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When does tough interrogation of U.S. prisoners cross the line?

December 2, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
Where to draw the line between interrogation and abuse has divided intelligence and terrorism experts and raised questions about the effectiveness of torture as a means to extract information from terror suspects.


RAY SUAREZ: When does tough interrogation of U.S. prisoners around the world cross the line into torture and run afoul of international law? And even when there’s no disagreement on what constitutes torture, does it work?

Widespread abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq sparked worldwide outrage, which flared again a year later after new revelations of prisoner abuse in Guantanamo Bay and Iraq and reports that detainees were being sent to prisons in other countries.

The reports sparked a torture debate in Congress. It came to a head when Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona introduced an amendment to a defense appropriations bill. The amendment would ban the torture of prisoners in U.S. custody and require all Americans, in uniform and out, to follow the rules set out in the military’s field manual.

McCain, a former Naval aviator, was imprisoned and tortured during the Vietnam War.

SEN. JOHN McCAIN: First, subjecting prisoners to abuse leads to bad intelligence because under torture a detainee will tell his interrogator anything to make the pain stop.

Second, mistreatment of our prisoners endangers U.S. troops, who might be captured by the enemy, if not in this war then in the next.

RAY SUAREZ: The Republican-controlled Senate passed the amendment early in November by a vote of 90-9. The House of Representatives is scheduled to take up the bill in December.

Vice President Cheney has lobbied Congress to keep the Central Intelligence Agency free of any restrictions on “cruel, inhumane or degrading” treatment.

RAY SUAREZ: Two men with extensive experience interrogating suspected terrorists have reached very different conclusions about torture, what constitutes it, and whether it is ever justified. I talked with them this week.

NEIL LIVINGSTONE: You are not violating the Geneva Conventions in my reading of those conventions, and you’re certainly not violating any other laws that I can see right now if you applied duress against terrorists under very limited circumstances, under very special conditions where the stakes are very high.

RAY SUAREZ: Neil Livingstone is a terrorism expert and a former intelligence officer.

NEIL LIVINGSTONE: The future of the western world, and specifically the United States, may some day depend on a ticking clock where we have to get information fast.

Let’s take the worst case example: A weapon of mass destruction. It’s in one of our cities, and we know it’s going to go off. What steps are we going to take if we find someone involved in that conspiracy to ascertain where that weapon is?

We don’t have time to play good cop and bad cop and to provide all sorts of incentives. Are we going to allow some forms of what we would call duress?

JACK CLOONAN: I’m telling you there’s a good reason to operate within the law, not to engage in torture. We can accomplish what we want. We’ll get the actionable intelligence. We’ll be better off, and we won’t have to worry about revenge.

RAY SUAREZ: Jack Cloonan is a 25- year veteran of the FBI and investigated al-Qaida in the United States. He says duress is never warranted.

JACK CLOONAN: I don’t think of any situation that’s going to arise where I have to use such pressure — in fact, run the risk of perhaps killing somebody.

Now, the argument — the counter-argument to that is if we lose one person and I get the information and it saves Washington, D.C., or it saves New York City or Chicago, it’s well worth it. The likelihood of that happening is so slim I think it’s almost impossible.

NEIL LIVINGSTONE: I feel confident that — that you have a very limited toolbox when you’re trying to deal with many of these guys, and you also don’t have all the time in the world when working with terrorists.

And what are you going to offers these guys? They know they’re history already. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed knows he’s never going to be released from prison. And at the very best, he might save his life by cooperating. And he’s going to live in a dreary, you know, eight-by-ten box someplace in the world for the rest of his life. His life’s over, it’s finished. What are going to offer that guy if you really want to get information from him?

With a lot of these hard cases, not very much can offer them except to be left alone. And that may be worth everything to them at some point.

JACK CLOONAN: I’m not recommending that we coddle these people by any means. That’s not what I’m saying at all. But we have to accept responsibilities also.

When we adopt a theory of aggressive interrogation techniques, do we expect to be operating in a vacuum? There will be pushback, and we have to expect that. And that’s another reason why I don’t believe in the extradition, nor do I believe in this torture or “torture lite” – it’s the revenge — because when revenge gets taken, who’s going to get hurt? You, me, the public and our military forces overseas.

NEIL LIVINGSTONE: We have to have a realistic view of the world, that there are people out there trying to kill us every day. They’re spending seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

And when we have the good fortune to capture one of those individuals, that we should have the ability to do — particularly if they are a kingpin — to do what is necessary to extract the information that they may have that will save lives and disrupt operations.

RAY SUAREZ: What works and what doesn’t? How do you draw the line between what’s licit and what’s illicit when you’re dealing in this area?

NEIL LIVINGSTONE: Well, the British government had to defend its interrogation practices in Northern Ireland, and they, I thought, did so very effectively.

Now, those practices were primarily forms of psychological duress, deprivation, sound, light deprivation — putting people in situations that they psychologically couldn’t deal with.

You add that with drug therapies which we have today, and I think those can be very effective.

I think the harder area’s when you say, “Well, you know, are we going to beat someone? Are we going to do something that would be repulsive to all of us in terms of physical abuse of someone?” That’s where it gets much more difficult.

I think that’s what most of us think torture is. And — and I think that those are the areas where it’s probably less effective in many respects than a combination of some of the newer techniques that are available out there that have been described by some as torture, but rejected by others as torture.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there forms of physical duress that — that you have come to believe work and others that you think just aren’t very useful in the toolkit of interrogation?

NEIL LIVINGSTONE: Well, it depends on the subject, and every subject must be read, first of all, and you have to decide what his or her breaking point might be. Is it going to be, you know, some type of isolation? Is it going to be highly uncomfortable conditions day after day and so on? Or is it going to be the fear that pain is going to be inflicted on them in some way that they’re not going to be able to deal with?

What doesn’t work is what we saw at Abu Ghraib, which was abuse by sadists for the pure joy of it, if you will, or because they were making it up as they went. This was stomach turning, it was inappropriate, it was illegal, and it should not have been tolerated.

There are many different forms of duress that you can apply to people and different combinations, and some are going to work better than others. And it’s going to depend on the psyche of the particular individual.

RAY SUAREZ: Where is the line? What is the difference, and where is the difference? What kinds of things are we talking about between pressure and tough interrogation and torture?

JACK CLOONAN: I think sleep deprivation gets up to the line. Putting somebody in stress positions, arms cinched behind their back, hung or made to squat for long periods of time, gets up to — up to that.

RAY SUAREZ: If you had to make your best case to an American who’s on the fence about this, what would you say to them to convince them that torture is not the way to go?

JACK CLOONAN: I would say a couple of things. First, the efficacy of torture is really diminished. In other words, it doesn’t typically work. That’s number one. So why engage in it if it doesn’t work?

Number two, the debate has been framed on this issue by two extremes– those who would say, “you know, we ought to not — we ought not to talk to these people in a rough manner,” and those who should say, “Well, anything goes.”

I think what this debate has now illuminated for us all is there are a great deal of people in the middle who are troubled by this, as I am. And I would say to them in the end that we are ultimately fighting for the hearts and minds of millions of people who really don’t understand who we are, but they look to us for an example.

RAY SUAREZ: Do we as a country give something away if we open the door even to the occasional use of torture?

NEIL LIVINGSTONE: Yes, we do. And we do give something away and we do when we engage in the kind of warfare in some respects that we’re doing today to combat terrorism.

On the other hand, it may be that we have to give up a few things in order to preserve our larger democratic societies, to preserve our societies to serve human life.

JACK CLOONAN: Why, all of a sudden, do we put it in the context of a war? Because that allows us to — a little bit of wiggle room in this debate, because now we bring in the Geneva Convention, now we bring in enemy combatants and all this other stuff, and it muddies the water a little bit.

Take that word away, and that’s what keeps the people who believe in this alive and well and motivated.

RAY SUAREZ: So did you find over time that as the old saying goes, honey is better than vinegar?

JACK CLOONAN: Yes, it is, always.

RAY SUAREZ: Give me an example.

JACK CLOONAN: We had a person in custody who was concerned about his wife and kids. This is a person who was a member of al-Qaida, worked with bin Laden. So what did we do? We smuggled his wife and kids out of some countries and had them reunited. They put their life in jeopardy for cooperating with the United States. The United States owes them for what they’ve done.

RAY SUAREZ: Even if they’re al-Qaida members?

JACK CLOONAN: Even if they’re al-Qaida members who have cooperated with the United States; they have turned their back and agreed to go forward with us and help us with providing information, testifying against other members that come forward or that we get, and I think that’s a square deal.

NEIL LIVINGSTONE: If the American people become truly frightened one day because we don’t have the intelligence capability, we don’t have the interrogation capability that we need, we know that they’ll probably throw out their democratic freedoms overnight for safety because the tyrant always comes in the guise of the protector.

And that happens every time we try to game this. And so, we know that we have to have effective tools to, in many respects, prevent that from happening, because if we don’t have those and the worst case happens, you can probably kiss a lot of your freedoms goodbye tomorrow because the average citizen will willingly surrender those in order to protect his house, his family, his community, and what have you.

JACK CLOONAN: I still think my approach in the end works and is the better approach. I don’t want to see you or any one of your viewers be victimized by a terrorist attack because somebody was keen on getting revenge for something that we’ve done.

And I think that’s what guides me, and that’s what makes me say the things that I do and feel the way that I do. I’ve seen it up close and personal. I know that it works.

Transparency is worth every bit of what I’ve just described to you. No one can accuse of us of being — of engaging in subterfuge or being inhumane. No one can.