Wednesday, April 11, 2007

It's a Question of Trust

Earlier this week, Matt Yglesias wrote about the recent cover story in The Atlantic by Mark Bowden that recounts the experiences of the interrogators, and the interrogations themselves, that produced the intelligence that led to the death of Sunni insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Matt makes two excellent points about the contents of the article:

First, that contrary to much of the breathless reporting in conservative circles at the time, the counterterrorism landscape in Iraq was not greatly altered by the death of Zarqawi. If you recall, the National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez had this to say:

I just had a brief chat with our David Pryce-Jones, whose spirits couldn’t be higher this afternoon (in England). He calls Zarqawi’s demise both a “collassal morale boost” for all of us but says it also has “big operational significance.” “When you get rid of a leader, it’s very hard to replace him.” The Israelis have proved this time and time again. And while we'll of course likely see stepped up terrorist attacks in the coming days and weeks, David predicts the enemy there will be severely wounded by their loss.

Ironically, our experience in Iraq vis-a-vis terrorist leaders is not altogether dissimilar to Israel's in terms of discovering that we may just need to prove (disprove?) this axiom "time and again." For years to come. As Yglesias astutely points out, "there are limits to operational counterterrorism." Bowden laments:

Like so much else about the Iraq War, it was a feel-good moment that amounted to little more than a bump on a road to further mayhem. Today, Iraq seems no closer to peace, unity, and a terror-free existence than it did last June. If anything, the brutal attacks on civilian targets that Zarqawi pioneered have worsened.

Matt's next point focuses on the fact that the successful interrogations in the present example did not involve the use of torture or abuse - even as practiced under their more sanitized euphemisms. Rather, the interrogator who broke the case, so to speak, was able to use skill and subterfuge to create a sense of trust with the high value detainee.

The successful results from this approach are consistent with the recommendations found in well-respected writings on the art of interrogation discussed here, and here. One of the articles cited in those posts discusses the work of Marine Major Sherwood F. Moran, whose scholarship in the field of interrogations is considered seminal. From that post:

...despite the complexities and difficulties of dealing with an enemy from such a hostile and alien culture, some American interrogators consistently managed to extract useful information from prisoners. The successful interrogators all had one thing in common in the way they approached their subjects. They were nice to them. [...]

The brutality of the fighting in the Pacific and the suicidal fanaticism of the Japanese had created a general assumption that only the sternest measures would get Japanese prisoners to divulge anything. Moran countered that in his and others' experience, strong-arm tactics simply did not work. Stripping a prisoner of his dignity, treating him as a still-dangerous threat, forcing him to stand at attention and flanking him with guards throughout his interrogation - in other words, emphasizing that "we are his to-be-respected and august enemies and conquerors" - invariably backfired. It made the prisoner "so conscious of his present position and that he was a captured soldier vs. enemy intelligence" that it "played right into [the] hands" of those who were determined not to give away anything of military importance. [...]

I often tell a prisoner right at the start what my attitude is! I consider a prisoner (i.e. a man who has been captured and disarmed and in a perfectly safe place) as out of the war, out of the picture, and thus, in a way, not an enemy...Notice that...I used the word "safe." That is the point: get the prisoner to a safe place, where even he knows...that it is all over. Then forget, as it were, the "enemy" stuff, and the "prisoner" stuff. I tell them to forget it, telling them I am talking as a human being to a human being.

Begin by asking him things about himself. [...]

Moran emphasized that a detailed knowledge of technical military terms and the like was less important than a command of idiomatic phrases and cultural references that allow the interviewer to achieve "the first and most important victory" - getting "into the mind and into the heart" of the prisoner and achieving an "intellectual and spiritual" rapport with him.

Now consider this account of the breakthrough moment in the interrogation that led to the death of Zarqawi:

In his weeks of watching, the American [interrogator known as "Doc"] had noted [the detainee] Abu Haydr’s chronic braggadocio. The Iraqi constantly trumpeted his skills—the black belt in karate, advanced knowledge of the Koran, expertise in logic and persuasion — like a man determined to prove his importance and worth. He spoke little about his family, his wife and children. He seemed completely preoccupied with himself, and he presented his frequent opinions forcefully, as the simple truth. The two men discussed the historical basis for the rift between the Sunnis and the Shia, something Doc had studied. And when the Iraqi lectured Doc on child-rearing, the younger man nodded with appreciation. When Abu Haydr again proclaimed his talents in the arts of logic and persuasion, Doc announced himself out-argued and persuaded.

Their conversation turned to politics. Like many other detainees, Abu Haydr was fond of conspiracy theories. He complained that the United States was making a big mistake allowing the Shia, the majority in Iraq, to share power with the Sunnis. He lectured Doc on the history of his region, and pointed out that Iraqi Sunnis and the United States shared a very dangerous enemy: Iran. He saw his Shia countrymen not just as natural allies with Iran but as more loyal to Iranian mullahs than to any idea of a greater Iraq. As he saw it—and he presented it as simple fact—the ongoing struggle would determine whether Iraq would survive as a Sunni state or simply become part of a greater Shia Iran. America, Abu Haydr said, would eventually need help from the Sunnis to keep this Shia dynasty from dominating the region. Doc had heard all this before, but he told Abu Haydr that it was a penetrating insight, that the detainee had come remarkably close to divining America’s true purpose in Iraq. The real reason for the U.S. presence in the region, the gator explained, was to get American forces into position for an attack on Iran. They were building air bases and massing troops. In the coming war, Sunnis and Americans would be allies. Only those capable of looking past the obvious could see it. The detainee warmed to this. All men enjoy having their genius recognized.

“The others are ignorant,” Abu Haydr said, referring to Mary and Lenny. “They know nothing of Iraq or the Koran. I have never felt comfortable talking with them.”

It was not a surprising comment. Detainees often tried to play one team of [interrogators] off another. But Doc saw it as an opening, and hit upon a ploy. He told the prisoner that he now understood his full importance. He said he was not surprised that Abu Haydr had been able to lead his questioners around by their noses...

Abu Haydr was listening with interest. “We both know what I want,” Doc said. “You have information you could trade. It is your only source of leverage right now. You don’t want to go to Abu Ghraib, and I can help you, but you have to give me something in trade. A guy as smart as you—you are the type of Sunni we can use to shape the future of Iraq.” If Abu Haydr would betray his organization, Doc implied, the Americans would make him a very big man indeed. [..]

“I believe you are a very important man,” he told Abu Haydr. “I think you have a position of power in the insurgency, and I think I am in a position to help you.”

The gator’s job is to somehow find a way through this tangle of conflicting emotions by intimidation or bluff. The height of the art is to completely turn the detainee, to con him into being helpful to the very cause he has fought against. There comes a moment in every successful interrogation when the detainee’s defenses begin to give way. Doc had come to that moment with Abu Haydr. He had worked at the detainee’s ego as if it were a loose screw. All of his ruses dovetailed. If Doc was an important, powerful man— better still, if he was secretly in charge—his respect for Abu Haydr meant all the more. After all, wouldn’t it take the most capable of the Americans, the man in charge, to fully comprehend and appreciate Abu Haydr’s significance?

Byron York makes an interesting observation, though - that while no torture was used in the example discussed in this article, the fear of being sent to Abu Ghraib where detainees believed they would be tortured (based on the earlier examples of torture that been reported in the press), was an effective incentive in terms of motivating detainees to cooperate. Thus, one might argue (as York does), that earlier incidents of torture facilitated later interrogation that did not need to rely on such brutality.

My rebuttal to York would be that even were there no "Abu Ghraib" (or reports of the numerous other locations where Iraqi detainees were tortured by US personnel in Iraq), Iraqi detainees would have cause to fear that they could be abused by their captors regardless. Let's put it this way: absent the publicity of events at Abu Ghraib et al, Iraqis, like all detainees, would assume that every government utilizes torture behind closed doors .

Not only would their experience under the Hussein regime predispose them to such suspicion, but detainees in general are not prone to trust the good intentions of their interrogators. The default setting - exacerbated by the fear and the loss of control inherent in the prisoner/jailer dynamic - is one of mistrust and worst case assumptions. Even, for example, when they learned of the new, reformed policies at Abu Ghraib, detainees remained suspicious:

The well-publicized abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere put all detainees on edge, and assurances that the U.S. command had cracked down were not readily believed.

Later in the article, a similar point is made:

In a situation like the one at Balad, the Task Force had tremendous leverage over any detainee, including [the detainee's] reasonable fear of beating, torture, lengthy imprisonment, or death. While [interrogators] at that point were not permitted even to threaten such things, the powerless are slow to surrender suspicion. [emph. added throughout]

Even without Abu Ghraib, the fear inspired by the utter lack of control and absence of recourse to any intervening forces would be present. Unfortunately, instead of leaving that fear in the realm of vague abstraction and unfounded suspicion, the Bush administration adopted a series of policies that lowered our moral standing in the world by confirming the worst. All in support of an interrogation regime that appeals to our confused notions of strength, while corrupting detainee and interrogator alike, resulting in an intelligence product of inferior quality.

There is a better way.

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