Saturday, May 16, 2009

Ali Soufan, Tragedian

Ali Soufan, the highly skilled FBI interrogator who recently broke a seven year silence to assert in the New York Times that his successful non-coercive interrogations of al Qaeda operatives were halted in favor of an ineffectual course of torture, has a playwright's sensibility.

His Senate testimony on May 13 in a hearing on "What What Wrong" in Bush's OLC was a tragic narrative, rife with irony. The plot is simple: a highly successful, ethical enterprise steeped in the finest U.S. military tradition was thwarted in stages by a gang of malign incompetents who replaced it with an untested, ineffective, brutal program that did untold damage to our intelligence efforts as well as to our position in the world.

Philip Zelikow, in his testimony at the same hearing, allowed that the torture program may have yielded useful information but stressed its unacceptable costs. The irony in Soufan's narrative stems from his focus on the torture program's ineffectiveness as interrogation. The U.S. intelligence community sold its inheritance for a mass of pottage. Soufan weaves this core irony out of several strands:

Our tough guys were not brutal enough for al Qaeda:
Al Qaeda terrorists are trained to resist torture. As shocking as these techniques are to us, the al Qaeda training prepares them for much worse – the torture they would expect to receive if caught by dictatorships for example. This is why, as we see from the recently released Department of Justice memos on interrogation, the contractors had to keep getting authorization to use harsher and harsher methods, until they reached waterboarding and then there was nothing they could do but use that technique again and again. Abu Zubaydah had to be waterboarded 83 times and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed 183 times. In a democracy there is a glass ceiling of harsh techniques the interrogator cannot breach, and a detainee can eventually call the interrogator's bluff.
Torture is slower than classic relationship-building interrogation:
A third major problem with this technique is that it is slow. It takes place over a long period of time, for example preventing the detainee from sleeping for 180 hours as the memos detail, or waterboarding 183 times in the case of KSM. When we have an alleged "ticking timebomb" scenario and need to get information quickly, we can't afford to wait that long.
Torture neutralized our best operatives and sabotaged post-9/11 institutional reform:
Another disastrous consequence of the use of the harsh techniques was that it reintroduced the "Chinese Wall" between the CIA and FBI – similar to the wall that prevented us from working together to stop 9/11. In addition, the FBI and the CIA officers on the ground during the Abu Zubaydah interrogation were working together closely and effectively, until the contractors' interferences. Because we in the FBI would not be a part of the harsh techniques, the agents who knew the most about the terrorists could have no part in the investigation. An FBI colleague of mine, for example, who had tracked KSM and knew more about him than anyone in the government, was not allowed to speak to him.

Furthermore, the CIA specializes in collecting, analyzing, and interpreting intelligence. The FBI, on the other hand, has a trained investigative branch. Until that point, we were complimenting each other's expertise, until the imposition of the "enhanced methods." As a result people ended doing what they were not trained to do.
The torture program was outsourcing run amok:
It is also important to realize that those behind this technique are outside contractors with no expertise in intelligence operations, investigations, terrorism, or al Qaeda. Nor did the contractors have any experience in the art of interview and interrogation. One of the contractors told me this at the time, and this lack of experience has also now been recently reported on by sources familiar with their backgrounds.
Soufan's crowning irony is to stress the naivete of those who prided themselves on their cold-eyed realism -- the gang that decided, in the words of the Gonzales torture memo, that the "new paradigm" of the war on terrorism "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."
It was a mistake to abandon it [Soufan's noncoercive "Informed Interrogation Approach"] in favor of harsh interrogation methods that are harmful, shameful, slower, unreliable, ineffective, and play directly into the enemy's handbook. It was a mistake to abandon an approach that was working and naively replace it with an untested method. It was a mistake to abandon an approach that is based on the cumulative wisdom and successful tradition of our military, intelligence, and law enforcement community, in favor of techniques advocated by contractors with no relevant experience.

The mistake was so costly precisely because the situation was, and remains, too risky to allow someone to experiment with amateurish, Hollywood style interrogation methods- that in reality- taints sources, risks outcomes, ignores the end game, and diminishes our moral high ground in a battle that is impossible to win without first capturing the hearts and minds around the world. It was one of the worst and most harmful decisions made in our efforts against al Qaeda.
"To steal a man's soul and give him nothing in return" is the highest aspiration of C.S. Lewis' devil Screwtape, a skilled operative at tempting humans to perdition. In Soufan's telling, the purveyors of so-called "EIT"--those who empowered Soufan's unnamed "outside contractor" (identified elsewhere as the former SERE psychologist James Mitchell) to institute his torture program-- sold themselves, the executive branch, and the U.S. intelligence community on just those terms.

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