Geopolitical Diary: CIA Directors Speak About Memo Releases
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day.
Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider
what might happen tomorrow.
The Obama administration's decision to release four previously classified memos from former President George W. Bush's administration on now-banned interrogation techniques late last week sparked a flurry of articles and debate over the weekend. Critics denounce the "enhanced interrogation techniques" as morally reprehensible torture and want the details brought to light. But on Sunday, former CIA Director Michael Hayden publicly criticized the White House over the release, arguing that it made CIA interrogators' jobs more difficult. Hayden, a Bush appointee to the top post in Langley, reportedly was one of four former directors — a mixture of Bush and Clinton appointees — to contact the White House last month in order to warn that the Obama administration's decision to release the memos would compromise intelligence efforts. These four directors — Hayden, Porter Goss, George Tenet and John Deutch — are approaching the issue from the perspective of intelligence practitioners. Their argument is that the memos, which specifically detail now-banned interrogation methods, reveal more information on the threshold at which interrogators are legally obligated to stop. Subjects who are aware of these limits, the line of reasoning goes, are better positioned to endure the methods that are used. These methods were hardly the most draconian used — indeed, captives handed over to foreign governments experienced far worse in many cases. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that even these limited methods could be psychologically devastating if applied over time by a skilled interrogator. Former Vice President Dick Cheney has claimed that their use helped prevent a terrorist attack, though details and evidence of that are scarce. Cheney's assertion brings to mind — perhaps not unintentionally — the idea of a captured terrorist refusing to reveal information about an impending and devastating attack on the verge of being carried out. This is great fodder for dramatic television series and movies, but getting to that point is an intelligence-intensive process. A great deal of tactical information on the individual — what he knows, the organization he works for and that organization's activities — is all necessary to get to that point. This is rarely the case in either police work or the intelligence community — and if authorities did have that much highly specific intelligence, the time-consuming process of torture is rarely either necessary or an efficient means of gathering further details. Interrogation is rightly termed a dark art. It is difficult to do well, and takes well-trained and experienced interrogators to apply techniques that compel subjects to accurately reveal information they intend to keep secret. Done poorly, these harsh techniques only compel the individual to tell the interrogators what they think they want to hear — some true, but much made up. Indeed, this was reportedly the case with the interrogation of al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah. False or made-up information is often a problem — even when skilled practitioners (who are very rare) are used. The issue is commonly mentioned in criticism of torture in general. And in the months and years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, this was how harsh interrogation techniques were being applied: with little concrete intelligence on individual subjects specifically or al Qaeda in general out of a nonspecific and highly generic concern about another impending al Qaeda attack. Dr. George Friedman will explore this issue in depth in this week's Geopolitical Intelligence Report.