THE PERSUADERS: Torture Interrogation
- THE PERSUADERS
Mark Bowden, Guardian, 10/19/03
When does coercion become torture? Since September 11 new methods of
interrogation have been deployed to counter the threat of terrorism -
but how far should we go? In this compelling dispatch, award-winning
author Mark Bowden asks if the treatment of captured al-Qaeda
suspects is in danger of becoming a breach of common humanity
Sunday October 19, 2003
Rawalpindi, Pakistan: on what may or may not have been a Saturday, on
what may have been 1 March, in a house in this city that may have
been this squat two-storey white one belonging to Ahmad Abdul Qadoos,
with big, grey-headed crows barking in the front yard, the notorious
terrorist Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was roughly awakened by a raiding
party of Pakistani and American commandos. Anticipating a gunfight,
they entered loud and fast. Instead, they found him asleep. He was
pulled from his bed, hooded, bound, hustled from the house, placed in
a vehicle and driven quickly away.
Here was the biggest catch yet in the war on terror. Sheikh Mohammed
is considered the architect of two attempts on the World Trade
Center: the one that failed, in 1993, and the one that succeeded so
catastrophically, eight years later. He is also believed to have been
behind the attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998,
and on the USS Cole two years later, and behind the murder last year
of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, among other things.
An intimate of Osama bin Laden, Sheikh Mohammed has been called the
operations chief of al-Qaeda, if such a formal role can be said to
exist in such an informal organisation. Others have suggested that a
more apt designation might be al-Qaeda's 'chief franchisee'.
Whatever the analogy, he is one of the organisation's most important
figures, a burly, distinctly modern, cosmopolitan 37-year-old man
fanatically devoted to a medieval form of Islam. He was born to
Pakistani parents, raised in Kuwait and educated in North Carolina to
be an engineer, before he returned to the Middle East to build a
career of bloody mayhem.
Some say that Sheikh Mohammed was captured months before the 1 March
date announced by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Abdul
Qadoos, a pale, white-bearded alderman in this well-heeled
neighbourhood, told me that Sheikh Mohammed was not there 'then or
ever'. The official video of the snatch appears to have been faked.
But the details are of minor importance. Whenever, wherever and
however it happened, nearly everyone now agrees that Sheikh Mohammed
is in US custody, and has been for some time. In the first hours of
his captivity the hood came off and a picture was taken. It shows a
bleary-eyed, heavy, hairy, swarthy man with a full black moustache,
thick eyebrows, a dark outline of beard on a rounded, shaved face,
three chins, long sideburns and a full head of dense, long, wildly
moussed black hair. He stands before a pale, tan, chipped wall,
leaning slightly forward, like a man with his hands bound behind him,
the low cut of his loose-fitting white T-shirt exposing matted curls
of hair on his chest, shoulders and back. He is looking down and to
the right of the camera. He appears dazed and glum.
Sheikh Mohammed is a smart man. There is an anxious, searching
quality to his expression in that first post-arrest photo. It is the
look of a man awakened into nightmare. Everything that has given his
life meaning - his role as husband and father, his leadership, his
stature, plans and ambitions - is finished. His future is months,
maybe years, of imprisonment and interrogation, a military tribunal
and almost certain execution. You can practically see the wheels
turning in his head, processing his terminal predicament. How will he
spend his last months and years? Will he maintain a defiant silence?
Or will he succumb to his enemy and betray his friends, his cause and
If Sheikh Mohammed felt despair in those first hours, it didn't show.
According to a Pakistani officer who sat in on an initial ISI
interview, the al-Qaeda sub-boss seemed calm and stoic. For his first
two days in custody he said nothing beyond confirming his name. A CIA
official says that Sheikh Mohammed spent those days 'sitting in a
trance-like state and reciting verses from the Koran'. On the third
day he is said to have loosened up. Fluent in the local languages of
Urdu, Pashto and Baluchi, he tried to shame his Pakistani
interrogators, lecturing them on their responsibilities as Muslims
and upbraiding them for co-operating with infidels.
'Playing an American surrogate won't help you or your country,' he
said. 'There are dozens of people like me who will give their lives,
but won't let the Americans live in peace anywhere in the world.'
Asked if Osama bin Laden was alive, he said, 'Of course he is alive.'
He spoke of meeting with bin Laden in 'a mountainous border region'
in December. He seemed smug about US and British preparations for war
against Saddam Hussein. 'Let the Iraq war begin,' he said. 'The US
forces will be targeted inside their bases in the Gulf. I don't have
any specific information, but my sixth sense is telling me that you
will get the news from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait.' Indeed, in
the following months, al-Qaeda carried out a murderous attack in
On that third day, hooded once more, Sheikh Mohammed was driven to
Chaklala Air Force base in Rawalpindi and turned over to US forces.
From there he was flown to the CIA interrogation centre in Bagram,
Afghanistan, and from there, some days later, to an 'undisclosed
location' (a place the CIA calls 'Hotel California') - presumably a
facility in another co-operative nation, or perhaps a specially
designed prison aboard an aircraft carrier.
It doesn't much matter where, because the place would not have been
familiar or identifiable to him. Place and time, the anchors of
sanity, were about to come unmoored. He might as well have been
entering a new dimension, a strange new world where his every word,
move and sensation would be monitored and measured; where things
might be as they seemed, but might not; where there would be no such
thing as day or night, or normal patterns of eating and drinking,
waking and sleeping; where hot and cold, wet and dry, clean and
dirty, truth and lies, would all be tangled and distorted.
Intelligence and military officials would talk about Sheikh
Mohammed's state only indirectly, and conditionally. But by the time
he arrived at a more permanent facility he would already have been
dog tired, hungry, sore, uncomfortable and afraid - if not for
himself, then for his wife and children, who had been arrested either
with him or some months before, depending on which story you believe.
He would have been warned that lack of co-operation might mean being
turned over to the more direct and brutal interrogators of some third
nation. He would most likely have been locked naked in a cell with no
trace of daylight. The space would be filled night and day with harsh
light and noise, and would be so small that he would be unable to
stand upright, to sit comfortably, or to recline fully. He would be
kept awake, cold and probably wet. If he managed to doze, he would be
roughly awakened. He would be fed infrequently and irregularly, and
then only with thin, tasteless meals. Sometimes days would go by
between periods of questioning, sometimes only hours or minutes. The
human mind craves routine, and can adjust to almost anything in the
presence of it, so his jailers would take care that no semblance of
Questioning would be intense - sometimes loud and rough, sometimes
quiet and friendly, with no apparent reason for either. He would be
questioned sometimes by one person, sometimes by two or three. The
session might last for days, with interrogators taking turns, or it
might last only a few minutes. He would be asked the same questions
again and again, and then suddenly be presented with something
completely unexpected - a detail or a secret that he would be shocked
to find they knew. He would be offered the opportunity to earn
freedom or better treatment for his wife and children. Whenever he
was helpful and the information he gave proved true, his harsh
conditions would ease. If the information proved false, his treatment
would worsen. On occasion he might be given a drug to elevate his
mood prior to interrogation; marijuana, heroin and Sodium Pentothal
have been shown to overcome a reluctance to speak, and
methamphetamine can unleash a torrent of talk in the stubbornest
subjects, the very urgency of the chatter making a complex lie
impossible to sustain. These drugs could be administered
surreptitiously with food or drink, and, given the bleakness of his
existence, they might even offer a brief period of relief and
pleasure, thereby creating a whole new category of longing - and new
leverage for his interrogators.
Deprived of any outside information, Sheikh Mohammed would grow more
and more vulnerable to manipulation. For instance, intelligence
gleaned after successful al-Qaeda attacks in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia
might be fed to him, in bits and pieces, so as to suggest foiled
operations. During questioning he would be startled regularly by
details about his secret organisation - details would be drawn from
ongoing intelligence operations, new arrests, or the interrogation of
other captive al-Qaeda members. Some of the information fed to him
would be true, some of it false. Key associates might be said to be
co-operating, or to have completely recanted their allegiance to
jihad. As time went by, Sheikh Mohammed's knowledge would decay,
while that of his questioners improved. He might come to see once-
vital plans as insignificant, or already known. The importance of
certain secrets would gradually erode.
Isolated, confused, weary, hungry, frightened and tormented, Sheikh
Mo-hammed would gradually be reduced to a seething collection of
simple needs, all of them controlled by his interrogators. The key to
filling all those needs would be the same: to talk.
These days, we hear a lot about America's overpowering military
technology; about the professionalism of its warriors; about the
sophistication of its weaponry, eavesdropping and telemetry, but
right now the most vital weapon in its arsenal may well be the art of
interrogation. To counter an enemy who relies on stealth and
surprise, the most valuable tool is information, and often the only
source of that information is the enemy himself. Men, like Sheikh
Mohammed, who have been taken alive in this war, are classic
candidates for the most cunning practices of this dark art.
Intellectual, sophisticated, deeply religious and well trained, they
present a perfect challenge for the interrogator. Getting at the
information they possess could allow us to thwart major attacks,
unravel their organisation, and save thousands of lives. They and
their situation pose one of the strongest arguments in modern times
for the use of torture.
Torture is repulsive. It is deliberate cruelty, a crude and ancient
tool of political oppression. It is commonly used to terrorise
people, or to wring confessions out of suspected criminals who may or
may not be guilty. It is the classic short cut for a lazy or
incompetent investigator. Horrifying examples of torturers' handiwork
are catalogued and publicised annually by Amnesty International,
Human Rights Watch and other organisations that battle such abuses
worldwide. One cannot help sympathising with the innocent, powerless
victims showcased in their literature.
But professional terrorists pose a harder question. They are locked
boxes containing potentially life-saving information. Sheikh Mohammed
has his own political and religious reasons for plotting mass murder,
and there are those who would applaud his principled defiance in
captivity. But we pay for his silence in blood.
The word 'torture' comes from the Latin verb torquere, 'to twist'.
Webster's New World Dictionary offers the following primary
definition: 'The inflicting of severe pain to force information and
confession, get revenge, etc'. Note the 'severe', which summons up
images of the rack, thumbscrews, gouges, branding irons, burning
pits, impaling devices, electric shock and all the other devilish
tools devised by human beings to mutilate and inflict pain on others.
All manner of innovative cruelty is still commonplace, particularly
in Central and South America, Africa and the Middle East. Saddam
Hussein's police force burnt various marks into the foreheads of
thieves and deserters, and routinely sliced tongues out of those
whose words offended the state. In Sri Lanka, prisoners are hung
upside down and burnt with hot irons. In China they are beaten with
clubs and shocked with cattle prods. In India, the police stick pins
through the fingernails and fingers of prisoners. Maiming and
physical abuse are legal in Somalia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria,
Sudan and other countries that practise sharia law; the hands of
thieves are lopped off, and women convicted of adultery may be stoned
to death. Governments around the world continue to employ rape and
mutilation, and to harm family members, including children, in order
to extort confessions or information. Civilised people everywhere
readily condemn these offences.
Then there are methods that, some people argue, fall short of
torture. Called 'torture lite', these include sleep deprivation,
exposure to heat or cold, the use of drugs to cause confusion, rough
treatment (slapping, shoving or shaking), forcing a prisoner to stand
for days at a time or to sit in uncomfortable positions, and playing
on his fears for himself and his family. Although excruciating for
the victim, these tactics generally leave no permanent marks and do
no lasting physical harm.
The Geneva Convention makes no distinction: it bans any mistreatment
of prisoners. But some nations that are otherwise committed to ending
brutality have employed torture lite under what they feel are
justifiable circumstances. In 1987, Israel attempted to codify a
distinction between torture, which was banned, and 'moderate physical
pressure', which was permitted in special cases. Indeed, some police
officers, soldiers and intelligence agents who abhor 'severe' methods
believe that banning all forms of physical pressure would be
dangerously naive. Few support the use of physical pressure to
extract confessions, especially because victims will often say
anything (to the point of falsely incriminating themselves) to put an
end to pain. But many veteran interrogators believe that the use of
such methods to extract information is justified if it could save
lives - whether by forcing an enemy soldier to reveal his army's
battlefield positions or forcing terrorists to betray the details of
ongoing plots. As these interrogators see it, the wellbeing of the
captive must be weighed against the lives that might be saved by
forcing him to talk. A method that produces life-saving information
without doing lasting harm to anyone is not just preferable, it
appears to be morally sound. (Hereafter, I will use 'torture' to mean
the more severe, traditional outrages and 'coercion' to refer to
torture lite, or moderate physical pressure.)
There is no clear count of suspected terrorists now in US custody.
About 680 were detained at Camp X-Ray, the specially constructed
prison at Guantanamo, on the southeastern tip of Cuba. Most of these
are now considered mere foot soldiers in the Islamist movement, swept
up in Afghanistan during the swift rout of the Taliban. They come
from 42 nations. Scores of other detainees, considered leaders, have
been or are being held at various locations around the world: in
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Jordan, Morocco, Yemen,
Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand and Iraq, where US forces now
hold the top echelon of Saddam Hussein's dismembered regime. Some
detainees are in disclosed prisons, such as the facility at Bagram
and a camp on the island of Diego Garcia. Others - upper-tier figures
such as Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, Abd al-Rashim al-Nashiri,
Ramzi bin al-Shibh and Tawfiq bin Attash - are being held at
It is likely that some captured terrorists' names and arrests have
not yet been revealed; people may be held for months before their
arrests are staged. Once a top-level suspect is publicly known to be
in custody, his intelligence value falls. His organisation scatters,
altering its plans, disguises, cover stories, codes, tactics and
communication methods. The maximum opportunity for intelligence
gathering comes in the first hours after an arrest, before others in
a group can possibly know that their walls have been breached.
Keeping an arrest quiet for days or weeks prolongs this opportunity.
If 1 March was in fact the day of Sheikh Mohammed's capture, then the
cameras and the headlines were an important intelligence failure. The
arrest of the senior al-Qaeda figure Abu Anas Liby, in Sudan in
February 2002, was not made public until a month later, when US
efforts to transfer him to custody in Egypt were leaked to a
newspaper. So, again, there is no exact count of suspected terrorists
in custody. In September last year, testifying before the House and
Senate Intelligence Committees, Cofer Black, the US State
Department's co-ordinator for counterterrorism, said that the number
who have been detained was about 3,000.
Is the US torturing these prisoners? Three inmates have died in US
custody in Afghanistan, and reportedly 18 prisoners at Guantanamo
have attempted suicide; one prisoner there survived after hanging
himself, but remains unconscious and is not expected to revive. Shah
Muhammad, a 20-year-old Pakistani who was held at Camp X-Ray for 18
months, told me that he repeatedly tried to kill himself. 'They were
driving me crazy,' he said.
Public comments by administration officials have fuelled further
suspicion. An unnamed intelligence official told The Wall Street
Journal: 'What's needed is a little bit of smacky-face. Some al-Qaeda
just need some extra encouragement.'
Describing the clandestine war, Black said, 'This is a highly
All I want to say is that there was "before 9/11" and "after 9/11".
After 9/11 the gloves came off.' He was referring to the overall
counterterrorism effort, but in the context of detained captives the
line was suggestive. A story in December 2002 by Washington Post
reporters Dana Priest and Barton Gellman described the use of 'stress
and duress' techniques at Bagram, and an article in The New York
Times in March described the maltreatment of prisoners there. That
month, Irene Kahn, the secretary-general of Amnesty International,
wrote a letter of protest to President Bush:
'The treatment alleged falls clearly within the category of torture
and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which
is absolutely prohibited under international law... [We] urge the US
government to instigate a full, impartial inquiry into the treatment
of detainees at the Bagram base and to make the findings public. We
further urge the government to make a clear public statement that
torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of suspects
in its custody will not be tolerated under any circumstances, and
that anyone found to have engaged in abuses will be brought to
In June, at the urging of Amnesty and other groups, President Bush
reaffirmed America's opposition to torture, saying, 'I call on all
governments to join with the United States and the community of law-
abiding nations in prohibiting, investigating and prosecuting all
acts of torture... and we are leading this fight by example.'
A slightly more detailed response had been prepared two months
earlier by the Pentagon's top lawyer, William J Haynes II, in a
letter to Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch.
Haynes wrote: 'The United States questions enemy combatants to elicit
information they may possess that could help the coalition win the
war and forestall further terrorist attacks upon the citizens of the
United States and other countries. As President Bush reaffirmed
recently to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights,
United States policy condemns and prohibits torture. When questioning
enemy combatants, US personnel are required to follow this policy and
applicable laws prohibiting torture.'
Haynes's choice of words was careful - and telling. The human rights
groups and the administration are defining terms differently. Yet few
would argue that getting Sheikh Mohammed to talk doesn't serve the
larger interests of mankind.
If there is an archetype of the modern interrogator, it is Michael
Koubi. The former chief interrogator for Israel's General Security
Services, or Shabak, Koubi probably has more experience than anyone
else in the world in the interrogation of hostile Arab prisoners,
some of them confirmed terrorists and religious fanatics - men, he
says, 'whose hatred of the Jews is unbridgeable'. Koubi has blue eyes
in a lean, crooked face. His nose has been broken twice and now ends
well to the right of where it begins, giving him a look that is
literally off-centre. His wisdom, too, is slightly off-centre,
because Koubi has a uniquely twisted perspective on human nature. For
decades he has been experimenting with captive human beings,
cajoling, tricking, hurting, threatening and spying on them, steadily
upping the pressure, looking for cracks at the seams.
I met Koubi at his home on the beach in Ashkelon, just a short drive
north of the border with the Gaza Strip, in whose prisons he worked
for much of his career. He is comfortably retired from his Shabak job
now, a grandfather three times over, and works for the municipal
Inspection and Sanitation Department.
There are still many things he is not free to discuss, but he is
happy to talk about his methods. He is very proud of his skills,
among them an ability to speak Arabic so fluently that he can adopt a
multitude of colloquial flavours. Koubi came to his career as an
interrogator through his love of language. He grew up speaking
Hebrew, Yiddish and Arabic, and he studied Arabic in high school,
working to master its idiom and slang. He also had a knack for
reading the body language and facial expressions of his subjects, and
for sensing a lie. He is a skilled actor who could alternately
befriend or intimidate a subject. Blending these skills with the
tricks he had learnt over the years for manipulating people, Koubi
didn't just question his subjects, he orchestrated their emotional
To many, including many in Israel, Koubi and the unit he headed are
an outrage. The games they played and the tactics they employed are
seen as inhumane, illegal and downright evil. It is hard to picture
this pleasant grandfather as the leader of a unit that critics accuse
of being brutal, but then, charm has always been as important to
interrogation work as toughness or cruelty - perhaps more important.
Koubi says that only in rare instances did he use force to extract
information from his subjects; in most cases it wasn't necessary.
'People change when they get to prison,' Koubi says. 'They may be
heroes outside, but inside they change. The conditions are different.
People are afraid of the unknown. They are afraid of being tortured,
of being held for a long time. Try to see what it is like to sit with
a hood over your head for four hours, when you are hungry and tired
and afraid, when you are isolated from everything and have no clue
what is going on.' When the captive believes that anything could
happen - torture, execution, indefinite imprisonment, even the
persecution of his loved ones - the interrogator can go to work.
Under pressure, he says, nearly everyone looks out first and foremost
for number one.
Every large part of who a man is depends on his circumstances. No
matter who he is before his arrest, his sense of self will blur in
custody. Isolation, fear and deprivation force a man to retreat, to
reorient himself and to reorder his priorities. For most men, Koubi
says, the hierarchy of loyalty under stress is 1) self, 2) group, 3)
family, 4) friends. In other words, even the most dedicated terrorist
(with very rare exceptions), when pushed hard enough, will act to
preserve and protect himself at the expense of anyone or anything
else. 'There's an old Arab saying,' Koubi says. '"Let one hundred
mothers cry, but not my mother - but better my mother than me".'
With older men the priorities shift slightly. In middle age the
family often overtakes the group (the cause) to become the second
most important loyalty. Young men tend to be fiercely committed and
ambitious, but older men - even men with deeply held convictions, men
admired and emulated by their followers - tend to have loves and
obligations that count for more. Age frays idealism, slackens zeal
and cools ferocity. Abstractions lose ground to wife, children and
grandchildren. 'Notice that the leaders of Hamas do not send their
own sons, daughters and grandchildren to blow themselves up,' Koubi
So it is often the top-level men, like Sheikh Mohammed, who are
easier to crack. Koubi believes that having the al-Qaeda leader's
wife and children in custody gives his interrogators powerful
leverage. The key is to find a man's weak point and exploit it. For
Koubi, the three critical ingredients of that process are
preparation, investigation and theatre.
Preparing a subject for interrogation means softening him up.
Ideally, he has been pulled from his sleep - like Sheikh Mohammed -
early in the morning, roughly handled, bound, hooded (a coarse,
dirty, smelly sack serves the purpose perfectly), and kept waiting in
discomfort, perhaps naked in a cold, wet room, forced to stand or to
sit in an uncomfortable position. He may be kept awake for days prior
to questioning, isolated and ill-fed. He may be unsure where he is,
what time of day it is, how long he has been or will be held. If he
is wounded, as Abu Zubaydah was, pain medication may be withheld; it
is one thing to cause pain, another to refuse to relieve it.
Mousa Khoury, a Palestinian businessman, knows the drill all too
well. A slender 34-year-old man with a black goatee and thinning
hair, he is bitter about the Israeli occupation and his experiences
in custody. He has been arrested and interrogated six times by
Israeli forces. He was once detained for 71 days.
'My hands were cuffed behind my back and a potato sack was put over
my head,' he says. 'My legs were cuffed to a tiny chair. The chair's
base was 10cm by 20cm. The back was 10cm by 10cm. It was hard wood.
The front legs were shorter than the back ones, so you were forced to
slide forward on it; only your hands were bound at the back. If you
sat back, the back of the chair dug into the small of your back. If
you slumped forward, you were forced to hang by your hands. It was
painful. They would take you to the toilet only after screaming a
request 100 times.' He could think about only one thing: how to make
the treatment stop. 'Your thoughts go back and forth and back and
forth, and you can no longer have a normal stream of consciousness,'
Preparing an interrogator means arming him beforehand with every
scrap of information about his subject. US Army interrogation manuals
suggest preparing a thick 'dummy file' when little is known, to make
it appear that the interrogator knows more than he does. Nothing
rattles a captive more than to be confronted with a fact he thought
was secret or obscure. It makes the interrogator seem powerful, all-
knowing. A man's sense of importance is wounded, and he is slower to
lie, because he thinks he might be caught at it.
There are many ways that scraps of information - gathered by old-
fashioned legwork or the interrogation of a subject's associates -
can be leveraged by a clever interrogator into something new. Those
scraps might be as simple as knowing the names of a man's siblings or
key associates, the name of his girlfriend, or a word or phrase that
has special meaning to his group. Uncovering privileged details
diminishes the aura of a secret society, whether it is a social club,
a terrorist cell or a military unit. Joining such a group makes an
individual feel distinct, important and superior, and invests even
the most mundane of his activities with meaning. An interrogator who
penetrates that secret society, unravelling its shared language,
culture, history, customs, plans and pecking order, can diminish its
hold on even the staunchest believer. Suspicion that a trusted
comrade has betrayed the group - or the subject himself - undermines
the sense of a secretly shared purpose and destiny. Armed with a few
critical details, a skilled interrogator can make a subject doubt the
value of information he has been determined to withhold. It is one
thing to suffer in order to protect a secret, quite another to cling
to a secret that is already out. This is how a well-briefed
interrogator breaches a group's defences.
Koubi believes that the most important skill for an interrogator is
to know the prisoner's language. Working through interpreters is at
best a necessary evil. Language is at the root of all social
connections and plays a critical role in secret societies like Hamas
and al-Qaeda. A shared vocabulary or verbal shorthand helps to cement
'I try to create the impression that I use his mother tongue even
better than he does,' Koubi says. 'There's no accent, no mistaken
syntax. I speak to him like his best friend speaks to him. I might
ask him a question about a certain word or sentence or expression,
how it is used in his culture, and then I will demonstrate that I
know more about it than he does. This embarrasses him very much.'
Once a prisoner starts to talk, rapid follow-up is needed to sort
fact from fiction, so that the interrogator knows whether his subject
is being co-operative or evasive, and can respond accordingly.
Interrogation sessions should be closely observed (many rooms
designed for this purpose have one-way mirrors), and in a well-run
unit a subject's words can sometimes be checked out before the
session is over. Being caught so quickly in a lie demonstrates the
futility of playing games with the interrogator, and strengthens his
hand. It shames and rattles the subject. When information checks out,
the interrogator can home in for more details and open up new avenues
Religious extremists are the hardest cases. They ponder in their own
private space, performing a kind of self-hypnosis. They are usually
well educated. Their lives are financially and emotionally tidy. They
tend to live in an ascetic manner, and to look down on nonbelievers.
They tend to be physically and mentally strong, and not to be
influenced by material things - by either the incentives or the
disincentives available in prison. Often the rightness of their cause
trumps all else, so they can commit any outrage - lie, cheat, steal,
betray, kill - without remorse. Yet under sufficient duress, Koubi
says, most men of even this kind will eventually break - most, but
not all. Some cannot be broken.
'They are very rare,' he says, 'but in some cases the more aggressive
you get, and the worse things get, the more these men will withdraw
into their own world, until you cannot reach them.'
Mousa Khoury, the Palestinian businessman who has been interrogated
six times, claims that he never once gave in to his jailers. Koubi
has no particular knowledge of Khoury's case, but he smiles his
crooked, knowing smile and says, 'If someone you meet says he was
held by our forces and did not co-operate at all, you can bet he is
lying. In some cases men who are quite famous for their toughness
were the most helpful to us in captivity.'
A good interrogator is a deceiver. One of Koubi's tricks was to walk
into a hallway lined with 20 recently arrested, hooded,
uncomfortable, hungry and fearful men, all primed for interrogation,
and shout commandingly, 'OK, who wants to co-operate with me?' Even
if no hands, or only one hand, went up, he would say to the hooded
men, 'OK, good. Eight of you. I'll start with you, and the others
will have to wait.' Believing that others have capitulated makes
doing so oneself much easier. Often, after this trick, many of the
men in the hall would co-operate. Men are herd animals, and prefer to
go with the flow, especially when moving in the other direction is
In one case Koubi had information suggesting that two men he was
questioning were secretly members of a terrorist cell and knew of an
impending attack. They were tough men, rural farmers, very difficult
to intimidate or pressure, and so far neither man had admitted
anything under questioning. Koubi worked them over individually for
hours. With each man he would start off by asking friendly questions
and then grow angrier and angrier, accusing the subject of
withholding something. He would slap him, knock him off his chair,
set guards on him, and then intervene to pull them off. Then he would
put the subject back in the chair and offer him a cigarette,
lightening the mood. 'Let him see the difference between the two
atmospheres, the hostile one and the friendly one,' Koubi says.
Neither man budged.
Finally, Koubi set his trap. He announced to one of the men that his
interrogation was over. The man's associate, hooded, was seated in
the hallway outside the room. 'We are going to release you,' Koubi
said. 'We are pleased with your co-operation. But first you must do
something for me. I am going to ask you a series of questions, just a
formality, and I need you to answer "Yes" in a loud, clear voice for
the recorder.' Then, in a voice loud enough for the hooded man
outside in the hall to hear, but soft enough so that he couldn't make
out exactly what was being said, Koubi read off a long list of
questions, reviewing the prisoner's name, age, marital status, date
of capture, length of detainment, and so forth. These were regularly
punctuated by the prisoner's loud and co-operative 'Yes'. The charade
was enough to convince the man in the hall that his friend had
Koubi dismissed the first man and brought in the second. 'There's no
more need for me to question you,' Koubi said. 'Your friend has
confessed the whole thing.' He offered the second prisoner a
cigarette and gave him a good meal. He told him that the information
provided by his friend virtually ensured that they would both be in
prison for the rest of their lives... unless, he said, the second
prisoner could offer him something, anything, that would dispose the
court to leniency in his case. Convinced that his friend had already
betrayed them both, the second prisoner acted promptly to save
himself. 'If you want to save Israeli lives, go immediately,' he told
Koubi. 'My friends went with a car to Yeshiva Nehalim [a religious
school]. They are going to kidnap a group of students...' The men
were found in Erez, and the operation was foiled.
A skilful interrogator knows which approach will best suit his
subject; and just as he expertly applies stress, he continually opens
up these avenues of escape or release. This means understanding what,
at heart, is stopping a subject from co-operating. If it is ego, that
calls for one method. If it is fear of reprisal or of getting into
deeper trouble, another method might work best. For most captives a
major incentive to keep quiet is simply pride. Their manhood is being
tested, not just their loyalty and conviction. Allowing the subject
to save face lowers the cost of capitulation, so an artful
interrogator will offer persuasive rationales for giving in: others
already have, or the information is already known. Drugs, if
administered with the subject's knowledge, are helpful in this
regard. If a subject believes that a particular drug or 'truth serum'
renders him helpless, he is off the hook. He cannot be held
accountable for giving in. A study cited in George Andrews's book
Mkultra found that a placebo - a simple sugar pill - was as effective
as an actual drug up to half of the time.
Koubi layered his deception so thick that his subjects never knew
exactly when their interrogation ended. After questioning, captives
usually spent time in a regular prison, which the Israelis had bugged
with a system that was disguised well enough to appear hidden, but
not well enough to avoid discovery. In this way prisoners were led to
believe that only certain parts of the prison were bugged. In fact,
all of the prison was bugged. Conversations between prisoners could
be overheard anywhere, and were closely monitored. They were an
invaluable source of intelligence. Prisoners who could hold out
through the most intense interrogation often let their guard down
later when talking to comrades in jail.
To help such inadvertent confessions along, Koubi had yet another
card to play. Whenever an interrogated subject was released to the
general prison, after weeks of often gruelling questioning, he was
received with open arms by fellow Palestinians who befriended him and
congratulated him for having endured interrogation. He was treated
like a hero. He was fed, nursed, even celebrated. What he didn't know
was that his happy new comrades were working for Koubi.
Koubi calls them 'birdies'. They were Palestinians who, offered an
incentive such as an opportunity to settle with their families in
another country, had agreed to co-operate with Shabak. Some days or
weeks after welcoming the new prisoner into their ranks, easing his
transition into the prison, the birdies would begin to ask questions.
They would debrief the prisoner on his interrogation sessions. They
would say, 'It is very important for those on the outside to know
what you told the Israelis and what you didn't tell them. Tell us,
and we will get the information to those on the outside who need to
know.' Even prisoners who had managed to keep important secrets from
Koubi spilled them to his birdies.
'The amazing thing is that by now the existence of the birdies is
well known,' Koubi says, 'and yet the system still works. People come
out of interrogation, go into the regular prison, and then tell their
darkest secrets. I don't know why it still works, but it does.'
Despite the hue and cry over mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo,
two former Pakistani inmates there - Shah Muhammad and Sahibzada
Osman Ali - told me that except for some roughing up immediately
after they were captured, they were not badly treated at Camp X-Ray.
They both felt bored, lonely, frustrated, angry and helpless (enough
for Shah Muhammad to attempt suicide), but neither believed that he
would be harmed by his American captors, and both regarded the
extreme precautions (shackles, handcuffs, hoods) that so outraged the
rest of the world as comical. 'What did the American soldiers think I
could do to them?' asked Sahibzada, who stands about 5ft 8in and
weighs little more than 11st.
he perfect model of an interrogation centre would be a place where
prisoners lived in fear and uncertainty, a place where they could be
isolated or allowed to mingle freely, as the jailer wished, and where
conversations anywhere could be overheard. Interrogators would be
able to control the experience of their subjects completely, shutting
down access to other people, or even to normal sensation and
experience, or opening up that access. Subjects' lives could be made
a misery of discomfort and confusion, or restored to an almost normal
level of comfort and social interaction within the limitations of
confinement. Hope could be dangled or removed. Co-operation would be
rewarded, stubbornness punished. Interrogators would have ever-
growing files on their subjects, with each new fact or revelation
yielding new leads and more information - drawn from field
investigations (agents in the real world verifying and exploring
facts gathered on the inside), the testimony of other subjects,
collaborators spying inside the prison, and surreptitious recordings.
The interrogators in this centre would have the experience and the
intuition of Koubi.
erious interrogation is clearly being reserved for only the most
dangerous men, such as Sheikh Mohammed. So why not lift the fig leaf
covering the use of coercion? Why not eschew hypocrisy, clearly
define what is meant by 'severe', and amend bans on torture to allow
interrogators to coerce information from would-be terrorists?
This is the crux of the problem. It may be clear that coercion is
sometimes the right choice, but how does one allow it, yet still
control it? Sadism is deeply rooted in the human psyche. Every army
has its share of soldiers who delight in kicking and beating bound
captives. Men in authority tend to abuse it - not all men, but many.
As a mass, they should be assumed to lean toward abuse. How does a
country best regulate behaviour in its dark and distant corners, in
prisons, on battlefields and in interrogation rooms, particularly
when its forces number in the millions and are spread all over the
In considering a change in national policy, one is obliged to
anticipate the practical consequences. So if we formally lift the ban
on torture, even if only partially and in rare, specific cases (the
attorney and author Alan Dershowitz has proposed issuing 'torture
warrants'), the question will be, can we ensure that the practice
does not become commonplace - not just a tool for extracting vital,
life-saving information in rare cases, but a routine tool of
A pertinent case study exists in Israel. Israel has been a target of
terror attacks for many years, and has wrestled openly with the
dilemmas they pose for a democracy. In 1987 a commission led by the
retired Israeli Supreme Court justice Moshe Landau wrote a series of
recommendations for Michael Koubi and his agents, allowing them to
use 'moderate physical pressure' and 'non-violent psychological
pressure' in interrogating prisoners who had information that could
prevent impending terror attacks. The commission sought to allow such
coercion only in 'ticking-bomb scenarios' - that is, when the
information withheld by the suspect could save lives.
Twelve years later, the Israeli Supreme Court effectively revoked
this permission, banning the use of any and all forms of torture. In
the years following the Landau Commission recommendations, the use of
coercive methods had become widespread in the Occupied Territories.
It was estimated that more than two-thirds of the Palestinians taken
into custody were subjected to them. Koubi says that only in rare
instances, and with court permission, did he slap, pinch, or shake a
prisoner - but he happens to be an especially gifted interrogator.
What about the hundreds of men who worked for him? Koubi could not be
present for all those interrogations. Every effort to regulate
coercion failed. In the abstract it was easy to imagine a ticking-
bomb situation, and a suspect who clearly warranted rough treatment.
But in real life where was the line to be drawn? Should coercive
methods be applied only to someone who knows of an immediately
pending attack? What about one who might know of attacks planned for
months or years in the future?
'Assuming you get useful information from torture, then why not
always use torture?' asks Jessica Montell, the executive director of
B'Tselem, a human rights advocacy group in Jerusalem. 'Why stop at
the bomb that's already been planted and at people who know where the
explosives are? Why not people who are building the explosives, or
people who are donating money, or transferring the funds for the
explosives? Why stop at the victim himself? Why not torture the
victims' families, their relatives? If the end justifies the means,
then where would you draw the line?'
And how does one define 'coercion', as opposed to 'torture'? If
making a man sit in a tiny chair that forces him to hang painfully by
his bound hands when he slides forward is acceptable, then what about
applying a little pressure to the base of his neck to aggravate that
pain? When does shaking or pushing a prisoner, which can become
violent enough to kill or seriously injure a man, cross the line from
coercion to torture?
Montell has thought about these questions a lot. She is 35, a slender
woman with scruffy short brown hair, who seems in perpetual motion,
directing B'Tselem and tending baby twins and a four-year-old at
home. Born in California, she emigrated to Israel partly out of
feelings of solidarity with the Jewish state and partly because she
found a job she liked in the human-rights field. Raised with a kind
of idealised notion of Israel, she now seems committed to making the
country live up to her ideals. But those ideals are hardheaded.
Although Montell and her organisation have steadfastly opposed the
use of coercion (which she considers torture), she recognises that
the moral issue involved is not a simple one.
She knows that the use of coercion in interrogation did not end
completely when the Israeli Supreme Court banned it in 1999. The
difference is that when interrogators use 'aggressive methods' now,
they know they are breaking the law and could potentially be held
responsible for doing so. This acts as a deterrent, and tends to
limit the use of coercion to only the most defensible situations.
'If I, as an interrogator, feel that the person in front of me has
information that can prevent a catastrophe from happening,' she
says, 'I imagine that I would do what I would have to do in order to
prevent that catastrophe from happening. The state's obligation is
then to put me on trial, for breaking the law. Then I come and
say, "These are the facts that I had at my disposal. This is what I
believed at the time. This is what I thought necessary to do." I can
evoke the defence of necessity, and then the court decides whether or
not it's reasonable that I broke the law in order to avert this
catastrophe. But it has to be that I broke the law. It can't be that
there's some prior licence for me to abuse people.'
In other words, when the ban is lifted, there is no restraining lazy,
incompetent, or sadistic interrogators. As long as it remains illegal
to torture, the interrogator who employs coercion must accept the
risk. He must be prepared to stand up in court, if necessary, and
defend his actions. Interrogators will still use coercion, because in
some cases they will deem it worth the consequences. This does not
mean they will necessarily be punished. In any nation the decision to
prosecute a crime is an executive one. A prosecutor, a grand jury or
a judge must decide to press charges, and the chances that an
interrogator in a genuine ticking-bomb case would be prosecuted, much
less convicted, is very small.
Candour and consistency are not always public virtues. Torture is a
crime against humanity, but coercion is an issue that is rightly
handled with a wink, or even a touch of hypocrisy; it should be
banned but also quietly practised. Those who protest against coercive
methods will exaggerate their horrors, which is good: it generates a
useful climate of fear. It is wise of the US to support international
agreements banning torture, and it is wise for American interrogators
to employ whatever coercive methods will work. It is also smart not
to discuss the matter with anyone.
If interrogators step over the line from coercion to outright
torture, they should be held personally responsible. But no
interrogator is ever going to be prosecuted for keeping Khalid Sheikh
Mohammed awake, cold, alone, hungry and uncomfortable. Nor should he
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