Tuesday, May 03, 2005

We Have Ways of Encouraging You to Chat 

In a Washington Post editorial today Eugene Robinson predicts that a generation hence, when history books are written, George Bush will be remembered primarily for his efforts to legitimate torture. Worse yet, Bush will be remembered as a fool -- one who sullied his own reputation, and his country's, for no good reason -- because torture, quite simply, does not work, as the article below attests. Stephen Budiansky's "Truth Extraction," excerpted from the June Atlantic (online, but accessible only to print subscribers; so take out a sub already, willya?), is the story of a Marine who in 1943 wrote down "his own, already legendary methods of interrogating Japanese prisoners of war. More than a half century later his report remains something of a cult classic for military interrogators":

Marine Major Sherwood F. Moran, the report's author, noted that despite the complexities and difficulties of dealing with an enemy from such a hostile and alien culture, some American interrogators consistently managed to extract useful information from prisoners. The successful interrogators all had one thing in common in the way they approached their subjects. They were nice to them . . . .

[I]t is hard to imagine a historical lesson that would constitute a more direct reproach to recent U.S. policies on prisoner interrogation. And there is no doubt that Moran's report owes more than a little of its recent celebrity to the widespread disdain among experienced military interrogators for what took place at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo when ill-trained personnel were ordered to "soften up" prisoners. Since the prison scandals broke, many old hands in the business have pointed out that abusing prisoners is not simply illegal and immoral; it is also remarkably ineffective.

"The torture of suspects [at Abu Ghraib] did not lead to any useful intelligence information being extracted," says James Corum, a professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and the author of a forthcoming book on counterinsurgency warfare. "The abusers couldn't even use the old 'ends justify the means' argument, because in the end there was nothing to show but a tremendous propaganda defeat for the United States."

Corum, who recently retired as a lieutenant colonel after twenty-eight years in the Army and Reserves, mostly in military intelligence, says that Moran's philosophy has repeatedly been affirmed in subsequent wars large and small. "Know their language, know their culture, and treat the captured enemy as a human being" is how Corum sums up Moran's enduring lesson . . . .

Part of why Sherwood Moran became such a legendary figure among military interrogators was his cool disregard for what he termed the standard "hard-boiled" military attitude. The brutality of the fighting in the Pacific and the suicidal fanaticism of the Japanese had created a general assumption that only the sternest measures would get Japanese prisoners to divulge anything. Moran countered that in his and others' experience, strong-arm tactics simply did not work. Stripping a prisoner of his dignity, treating him as a still-dangerous threat, forcing him to stand at attention and flanking him with guards throughout his interrogation—in other words, emphasizing that "we are his to-be-respected and august enemies and conquerors"—invariably backfired. It made the prisoner "so conscious of his present position and that he was a captured soldier vs. enemy intelligence" that it "played right into [the] hands" of those who were determined not to give away anything of military importance.

In his report (written in the form of a letter of advice to interpreters newly assigned to interrogation duty) Moran stressed that he would usually begin an interrogation by taking almost the opposite tack.

I often tell a prisoner right at the start what my attitude is! I consider a prisoner (i.e. a man who has been captured and disarmed and in a perfectly safe place) as out of the war, out of the picture, and thus, in a way, not an enemy … Notice that … I used the word "safe." That is the point: get the prisoner to a safe place, where even he knows … that it is all over. Then forget, as it were, the "enemy" stuff, and the "prisoner" stuff. I tell them to forget it, telling them I am talking as a human being to a human being.
Every soldier, Moran observed, has a "story" he desperately wants to tell. The interrogator's job is to provide the atmosphere that allows the prisoner to tell it . . . .

Moran spoke fluent Japanese, but more important, he was thoroughly familiar with Japanese culture, having spent forty years in Japan as a missionary. He used this knowledge for one of his standard gambits: making a prisoner homesick. "This line has infinite possibilities," he explained. "If you know anything about Japanese history, art, politics, athletics, famous places, department stores, eating places, etc. etc. a conversation may be relatively interminable." Moran emphasized that a detailed knowledge of technical military terms and the like was less important than a command of idiomatic phrases and cultural references that allow the interviewer to achieve "the first and most important victory"—getting "into the mind and into the heart" of the prisoner and achieving an "intellectual and spiritual" rapport with him . . . .

Moran's report had an immediate impact. The Navy and the Marines recruited second-generation Japanese-Americans to teach an intensive one-year language course for interrogators that included a strong emphasis on Japanese culture. James Corum notes that the graduates of this course were among the most effective interrogators in the Pacific Island campaigns of 1944 and 1945: Marine interrogators deployed to the Marianas in June of 1944 were able to supply their commanders with the complete Japanese order of battle within forty-eight hours of landing on Saipan and Tinian.

In contrast, in late 2002 the military's Southern Command had so few interrogators and interpreters that it was forced to employ inexperienced and untrained civilian contractors to perform these jobs at Guantánamo. The officer in charge of the Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center at Abu Ghraib had no interrogation experience himself and no skilled interrogators or interpreters working underneath him. He, too, turned to civilian contractors. Government auditors criticized these deficiencies in early 2004 and noted that several of the firms that supplied civilian contractors had no experience in such work. Yet the shortage of military interrogators continues, and the Department of Defense continues to employ people outside the military for some of this work. "They let a bunch of out-of-control contractors, CIA freelancers, untrained military-intelligence people, et cetera get turned loose under the promise and pressure of getting quick results," Corum told me.

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