Zero Dark Thirty – And the Real World of Torture, Enhanced Interrogation, Rendition and Prolonged Detention

(Photo: AP)

The disturbing torture scenes depicted in the recent film Zero Dark Thirty along with President Obama’s signing of the National Defense Authorization Act allowing for Americans on U.S. soil to be subject to indefinite detention and torture have once again brought the questions relating to the usefulness of rendition, indefinite imprisonments and torture (both lite and hard) back into the public consciousness.  With media depictions increasingly glorifying the roles of military and civilian intelligence officers—even those who rely on torture—surveys of U.S. citizens have shown an alarming increase of Americans who embrace the idea of torture.  Of course one must understand that people—on both sides of the “war on terrorism” —are increasingly likely to embrace violent and extremist measures in direct proportion to the more they feel threatened.

That being said, however, the thoughtful individual needs to examine some core questions—the first being—does torture in any of it’s forms, including “torture lite” work?  The answer appears to be a resounding no.  Torture for the most part fails as a tactic because it does not leads to credible information, is problematic later for anyone we wish to prosecute, and may actually contribute far more to terrorism recruitment rather than to curbing terrorism. When dealing with al Qaeda for instance we must understand that most hardened terrorists who have blood on their hands have committed themselves to the idea of “martyrdom” and may be adept at misleading us when we believe they have cracked under torture. And when we resort to anything that is morally bankrupt they will later use it against us to show their constituents and potential recruits our “true colors”.

By contrast, interrogation that relies on rapport building has shown itself to yield positive results.  When I worked in Iraq helping to build the Detainee Rehabilitation Program for the 20,000+ detainees held there at that time by U.S. forces, three high value AQ operatives had been turned to our side as a result of a skilled and kind interrogator.  The simple act of sensitively inquiring about a head wound that needed treatment versus days of holding a person in stress positions, while denying him the ability to use the toilet as needed, and other abuses was much more effective in getting one of these operatives to switch sides, talk and to offer to assist us in our efforts to fight AQ in Iraq. Former FBI agent Jack Cloonan agrees, stating that we have been very successful in getting even hardened terrorists with blood on their hands to talk by using old fashioned methods of building rapport.  Interrogation and building rapport are actually acutely honed skills that rely on a high level of emotional intelligence and that should be carefully taught and used in place of brute force.

I also found in Iraq that many of the lower value detainees expressed genuine amazement that they had been humanely treated and not tortured while in U.S. detention facilities.  They as a result also became much more positive about the U.S. and had little to go home to tell their families and tribes against us.

Whereas when pictures of our misdeeds in Abu Ghraib circulated, they became a powerful propaganda tool for AQ recruitment, fueling claims we are not who we say we are.  Indeed when I interviewed an Iraqi sheik who had been held in Abu Ghraib he was three years onward still suffering from the shame and humiliation of the way he had been forced to strip naked and be photographed while his genitals were mocked in the presence of female soldiers in the room. And this Sheik’s outrage did not end with him—it extended to his entire family and tribe who are all responsible to revenge for him.

And if we combine his outrage with that of our already too high collateral damage tolls from drone attacks, the fear and anger in civilian populations engendered by our drones, our renditions, prolonged detentions and our use of hooding, darkness, cold, loud and disturbing music, small cells, solitary confinement, stress positions, water boarding and all the other permutations of “torture lite” that we have recently resorted to—our actions become profound and powerful recruiting tools for al Qaeda.  And whatever gains made are severely outweighed by the loss of the moral high ground that occurs when we are lowered to the level of our enemies and we ourselves make a mockery of our once highly cherished principles of human rights.

That power corrupts is a well-known adage. The famous Zimbardo prison experiments demonstrated how role-playing students when placed in positions of prison authority over others quickly transformed into cruel guards. In real life the UK learned this lesson as well. When their forces were allowed to use highly coercive interrogation techniques against IRA prisoners they found that it quickly advanced to cruel threats and the actual use of violence. The progression in Abu Ghraib similarly moved quickly from prisoner physical to sexual abuse. When oversight and limits are missing in prison situations, cruelty can quickly abound with serious repercussions for all.

And neither the UK or the U.S. claimed any significant actionable Intel as a result of these two shameful situations.

While “torture lite” may leave no lasting physical scars, the psychological scars of arrest, prolonged detention without due process, rendition and “torture lite” all leave long lasting psychological scars.  Indeed, imprisonment itself can be traumatic when it occurs without due process.  Who among us would do well with being put in a cage with little to no outside contact whilst having their records and computers suddenly and completely impounded? Relationships, employment, businesses, marriage plans—entire lives go off track in such instances.

When I made interviews of Palestinians during the second Intifada who had been put in administrative detention I found many youth who emerged from not knowing why or how long they would be held were deeply traumatized.  Even hardened terrorist leader Zakaria Zubeidi, leader of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade in Jenin and sender of suicide terrorists, told me he’d rather “martyr” himself than ever again return to a prison cell.  Chechens who faced serious torture echoed similar sentiments. This tells me that our use of administrative detention and “torture lite” may actually contribute to the hardening of many terrorists who fear imprisonment more than “martyrdom”.

So as we debate once again our methods of choice in the fight against terrorism I suggest we back off of secretive decisions in behalf of proxy torture, secret detentions, coercive interrogations and the use of torture of any type.  Instead we should once again become a society that publically debates these issues and wisely decides to uphold the fundamental human rights of all persons—even those of unlawful enemy combatants.  And when those times come when we have no choice but to detain terrorism suspects we must learn from our mistakes and know that mistreating them nearly always carries too high a price and leads to less positive results than treating humans with the dignity and care that is necessary to build real rapport that can yield real results.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is the author of Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & “Martyrs”