There is no getting around it, writes Chris Mackey, a former U.S. Army interrogator. When one group of people has complete control over another, the tendency is to abuse them.
That is the warning in his recently published book, "The Interrogators," co-authored by Greg Miller of the Los Angeles Times. Mr. Mackey tells how he and the interrogators he supervised at U.S. military bases in Afghanistan avoided abusing the prisoners in their care, even though their job was to get the most information in the shortest possible time - enemy plans or arms that could be used against Americans.
That meant quickly discarding gentler tactics. Without in his opinion ever violating the Geneva Conventions against mistreatment of prisoners, his interrogators resorted to deceit, trickery and what he calls "monstering:" up-in-the-face intimidation. It was fear, he writes, rather than physical abuse, that got a prisoner talking. Sometimes it was simply humane treatment.
But the talk is only a beginning, he writes. "Interrogators find tiny bits of the truth, fragments of information, slivers of data. We enter a vast desert, hundreds of miles across, in which a few thousand puzzle pieces have been scattered. We spend weeks on a single prisoner to extract only a single piece - if that."
And guerrilla warfare, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, presents many more puzzles than usual, says Ray McGovern, a longtime CIA analyst now retired. The enemy operates in great secrecy. "The need to know principle is always observed," he says. "When you have an operation like this, only a handful - perhaps only two or three people - know about it. So the prospect of having a detainee who knew about an operation somewhere else is very, very remote."
Prisoners of war, says Mr. McGovern, are only a part of the mosaic of intelligence. Much more is needed to form a true picture of enemy intentions. "You get intelligence professionals who are empowered to speak out without fear or favor, people who will wrap up all the information from satellites, from intercepted communications, from detainees certainly, from defectors, and then look at the photos and look at the intercepts and come up with a fairly all-sourced description of what the estimate is."
Chris Mackey, who should know, says interrogating prisoners is one of the most thankless jobs in the U.S. military, a traditional villain in Hollywood films. The pressures on interrogators are immense, says Brian Linn, director of the Military Studies Institute at Texas A&M University. "The information they have is only valuable if given immediately," he says, adding "It will not be valuable in three or four days when the bomb has gone off or the guerrilla unit has moved. So then you have an officer or a soldier with a dilemma. Do they follow the required rules, which will not divulge that information, or do they break the rules and use force - or torture - to get that information?"
Contrary to conventional opinion, says Mr. Linn, torture can work and will be applied unless suppressed. That was the problem at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and elsewhere. "They did not have a whole system to deal with these prisoners. So they did not make it easy for people not to abuse prisoners. What they did instead was exactly the opposite." He contends "They made it very easy for people to abuse prisoners. You can give all the orders you want. But it is far better to give one or two orders and have in place a system that allows people to avoid the temptation to abuse prisoners."
Interrogators were already inclined to be harsh, writes Mr. Mackey: "Most of the interrogators truly detested the prisoners they faced and saw them as complicit in the 9/11 attacks. Deep down, most of us found motivation in this antipathy, saw our jobs as opportunities to exact a small measure of revenge."
Yes, says Mr. Mackey, torture can succeed at times: "If a prisoner will say anything to stop the pain, my guess is he will start with the truth."
But that is not the point, adds the author: "The reason the United States should not torture prisoners is not because it doesn't work. It is simply because it is wrong. It dehumanizes us, undermines our cause and over the long term breeds more enemies of the United States than coercive interrogation methods will ever allow us to capture."