Would a better prepared U.S. have used torture?
COMMENTARY | May 18, 2009
Did a lack of trained interrogators with appropriate language proficiency lead Bush administration officials to embrace torture as a 'short cut'? A former dean at the Defense Language Institute writes that America was unprepared to wage a patient and savvy war of counterintelligence against Al Qaeda – which may have made less humane and less effective methods seem like an attractive option. Seventh in a series of articles calling attention to the things we still need to know about torture and other abuses committed by the Bush administration after 9/11.
By William J. Astore
In a letter dated May 10, 2007, General David H. Petraeus wrote to American troops serving in the Multi-National Force in Iraq:
Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy. They would be wrong. Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary. Certainly, extreme physical action can make someone “talk;” however, what the individual says may be of questionable value.
Petraeus’s directive to the troops was unequivocal: Besides being illegal, torture is counterproductive, unnecessary, and generates “intelligence” of dubious reliability.
Evidence suggests the U.S. military was telling the Bush Administration these cold, hard facts all along. Why then did George Bush and Dick Cheney approve torture under the guise of “enhanced interrogation techniques”?
To answer this question, I think we need to remember not only the immense pressure the Bush Administration was under in 2002 (the events of 9/11, after all, occurred on their watch), not only their idée fixe for a settling of accounts with Saddam Hussein and Iraq, but also America’s lack of preparedness to wage a patient and savvy war of counterintelligence against Al Qaeda.
I witnessed this indirectly at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC), where I served as the Associate Provost/Dean of Students from 2002 to 2005. Clearly, the U.S. lacked translators, interpreters, and especially trained military interrogators. I recall interrogators being pulled from assignments at DLIFLC and reassigned to operational tours in the Middle East and Central Asia; the problem was that their language proficiency was often in Chinese or Korean or a Romance language – not, as one might expect, in Arabic, Pashto or Dari.
Few people understand how long it takes to produce a skilled military interrogator. Attaining basic language proficiency in Arabic takes nearly 18 months of constant training at DLIFLC. But attaining mastery of the language and the culture – the acuity and sensitivity to interrogate a suspect who’s deliberately trying to mislead you – takes years and even decades of study and practice. From 2002 to 2005, it may be that our country simply didn’t have enough skilled and disciplined interrogators to take the indirect approach.
Torture, I’m suggesting, wasn’t used because of a simple Machiavellian calculus of “the ends justify the means.” Rather, we lacked the most humane and most effective means to attain the ends that the Bush Administration so desperately wanted – “actionable intelligence” that could prevent yet another 9/11 from occurring on their watch. So they deployed “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which carried with them not merely the risk but the certainty of excesses and mistakes.
As investigators look more closely at America’s resort to torture, they should ask if we decided to go rough because we couldn’t go smooth. Because we lacked the language and cultural skills to play good cop, we played bad cop as a short cut. The problem, of course, is that short cuts are habit-forming. And in the name of results, they often sacrifice the essential for the expedient. In the case of the Bush Administration, not only did torture apparently provide unreliable intelligence: It also abrogated America’s fidelity to international treaties that forbade torture, and compromised our own ethos of truth, justice, and the American way.
Here, the lessons of the French in Algiers continue to resonate. Think back to the revelations of General Paul Aussaresses in 2001, which scandalized France. Aussaresses unrepentantly confessed that, in attempting to suppress terrorism in Algeria in the 1950s, detainee abuse, torture, even murder became routine, first-choice, approaches. The resort to torture simply begat more torture.
Investigators should look at whether this dynamic also applied to America in Afghanistan and Iraq. How many of our counterterrorist experts became like General Aussaresses: Self-perceived patriots who believed torture and even murder were justified in the name of protecting the state? After all, if the state’s essential purpose is to protect its citizens, and you’re dealing with an enemy that’s malevolently contumacious, as Al Qaeda appeared to be, what’s to stop avowed “patriots” from torturing suspects, especially when the state’s leaders have authorized harsh techniques and are pressing you for results?
Patriotism, it’s been said, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. Is torture the last refuge of the impatient and the incompetent? If so, how do we instill patience and competence? Of the hundreds of billions we spend on national defense each year, surely we should dedicate more funding to training and retaining skilled and disciplined military interrogators. Counterterrorism succeeds or fails based on human intelligence (HUMINT). But to get the most reliable HUMINT, we have to be able to outsmart our foes. And the best way to do this is to treat them as humans, not as vessels to be beaten until they voice the echoes of our worst fears.