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Heather Mac Donald
Every Interrogation Is Not Abu Ghraib
Administration critics focus on techniques the Pentagon has forbidden.
27 January 2005

I am still waiting for the proponents of the “torture narrative” to reveal how they would respond to the following situation:

You walk into the interrogation booth and sitting at the table is a gaunt Saudi chanting Koranic prayers. The safe house in Lahore where he was captured contained dozens of fake Dutch and Spanish passports; phone records showed calls to a suspected al-Qaida suicide recruiter in Morocco. A prisoner in Pakistan has tied the man to Ramzi bin al Shibh and claims he is a major player in planning attacks. Since the Saudi arrived in Guantánamo, he has resisted all questioning, spending the whole time in the booth chanting prayers.

Even if the 16 traditional psychological gambits codified in the Army Field Manual would ever stand a chance on this guy, you can’t even try them, because he drones over your openings. I don’t know how Marty Lederman would respond, but here’s what some interrogators tried to do: break his concentration. Some interrogators would call out random numbers like a football play. Others played advertising jingles to distract him—never at ear-splitting levels. And yes, the Meow Mix theme may well have been one of those jingles.

Call me callous, but my conscience is not shocked. I fail to see how such treatment comes anywhere near to torture or abuse, or how it could possibly inflict psychological damage in the short or long term. If such methods are psychologically lethal, the interrogator is also putting himself at risk, because he is in the room as well.

The use of ruses, such as impersonating Saudi interrogators, also strikes me as wholly innocuous. Since when do we owe an obligation of truthfulness to terror suspects? I very much doubt that members of a group that routinely uses deception and fraud in the pursuit of mass destruction will be psychologically wounded to learn that an interrogator has lied to them. I don’t believe that a foreign terror suspect deserves a higher standard of Boy Scout behavior than a robbery suspect being interrogated in a Brooklyn precinct.

I’m happy to debate interrogation methods, but would prefer to focus on methods that were actually approved. Lederman, however, continues his penchant for worrying about techniques that were explicitly rejected by Pentagon officials. Thus, in his recent post (paragraph 5), he places considerable emphasis on boilerplate language by DoD General Counsel William Haynes that three proposed methods were “legally available.” Lederman does not disclose that in the same sentence Haynes rejected those methods as at odds with military tradition. Donald Rumsfeld accepted Haynes’s recommendation and never approved them.

Lederman cannot believe that U.S. commanders’ failure to set out uniform, unchanging guidance for interrogators in Iraq was the result of a “simple oversight.” Believe it. The idea that military planners had the leisure time to construct some elaborate plot for leading interrogators into abusive behavior is preposterous. A war zone, especially when that war is an insurgency that you failed to anticipate, is not the hushed halls of the Justice Department. The Schlesinger and Fay reports are particularly poignant on the incompetent leadership in Iraq and the Pentagon, a leadership that failed to adjust adequately to this new war environment without front and rear lines, where soldiers without the proper training or infrastructure tried desperately to get tactical information from captives on where the next bomb was going to go off, where the number of interrogators and linguists was wholly inadequate, where military guards were put in charge of detention operations that they had never been trained to handle. Once deployed, the guards still couldn’t get anyone to train them or provide any documentation on tactics and techniques. Meanwhile, the prison population was swelling with an indecipherable mix of criminals, insurgents, and civilians who had been swept up by desperate U.S. soldiers unable to make distinctions within an alien and hostile culture. The prison personnel were completely overwhelmed. At Abu Ghraib, the leadership from Janis Karpinski on down was so abysmal that no one knew who was in command. Sadly, the most remarkable thing about the Abu Ghraib lawlessness was that it was not more widespread.

Both the Fay and Schlesinger reports support my conclusion that the abuse happened in violation of interrogation and detention policies, not because of those policies. Fay: “Neither Department of Defense nor Army Doctrine caused any abuses. Abuses would not have occurred had doctrine been followed and mission training conducted.” Schlesinger: “No approved procedures called for or allowed the kinds of abuse that in fact occurred. There is no evidence of a policy of abuse promulgated by senior officials or military authorities.”

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More by Heather Mac Donald:
Prosecution Gets Smart
New York City’s Crime Disease
De Blasio’s Policing Dilemma
More . . .
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