Did Harsh CIA Interrogations Work?
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. On Monday, the Department of Justice released a 2004 report from the CIA inspector general, which reveals details about interrogation techniques the CIA used on terror suspects. It also released documents that describe what those men said about al-Qaida and 9/11 and other attacks, like the bombing of the USS Cole.
The debate that's followed focuses in part on the law, partly on morality, but there's another aspect, too. Did questionable techniques save American lives?
On Monday, former Vice President Dick Cheney issued a statement to the Weekly Standard that said the documents, quote, "clearly demonstrate that the individuals subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques provided the bulk of intelligence we gained about al-Qaida." This intelligence, the former vice president continued, saved lives and prevented terrorist attacks.
Others read the same documents and came to different conclusions. We'll hear two views, but let's put out a hypothetical. Say it did prevent another 9/11. Does that end justify those means?
Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, Nora Ephron joins us. Her hit movie, "Julie and Julia," prompts a new edition of Julia Child's famous cookbook, butter and all. But first we go to our New York bureau and NPR's counterterrorism correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston, and Dina, always nice to have you on the program.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Thanks, nice to be here.
CONAN: So from what we know now, from these memos, did techniques like waterboarding, sleep deprivation, threats and mock executions produce intelligence that prevented attacks and saved American lives?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yeah, there's a simple question. I think that just to be clear, we're talking about a couple of different sets of documents. The first is this 2004 Justice Department inspector general report. That's the one that the ACLU had requested through the Freedom of Information Act. And then these other reports that former Vice President Dick Cheney was referring to are different reports from that. These are actually analysts' reports on what they got from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other detainees.
Now, there had been this impression, as we'd been waiting for all these months for this information, that there would be some sort of smoking gun, something that would prove once and for all whether harsh interrogations work, and the short answer to this is that these reports don't get you there.
I mean, the inspector general, who is sort of the neutral arbiter here, has concluded that, and he says this in his report, that the harsh techniques, quote, "did not uncover any evidence," unquote, of imminent plots. Now, the CIA says the information they got from detainees led to arrests that disrupted attack plans, but they also stopped short of attributing this directly to these enhanced interrogations.
CONAN: Well, what about the Vice - and I'm just going to go back to that direct quote. The documents, quote, "clearly demonstrate the individuals subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques provided the bulk of intelligence we gained about al-Qaida." Is that accurate?
TEMPLE-RASTON: I'm not sure. I think it is. Let me just provide two little details of context here.
TEMPLE-RASTON: In interrogation circles, they talk about interrogation being successful when you can foil a plot or break up a cell or get a detainee to give up his boss. So essentially that means providing information up the chain, rather than down the chain. And one former military interrogator told me that if waterboarding had worked, then Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would have given up Osama bin Laden, and clearly he didn't do that.
Now, here's my second point. I think the only way that these reports could have been the smoking guns that Vice President Cheney made them out to be, they would've had to have included some sort of timeline and exactly what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed said and when, so that you could sort of match up the waterboarding schedule with the information that was given, and these reports clearly don't provide that. So it's hard to tell whether the rough stuff worked or not.
I mean, clearly what we can agree on is that they are not as dispositive as the vice president had made them out to be when he mentioned them.
CONAN: Let's go to another example: a man named Abu Zubaydah and interviewed first by the FBI and then by the CIA. Do we have any idea of what we learned, when, from him?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. This is why he, for the people that I talked to about this particular issue - and admittedly it's gray. Nothing's black and white on this yet. Abu Zubaydah is seen as the litmus test because he has a before-and-after. He was the first high-value al-Qaida operative the U.S. captured after 9/11, and he was caught in Pakistan, I believe. And there was a shootout involved, and he was fairly badly injured before he was taken into custody. And the FBI were the first people who got to him, and there were two agents who basically took care of Zubaydah when he was convalescing. So they did the whole nine yards: the ice chips and bathing him and feeding him soup. And he was aware of what they were doing. So they were using what the FBI calls, you know, rapport-based techniques. They were building a relationship with him.
So when he was well enough to sit up, they start showing him pictures of al-Qaida suspects. And when they get to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who they weren't quite sure who he was at that time, he apparently exclaimed wow, you know who Mukhtar(ph) is? Mukhtar, apparently, was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's nickname, which the FBI didn't know. Now another - so this is through this, you know, regular interrogation techniques.
There's another example. About a week or so later, he, Abu Zubaydah, told the FBI that there was some American kid who knew Mukhtar and had been instructed to get a clean passport and then return to the U.S. for a mission. Now, Zubaydah said the kid was Hispanic or something and was in Oman or Jordan, he wasn't quite sure. So the FBI calls the local embassy and asks them if there's been some American Latino in his 20's who claimed to lose a passport and wanted a new one. They faxed over a picture of that kid. Zubaydah took a look at the picture and confirmed that was him. And that's how they caught Jose Padilla, when he came to Chicago. So this is a pretty good example of rapport-building techniques, getting intelligence.
Now, a short time later, CIA contractors took over Zubaydah's interrogation, and they waterboarded him 83 times, and they didn't get much out of him after that. In fact, at one point, they actually called the FBI back to try to re-establish the rapport techniques with him. And as far as I know, this - Abu Zubaydah is the only example we have of a before-and-after that actually compares regular interrogation techniques with harsh ones.
CONAN: Well, let's bring a couple of other voices into the conversation, two people who've read these documents, too. Frederick Hitz served as inspector general of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1990 to 1998. He joins us from the University of Virginia, where he now teaches at the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. FREDERICK HITZ (Former Inspector General, Central Intelligence Agency; Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, University of Virginia): Glad to be with you.
CONAN: And here with me in Studio 3A is Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer, now senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Nice to have you back on the program.
Mr. REUEL MARC GERECHT (Former Officer, Central Intelligence Agency; Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies): My pleasure.
CONAN: And why don't we begin with you, Reuel Marc Gerecht. As you read these documents, is there evidence that plots were foiled, American lives saved by enhanced interrogation techniques?
Mr. GERECHT: Well, I mean, there's certainly strong suggestions. I think the material is heavily redacted, so it's very difficult…
CONAN: Lots of it is blacked out, you can't read it, yeah.
Mr. GERECHT: Blacked out, so it's very difficult to get the type of chain of events, the type of chain of evidence that would make you comfortable. I mean, there were approximately 3,000 intelligence reports that were produced by high-value detainees of al-Qaida from September 11th to April of 2003.
Now, what would be really helpful is to have those 3,000 intelligence reports so you could actually look at them, review them, see the analysis that was done. The agency made a lot of regular assessments of these reports. It would be good to see those. And President Obama certainly has the authority to declassify anything he wants, and it would be highly helpful if he were to do so, so more people could take a look at these. And I think you could perhaps develop a consensus. Not everybody is going to be happy, but you could develop a consensus of whether these enhanced techniques actually produced high-quality information.
CONAN: But I think from what you're saying, no smoking gun.
Mr. GERECHT: Yeah, I mean, I read them and I can't come away from it saying more than what I knew before, and that is the consensus inside of the director of operations was certainly that they had produced valuable information that allowed them to deconstruct al-Qaida to some extent, perhaps a great extent. More than that, you can't say. It's still a matter of trust, which is not the ideal position to be in.
CONAN: And lacking in some circles entirely. Frederick Hitz, what do you make of this?
Mr. HITZ: Well, I think - I agree with Mr. Gerecht on the issue that there were, apparently, a number of intelligence reports generated from the debriefings from the interrogations, but you have no idea of what the knowledge base was before these reports were issued - i.e., they may have been starting from square one, and they were really just coloring in the most basic information.
The IG, the CIA IG, John Helgerson, who drafted the report, also makes the point that there's no basis of comparison from his investigation as to what would have been obtained had less than fully enhanced techniques been used in interrogation - i.e., the FBI kind of rapport-building that Dina Temple-Raston talked about, and what was used. So again, you're sort of in the dark as to what transpired.
CONAN: Well, isn't that fundamentally unknowable since they didn't try those.
Mr. HITZ: Well, exactly. And so it's not really going to resolve the question. The point - the two points that I would like to make as one with a certain familiarity with the population at CIA, it looks like the IG got into this business because there were those involved in the program who were uncomfortable with what was taking place. And they came to the IG, or they came to the directorate of operations and said, you know, there's some aspects of this that I'm not happy with. I think we ought to broaden the circle. I think we ought to have a look-see. And on that basis, and you can see from the document released on Monday, the DO invited the IG in to see what was going on.
The second part that really strikes me, and the one that bothers me the most, is that the CIA really didn't have any expertise in this area of intensive - enhanced interrogation at all. They hadn't been doing it. And I happened to have been on duty at a time when it actually ended, which was in the context of some investigations that took place in Central America in the '80s and '90s, where we had gotten too close to some enhanced interrogation situations, and the DO backed off completely - didn't want to have any of its…
CONAN: DO, the director of operations, yeah.
Mr. HITZ: Yes. The director of operations didn't want to have any of its case officers in the room if there were interrogations going on that were sort of beyond the limit of the law as we understood it. We also remember the history that goes all the way back to Vietnam.
So essentially, CIA was out of the business of enhanced interrogating from that point on. And they were trying to make up - they were trying to get into the game at this late date and do it on the basis of two-week training assignments of interrogators, and it struck me as pretty feckless.
CONAN: We're talking with Fred Hitz, a former inspector general at the CIA, and with Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer. Also with us, Dina Temple-Raston, NPR's counterterrorism correspondent. We're talking about enhanced interrogation techniques. From what we've learned, was it worth it? This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The release on Monday of the CIA interrogation documents triggered another debate over what constitutes torture, and arguments for and against investigations into who did what. But it also raised a question: What did we learn? Did these interrogation techniques save lives?
We're talking in hypothetical terms today. If it did prevent another 9/11, does that end justify those means? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Dina Temple-Raston is with us, NPR's counterterrorism correspondent in New York, also Fred Hitz, who served as inspector general of the CIA in the 1990s, and former CIA officer Reuel Marc Gerecht, now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. And let's get a caller on the line, and we'll begin with Raymond(ph), Raymond with us from Pontiac in Michigan.
RAYMOND (Caller): How's it going?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
RAYMOND: As I told your screener, I'm a former military police officer, and I served in this war on terror. And honestly, a lot of these techniques that I've been hearing about, they violate our own mandates against torture. And we've found that it's been ineffective to begin with. More so, I find it to be hypocritical and undermining of our vaunted, you know, human rights recognition. It completely undermines us and makes us no better than Iran.
CONAN: The question, though: If it prevented attacks, does that justify it?
RAYMOND: So we become as bad as the people that we say we're fighting against?
CONAN: Well, I wonder if we could get a response, Reuel Marc Gerecht?
Mr. GERECHT: Well, I mean, I think most of us would agree that we don't like, and we would strongly oppose, Dirty Harry techniques of any type if we were talking about the life of just one child. But when you're talking about mass-casualty terrorism and the death of hundreds or thousands of innocent Americans, of women or children, I suspect a much larger number of us would be quite willing to pour water over the nose or mouth of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
So the issue really is here whether we can come to some conclusion if what we saw from 2001 to 2003 was effective. If we determine, as a consensus, and there's not going to be complete agreement, obviously, that it was effective, then I think that sort of reworks the entire moral discussion. If we conclude the opposite, the same things happens. I think we can all say goodbye to enhanced interrogation, probably forever.
CONAN: Fred Hitz?
Mr. HITZ: I think I agree with that latter point. I'm not so sure on the former. That is, if we see that, in fact, the information gained through enhanced interrogation techniques had some value, saved some lives, that's very important. I still think it's important to know the answer to the question that Mr. Helgerson put. We don't really know whether that information and more might have been obtained by using more-positive means of interrogation, a la Zubaydah, when he was under the control of the FBI in the beginning. And that really makes the argument.
Finally, I see one of the things that's sort of hanging over us is the whole notion of a small amount of time, the situation that is captivated week after week in "24," where you have a situation where an enormous tragedy is going to happen unless immediate action takes place. The way I look at that is that situation is not justiciable. That's not subject to sort of human evaluations. It gets thrown into the category of you do what you have to do.
If you think you've got somebody in front of you who has dispatched a suicide bomber, you don't know where, and you don't know when the bomb is set to go off, you're going to do everything you have to do to get that person to talk. But when you're dealing with that situation, most of those who have looked into it have found that it occurs in an infinitesimally small amount of times. The heavens don't align that way as a normal matter so that you're not talking about this sort of ultimate question: If you could take action that would save 1,000 lives, would you or wouldn't you do it, irrespective of what the standards are?
And I think by overdramatizing that particular issue, we forget what is more likely to be the garden-variety kind of situation where, frankly, if you know what you're about, and you can work to get the prisoner to cooperate with you, you're better than waterboarding him 183 times.
CONAN: Raymond, thanks for the call.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Hey Neal, may I jump in just for a second here?
CONAN: Dina Temple-Raston, go right ahead.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You know, this is always called the ticking-time-bomb scenario that everyone talks about as a way of opening the door to torture. My understanding is that there has never actually been a ticking-time-bomb scenario. It's not just infinitesimal, it's never happened, and that the whole idea of a ticking-time-bomb scenario did not start with "24" but in fact started with a 1960s book on insurgency in Algeria. And it was exactly that, that there was a woman there who knew where - and this is fiction, a novel - a woman knew where a ticking time bomb was, and she was threatened with a gun, and her partner was actually shot so that she would say where that bomb was. And that has just gone on through history as something that apparently could actually happen. My understand is it never has.
Mr. GERECHT: I was going to say, I don't think you have to posit the scenario of a ticking time bomb to nevertheless be in favor of fairly rough tactics against mass-casualty terrorists. The issue, I think, at hand is whether these techniques enhanced our understanding sufficiently of al-Qaida to deconstruct the network and to stop plots, which could have led, as we know 9/11 did lead, to thousands of casualties. If, in fact, you can go in that direction, and you conclude that these techniques, in fact, help you to deconstruct it, and the soft approach, for example with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, proved ineffective, then you have an argument.
We, right now I think, again, are in limbo. And until we see more information, and particularly the raw intelligence that was produced from these high-value detainees who were given enhanced interrogation, it's very difficult to conclude this one way or the other.
CONAN: And there is no dispute, however, about the fact that there were plots, and there were people trying to do terrible things.
Dina, I wanted to get back to you for just a moment in response to this email from Paul(ph) in Oklahoma City about the quote we read earlier from former Vice President Cheney.
Look at the wording, he writes. The people subjected to enhanced interrogation provided information doesn't imply that they provided it because of the torture - what he describes as torture. It says the people who provided info were tortured. You have to read it carefully to see that he implies what is not stated. And there are other people who have said wait a minute, the vice president may be backing off what he'd initially said.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, what he initially said was that essentially, and he didn't use these words, but basically this was dispositive, that once these reports were out, we would understand why these enhanced interrogation techniques were used. And yes, the reports are redacted, but what I find really interesting is that the things that we learned about in these reports, specifically one about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed being the preeminent source for information on al-Qaida, was that he gave up detail about traits and profiles that al-Qaida sought in Western operatives.
I'm quoting from the report now. "He told interrogators how al-Qaida might conduct surveillance of potential targets in the U.S., and he mentioned that he'd been in jail in the U.S." - and I didn't know this before - "for not paying his bills. And that was part of the reason why he disliked the U.S. so much." Now, is this information that is worth that kind of hostile treatment? You've got to wonder.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Stephan(ph). Stephan, I hope I'm - I don't know whether it's Stephan or Stephen.
STEPHAN (Caller): Yes, Stephan.
CONAN: In Eureka. I got that right part.
STEPHAN: Yeah, what I think's missing from the conversation is the private contractors. There's been a little bit in the news about private contractors softening up suspects for interrogation, and that they should be held accountable. And then also just what the person said about the ticking time bomb. We have had a ticking time bomb. Condoleezza Rice got in front of the world and said we don't want to see the smoking gun in the form of a mushroom cloud. And it was a lie, and $3 trillion, 4,000 American lives and a million Muslims later, we're still there.
CONAN: You're talking about the allegations that among the weapons of mass destruction were nuclear weapons that they planned to turn over to terrorists.
STEPHAN: And they already knew that they didn't have them.
CONAN: That's in dispute, but anyway, let me turn back to your other point. Dina Temple-Raston, what do we know about the use - does this tell us any more about the use of private contractors?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, in fact, it's interesting that he brings this up. The Justice Department, as you know, has - Eric Holder has appointed a prosecutor to take a look at whether or not there are some cases that can be brought - criminal cases. And from my sources, what I understand is those criminal cases involve contractors, as opposed to CIA agents, and that there are some detainees that either went missing or that were killed. And they're looking into between 12 and 20 cases that might need criminal prosecution. And I think we're going to hear more about contractors going forward.
CONAN: And that these were, in other words, people subcontracted by the Central Intelligence Agency to conduct these interrogations.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly. Exactly.
CONAN: Fred Hitz, is - in your experience, is that a normal practice?
Mr. HITZ: No. Again, my knowledge of this area has come late in the day. But the notion of contractors getting as deeply into the business of these difficult assignments, these interrogation assignments of the agency is a relatively new thing. And Dina's gloss on what's likely to take place makes some sense to me.
My point is that I think the president started off on a very strong footing, saying he was not going to prosecute CIA interrogators who had operated within the four corners - that's a legal term - of the torture memos that were handed out by the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice, leaving really open for potential further examination whether some of the matters revealed in the inspector general's report showed what was evidence of activity that went beyond that - those particular guidelines. I - as I mentioned earlier, the 123 instances of waterboarding, the pistol, the power drill, that kind of thing.
But it seems to me, as far as I'm looking at it from the standpoint of the institution, justice has to be done if you want to fall back on that particular notion. We need to know. But it just strikes as being utterly absurd that we will go after individuals who were using enhanced interrogations pursuant to guidance from their own government and are now being held up to punishment afterwards. This has happened before in Directorate of Operations history, and what I'm afraid is going to happen, if you continue to make it so that an officer can't be assured that the orders that he's given and follows from his own government are going to be upheld and are going to be used against him at a future time, I don't see how you're going to get good people to do this work.
CONAN: We're talking with Fred Hitz, former inspector general of the Central Intelligence Agency. Also with us, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer, and our own counterterrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Reuel Marc Gerecht?
Mr. GERECHT: Yeah. I was just going to say, I mean, on the issue of contractors, I think it's fair to say the agency was woefully unprepared for 9/11. So was the FBI. And they simply did not have the talent base to handle the flood of individuals that came in that needed to be interrogated and debriefed.
So it's not surprising that they would take on - it's not - contract interrogators. It's not surprising that the agency and the Pentagon would be sloppy. That's not an excuse, but it's something that you would certainly expect in wartime and immediately after 9/11, where we were deeply, deeply worried about what was coming at us.
CONAN: Let's go next to Bill, Bill with us from Wiesbaden in Germany.
BILL (Caller): Yeah, hello. Thank you for taking my call.
BILL: I have a short and small protest, and that is against the word - against the use of the term enhanced interrogation. I would prefer to hear someone in favor of these techniques just come out and honestly say that they are in favor of torture. I would be - much prefer that. But I have the feeling - you see euphemisms, I feel, are very dangerous. I live in Germany. I've been living here for 20 years. And I've been studying German history, as well. And I can tell you that euphemisms are highly dangerous. And I would - I had my little protest, now I've said it, against the term enhanced interrogation. Please come out, be honest, those who are in favor of these techniques, and say we are in favor of torture.
CONAN: Reuel Marc Gerecht…
BILL: That's what I would like to hear.
CONAN: …you've said, in times, these might be justified.
Mr. GERECHT: Yeah. I think they are justified. Now, what I just note - I mean, you know, when in entered the agency, I wasn't waterboarded, but I was certainly frozen, bombarded with electronic noise, confined, not fed any food or water, and was sleep deprived for almost three days.
CONAN: U.S. pilots are sometimes…
Mr. GERECHT: Right.
CONAN: …waterboarded as part of the SERE training.
Mr. GERECHT: Right. Right. Right. There are a whole variety of cadres in the U.S. government, in the military and the agency who have the pleasure of receiving this treatment. I would not describe it as torture. I certainly was very angry at the individuals who were doing it to me.
I mean, I think for those who think this is torture, I think their imaginations and their understanding of history is somewhat limited. And I think the descriptions that you see in the IG report ought to really make you content or at least satisfied that the American government was well aware of lines and was trying not to cross those lines, that they were trying to develop a program of physical and psychological coercion, which was a good deal away from what we would describe or should describe as torture.
CONAN: Dina Temple-Raston, let me ask you. As far as I understand it, the prosecutions that have been suggested - they haven't started yet. But those areas, as far as I understand, going beyond what we were calling the four corners of those memos, the famous torture memos that were put out by the Bush administration's Office of Legal Responsibility and the Justice Department - in other words, those who looked at these techniques would say waterboarding was okay under certain circumstances and then went beyond them.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Right. So, if you're allowed to pour water on someone's face for 20 seconds and you do it for 40 seconds, does that mean that you're going to be in the crosshairs? It's really unclear, and it's a slippery slope. And I don't think that those are the cases that they're looking at. I think that they're looking at cases that sort of border on the sadistic, essentially, that go way beyond what these four corners were. I will say, though - and perhaps one of the guests could answer this, because I'm not quite sure about…
CONAN: We're running out of time here, but…
TEMPLE-RASTON: …is about torture, is - isn't threatening to kill someone against the torture conventions, or the Geneva Conventions against torture? Or am I mistaken about that?
CONAN: I believe it is.
Mr. HITZ: It's against the Geneva Conventions.
CONAN: All right. We're going to have to leave it there. But thanks to Dina Temple-Raston in New York, our counterterrorism correspondent, Fred Hitz, you just heard, former inspector general of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer. Thank you all for your time today. I'm sure it's a subject we will return to in the future.
Coming up: Julia Child didn't just explain cooking. She made it exciting.
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Ms. JULIA CHILD (Chef, Television Personality, "The French Chef"): We're roasting this chicken today, on "The French Chef."
CONAN: And now the woman who made Julia Child's newly hip, novelist, screenwriter and director - most recently of the film "Julie & Julia" -and cook Nora Ephron will be here to join us.
Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.