June 9, 2007


The Tortured Lives of Interrogators: Veterans of Iraq, N. Ireland and Mideast Share Stark Memories (Laura Blumenfeld, 6/04/07, Washington Post)

[I]nterrogators for countries that pride themselves on adhering to the rule of law, such as Britain, the United States and Israel, operate in a moral war zone. They are on the front lines in fighting terrorism, crucial for intelligence-gathering. Yet they use methods that conflict with their societies' values.

The border between coercion and torture is often in dispute, and the U.S. government is debating it now. The Bush administration is nearing completion of a new executive order setting secret rules for CIA interrogation that may ban waterboarding, a practice that simulates drowning. Last September, President Bush endorsed an "alternative set of procedures," which he described as "tough," for questioning high-level detainees. And in Iraq last month, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander, warned troops that the military does not sanction "torture or other expedient methods to obtain information."

The world of the interrogator is largely closed. But three interrogators allowed a rare peek into their lives -- an American rookie who served with the 202nd Military Intelligence Battalion and two veteran interrogators from Britain and Israel. The veterans, whose wartime experiences stretch back decades, are more practiced at finding moral balance. They use denial, humor, indignation. Even so, these older men grapple with their own fears -- and with a clash of values.

That clash, said Darius Rejali, a political scientist who has studied torture and democracy, can torment interrogators: "Nothing is more toxic than guilt, which is typical with democratic interrogators. Nazis, on the other hand, don't have these problems." [...]

Driving along winding, stony roads, past goats and grapevines, James had this advice for Lagouranis in Chicago: "You've got to get up and get on with it -- that's what we did."

James had had no training, but the 18-hour days that made his neck ache taught him what he needed: good rapport, good intelligence, great fear. "Yes, a bloke would get a cuff in the ear or he might brace against the wall. Yes, they had sleep deprivation," he said. "But we did not torture."

Once, IRA leader Brendan Hughes claimed that James had cocked a gun to his head. James does not deny it. "You fight fire with fire," he said, the memory igniting his blue eyes.

He noted that the sectarian killings dropped off: "If it's going to save lives, you're entitled to use whatever means you can." How do you fight bad guys and stay good? "You don't. You can't."

The only interrogation James regrets was of Patrick McGee, under arrest for IRA activity. McGee did not crack, which meant he would go free. As McGee walked out, "he just stared at you," James recalled. "Evil was hanging out of him." James spat in his face. "He never even blinked. It was not satisfying, it was humiliating. I lost my cool."

James stopped his car at the edge of the ocean. According to Greek mythology, a god frolicked on this beach. Vacationers drank iced coffee and oiled the air with coconut lotion. But James seemed to be somewhere else, cloudy and turbulent, in his head.

"My friend once saw a guy planting a bomb," he said. He laughed. "My friend tied a rope around the guy's ankle, and made him defuse it. Now t hat's how to deal with a ticking bomb." [...]

"You have to play by different rules," the Israeli interrogator told an American visitor. "The terrorists want to use your own system to destroy you. What your president is doing is right."

The Israeli, who spoke on condition that he be identified by his code name, Sheriff, recently retired as chief of interrogations for Shin Bet, Israel's security service, which is responsible for questioning Palestinian terrorism suspects. The former head of the service, Avi Dichter, and the former chief terrorism prosecutor, Dvorah Chen, called Sheriff "the best."

"To persuade someone to confess feels better than beating him up," Sheriff said. "It's a mental orgasm."

Sheriff is short and chubby, with thin, reddish skin that turns yellow in the folds when he furrows his brow. He keeps an electric razor in his car so he can shave his head while driving. He wears a cap from the Kentucky Department of Homeland Security.

"Interrogation is a beautiful world," Sheriff said. When Sheriff's 2-year-old was sick and his wife couldn't be at home, he brought the toddler to work and laid him in an interrogation room, on a mattress on the floor: "I put the phone next to the baby and said, 'When you want Daddy, push this button.' "

Another interrogator walked in and exclaimed, "My suspect shrank!"

For Sheriff, interrogation was more psychological than physical. He used flattery on Palestinians who put bombs under playground benches: "You say, 'Hey! Wow! How did you connect these wires? Did you manufacture this explosive? This is good!' "

He played good cop, and bad: "One day I was good. Next day I was bad. The prisoner said, 'Yesterday you were good. What happened today?' I told him we were short on manpower."

Sheriff hugged his suspects, he said, poured them tea and kissed their cheeks. As his former boss, Dichter, put it: "You try to become friends with someone who murdered a baby. That's your job. It's the most difficult feeling." When he came home, Sheriff said, his wife would make him change. "You could smell the guy on your shirt."

But when the pressure mounted for intelligence, Sheriff said, the best method was "a very little violence." Enough to scare people but not so much that they'd collapse. Agents tried it on themselves. "Not torture."

Sometimes a prisoner would accuse Sheriff of torture. He tried to shift the moral burden by blaming the prisoner: "I would tell him this: 'I'm sorry. We prefer it the nice way. You leave us no choice.' "

...isn't Ms Blumenfeld's implication here that the Israeli and the Brit are Nazis?

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 9, 2007 7:55 AM

ER, has had some pretty despicable stuff relating to the war, recently they had a character who was a psychologically damaged interrogator, because he tortured people.

In any event, is anyone else sick of people conflating normal, if controversial interrogation techniques, with those that were the result of sadists who we've prosecuted and sent to jail?

Posted by: RC at June 9, 2007 8:20 AM