WASHINGTON — Did "enhanced interrogation techniques" help us find Osama Bin Laden and destroy al Qaida? Were they torture? Were they wrong? This week, three former CIA officials grappled with those questions in a forum at the American Enterprise Institute. The discussion was supposed to be about "Zero Dark Thirty." But it was really a chance to see in person the thinking of the people who ran and justified the detainee interrogation program.
It's also a chance to examine our own thinking. Do we really understand what the CIA did and why? Was the payoff worth the moral cost? And what can we learn from it?
Former CIA director Michael Hayden led the panel. He was joined by Jose Rodriguez, who ran the agency's National Clandestine Service, and John Rizzo, who served as the CIA's chief legal officer. The stories they told, and the reasons they offered, shook up my assumptions about the interrogation program. They might shake up yours, too. Here's what they said.
1. The detention program was a human library.
The panelists didn't use that term, but it reflects what they described. After detainees were interrogated, the CIA kept them around for future inquiries and to monitor their communications. Sometimes this yielded a nugget, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's message to his fellow detainees: "Do not say a word about the courier." Rodriguez said this incident shows "the importance of having a place like a black site to take these individuals, because we could use that type of communication. We could use them as background information to check a name."
2. Enhanced interrogation techniques were used to break the will to resist, not to extract information directly.
Hayden acknowledged that prisoners might say anything to stop their suffering. (Like the other panelists, he insisted enhanced interrogation wasn't torture.) That's why "we never asked anybody anything we didn't know the answer to, while they were undergoing the enhanced interrogation techniques. The techniques were not designed to elicit truth in the moment." Instead, the interrogations were used in a controlled setting, in which interrogators knew the answers and could be sure they were inflicting misery only when the prisoner said something false. The point was to create an illusion of godlike omniscience and omnipotence so that the prisoner would infer, falsely, that his captors always knew when he was lying or withholding information. More broadly, said Hayden, the goal was "to take someone who had come into our custody absolutely defiant and move them into a state or a zone of cooperation" by convincing them that "you are no longer in control of your destiny. You are in our hands." Thereafter, the prisoner would cooperate without need for enhanced interrogation. Rodriguez explained: "Once you got through the enhanced interrogation process, then the real interrogation began. . . . The knowledge base was so good that these people knew that we actually were not going to be fooled. It was an essential tool to validate that the people were being truthful. "