Interrogation should be a powerful tool in the war on terror, but too often it is thwarted by abuse and interagency conflict.
Prisoner 237 was delivered to the Army interrogation facility at Bagram airfield in northeastern Afghanistan in the middle of a June day in 2002. The thin Arab in his early 20s with the receding hairline and black beard had apparently been picked up across the border in Paki-stan by tribal forces, then turned over to the "OGA"-the euphemistic acronym (for "other government agency") given by military personnel to the CIA-before being transferred to the Special Forces team that deposited him at Bagram.
Prisoner 237 immediately went to the top of the interrogators' priority list: He was a Saudi national who had attended high school in the United States and studied aeronautical engineering in Arizona, just 100 miles from the Scottsdale, Ariz., flight school attended by Hani Hanjour, the Sept. 11 hijacker who nine months earlier had piloted the jet that crashed into the Pentagon. There were indications he had ties to a couple of different terrorist organizations. The mood at Bagram was electric: Prisoner 237 might reveal crucial information about al Qaeda.
That the interrogation team was told anything about this prisoner made the case unusual. Frequently, prisoners were simply dropped at the facility, usually by Special Forces personnel, sometimes following a battle, other times after spending some amount of time being held by the CIA in locations that were never disclosed, under circumstances that were never explained. According to one senior military officer formerly assigned to the U.S. embassy in Kabul, the CIA "was running its own game," sometimes to the detriment of broader U.S. objectives. "Basically, they were arrogant. They didn't see themselves as part of a multiagency team," he says.
The interrogation unit supervisor when Prisoner 237 arrived was Sgt. 1st Class Chris Mackey (a pseudonym), who detailed many of his experiences in a book he co-wrote with Los Angeles Times correspondent Greg Miller, titled The Interrogators: Inside the Secret War Against al Qaeda (Little, Brown and Co., 2004). In an interview with Government Executive, Mackey contended that the CIA was difficult to work with. He says the FBI, which also conducted interrogations in Af-ghanistan, was easier to deal with, but like the CIA, did not share information from its databases with the Army intelligence unit. To get around this problem, members of Mackey's team often looked to their British colleagues, who seemed to have an easier time prying information out of other U.S. intelligence agencies.
Mackey selected a young female sergeant to lead the interrogation of Prisoner 237. She wasn't considered to be the best interrogator among the small crew at Bagram, but she had demonstrated an ability to get prisoners talking with her disarming demeanor and sharp questions. She had more experience interrogating Saudis than anyone else on the team. Mackey thought there was another good reason to put the petite blonde in charge-many Muslim prisoners grew rattled when confronted by a woman.
But once inside the plywood confines of the interrogation booth, the prisoner, who spoke flawless English, was aloof and dismissive. He answered the interrogator's questions with questions of his own. He argued that the military had no legal authority to hold him. He demanded an explanation of his rights. Although he had lived for years in the United States, he insisted he only knew events and dates according to the Islamic calendar, which is based on lunar visibility. During the next several hours, the interrogation continued to spiral downward, with the interrogator feeling increasingly defeated and Prisoner 237 appearing more defiant.
The experience seemed to confirm what Mackey and others had come to believe after several months in Afghanistan-mili-tary interrogators were ill-equipped to combat the defenses raised by many of the prisoners captured in Afghanistan. Many interrogators were young and inexperienced, often without adequate language skills or a clear understanding of the cultures from which most of the prisoners sprang. While most interrogators were competent, few were expert. The prisoners themselves came not only from various tribes in Afghanistan, but also from North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Central Asia, Russia and even China. It was left to the interrogators to sort out the bad actors in al Qaeda and the Taliban from the locals pressed into service in someone else's war. Army, CIA and FBI interrogators operated in the same facilities, each gathering information for their own purposes. Sometimes all three organizations questioned the same prisoners, but those interrogations were seldom coordinated.
U.S. interrogation methods and detention operations are ill-suited for the war against al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorist organizations, Mackey and others believe. An insufficient number of prisons and trained guards, inadequate training of interrogators, a lack of consensus about how to interrogate effectively and within the law, agency turf battles and frustration with an intransigent enemy are all likely factors in cases of detainee abuse that have arisen in Afghanistan, Iraq and the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, since President Bush declared a war on terror following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Unfortunately for Mackey, the case of Prisoner 237 would highlight many of the limitations of the U.S. approach to interrogation.
Four months before Prisoner 237 showed up in Bagram, Mackey was assigned to an interrogation unit in Kandahar, Af-ghanistan, where most prisoners were being taken. The Special Forces teams bringing in the prisoners often brought documents they had scooped up on raids. Those went to a "document exploitation team" in the next tent over, but when the pile of documents grew too high, interrogators and linguists were routinely tapped to help translate them. In mid-February 2002, interrogators tackling the pile came upon a 60-page photocopied manual, much of it handwritten. The top page had a note in Arabic: "Brothers, this is the book about prisoners." It was a guide for resisting interrogation if captured.
When the interrogators at Kandahar realized what they had, every available Arabic reader was thrown into the translation effort. The document was explicit about how to beat American interrogation methods: never give away a compatriot's real name, confuse interrogators by using the Islamic calendar, and reveal only bits of information out of sequence to sow confusion.
According to Mackey, the manual also said that Americans likely would not physi-cally harm prisoners, but "they must be tempted into doing so. And if they do strike a brother, you must complain to the authorities immediately." Baiting Americans should result in an attack that leaves "evidence," the manual said, which would give the prisoner the opportunity to prompt an international outcry, especially if prisoners could show the Red Cross a bruise or a scar. It depicted Western forces as "weak" and not having the stomach for torture "because they are not warriors," Mackey says.
Another section of the manual explained how to resist harsh interrogation methods and torture practices regarded as common in the Middle East. This section was filled with drawings depicting eyes being gouged out, kneecaps being drilled, and boiling water being poured on prisoners. According to Mackey, the document generated tremendous interest well beyond the interrogation unit: "Everybody wanted to see the manual-the command at Kandahar, the officers at Doha [Qatar], people back in Washington."
To many of the soldiers in the unit, the manual raised questions about the effectiveness of their tactics. Weeks earlier, an interrogator at Kandahar had been rebuked by a superior for placing a recalcitrant prisoner in a "stress position"-kneeling, with his hands extended-as punishment for insolence. The interrogator told his superior that he was only doing to the prisoner what had been done to him in basic training. The officer reminded the interrogator that he had volunteered for the Army, unlike the prisoner.
To most interrogators at that time, the rules were clear, Mackey says. "I'm a big believer in fear," he says, "and we lived in fear of violating the Geneva Conventions." This collection of international laws governing conduct in war and the treatment of prisoners was adopted by most nations, including the United States, after World War II.
The discovery of the al Qaeda interrogation-resistance training manual changed many soldiers' attitudes about the use of coercive methods, including Mackey's. By the time he left Afghanistan the following summer, interrogators were using techniques they would not have thought appropriate when they arrived, Mackey says. "That said, we were very careful to not violate the Geneva Conventions, and I don't believe we ever did," he says.
Likewise, by the fall of 2002, military interrogators at Guantanamo were increasingly frustrated by the lack of cooperation from prisoners there. "Despite our best efforts, some detainees have tenaciously resisted our current interrogation methods," Gen. James Hill, head of the Army's Southern Command, wrote in an Oct. 25, 2002, memo to Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington. Hill requested guidance about using additional interrogation techniques.
Since then, more than 200 prisoners have been released from Guantanamo and a host of dubious interrogation methods have come to light, from female interrogators using sexually provocative methods to detainees being stripped and shackled in the fetal position and placed in extremely hot or cold rooms. Some methods were revealed in memos released under the Freedom of Information Act to the American Civil Liberties Union, written by FBI agents disturbed at what they witnessed at the prison.
The photos of prisoner abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the allegations of abuse in Afghanistan and Guantanamo that have emerged over the past year have revolted Mackey. But he is not entirely surprised. "Our experience showed that the harsher the methods we used, the better the information we got and the sooner we got it," he says.
The pressure to get Prisoner 237 to talk was enormous. Mackey's colleagues and Army superiors, as well as the CIA and FBI agents present at Bagram, pressed him to somehow salvage the situation. He decided to interrogate Prisoner 237 himself. It was a questionable decision. Using a fresh interrogator against an exhausted prisoner could run afoul of the Geneva Conventions. Bush administration officials had earlier concluded that Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners picked up in Afghanistan weren't technically covered by the Geneva Conventions. But in the spring of 2002, Mackey and his colleagues were explicitly told by superiors at U.S. Central Command to treat the prisoners as if they were covered by the Geneva Conventions anyway. Mackey ultimately justified his decision to continue the interrogation by calculating that he and the prisoner had both had about the same amount of sleep, so the prisoner could not reasonably be perceived as being at a disadvantage.
Interrogation is a battle of wits. A good interrogator seeks to know everything possible about his opponent, to understand his history, what motivates him, what his aspirations are, and most important, to give him a reason to cooperate. It's also essential to see how people respond when they're telling the truth, so you can more easily judge when they're lying. "The master liar recognizes the need to tell as much truth as possible," says Owen Einspahr, a retired FBI agent and former interrogation instructor at the FBI Academy in Quan-tico, Va. Nonverbal indicators-the way a person uses his hands, makes eye contact and holds his posture-can often be more telling than what a person actually says.
At first, Mackey didn't do much better in the interrogation booth than the female interrogator. Before he could even ask his first question, Prisoner 237, by now supremely confident, asked, 'May I help you?' Mackey ignored this and dozens of other questions the prisoner posed in response to Mackey's queries. But when Prisoner 237 asked Mackey where he went to college, Mackey answered, hoping to draw him into a conversation about life in the United States. When Mackey told him he'd gone to Fordham University in New York City, Prisoner 237 replied dismissively that it was a "third-tier school." To Mackey, this exchange was revealing. It told him that 237's self-esteem depended on achieving a sense of superiority over others. So Mackey sought to throw the prisoner off guard by portraying him as an insignificant player.
During the next five hours Mackey gleaned another important clue to the prisoner's personality-a preoccupation with death. He also planted the germ of an idea with the prisoner that might prompt him to reconsider his fate-he suggested Prisoner 237 could be turned over to Israel and ultimately win his freedom as part of a prisoner exchange with the Palestinian Authority. Mackey then took a break from the interrogation so the prisoner could eat, but he told Prisoner 237 that neither one of them would rest until he determined 237's future. The prisoner appeared to be nowhere near the breaking point, where he would start speaking truthfully. Still, there was hope interrogators might soon discover what journey had propelled this American-educated Saudi with flight training to the al Qaeda-influenced badlands of eastern Pakistan.
Although detention and interrogation operations are separate functions in the Army, they are inextricably linked. Military police are responsible for custody and control of prisoners and for providing a safe and secure environment in detention centers. They don't participate in interrogations, but interrogators rely on them to pass along information that might be helpful-how a prisoner behaves, his relationships with other prisoners, personality traits. Interrogators also occasionally use guards to plant rumors among prisoners, hoping to create a climate of anxiety that might cause prisoners to give up information they are otherwise reluctant to share.
By the fall of 2003, Army leaders realized they had a problem with detention operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. There simply were not enough adequate facilities, military police, interrogators and linguists available to effectively manage a detainee population of more than 50,000. Service leaders created a new position, provost marshal of the Army, to manage law enforcement policy and operations. Maj. Gen. Donald Ryder, a career military police officer with more than 30 years of service, got the job. The Army's problems soon became graphically clear to the world the following spring when the Abu Ghraib pictures emerged.
An investigation into interrogation practices in Afghanistan and Iraq and at Guantanamo, completed by Vice Adm. Albert T. Church last December, examined 71 cases of detainee abuse, including six deaths, which had been substantiated by Sept. 30, 2004. (Another 130 cases still were under investigation, including most of the Abu Ghraib cases.) Investigators found that less than one-third of the substantiated cases were related to interrogations, and in many of those cases the relationship was tenuous-a field commander slapping a detainee while asking him questions, for example, fell into that category, although the incident did not occur during any formal "interrogation," nor were military intelligence personnel involved. Nonetheless, investigators faulted senior military leaders for not providing clear guidance to interrogators in Af-ghanistan and Iraq. Also, the investigation found confusion in the field about the relationship between the CIA and military interrogators, confusion that led to the imprisonment of about 30 "ghost de-tainees" whose presence in military facilities was kept secret, a violation of military and international law.
Based on the findings of nearly a dozen official investigations into hundreds of reports of prisoner abuse, the Army developed a plan to implement 199 recommendations aimed at improving operations and preventing abuse. Consequently, the Army is revising some of its policies and rewriting its field manuals for both military police and interrogators. Additionally, over the next three years the Army plans to establish 35 units whose primary function will be to run prisons during military operations.
Thomas Gandy, a West Point graduate and career intelligence officer and now director of human intelligence for the Army, says the updated interrogation manual, Field Manual 34-52, will provide more explicit descriptions of acceptable and unacceptable interrogation techniques. "In the new manual, the Geneva Conventions are well integrated into the techniques" interrogators might use, Gandy says. "We're going to be very specific in our training on the left and right boundaries, what you can and cannot do. [It will] leave far less up to the interrogator." For example, the use of dogs to scare or harm prisoners during interrogation is expressly prohibited.
In addition, other agencies using military interrogation facilities must comply with military interrogation rules and all interrogators will be subject to military oversight, Gandy says.
Whether or not a particular interrogation approach will be successful is impossible to know in advance. What's more, an unsuccessful approach can be disastrous, forever shutting the door to critical information.
Interrogators use many tactics to elicit information. Artfully employed verbal intimidation can be effective with some prisoners. Others might be susceptible to ideological persuasion or self-preservation. The Army interrogators in Afghanistan frequently threatened to send prisoners to countries known to use torture-even though they had no power to follow through on such threats-and did not realize at the time that the CIA was actually engaging in this practice (that fact only came to light earlier this year). It proved to be one of the most effective tactics for getting people to talk. Another tactic the interrogators at Bagram used liberally was deception. Mackey decided to try it on Prisoner 237 after he took over the interrogation.
While Prisoner 237 ate during a break, Mackey prepared an elaborate ruse. Employing his computer graphics skills, Mackey concocted a fake news story from the Los Angeles Times describing the military tribunal and subsequent execution of Ahmed Salim Swedan, Mustafa Mohamed Fadhil and Musa'ad al-Fatuh, three members of Osama bin Laden's inner circle, at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The fabricated article, complete with fictitious statements from the American Civil Liberties Union protesting the "kangaroo court" and Attorney General John Ashcroft defending it, also included a quote from an unnamed source saying prisoners had revealed sensitive information, including names and roles of other al Qaeda members currently in custody. After the female sergeant who had first interrogated Prisoner 237 delivered the fake newspaper article to him, he read it and vomited.
Mackey returned to the booth. He told the prisoner that unless he was willing to cooperate he would face a trial and its consequences. Mackey again suggested the possibility of a prisoner exchange. When Prisoner 237 asked if it was possible he could be freed through such a swap, Mackey played on his insecurities by suggesting that the Americans didn't think Prisoner 237 was really all that important. The technique seemed to work. After some more back and forth, Prisoner 237 started to share information. Most important, he revealed that he was on the staff of an Islamic charity that had been placed on the State Department's terrorist watch list months earlier. But before much more could be learned, a knock on the door interrupted the interrogation.
Mackey's colleagues had just found out from another prisoner that Prisoner 237 had taken the Bayatt-a blood oath of loyalty to Osama bin Laden-a year earlier. It was a powerful piece of information that tied Prisoner 237 directly to al Qaeda. The urge to use the information in the interrogation proved irresistible. The prisoner was exhausted and seemed to be on the ropes. Maybe, Mackey thought, the extra pressure would push him into full cooperation. He regretted his decision immediately. When confronted, 237 denied taking the oath and quickly retreated from his earlier cooperation. Perhaps he was reminded of his oath and his near betrayal, or maybe he realized that with this information, the Americans would never release him to be part of a prisoner swap.
A few days later, Prisoner 237 was sent to Guantanamo. Information about whether or not he ever cooperated with authorities there-or whether in fact he is still at the facility-has never been made public.