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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 4/25/09

Two former top CIA officals on the efficacy of torture

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Former CIA analyst Ray Close has sent these comments on the efficacy of torture, followed by comments on the topic by someone from the operations side of the CIA, Haviland Smith, "a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff." They are both members of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

In these writings they address the efficacy of torture from the perspective of  veteran intelligence officials and describe its counterproductive nature as an intelligence tool. In this effort they bring little heard perspectives to the raging torture debate  [posted with permission]:

From: RayClose@
Date: April 25, 2009 10:47:23 AM EDT
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Subject: The efficacy of torture (personal commentaries)

(1)  My own personal views on the subject, written yesterday to a group of former colleagues known as VIPS (Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity), who are intensely aggravated by this controversy:

SecDef Bob Gates made what I think was a tactical error today when he said (I am paraphrasing):

"We were worried that the release of the memoranda would inspire retributive actions by our terrorist adversaries, but since there was nothing we could do to prevent the publication of those documents, I guess we'll just have to live with the consequences."

This was a mistake, I believe, for at least three reasons:

1.  It was effectively an admission on the part of the administration's defense secretary that the Obama team has lost control of a sensitive national security-related issue, and has no choice but to tacitly admit and accept the political loss of face that this failure engenders.  Poor idea. When Gates realized that the administration could not suppress the memoranda, tthey would have minimized the loss by taking a positive and "forward-leaning" (Rumsfeld's favorite term) stance:  support their publication because it is the forthright and responsible thing for an administration to do if it is sincerely dedicated to transparency of decision-making.

2.  Gates's action amounts, in effect, to actually an acknowledgment by the Obama administration that in their view torture was in fact practiced, that it is indeed illegal and reprehensible, that deliberate and underhanded methods were employed by the previous administration to circumvent established law to enable illicit practices in the interests of expediency, BUT that the present Commander in Chief lacked the political courage to uphold the laws of our country in this case.  (As a very strong believer in Barack Obam's clear vision and high political principles, I am extremely disappointed in this development, and don't mind saying so.)

3.  In the highly unlikely event that they had not thought of it before, the SecDef's statement ("we'll just have to live with the consequences") will be interpreted by our adversaries as an invitation to retaliate against the United States, justifying their actions on the grounds that the United States of America has admitted to violating its own standards and is virtually resigned to suffering retaliation from those it has unjustifiably abused.  Whatever legal and moral indignation that we might want to express after a retaliatory action in the future will now be deprived of considerable credibility and substance.

There are two other points that may be too nuanced and complex to be argued at this stage, given the fact that whatever we (VIPS) might say must be punchy and brief:

1. I am not satisfied that the proponents of torture (especially Cheney and his cohorts) have presented enough credible evidence that past use of torture has produced valuable results.  I happen to believe that Cheney's brand of pressure from above to produce results has the unavoidable and very powerful effect of tempting any intelligence case officer (but in particular one who is trying to justify the use of brutal interrogation techniques) to do two very significant and corruptive things: (a) inflate the importance of the prisoner in question (to declare, often with little or no supporting evidence) that he is a "high-value target."  (How the HELL do we know that in any but the most rare cases?) And, in turn (b) to inflate the value of the information that he provides (i.e. to "sex up the product", as the Brits would say.) Sound familiar?  As experienced professional case officers or analysts, we ALL must admit that the temptation is ALWAYS there to do this, just as it is for investigative news reporters or many other kinds of professionals whose personal careers stand to profit from the production of valuable information that supports political objectives, inflates personal egos and promotes self-serving institutional agendas.  (Even research scientists face this kind of temptation to enhance laboratory findings to justify a grant or to win a prize.)  It's a universal hazard, but one that is particulary real for intelligence officers whose work is almost never subjected to critical scrutiny or peer review because of the protection afforded by the culture of secrecy.  Are we today persuaded that torture produced a steady flow of truly valuable "actionable" intelligence?  Opinions differ sharply. I am VERY dubious.  If that were the case, would there not be many ways that this could be substantiated without serious damage to "sources and methods"?  Of course there would be.  My point:  I think we could usefully insist upon more credible evidence that torture has indeed produced results even remotely comparable to its unquestioned moral, political and operational costs. Think yellow-cake; think about those non-existent ties between Saddam and Bin Ladin that Cheney is STILL claiming.  History is filled with other examples.  A little more transparency is required before we can accept uncritically the claim that illegal torture has been an absolutely critical and invaluable line of defense against terrorism.  I don't buy it, myself.

(2)  It is a widely accepted truth these days that what the U.S. intelligence community has lacked since the emergence of terrorism is old-fashioned HUMINT.  In particular, this is taken to mean (for example) that we have been totally unable to recruit the agent who is willing to penetrate the inner circle of al-Qa'ida and learn its future plans  --- or even to pinpoint where its braintrust is physically located. We who have spent our lives in this profession would all agree, I believe, that the greatest challenge, as well as the greatest reward, that a case officer in the clandestine service can experience is to recruit that kind of agent --- to persuade another person to betray his whole value system and risk his life for what WE believe is right.  We know that an important inspiration of terrorism is the bitterness, resentment, frustration, sense of futility and impotence, etc., that produces fire in the bellies of young men and women in the Third World. The most probable way that kind of person can be recruited is if he or she, already a trusted part of a terrorist organization at some level, falls under our physical control and is treated with more respect and dignity than he or she has ever encountered before. Myths about American contempt for Islam or ambitions to dominate the Muslim world must first be disproved ---  and the widely known images of Guantanamo, Abu Ghuraib and Bagram must be replaced by something entirely different. A tough thing to do, now that the other images are so sharply etched. But only then can the prospective agent be  persuaded to change sides and work for our value system against his own, at the risk of his own life.  How many of us would know where to begin today to recruit a prospective agent today?  If we want the kind of trustworthy sources who will REALLY help us, this is the best (perhaps only) way to go about it.  We certainly  won't recruit agents by waterboarding them.  As PROFESSIONAL INTELLIGENCE OFFICERS who have experienced and practiced this extremely challenging and rewarding process, we are in a unique position to refute the arguments of those whose instincts are narrowly focused on the efficacy of brute force to achieve the honest cooperation of former enemies --- agents willing and capable of obtaining reliable information to guide our national security policy. Our profession has nothing to do with force or the infliction of pain as a motivator.  We know better.  If force were the primary tool to employ, what would make an INTELLIGENCE officer any different from a conventional soldier or law enforcement officer --- each of which has a perfectly legitimate but totally different role to play in protecting society from external danger?  We have our own operational doctrine and set of professional standards to define, then to exemplify and to proudly uphold.  Let's not let others act and speak for us!
My two cents.

(2) Haviland Smith, probably known to others of you, is an old friend and contemporary of mine who was an outstanding operations officer in the Clandestine services for about thirty years, starting in the early 1950s.  His career included many tours in the Middle East and Europe, but also as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff at Headquarters.  He is retired now, and writes columns for his local newspapers in the Vermont-New Hampshire area. This is a very credible man.

The Efficacy of Torture

April 21, 2009

Haviland Smith

Most Americans who are watching revelations about our past torture practices and related abuses, or "enhanced interrogation techniques", seem primarily interested in the extent and nature of those activities.  In the arcane world of secret intelligence, many professionals are asking precisely what if any benefits have accrued as a result of these questionable activities.  More simply put, does torture work?
Interrogation is one of the disciplines used by intelligence officers working to obtain information.  It rests somewhere in a continuum that includes, interviewing, recruitment, debriefing and elicitation.

The most basic of these techniques is arguably recruitment, in which an intelligence officer seeks to obtain the cooperation of a prospective agent for the purpose of producing needed intelligence.  Recruitment attempts can be categorized into two general categories, collaborative and coercive. Of these two, collaborative recruitments have been the only ones that have been consistently successful.

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Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. He was a psychological consultant on two of (more...)
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