The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

CIA Largely in the Dark on Interrogation Tactics?

The Washington Independent is a new online magazine, mostly about Beltway politics. Spencer Ackerman has an intriguing piece on how the CIA had to learn interrogation and torture techniques from Middle Eastern countries after 9/11 has its own staff were largely untrained in them.

But 9/11 changed all that. Despite having nearly no off-the-shelf experience, the CIA was tasked by President Bush to come up with a robust interrogation program for the most important al-Qaeda captives. So the agency turned to its partners for assistance in designing its interrogation regimen: Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia—all countries cited by the State Department for using torture—among others. Additionally, as Mark Benjamin has reported for Salon, two psychologists named Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, who worked as contractors for CIA, helped the agency "reverse-engineer" the military and CIA training on resisting torture for use on detainees. Suddenly, waterboarding, an illegal practice of simulating or in some cases inducing drowning, became an American-administered practice.

I'm not sure how this can make that much sense -- didn't the CIA provide the torture training and interrogations manuals to Iran's SAVAK in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as Latin American dictatorships? To be fair Ackerman briefly mentions the supposedly Nazi-inspired KUBARK Manual, but there was also the 1983 "Human Resources Exploitation" Manual used in Pinochet's Chili and elsewhere. Moreover, the idea that CIA and other US staff were distant from actual interrogation in the rendition countries is not true. Last year I interviewed a senior intelligence officer in a rendition program country who said the Americans from the CIA and FBI routinely walked in and out of the interrogation rooms and detention centers. Not to mention that interrogation and torture does not seem to have been a problem for the people at Guantanamo. One can't help getting the feeling that the people that Ackerman spoke to pulled a fast one on him. The idea that torture has only been used under the Bush administration, while perhaps self-serving for CIA officials with careers that will outlive the administration, is quite laughable. The US, France, Japan and many others have been using these techniques (notably against anti-colonial movements and in counter-communism policies) for a long, long time.

Also read: Watching torture and this book, Torture and Democracy [Amazon], by Darius Rejali, which appears to be one of the more thorough discussions if the issue out there. From the book's blurb:

As the twentieth century progressed, he argues, democracies not only tortured, but set the international pace for torture. Dictatorships may have tortured more, and more indiscriminately, but the United States, Britain, and France pioneered and exported techniques that have become the lingua franca of modern torture: methods that leave no marks. Under the watchful eyes of reporters and human rights activists, low-level authorities in the world's oldest democracies were the first to learn that to scar a victim was to advertise iniquity and invite scandal. Long before the CIA even existed, police and soldiers turned instead to "clean" techniques, such as torture by electricity, ice, water, noise, drugs, and stress positions. As democracy and human rights spread after World War II, so too did these methods.

Also see this interview of Rejali.