Sunday, August 30, 2009

Another path in the dark

The evidence now seems clear that, at least sometimes, methods like waterboarding and sleeplessness are effective for gaining useful information. Walter Pincus in the Washington Post describes the effect of such methods on Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the planner of the September 11 attacks, and observes:
.... The debate over the effectiveness of subjecting detainees to psychological and physical pressure is in some ways irresolvable, because it is impossible to know whether less coercive methods would have achieved the same result. But for defenders of waterboarding, the evidence is clear: Mohammed cooperated, and to an extraordinary extent, only when his spirit was broken in the month after his capture March 1, 2003, as the inspector general's report and other documents released this week indicate. ....

Mohammed was an unparalleled source in deciphering al-Qaeda's strategic doctrine, key operatives and likely targets, the summary said, including describing in "considerable detail the traits and profiles" that al-Qaeda sought in Western operatives and how the terrorist organization might conduct surveillance in the United States. .... [more]
Those who oppose the use of such methods [at least those with whom I am acquainted] do so because they find them morally unacceptable. It makes no difference to them whether these methods gain useful information. Waterboarding [or sleeplessness, or death threats, or ...] is torture. Torture is immoral and that settles the question. The United States should not be implicated in torture.

The Pincus article caused Richard Fernandez to reflect on the nature of interrogation:
When a man “breaks” under interrogation, he does more than blurt out secrets. The process truly breaks something inside him; changes something forever. The mystery is what. It isn’t morals: Mohammed’s transition from the man who boasted of decapitating Daniel Pearl to a hunter of his former associates still leaves a man who deals in violence and death. Breaking didn’t turn KSM into Gandhi; it didn’t convert him into a man you’d like to invite to dinner. Like others who have switched sides — double agents or police informers — betrayal is a lateral move within the same business.

The real key to breaking someone is to make him do something that will forever estrange him from his former life; to put him beyond the pale of forgiveness; to create such a change in attitude that he can never go back to his fold. It wasn’t the duress that broke KSM, it was what he did and said and thought under duress that brought him to the other side. He crossed some line which made him realize he could never come back into the Brotherhood. And he knows that he crossed it himself. Where did it leave him? In the night, facing some other way. Among the damned, betrayal is another pathway in the dark. But that’s where the damned like to live; amid things that are already broken. Real psychological conversion is something beyond the power of waterboarding to achieve, but interrogators are not in the business of offering salvation. They are in the profession of allowing vile men to reinvent themselves, to live for just a moment more on Raskolnikov’s ledge. “Where is it I’ve read that someone condemned to death says or thinks, an hour before his death, that if he had to live on some high rock, on such a narrow ledge that he’d only room to stand, and the ocean, everlasting darkness, everlasting solitude, everlasting tempest around him, if he had to remain standing on a square yard of space all his life, a thousand years, eternity, it were better to live so than to die at once!” If intelligence agencies had a pill that would turn a fanatical monster into Mother Teresa, they would be foolish to use it. Duress isn’t meant to shatter a man; it’s sole purpose is to leave all the fanatic’s vile cunning intact, only to break that thing which keeps him working for the other side. .... [more]
How a Detainee Became An Asset -, Belmont Club » The last brother

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