Like many people, I was a little startled to see a hood on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. I was immediztely cynical, after post-election cover stories that left the administration line unchallenged -- let alone that love letter to Rick Santorum. I flinched: "What are they going to do now?" I calmed when I saw they'd brought in Joseph Lelyveld, a giant who's been doing masterful work since around the time I was born. I wish I felt it had the power of its parts.
Lelyveld has produced an interesting, oddly subdued meditation on torture. "Interrogating Ourselves" asks a complex, if rather sexy, question: what is and is not kosher in interrogation of suspects who've been identified as terrorists? After a brilliant opening that combines a short history of the legal and political contexts (for the latter, see Katherine's explication in her comments from Body and Soul), and lays out many of the questions whizzing around his topic, Lelyveld works like a jeweler urging all the facets of a diamond into view. Except that he does it by shattering the diamond, and holding up each shard for us to see.
Many of the fragments thus created are true jewels. Lelyveld exhibits a high level of trust in the reader by leaving each aside as he goes on to the next: it's our job to decide what we think of it all. But I kept hoping that he would bring them more closely together, and not leave behind the factual circumstances that spur his explorations, as he sits down with lawyers, interrogators, military officials, and even human rights activists.
For example, he acknowledges that
it's striking how often the hard men who make the hard decisions to fight it out in the shadows snatch the wrong people, then fail to follow through. Only after a new commanding officer had arrived and official inquiries had issued their reports did we learn that 40 percent of those penned up at Guantanamo never belonged there in the first place. At Abu Ghraib in Iraq, the record was even worse: two-thirds of the detainees were eventually said to have been innocent of terrorist links. At least when they were picked up. Who knows what leanings they developed or links they forged during and after their interrogations?
This question is barely touched for most of the rest of the article, even as he goes on to discuss what he calls "torture lite:"
These methods are variously known as C.I.D. (for ''cruel, inhuman and degrading'' treatment) or H.C.I. (for ''highly coercive interrogation''); or, in blander Pentagon-speak, ''counterresistance strategies'' (ranked in order of severity in two groups, Class II and Class III); or ''professional interrogation techniques,'' to use the postmodern gloss recently offered by the director of Central Intelligence, Porter J. Goss, to describe ''waterboarding'' (a refinement of the ancient practice of water torture, with which American troops first experimented a hundred years ago on Philippine insurgents). All these terms are sometimes loosely subsumed in opinion articles under the heading ''torture lite'' (though you might wonder what's so ''lite'' about waterboarding). None of them would be remotely legal in an investigation of an American on American soil.
If the last sentence is true, and nearly half your detainees may have no or negligible connections to violence against the U.S. or civilians, how can any of the policymakers he talked about find room to justify them? Why isn't this point revisited as he learns what many professionals in the field now, that skill and creativity can yield answers more readily, if not more quickly, than sleep deprivation and sexual humiliation?
When the prisoner is important enough and the interrogator has time to invest in the subtle task of undermining his resolve, the best practitioners perform like accomplished actors fully inhabiting their roles. Recounting their successes, they show some of the same dramatic flair. Chatting in a lounge of a Tel Aviv hotel, a former chief interrogator of the Israeli security agency, Shin Bet, briefly acted out his part in order to make the point that violence was seldom necessary. It can be enough to just lay the latest Amnesty International report on the table, he said, drumming his fingers in pantomime on the imagined document. ''Have you read this?'' he said as if speaking to a detainee. ''It tells the sort of things we can do.'' Dramatic pause. ''And it doesn't include the answers of those who were afraid to speak to Amnesty International.'' Second dramatic pause, meaningful stare, husky whisper. ''Or the answers of those who can no longer speak.''
In the telling of the former chief interrogator -- who insisted that he be identified only by his initials, H.B.A. -- an interrogation was a contest of brains, of personalities. An unequal contest, by definition: one party determines the rules and may change them at any moment -- manipulation in pursuit of a moral end, saving lives (even if an archly implied threat is, strictly speaking, illegal under international law that's formally accepted by both Israel and the United States).
A celebrated former station chief for the C.I.A. reminisced at his Washington club about a series of interrogations in Khartoum, Sudan, nearly two decades ago in which a recalcitrant Libyan agent was eventually coaxed into giving up a full accounting of the apparatus in which he'd worked. All it took was the painstaking deconstruction, bit by bit, of the prisoner's worldview. This was done by giving him a peek at unpredictable intervals, as if by accident, at Arabic newspapers portraying conditions of unrest and then revolt in Tripoli, leading finally to a front page that bannered the death of Qaddafi and the collapse of the regime. The prisoner had no way of knowing that the papers had been specially printed by the agency for his eyes only. So he drew the intended conclusion that there was no one left to whom he owed allegiance except his friendly interrogator. Start to finish, I was told, the interrogation took the better part of a year.
Jack Cloonan, a recently retired F.B.I. agent with a reputation for uncanny success in conveying a sense of warm, fatherly protectiveness and concern to suspects he encountered, acted out for me his first moments with Abdel Ghani Meskini, a young Algerian living in Brooklyn, where he specialized in credit-card fraud. Meskini had been assigned a role in the so-called millennium plot to explode a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport on or about Jan. 1, 2000. Cloonan began by asking the man whether he'd had a chance to pray; he then indicated the direction of Mecca. Next he asked whether the prisoner had been served halal food. Then the agent inquired softly after his parents and the concern they must now be feeling for the welfare of their son. Soon Meskini had relaxed to the point that Cloonan, sliding into the role of surrogate father, could start guiding him to a conclusion about what his real father would want him to do in this predicament: help the investigator prevent bloody carnage in the hope that he could be reunited one day with his family. The would-be terrorist was not immune to a soft approach. It took just one afternoon for Meskini to start talking.
The "failed millenium bomb plot," as it was called by the authors of the August 2001 "Bin Laden Determined to Strike" memo, is the clearest example we know of of that "ticking bomb scenario" so beloved by advocates of changing the rules of the game -- a discussion that started even before September 11 and accelerated furiously afterward. Yet Lelyveld's reporting suggests that even when that scenario exists, a skilled interrogator can often get the information they want.
He then turns to the country that often cited by the pro-torture crew as an example: Israel. Yet Israeli interrogators form much of his evidence that even "torture lite" produces not information, but disinformation desired by some commanders:
If I pressed my question about violence in these and other conversations, the almost invariable answer, as if learned by rote in the same school, was that too much violence produced unreliable information because people will say anything, admit to anything, as a way of gaining surcease from unbearable pain. Torture, in other words, is a useful tool for gaining confessions when the facts are deemed not to matter. (Or as a former political prisoner I knew in South Africa said to me, making the same point as he recounted his own experience of electric-shock torture, ''You'll have to prepare many yeses.'')
Only occasionally did I hear examples cited of what might be termed, if you can stomach neutral language, the efficacy of torture. There's the case of Abdul Hakim Murad, an Arab living in Manila who was picked up and reportedly tortured by Philippine interrogators who, so the story goes, inserted burning cigarettes into his ears. That, it's sometimes said, led to the foiling of Operation Bojinka -- a 1995 plot to set off bombs on 11 passenger jets. It also may have led to the arrest of Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the original attempt in 1993 to bomb the World Trade Center. (Actually, others say the key leads came not from the interrogation but from the painstaking ''mirror imaging'' of deleted files in what's termed ''slack space'' in the hard drive of a laptop captured at the Manila apartment.)
He then describes what he calls "the prohibition experiment": what happened when Israel's Supreme Court ordered a stop put to all "coercive interrogations." After discussing some horrific human rights violations in the occupied territories, he notes that in 1999, the court "declared categorically that no form of highly coercive interrogation is authorized by Israeli law, that all forms were illegal under international covenants Israel had signed."
A new generation of Israeli interrogators has been trained. Discipline in the ranks and close monitoring of detailed interrogation plans -- characteristics already attributed to the security service -- became even stricter. Most, if not all, interrogations are now videotaped and subject to review. Interrogators always have partners; they are seldom left alone with prisoners. And, of course, they all speak Arabic. The great majority of Palestinians passing through Israeli interrogation rooms may still be subjected to dire threats of actual physical abuse. The ordinary prisoner might still be isolated, deprived of sleep, chilled or stifled by a drastic temperature change in a windowless cell until thoroughly disoriented. But then after some days, he's likely to be put in a cleaner cell with fellow Palestinians. They may tell him they don't trust him, that they're afraid he's an Israeli spy. Actually they're the asafeer, or ''birds,'' the stool pigeons who will coax him into talking. He may suspect as much, but he's so glad to be speaking softly with fellow Palestinians after the shouting, curses and crude sexual innuendoes to which the interrogators frequently resort, he usually talks. The cell, of course, is bugged. No one has touched him. This sort of approach, I was told, is just as effective as the old stress positions, which are meant to be reserved now for extraordinary cases.
''You know what?'' asked Danny Rothschild, the security veteran. ''The results are the same. Which shows you could have done without brutal interrogation.''
Nowadays no interrogator can resort to physical means without approval from on high. Theoretically, this comes only in ''ticking bomb'' situations, in which there's a chance of forestalling an actual plot. If it comes, the permissible duration for the application of the designated coercive technique will be clearly indicated; time logs are then kept, hour by dreary hour, and regularly reviewed. ''It's frightening the way everything is done and reported,'' said Lea Tsemel, a Jewish defense lawyer who specializes in Palestinian political cases. ''It's very professional now.''
Such approval from the security chief for the use of ''special methods'' is a matter of administrative discipline. It has no standing in law. The Supreme Court said so explicitly. Still, the security chief continues to give his approval in important cases, and six years after the court declared itself, no one has brought a case alleging ''cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment'' back to the Supreme Court. The court broadly hinted that its prohibition on coercive methods could be waived in an extreme circumstance if a case were brought after the abuse had occurred. It suggested that an interrogator might then be able to avail himself of the old common-law defense of ''necessity'' -- in essence, that he acted to avert a greater evil. Without any cases, the defense has yet to be tested.
Which brings Lelyveld back to the American scene, but only briefly, for a concluding paragraph that leaves so many of his fragments shattered on the floor. He even suggests that should the U.S. Supreme Court assert, as did the one in Israel, "what's unacceptable in a police station" is illegal on the ground. it might not have the effect many hope for:
.... we're a decade or more behind the Israeli experience. Cases that may lead our courts to confront the issue and decide whether they have jurisdiction are still only in preparation. If eventually some federal court asserts its authority, the government can be expected to appeal. It could be years before such a case made its way to our Supreme Court. Israel, by contrast, upholds a clear legal standard, which it makes some effort to observe, at least more than it did in the past. Is this really a difference? Perhaps only to the degree that the Israeli service is now looking over its shoulder at the court, knowing that recourse to the judges is readily available.
That degree is not inconsiderable, if there's a military leadership that believes in the laws of war. To even suggest that such a judgment might not matter is like arguing that domestic violence laws don't count because they're violated so much in private. And to end without accounting for all that's come before -- the possible innocence of those questioned, the grimace on John McCain's face when he rejects rules to permit "somr" torture, the fears of people who look away -- is throwing away an opportunity. His actual end is so subdued it ends up sounding borderline sarcastic:
Even when clear evidence of the effectiveness of torture lite is hard to come by, democracies threatened by terrorism shrink from laying down the weapon. Should the threat ever pass, we can be expected to repress any memory of its use as we now try to do in daily life while it persists. Then we'll discover how much gratitude or resentment has accrued to us in the places where we've operated, among the descendants of those we've detained.
The geopolitical point, hidden in a hypothetical future, is more like a whisper.
"Democracies" don't shrink from laying down the weapon. It's not even the "hard men making hard decisions" to take military action -- or not all of them. Torture, whether in Iraq, Guantanamo, Israel or on TV shows like "24," conflates police action, masculinity and fear, in a way that makes all of our heads spin. Not to promote the creative tension between the rule of law and authority's need for cheap, easy answers is to degrade your definition of democracy. And not to even mention the racism in the current debate (did anyone talk about torture when searching for Ted Kaczynski? Eric Rudolph?) is to leave us firmly in the realm of fiction, of speculation.
(In the couple of hours it took me to write this, NPR's "This American Life" has begun to broadcast an hour-long documentary on military contractors. I'll write about it later: it's certainly compelling radio, and halfway through it's already raised some of the accountability issues on which I've harped. )