The omniscient “Counter Terrorist Unit” on the television hit “24” is comprised of people who are so consumed with their petty personal problems that they would — were they ever to bump up against reality — fail in every task. In one recent episode the hero forced a suspect to disclose information on an ongoing terrorist attack by shooting him in the knee. Forget Jack Bauer and his idiot boss. Our military and civilian interrogators are apparently shunning tough tactics in an over-reaction to last year’s highly-publicized cases of prisoner abuse. We need to drink a large dose of reality and recalibrate the methods we use to interrogate terrorist prisoners. That reality compels us to choose between doing everything our law allows and failing to get time-sensitive intelligence that can save American lives.
There are three kinds of prisoners we are taking in the war against terrorists and the nations that support them. None — with the exception of those, like the thousands of Iraqis we captured and released — are POWs under the Geneva Conventions. Some are innocents detained in error. Our guys aren’t perfect, and sometimes they’re going to crash into the wrong room, and take the wrong prisoners. Such errors are both inevitable, and permissible. Our people have to be confident that they won’t be subjected to unreasonable second-guessing in these operations.
The second kind of prisoner is the terrorist who is not believed to have information that is time sensitive. He can be interrogated over days, weeks and months, and subjected to measures that will break down his resistance. When the interrogation is over, he can be tried and punished. But what about the third type of prisoner? What about the man or woman who is believed to be a terrorist and knows information that is time-sensitive? Just how far should we go to compel them to tell us what they know?
Wayne Simmons is a big, affable guy who radiates joy at being alive. Which is understandable, given the fact that he was an undercover CIA operative for more than two decades, and — as he tells it — had a 9mm pistol pressed to his head so many times that he almost became blasé about it. He’s been on both ends of some very tough interrogations, and he, like many professionals, is worried that the CIA isn’t doing what clearly needs to be done with terrorist suspects.
A couple of weeks ago, Fox News interviewed ex-CIA agent Lindsey Moran, a supposed interrogation expert. A thoroughly exasperated Wayne Simmons sent me an e-mail about it. Part of the message said, “…it was very frustrating listening to an individual who clearly has NO experience with interrogation under real conditions and NONE with terrorists. It was so apparent that she was soft, by her eyes, voice, answers and mannerisms, that I cringed with embarrassment for her naiveté. Her statement that harsh interrogation of terrorists doesn’t work flies in the face of not only my personal experience but also of what our interrogators are telling us today in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Simmons — like all of us — abhors torture. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do things to terrorist prisoners that we don’t do to people we intend to prosecute in federal court. “If there are people we know, or strongly believe, are terrorists, then we can approach this from a long-term interrogation standpoint, as opposed to ‘let’s take out the sledge hammer and beat him into the ground.” When we really believe there is time-sensitive information of great importance in someone’s head, we need to be able to take interrogation to the next level. That, too, says Simmons, “doesn’t mean taking a sledge hammer to the ‘hard drive.'”
Simmons says these prisoners have to be taken beyond their “zone of comfort.” We know, from captured al-Qaeda training manuals, that al-Q terrorists were trained in the limits of American interrogation. Simmons said, “…we know that in some instances, some of our interrogators have been bright enough to take it past the level the terrorists thought they were allowed to go.” When you do that, you shatter the defensive wall in the mind of a terrorist. The interrogator takes control of the situation away from the prisoner. “And the only way that you will get through to these people is sometimes to make them very, very uncomfortable. That does not mean the bamboo shoots nonsense.…The moment pain is brought into the equation, he then says ‘oh, my god, everything that I’ve been told must be wrong.'” Inflicting pain is not the solution: breaking down the prisoner’s defenses is. Some level of rough treatment, manipulation of the prisoner’s body clock and psychotropic drugs are all legal, and should not be out of bounds. And the prisoner can’t be allowed to know just where the bounds lie.
To solve the problem, Simmons proposes creating a new covert special unit within the CIA. Its existence would never be disclosed, nor would the identity of its members. CIA civilians, given covert status, could operate confidently that their identities — and thus their families — would be protected. The President, by the kind of secret decision directive that authorizes other covert operations, can create such a unit. In the directive, he should limit the interrogations to exclude torture as it is defined by U.S. law and the portions of the International Convention Against Torture which the U.S. has signed. Everything else — everything — would be permitted.
Such a “special interrogation squad” would have global reach, and be used to interrogate the hard case terrorist suspects both in long-term and time-sensitive interrogations. There are obvious risks in this approach, not the least of which is that we have to trust the CIA to largely police itself and prevent and punish torture. Can they do it? Perhaps. Can we afford to not let them try? There are a lot of unpleasant realities in this war. Harsh interrogations — stopping short of torture — should occur whenever necessary. Let’s get on with it.
TAS Contributing Editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery Publishing).