Friday, January 23, 2009

The Change Begins--No More Amateurs With Dobermans

Interrogators are lauding President Obama for signing an executive order that will shut down secret CIA prisons and place the use of coercive interrogation techniques completely off limits.
"[The order] closes an unconscionable period in our history, in which those who knew least, professed to know most about interrogations," said Joe Navarro, a former special agent and supervisor with the FBI. (Amen brother.)

"Some die-hards on the right -- who have never interrogated anyone -- are already arguing that forcing interrogations to be conducted within army field manual guidelines is a step backward and will result in 'coddling' dangerous terrorists," retired Colonel Stuart Herrington, who served for more than 30 years as a military intelligence officer, said soon after the order was signed.

"This is a common, but uninformed view. Experienced, well-trained, professional interrogators know that interrogation is an art. It is a battle of wits, not muscle. It is a challenge that can be accomplished within the military guidelines without resorting to brutality." (This is absolutely true if the issue is valid intelligence, but if it's more about punishing than intelligence gathering, one brings out the muscle and leaves behind the wits.)

The way interrogation works is largely misunderstood by the general public and some senior policy makers, according to Navarro, Herrington and other intelligence professionals.
"Interrogation is not like a faucet that you can turn on - and the harder you turn, the more information will pour out," explains Herrington, who conducted a classified review of detention and interrogation practices in Iraq for the U.S. Army.
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Getting a suspected terrorist to talk is much more subtle than what one typically sees in the movies or on TV. A new book, How to Break A Terrorist by Matthew Alexander (a pseudonym), provides an inside look at how interrogation can yield more information if it is done humanely. (Again though, this is only true if one wants valid information. Bush and company seemed to be working at cross purposes, infusing interrogation with notions of punishment.)

Alexander developed the intelligence that led U.S. forces to al-Zarqawi, the former chief of Al Qaeda in Iraq. While some were using abusive techniques to try to crack detainees, Alexander used a smarter, more sophisticated approach. He learned what the detainees cared about and then used that information to get what he wanted.

For example, his first big break came when he interrogated a cleric who was an Al Qaeda operative. The cleric said he would like to "slit" Alexander's throat "and watch you die" when the interrogation began. Three days later he gave up critical info that led directly to Zarqawi.
What changed? Alexander learned, through patient questioning, that the detainee had joined Al Qaeda to keep his family safe. The cleric identified key Al Qaeda hiding places as soon as Alexander showed that he could -- and would -- protect the cleric's family. (A professional interrogator understands that under the terrorist is a human being with typical human needs and concerns. How many fathers have chosen to become that which they hate in order to protect that which they love? Dick Cheney and George Bush come to mind.)

Another recently published book, Mission: Black List #1 by Staff Sergeant Eric Maddox, shows how the author, an interrogator stationed in Tikrit, developed the intelligence that led to the capture of Saddam Hussein. Maddox was hunting one of the most wanted men in Iraq. Like Alexander he did not try to "break" detainees by beating them up; he talked to them.

Maddox was an information junkie who patiently interrogated hundreds of detainees and slowly pieced together a picture that led him to Saddam. He also intuitively understood that, if possible, you want the detainees to not only answer your questions, but also tell you which questions to ask. He induced a detainee who was a close friend (and former driver) of one of Saddam's closest confidants to join his "team." The former driver joined Maddox in interrogations. Detainees "broke" the moment that Maddox and the former driver started interrogating them. (Any effective therapist knows this one. Clients tell a therapist by their behavior which are the real questions to ask.)

As Maddox and Alexander have proved, these are the sorts of techniques that work in the interrogation booth. Professional interrogators believe that the president's action not only returned the U.S. to high ground, they refocused U.S. intelligence operations on techniques that are effective. (Moral questions aside, torture does not provide reliable intelligence information. It does however give ample reasons for backlash against our own troops.)
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"The quality and quantity of intelligence we can gather will now begin to increase," said Torin Nelson, an intelligence professional who served as an interrogator with the U.S. Army and private military contractors.

To illustrate how torture can lead to poor intelligence, Nelson cites the case of Al-Libi, a detainee who was tortured and, under duress, gave misinformation about a connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda. (Secretary Colin Powell quoted intelligence gained from Al-Libi as justification to go to war with Iraq.)

Nelson, president of the Society for Professional Human Intelligence, said that he hoped we could end debate about whether or not torture works and instead work on providing interrogators with the training and resources they need to do their jobs effectively.

"The challenge we face does not have to do with so-called 'enhanced interrogation techniques,' " said Nelson. "We don't want those. What we do need is to build a world-class interrogation corps. To do that, we need to pay more attention to recruiting, training, and managing interrogators. President Obama's executive order is an important first step but there is still more to do." (This is so critical. Any untrained PFC can terrorize somebody with a doberman on a leash, but it takes well trained intelligent people to actually retrieve and analyse useful intelligence.)


I've basically thought all along that the Bush administration placed far more faith in electronic intelligence gathering and used human interrogation as punishment and to send a message about how big and bad and tough the US is. Not a good idea. All it really did was pollute good intelligence with bad intelligence and made the US look like a paranoid lawless over grown bully.

The other night my daughter and I were watching an NSA analyst describe the Bush Administration's domestic surveillance. The NSA apparently has the capacity to monitor in some form or another all electronic communication. Filtering programs determine which communications are actually singled out, and then further filtering programs determine which of those communications are actually analysed by humans.

My daughter is laughing and going on about how she and her friends would try to get the system to react to their phone calls. She maintained they could hear beeps in the middle of their conversations. She squealed when the analyst mentioned one of the mega filters was numerous short cell phone calls. Apparently she and her friends have had numerous short cell phone calls.

I can only hope President Obama stops all the blanket domestic surveillance before the whole system is crashed by the millennial generation trying to trigger it. Almost makes one long for the good ole days of Nixon's 'enemies list'.

One other thing I take great hope in is the appointment of George Mitchell to be our envoy to the Palestinians and Israelis. In his speech yesterday, Mr. Mitchell cited his successful negotiations in Northern Ireland. As I mentioned a few days ago, the parallels between these two situations are not just parallels, they are linked energy. Sending George Mitchell to the Middle East is a validation of this energy linkage. If anyone has the expertise and patience to make a difference in this conflict it's George Mitchell. I will be sending him many many prayers in this crucial effort.


  1. Just wanted to say thanks for your daily postings-they teach, enlighten and give me hope!

  2. Thanks acoolmom007. Glad you find it worthwhile. It's supposed to be something of a mission, but I have way too much fun to consider it a mission.