Have you heard of Ishmael? He is the bogeyman of Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen.
In his column today, Cohen says that Ishmael, a fictionalized "terrorist or a suicide bomber or anything you want" who the U.S. will capture one day, won't talk because the Obama administration has outlawed the use of waterboarding and other abusive "enhanced" interrogation techniques.
He knows the new restrictions. He knows the new limits. He may even suggest to his interrogators that their jobs are on the line -- that the Justice Department is looking over their shoulders. The tape is running. Everything is being recorded. He is willing to give up his life. Are his interrogators willing to give up their careers? He laughs.
The implication is that the U.S interrogator - who sits across the table from this trained killer - can do nothing (but maybe cry) when the terrorist laughs.
The reality is that U.S. interrogators in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo and elsewhere face thousands of real-life Ishmaels every day and they consistently get them to talk without abusing them.
Here are three real life examples that I hope Cohen (and others who are interested) will look into:
(1) The capture of Saddam Hussein
Eric Maddox, a former Army Staff Sergeant, spearheaded the effort to catch the most wanted man in Iraq. When he arrived in Iraq in July of 2003, he had never done an interrogation. Six months later he interrogated the man who was principally responsible for Saddam's security and he got him to reveal the location of the spider hole where the former Iraqi President was hiding within a matter of hours. Along the way he "broke" at least nine key insurgent leaders, using entirely legal techniques. He even has a book out describing how he did it - Mission Black List #1.
"There is nothing intelligent about torture," says Maddox. "If you have to inflict pain then you have lost control of the situation, the subject and yourself."
(2) The hunt for Al Zarqawi, the former head of Al Qaeda in Iraq
When Matthew Alexander (a pseudonym) began interrogating a cleric who used to bless Al Qaeda suicide bombers, the cleric told him that he wished he had a knife so that he could cut Alexander's throat. Three days later he willingly gave up info that set Alexander and his team on the path to find Zarqawi. Alexander, like Maddox, has been able to seduce senior level Al Qaeda leaders into talking to him about sensitive information hours after he begins an interrogation. Alexander's techniques are also described in a book that he wrote about the hunt for Zarqawi: How to Break A Terrorist.
"The former administration never brought Osama bin Laden to justice," says Alexander. "Our best chance to locate him would have been through Khalid Sheikh Muhammed or Abu Zubaydah had they not been waterboarded."
(3) Interrogations of Japanese soldiers during WWII I chose this as a third example to show that this is not new. Generations of U.S. interrogators have been questioning hardened detainees and getting answers without resorting to abuse.
The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) recently published a study that reminds us that the most effective U.S. interrogators during WWII resisted the temptation to view their detainees as fanatical animals who should be brutalized. The same study catalogues efforts by three U.S. interrogators during the Vietnam War who treated their hard-core prisoners humanely and got them to talk. Check out: Interrogation: World War II, Vietnam and Iraq.
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I have talked to Maddox, Alexander and COL Stu Herrington (one of the interrogators profiled in the DIA study). They all agree that torture can "work" in the sense that you can waterboard a detainee and he may talk. He may even tell you the truth.
Alexander says, "anything can work." He used to give a milkshake to a young kid whose dad used to bring him to suicide bomb Al Qaeda planning sessions. They'd drink their milkshakes and the kid would tell him who was involved and where they used to meet. Anything can work.
But they all say that the percentages are not on your side if you use waterboarding. "These are determined people," Joe Navarro, a former FBI interrogator explained to me once. "You think that if you rip their fingernails out or dunk them under water, they will all of a sudden change their minds and tell you everything? That's not how it works."
As we all know, torture leads to all sorts of larger problems. It undercuts the morale of your own force. It creates diplomatic hurdles. And it has been used as an extraordinary recruitment tool by the opposition. Intelligence officers who served in Iraq report that after the revelations of Abu Ghraib they often found pictures of U.S.-induced torture in the pockets of the foreign fighters they picked up on the battlefield.
Why would U.S. interrogators choose to use techniques that cause so much harm when other techniques have proven to be so much more effective?
If and when we do pick up the next Ishmael, I hope that the interrogator who questions him took the time to read Maddox's and Alexander's books and not just Richard Cohen.
David Danzig is the Deputy Program Director at Human Rights First.