I THINK Dick Cheney has been watching too many Hollywood flicks that glorify torture. He needs to get out of his undisclosed location and talk to the people on the ground.
I’m a former CIA officer and a former counterterrorism official. During the last few months, I have spoken with three good friends who are CIA operations officers, all of whom have worked on terrorism at the highest levels. They all agree that torturing detainees will not help us. In fact, they believe that it will hurt us in many ways.
These are the very people the vice president wants to empower to torture -- and they don’t want to do it.
I have some experience of my own with “duress interrogation.” Back when I was undergoing paramilitary training at a CIA facility in 1986, my colleagues and I were interrogated to prepare us in case we were taken hostage.
At one point we were “captured” by faux terrorists. After being stripped naked and given baggy military uniforms, we entered a CIA version of Gitmo. We were deprived of sleep for 36 hours, given limited rice and water and forced to stand in place. Our interrogators -- all U.S. military personnel -- coaxed and harangued us by turns. Those of us who declined to cooperate were stuffed into punishment boxes -- miniature coffins that induced claustrophobia.
After 30 hours, one of my classmates gave me up in exchange for a grape soda and a ham sandwich.
The lesson of this training was that everyone has a breaking point. But our instructors were not recommending breaking detainees through torture. Instead, they emphasized the need to build rapport and trust with people who had information we wanted.
Two of my friends, one a classmate from hostage school, served in Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Some Americans believe that the suicide attack on the World Trade Center justifies using all techniques to get information from terrorist suspects. But my friends recognize correctly that their mission is to gather intelligence, not to create new enemies.
If you inflict enough pain on someone, they will give you information, but what they tell you may not be true. You will have to corroborate it, which will take time. And, unless you kill every suspect you brutalize, you will make enemies of them, their families, maybe their entire villages. What real CIA field officers know firsthand is that it is better to build a relationship of trust -- even with a terrorist, even if it’s time-consuming -- than to extract quick confessions through tactics such as those used by the Nazis and the Soviets, who believed that national security always trumped human rights.
And that’s the point. We should never use our fear of being attacked as justification for dehumanizing ourselves or others.
Before the CIA gets all the blame for promoting the torture mentality, we ought to note that Hollywood’s hands are dirty as well. In last year’s “Man on Fire,” we saw Denzel Washington give a corrupt Mexican cop a plastic explosive enema. He also taped the hands of another errant cop to the steering wheel and began to snip off digits in an effort to find out the whereabouts of a kidnapped child.
I am not advocating that terrorists be given room service at the Four Seasons. Some sleep deprivation -- of the sort mothers of newborns all endure -- and spartan living conditions are appropriate. What we must not do is use physical pain or the threat of drowning, as in “waterboarding,” to gain information. Tough, relentless questioning is OK. Torture is not.
Thankfully, several Republican senators, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, are defying Cheney’s campaign for a torture loophole. Cheney’s plea to permit CIA officers unrestricted interrogation methods would be the death of the CIA as a professional intelligence service and another stain on the reputation of the U.S.