A report by the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee has revealed additional details about the military and the CIA's treatment of terror suspects. Some harsh interrogation techniques were borrowed from a program designed to toughen up U.S. soldiers who might be captured themselves.
In the early days of the war on terror, Army officials dispatched Stuart Herrington to the then-new facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or Gitmo, to assess the detention and interrogation of suspected terrorists. A retired career military intelligence and interrogation officer, he had the special skills needed to judge the situation.
In a telephone interview with VOA, Colonel Herrington labels what he found in March 2002 as amateur night.
"When I was there the techniques I faulted were the overall approach that one size fits all, these are the worst of the worst, they wouldn't be here if they weren't trained killers, and the key thing is to show them who's in charge. I mean, it was overall just the scenario from hell with respect to my perspective as a professional intelligence officer and interrogator," he said.
Almost two years later, he was sent on a similar fact-finding mission to Iraq to look at interrogations at Abu Ghraib prison and the Iraq Study Group's detention facility. He says his recommendations that a softer approach would yield more useful information appear to have been ignored.
"What I found out in Iraq was, whatever I had advised and said on Gitmo certainly hadn't made it to Iraq. The situation in Abu Ghraib, the situation in the Joint Task force that was supplying 'guests' [prisoners] to the ISG [Iraq Study Group] facility showed me that they were on the wrong track," he said.
Colonel Herrington's efforts to draw attention to abusive interrogations are part of the 232-page Senate Armed Services Committee's report. The report in some respects parallels the memos released last week detailing the Bush Administration Justice Department's legal justifications for harsh interrogations. According to the report, both the military and the CIA were ramping up coercive interrogation techniques at least eight months before receiving legal justification to do so.
The report lays out how the military took a program designed to help American soldiers prepare for their own potential capture and in effect reverse engineered it to use the techniques on terrorist detainees. The program, called Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape, or SERE subjects soldiers to stress positions, sleep deprivation, and the method of simulated drowning called waterboarding.
Colonel Herrington says that while he did not witness some of the more abusive techniques, he could see as an interrogation professional that a more aggressive approach was being pushed from higher up the chain of command - especially when his own recommendations were ignored.
"It dawned on me that the reason that things were so off track was that there had obviously been a senior-level wrong-turn policy taken, and the reason I was seeing the things that I was seeing was that people like me and other professional interrogators who had interrogated for their careers, the kind of advice that we would give to senior leadership on how to handle these al-Qaida types and Taliban types was antithetical to what they had decided on their own through some divine intervention burst of light - i.e., take off the gloves and basically go down the road of brutalizing prisoners," he said.
Some former officials, including former CIA chief Michael Hayden and Vice-President Dick Cheney, have defended the harsher interrogation methods because, they say, they work. They say information revealed in those interrogations foiled terrorist plots.
Colonel Herrington labels that a myth, saying that coercive interrogation can actually be counterproductive.
Mike Ritz, a former Army interrogator who has both undergone and conducted SERE training, agrees.
"Is there any sort of measurement as to what happened? Did it work? I think a lot of people thought that waterboarding was okay once the CIA said, well, when we did it, this guy spilled his guts. And so people said, well, if it works, maybe it's not so bad, maybe the ends justify the means type of thinking. And I question that," he said.
President Obama has said CIA officers who engaged in abusive interrogations will not be prosecuted, but he has not ruled out prosecution of those who gave orders or justifications to do so. The potential for criminal prosecution of those who approved of the procedures has provoked a strong backlash from defenders of the harsh techniques, who say they have uncovered information that prevented terrorist attacks.