The Drawbacks of Fighting Terrorism with Torture In a desperate drive to catch suspected terrorists, the United States is using torture and other harsh interrogation techniques. But that can often lead to wild goose chases because of unreliable information generated under duress, the author of a new book says.
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The Drawbacks of Fighting Terrorism with Torture

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The Drawbacks of Fighting Terrorism with Torture

The Drawbacks of Fighting Terrorism with Torture

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This week on MORNING EDITION, we've been talking about American interrogations. And this morning, we will learn more about the questioning of two top terror suspects. The journalist, Ron Suskind examined those interrogations, as part of a book called The One Percent Doctrine.


That book title refers to a reported statement by Vice President Cheney: if there was even a one percent chance of a massive threat, the U.S. had to act like it was a certainty. It was in that atmosphere after September 11th that the U.S. began interrogating captured terror suspects. And Ron Suskind says President Bush took a personal interest in how it was done.

Mr. RON SUSKIND (Author, The One Percent Doctrine): He was interested in a very specific daily and granular way, all the time. I mean, he was constantly asking folks inside of CIA, what's happening with interrogations? Are these techniques working? Can we trust what we get? I mean, the president, the book shows, is involved. Some people say too involved in the granular, day to day, you know, grit of this war on terror.

INSKEEP: You also write that he's impatient...

Mr. SUSKIND: No doubt.

INSKEEP: ...demanding results - understandably under the circumstances. But what was the effect of that impatience?

Mr. SUSKIND: Well, you know, there're two sides to every story. The other side of this is the going operational problem that people at FBI and CIA talk about. To have president so fully engaged, here, creates its own set of dilemmas. As one person at CIA said, it's like a case officer in training with absolute powers. What that means is that the president can seize and send whole parts of the government into often maddening searches, nonproductive searches.

INSKEEP: What happened when the United States government got its hands on an al-Qaida suspect named Abu Zubeida in 2002, in Pakistan?

Mr. SUSKIND: Let's set the scene: it's March of 2002, there's already rising criticism about the failures in Afghanistan, failure to get bin Laden or al-Zawahiri. And at this point, they finally get somebody they can claim is a key player. His name is Zubeida. They capture him, and of course, immediately the president starts to advertise the fact that we've got him: an operational kingpin; a number three; a man, you know, bent on destruction, whose really driving, you know, so much of what we fear.

What they find, though, soon - even though the statements continue - is that Zubeida does provide some valuable information. But, inside of CIA and FBI, he's probably schizophrenic and may be thoroughly insane. And his name had popped up on signal intelligence for years. Ultimately, the conclusions are that though he knows some things, he was kind of like a recruiter-travel agent.

INSKEEP: Not a nice guy, but...

Mr. SUSKIND: Not a nice guy. But here, the U.S. finds itself in the key dilemma. Its statements are thus: we got one of the key players. The evidence inside, is may be, well, he may not be one of the key players. What that disparity drives is a ferocious interrogation protocol for Zubeida.

INSKEEP: What was that?

Mr. SUSKIND: Well, he's shot when he's captured. He's shot three times. Interestingly, we send over some of the best medical attention you can find in the United States to bring him back to health - as someone in CIA says - so we can begin to torture him. And then we do. And this man, mentally unbalanced, clearly so, basically begins to talk about everything under the sun. The United States begins to race toward the Brooklyn Bridge, and Statue of Liberty, and malls, and everything Zubeida mentions - the uniformed and ardent people of America race toward in a panic.

INSKEEP: Well, were those things really targets?

Mr. SUSKIND: Virtually none of them were targets. If you want to understand what we're up against, and how some of these excesses maybe create more problems than they solve, look at Zubeida.

INSKEEP: But let's face the other side of that hard reality. This guy, even if he is just a travel agent for Osama bin Laden, that's the guy with a lot of information you'd like to know. Did he provide any valuable information?

Mr. SUSKIND: He did, absolutely. He provided two key things. One is that he told us that a Muhtar, which means the brain in Arabic - that name had popped up on signal intelligence from time to time - that muhtar is Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the 9/11 planner.

INSKEEP: He identified the mastermind of the September 11 attacks.

Mr. SUSKIND: He identified that Muhtar, on SIGINT, was that guy. So, you know, to say that he didn't provide anything is not right. But what it shows is the core dilemmas of what we're facing, not just today, but going forward. What happens if you torture a man and he says whatever it will take for the pain to stop? What happens if that becomes all you've got - to send whole armies, here in the United States, to some locale that is really driven by almost nothing, as to evidence?

INSKEEP: Well, let's follow the plot along, here. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad is arrested. And how did that interrogation go?

Mr. SUSKIND: Now we have the true, real McCoy, here; a genuine operational planner who knows all that one need know. We begin the interrogation in a way similar to Zubeida. We waterboard him. We threaten him. We torture him. And we do everything we can think of. And then we do something that, I think, may set a standard for how this war on terror is drawing the United States away from some of its moral foundations.

We had captured Khalid Sheikh Mohammad's children; a seven-year-old and nine-year-old children, and we threaten them. We tell Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, either he tells us what we need to know, or his children will be harmed. And, interestingly, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad looks us right in the eye, of what the intelligence indicates, and says, well, then they will go to a better place with Allah.

Now, the important point here is we need to figure out what works here. In this case, if you threaten someone's children, there's nowhere else to go. You're not going to be building any relationships with that person. And what all the evidence indicates now, five years after 9/11, is what works is what the FBI said worked at the start. They had interrogated lots of al-Qaida folks, all through the 90s, quite successfully. Build relationships with them. They're human beings just like you are and just like I am. That has worked. They're surprised, and they tell us things that, frankly, even surprise us.

INSKEEP: On this program, in recent days, Alan Dershowitz, Harvard University, has argued that torture sometimes, not always, maybe not even most of the time, sometimes works.

Mr. SUSKIND: Mm-hmm.

INSKEEP: It sounds like you're reporting, in spite of all the excesses and the failures, suggests that occasionally, Americans did get useful information out of tortured suspects.

Mr. SUSKIND: What the evidence shows, is that there are cases in which some information that was valuable came from very, very harsh techniques. On balance, what the evidence shows more clearly, is that torture creates many, many more problems than it can ever solve; that in some ways that information is probably costing too much.

INSKEEP: Journalist Ron Suskind. His book is called the One Percent Doctrine. Our interview with Mr. Suskind continues at, where you can also find previous conversations on American interrogations. And we will continue tomorrow with an experienced interrogator.

This is NPR News.

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