Enhanced Interrogation: An Ineffective Form for Any Intelligence Policy
With the election of President Biden in November of 2020, there was a renewed debate in regards to many national security policies, one of the most important being that of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques. This term is an interesting one, mainly because many foreign policy experts and journalists alike regard it as a euphemism for torture. Given the fact that a new political administration has taken hold of the White House and will be making many impactful decisions on the military and intelligence policies of the United States, it is beneficial to explore enhanced interrogation techniques, the controversy around them, and if they hold any real benefits in any national defense policy.
Enhanced interrogation techniques are essentially a term used by the CIA and other members of the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) which includes a variety of methods meant to gather information from a source through physical interrogation. These techniques were documented in a 2014 report made by the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, the report detailing how:
[for days and weeks at a time] slaps and “wallings” (slamming detainees against a wall) were used in combination, frequently concurrent with sleep deprivation and threatening approach…The waterboarding technique was physically harmful, inducing convulsions and vomiting… sleep deprivation involved keeping detainees awake for up to 180 hours, usually standing or in stress positions, at times with their hands shackled above their heads… Five CIA detainees are subjected to “rectal dehydration” or rectal feeding without documented medical necessity… The CIA led several detainees to believe they would never leave CIA custody alive, suggesting to one detainee that he would only leave in a coffin-shaped box. One interrogator told another detainee that he would never go to court, because “we can never let the world know what I have done to you”…
CIA officers also threatened at least three detainees with harm to their families – to include threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to “cut [a detainee’s] mother’s throat”.
The enhanced interrogation techniques utilized by the CIA and other members of the Intelligence Community in the 21st century has been under extreme scrutiny since the beginning of the War on Terror in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The Committee’s report also stated that, “the CIA's harsh interrogations of terrorist detainees during the Bush era didn't work, were more brutal than previously revealed and delivered no "ticking time bomb" information that prevented an attack”.
Though the full and complete version of the report is classified and most likely will remain so for the foreseeable future, the public and redacted version of the report offers a significant amount of information on the CIA’s torture programs.
Enhanced interrogation techniques have long been critiqued, not only by members of the public and individual politicians, but by experienced counterintelligence and intelligence professionals. In December 2003, retired Army Counterintelligence Colonel Stuart Herrington visited Iraq to examine the U.S. military intelligence operation, publishing a scathing report which criticized the abuses at Abu Ghraib in addition to the methods of physical interrogation (which mirrors enhanced interrogation techniques), among other critiques of how the U.S. Army dealt with the insurgency. In 2008, fifteen former members of the Intelligence Community (predominantly from the CIA, FBI, and Defense Department Counterintelligence officers), with Col. Herrington among them, spoke out against torture and enhanced interrogation techniques calling it, “an “unlawful, ineffective and counterproductive" way to gather intelligence… Interrogation techniques that do not resort to torture yield more complete and accurate intelligence”.
In 2014, seventeen more intelligence professionals from the U.S. Armed Forces, U.S. Secret Service, DIA, and CIA agreed that torture is illegal, counterproductive, and ineffective. Enhanced interrogation techniques, in the eyes of a series of professional IC and intelligence members, does not work nor does it yield results that benefit large scale military or intelligence gathering operations. The FBI, in 2003, concluded similarly that, “[torture tactics] have produced no intelligence of a threat neutralizing nature to date”. In September of 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed that enhanced interrogation measures (in the case of techniques conducted on Gitmo detainee, Abu Zubaydah) were effectively torture and, “the allegations made to justify this torture…were simply mistaken”.
The actions taken by the Intelligence Community in interrogating prisoners and suspected terrorists utilizing such techniques has been rightly subject to scrutiny and is another black mark on the agency’s history and is a black mark on the Intelligence Community as a whole. The effect this has had on the IC’s operations is a difficult question to answer as there is little, publicly available information on how the IC has taken steps to try and abide by the Senate’s June 2015 codification, “to prevent the military and all other government agencies from using torture during interrogations of prisoners”.
Two high ranking Intelligence Community members, John Brennan (former CIA Director) and Michael Hayden (former NSA Director, CIA Director, and Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence), both criticized the report for being “analytically offensive” and stating that the enhanced interrogation techniques provided useful information. They both hold the opinion and view that the intelligence gleaned from these enhanced interrogations did yield beneficial information in combating terrorism and assisted in the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. This goes against what former FBI and CIA officers, who were involved in certain interrogations, detailed in the overall report.
However, the affect this type of action and the report itself has had upon the conduct of foreign policy and the U.S.’ global standing in the world is massive. The content of the report is of extreme importance as it shows the world how the Intelligence Community has gone about gathering intelligence and how the rules of intelligence collection and what the IC could do violated or worked around existing and pre-existing statutes. This was an event of comparable importance to the Church and Pike Committees, in which Congressional investigations showed how far the Intelligence Community (and individual agencies themselves) strayed from their established missions and violated certain human rights and U.S. legal statutes. While the CIA and other DOD intelligence agency’s missions are to gather and collect intelligence (in addition to other functions), it was supposed to do so in a way that abided by U.S. law and did not violate certain human rights. While an official, measurable way of discovering how the Intelligence Community has adapted their interrogation and detention operations to better be in accordance with U.S. law may not be available, the awareness of these issues has impacted the community’s overall standing both domestically and abroad and has changed the way in which the U.S. and the Intelligence Community is viewed.
Certainly the Senate report, which I mentioned and excerpted from, is one of the largest legislative works on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program and on the enhanced interrogation measures in use by the IC. This report in turn inspired the 2015 amendment sponsored by Senators Dianne Feinstein and John McCain which, “[reaffirmed] the statutory prohibition on the torture of detainees in U.S. custody and limits interrogation techniques to those included in the Army Field Manual… [and] broadens the scope of the prohibition against torture to include all U.S. government entities and mandates periodic review of the Army Field Manual to ensure it reflects “current, evidence-based, best practices for interrogation that are designed to elicit reliable and voluntary statements and do not involve the use or threat of force”.
In a less legislative aspect, however, the U.S. courts have responded to enhanced interrogation techniques. One of the most significant developments occurred, as mentioned, in September of 2019 when the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco defined enhanced interrogation as torture. In terms of international law, the European Court of Human Rights, one of the foremost bodies for protecting political freedoms and human rights, ruled in 2014, “Poland had co-operated with the secret illegal transfers in 2002-2003, allowing two suspects to be interrogated on its territory... [holding] that "the treatment to which the applicants had been subjected by the CIA during their detention in Poland had amounted to torture”. What has been shown judicially is that enhanced interrogation procedures and their usage by intelligence services is in violation of international human rights accords, individual country-specific constitutions and statutes, and, in some cases, violates the agency’s own standards for intelligence collection.
While action has been taken in Poland over the enhanced interrogation practices, the U.S. Department of Justice did not take action against the IC or individual officers within certain agencies. To quote a 2014 article in The Hill, “Investigators have reviewed the Intelligence Committee’s report and “did not find any new information that they had not previously considered in reaching their determination” to dismiss the previous investigations, the Justice Department said”. While the Senate report did show that members of the CIA did conceal information to the DOJ (which could possibly bring up charges of perjury or other, more unique charges), the DOJ determined that there would not be enough evidence to bring about a conviction. As far as criminal charges, no one within the Intelligence Community was indicted or arraigned in relation to utilizing enhanced interrogation techniques.
In fact, the only person who was brought to court in relation to the enhanced interrogation controversy was a CIA case officer who detailed classified information to a reporter. However, the effect that the international legal community, the federal courts, and the legislative bodies within Congress have had upon bringing about solutions to this problem are extremely important to understanding how the Intelligence Community has evolved since the report’s release.
These legislative and judicial actions have shown to the public how important congressional oversight still is to the proper conduct of the Intelligence Community. These actions have kept the Intelligence Community in check and have directly shown how important judicial review of IC tactics and operations are to the proper conduct of intelligence collection. The report itself conclusively proved that enhanced interrogation techniques and the usage of physical torture do not work in gaining actionable intelligence from persons and that, in a series of cases, the IC overstepped the established bounds of U.S. law and their overall mission. The CIA’s own internal review by the Inspector General showed how, “[senior officers expressed] concern that efforts to keep the existence of the torture program secret were blocking “the dissemination of information obtained from the interrogation of detainees to analysts and the FBI in a timely manner”.
The criticism and outrage over the Agency’s actions by the American public and the condemnations by fellow countries further pointed out how essential the gathering of actionable intelligence in an effective and legal way was important to deterring terrorist action against the U.S. and keeping the U.S.’s National Security interests secure.
However, given the placing of Avril Haines as the Director of National Intelligence and her strong opposition to instances of torture during the Bush administration’s War on Terror, it seems that the Biden administration is doing more to combat against these activities that stain the record of the United States abroad.