they will never succeed because there is no way to draw a line between coercion and torture.”
Still, in an interview with Time, one U.S. Army official defended the use of sexual humiliation. The key, he says, is finding the enemy’s psychological vulnerability. In Vietnam, it was cold temperatures. Army special-forces soldiers put prisoners of war in lockers for four or five days, and they lived at borderline hypothermia, he says. In Iraq, cold has been replaced by sexual insecurity. While the official agrees that the Abu Ghraib soldiers were undertrained and undersupervised, he insists that similar tactics—used more carefully—are effective. “When women have power and control over you, that sets the male psyche out of its equilibrium. He’s not dominant anymore. It’s not for the squeamish. But the typical Arab male will do anything to avoid it,” he says. “The overall process is one of humiliating these people. And that is being used to find the people who are planting roadside bombs.”
Today the U.S. military says hoods are no longer used at Abu Ghraib. Sleep deprivation is allowed only with the permission of commanding officers. Prisoners are no longer put in stress positions, says Miller, the current commander of U.S. prisons in Iraq. But Miller also says that sleep deprivation was never used in the 22,000 interrogations he oversaw at Guantanamo Bay, which he ran from November 2002 to March 2004. Other sources who have served at the base tell Time sleep deprivation was used for certain prisoners. So were forms of humiliation: female guards routinely watched while detainees used toilets or took showers, say two sources who claim to have observed the practice.
Human-rights advocates say the lesson from last week is that degrading or cruel treatment is never O.K., not even if thousands of lives are at stake. Says Kenneth Roth, head of Human Rights Watch and a former federal prosecutor: “Proponents of torture always cite the ticking-bomb scenario. The problem is that the situation is infinitely elastic. You start by applying it to a terrorist suspect, and soon you’re applying it to his next-door neighbor who perhaps might know something.”