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The Wages of Torture (For the Torturers)

Gabe Rottman,
Legislative Counsel,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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June 4, 2007

Both the Post and the Times have recent stories on the psychological damage that interrogators who get too close to the line face.The Post story is exceptional. It focuses on three former interrogators, an American Iraq veteran, a former Royal Ulster Constabulary Special Branch counter-terrorism agent and the head of interrogation for Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service.Two things pop out.First, even though the Brit and the Israeli talk tough (the American, in contrast, is grappling with some serious mental blowback from his work), they really aren’t advocating the use of physical violence to elicit information. Rather, their tactics—though unsavory—are largely psychological. Here’s the IRA-hunter on coercive tactics:

He noted that sectarian killings dropped off: “If it’s going to save lives, you’re entitled to use whatever means you can.” How do you fight bad guys and stay good? “You don’t. You can’t.”

Again, tough talk. But then consider this:

James had no training, but the 18-hour days that made his neck ache taught him what he needed: good rapport, good intelligence, great fear. “Yes, a bloke would get a cuff in the ear or he might brace against the wall. Yes, they had sleep deprivation,” he said. “But we did not torture.”

The Israeli sort of makes the same point:

For Sheriff, interrogation was more psychological than physical. He used flattery on Palestinians who put bombs under playground benches: “You say, ‘Hey! Wow! How did you connect these wires? Did you manufacture this explosive? This is good!’ “He played good cop, and bad: “One day I was good. Next day I was bad. The prisoner said, ‘Yesterday you were good. What happened today?’ I told him we were short on manpower.”Sheriff hugged his suspects, he said, poured them tea and kissed their cheeks. As his former boss, Dichter, put it: “You try to become friends with someone who murdered a baby. That’s your job. It’s the most difficult feeling.” When he came home, Sheriff said, his wife would make him change. “You could smell the guy on your shirt.”But when the pressure mounted for intelligence, Sheriff said, the best method was “a very little violence.” Enough to scare people but not so much that they’d collapse. Agents tried it on themselves. “Not torture.”

What’s really fascinating about the whole thing, however, is how different coercive interrogation (or torture) is psychologically for interrogators from the “free world” versus authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. I would imagine that skilled interrogators are extremely bright individuals, both in terms of cognitive intelligence, and empathic abilities. They have to be to see the angles, and to “break” individuals who have had counter-interrogation training.When you’re that bright, however, you also tend to know a little bit about the system you’re working for. If you’re an American interrogator, presumably you want to believe that your job is both about saving lives, and about saving liberty. You want to wear a white hat. But, as the American in the Post article basically admits, the Bush administration has and is pushing interrogators to cross the line:

“I couldn’t make sense of the moral system” in Iraq, he said. “I couldn’t figure out what was right and wrong. There were no rules. They literally said, ‘Be creative.’ “Lagouranis [the Iraq veteran] blames the Bush administration: “They say this is a different kind of war. Different rules for terrorists. Total crap.”

Incidentally, when Lagouranis started looking for tips from a Holocaust memoir, he knew he’d gone too far.

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