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CIA veterans speak out against torture

Ex-officers worry that proposed exemption to anti-torture legislation would institutionalize the practice.

Among the fundamental conceits of the architects of the Bush administration's war on terrorism is that heavy-handed interrogation is useful, even necessary, to get any information that will protect the American people, and that such interrogation techniques are devoid of negative consequences in dealing with real or suspected terrorists.

One way this notion has played out in practice is the CIA's use of "extraordinary rendition," in which terror suspects overseas are kidnapped and delivered to third-party countries for interrogation -- which, not uncharacteristically, includes some measure of torture, and sometimes fatal torture.

Details about the extent and excesses of the U.S. government's interrogation practices have been ably documented by the media and human-rights organizations. Many thought that extraordinary rendition would be the worst of the revelations, but on November 2, The Washington Post revealed that the CIA has been running its own system of secret overseas detention and interrogation centers, known as "black sites."

Coming at a moment when both CIA Director Porter Goss and Vice President Cheney have been crusading to exempt the CIA from pending legislation authored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that would ban U.S. government personnel from using torture, and other abusive conduct, in interrogations, the story has been particularly resonant -- especially when at least one prisoner under CIA supervision at the now-defunct Afghanistan "salt pit" black site died as a result of abuse.

Although outrage has focused on the existence and symbolism of the black sites, comparatively little attention has been paid to the concerns -- if not outright objections -- of many distinguished CIA veterans about these sites and the use of torture in general. It's not just that such behavior is largely impractical, they say; it's that even by the morally ambiguous standards of espionage and covert action, the abuse is simply wrong.

Some perennially high-profile retired CIA officers like Bob Baer, Frank Anderson, and Vincent Cannistraro recently spoke out to Knight Ridder about their opposition to torture on practical grounds (Cannistraro said that detainees will "say virtually anything to end their torment"). But over the past 18 months, several lesser-known former officers have been trying, publicly and privately, to convince both the agency and the public that torture and other unduly coercive questioning tactics are morally wrong as well.

Speaking at a College of William and Mary forum last year, for example, Burton L. Gerber, a decorated Moscow station chief who retired in 1995 after 39 years with the CIA, surprised some in the audience when he said he opposes torture "because it corrupts the society that tolerates it."

This is a view, he confirmed in an interview with National Journal last week, that is rooted in Albert Camus's assertion in Preface to Algerian Reports that torture, "even when accepted in the interest of realism and efficacy," represents "a flouting of honor that serves no purpose but to degrade" a nation in its own eyes and the world's.

"The reason I believe that torture corrupts the torturers and society," Gerber says, "is that a standard is changed, and that new standard that's acceptable is less than what our nation should stand for. I think the standards in something like this are crucial to the identity of America as a free and just society."

The moral dimensions of torture, Gerber adds, are inextricably linked with the practical; aside from the fact that torture almost always fails to yield true or useful information, it has the potential to adversely affect CIA operations.

"Foreign nationals agree to spy for us for many different reasons; some do it out of an overwhelming admiration for America and what it stands for, and to those people, I think, America being associated with torture does affect their willingness to work with us," he says. "But one of my arguments with the agency about ethics, particularly in this case, is that it's not about case studies, but philosophy. Aristotle says the ends and means must be in concert; if the ends and means are not in concert, good ends will be corrupted by bad means."

A similar stance was articulated last year by Merle L. Pribbenow, a 27-year veteran of the agency's clandestine Directorate of Operations. Writing in Studies in Intelligence, the CIA's in-house journal, Pribbenow recalled that an old college friend had recently expressed his belief that "the terrorist threat to America was so grave that any methods, including torture, should be used to obtain the information we need." The friend was vexed that Pribbenow's former colleagues "had not been able to 'crack' these prisoners."

Pribbenow sought an answer by revisiting the arcane case of Nguyen Van Tai, the highest-ranking Vietcong prisoner captured and interrogated by both South Vietnamese and American forces during the Vietnam War.

Re-examining in detail the techniques used by the South Vietnamese (protracted torture that included electric shocks; beatings; various forms of water torture; stress positions; food, water, and sleep deprivation) and by the Americans (rapport-building and no violence), Pribbenow reached a stark conclusion: "While the South Vietnamese use of torture did result (eventually) in Tai's admission of his true identity, it did not provide any other usable information," he wrote. In the end, he said, "it was the skillful questions and psychological ploys of the Americans, and not any physical infliction of pain, that produced the only useful (albeit limited) information that Tai ever provided." But perhaps most noteworthy was Pribbenow's conclusion: "This brings me back to my college classmate's question. The answer I gave him -- one in which I firmly believe -- is that we, as Americans, must not let our methods betray our goals," he said. "There is nothing wrong with a little psychological intimidation, verbal threats, bright lights and tight handcuffs, and not giving a prisoner a soft drink and a Big Mac every time he asks for them.

There are limits, however, beyond which we cannot and should not go if we are to continue to call ourselves Americans. America is as much an ideal as a place, and physical torture of the kind used by the Vietnamese (North as well as South) has no place in it."

Retired since 1995, Pribbenow spends most of his time writing on Vietnam War history and translating Vietnamese works. With the exception of participating in a documentary series on the Vietnam War, he has never spoken to the press. But last week in an exclusive interview with National Journal, he revealed that part of what prompted him to write his piece was his own experience in Vietnam, where as an interpreter participating in CIA interrogations, he had occasion to interact with South Vietnamese torturers and their victims.

"If you talk to people who have been tortured, that gives you a pretty good idea not only as to what it does to them, but what it does to the people who do it," he said. "One of my main objections to torture is what it does to the guys who actually inflict the torture. It does bad things. "I have talked to a bunch of people who had been tortured who, when they talked to me, would tell me things they had not told their torturers, and I would ask, 'Why didn't you tell that to the guys who were torturing you?' They said that their torturers got so involved that they didn't even bother to ask questions."

Ultimately, he said -- echoing Gerber's comments -- "torture becomes an end unto itself."

Pribbenow also said he was moved to write down his thoughts out of concern for the current generation of intelligence officers. "I don't personally know of any cases where an agency officer ever [tortured] anyone; that was always taboo, something we just didn't do," he said.

"But I had been seeing stuff in the news, on TV, TV commentators, that sort of thing, in favor of torture," he said, "and I thought, 'I know there are a lot of new intelligence officers, new guys who don't have a lot of experience,' and thought maybe something like this will help them make their own decisions as to how to handle themselves in these situations, especially when people in authority are saying things that are unclear."

Indeed, Pribbenow, Gerber, and other veterans interviewed all noted that one of their greatest worries is that the proposed exemption to McCain's legislation will institutionalize something that has historically been an exception in CIA culture: CIA officers actually doing physical harm to interrogation suspects.

One longtime case officer asks, "Are there instances throughout history when we have known, and in some cases, at least, turned a blind eye to, that allied or friendly intelligence services are torturing people? Yes," he says. "Is it something our own officers have done? Almost never."

What has many veterans worried, he said, is the fact that while case officers aren't actually trained in interrogation techniques ("I'm not sure I ever knew anyone who was a 'professional interrogator' in the agency," says Pribbenow), in recent years officers have been getting the worst combination of no training plus ambiguous signals from management on the ethics of interrogation.

From 1972 to 1975, Frank Snepp was the CIA's top interrogator in Saigon, where he choreographed elaborate, protracted sessions with Nguyen Van Tai and, at one point, seven other senior Vietcong captives. To the question of whether torture or abusive behavior by interrogators is justified, Snepp's answer is unequivocally no. And the fact that this point isn't understood at the agency today, Snepp says, is a sign of serious problems.

"One of the big lessons for the agency was that the South Vietnamese torturing people got in the way of getting information," he says. "One day, without my knowledge, the South Vietnamese forces beat one of my subjects to a pulp, and when he staggered into the interrogation room, I was furious. And I went to the station chief and he said, 'What do you want me to do about it?'

"I told him to tell the Vietnamese to lay off, and he said, 'What do you want me to tell them in terms of why?' I said, 'Because it's wrong, it's just wrong.' He laughed and said, 'Look, we've got 180,000 North Vietnamese troops within a half hour of here -- I can't tell them, don't beat the enemy. Give me a pragmatic reason.' I said, 'He can't talk. He's a wreck. I can't interrogate him.' He said, 'That, I can use with them.'

"The important lesson for me was that moral arguments don't work," Snepp says. "But if you have pragmatic reasons, that will work. But the most important thing is that the only time you can be sure that what you're getting from someone is valid is through discourse. In Tai's case, the idea was to develop absolute trust, which you do not do by alienating and humiliating someone. He liked poetry; I brought him books of poetry, and in many sessions we sat and discussed poetry, nothing else.

The most extreme thing I did was a disorientation technique, where I would keep jumping from one subject to another so rapidly that he might not remember what he'd told me the day before, or not remember that he had not, in fact, told me what I was saying he'd told me. Little by little, I drew him into revelations. And I was highly commended for this work."

But today, according to case officers, younger CIA operatives have no formal training. No qualified old hands are around to informally mentor them, or to even swap collegial notes, on the practical or the ethical in interrogations.

"We're not trained interrogators -- to be honest, in those situations I really had no idea what I'm doing, and I'm not the only one who has had this experience," says a decorated active case officer with nearly 25 years of experience, who on several occasions in recent years has participated in interrogations of Islamist radicals conducted by foreign intelligence services.

"The larger problem here, I think, is that this kind of stuff just makes people feel better, even if it doesn't work.... I'm worried that this is becoming more institutionalized," the officer says. "There are other officers I know who I think are coming to take on faith that the only way to get anything out of a suspected terrorist is beating it out of him, because he's in an entirely different category, so fanatical that it's the only thing that'll work."

According to a 30-year CIA veteran currently working for the agency on contract, there is, in fact, some precedent showing that the "gloves-off" approach works -- but it was hotly debated at the time by those who knew about it, and shouldn't be emulated today.

"I have been privy to some of what's going on now, but when I saw the Post story, I said to myself, 'The agency deserves every bad thing that's going to happen to it if it is doing this again,'" he said. "In the early 1980s, we did something like this in Lebanon -- technically, the facilities were run by our Christian Maronite allies, but they were really ours, and we had personnel doing the interrogations," he said.

"I don't know how much violence was used -- it was really more putting people in underground rooms with a bare bulb for a long time, and for a certain kind of privileged person not used to that, that and some slapping around can be effective.

"But here's the important thing: When orders were given for that operation to stand down, some of the people involved wouldn't. Disciplinary action was taken, but it brought us back to an argument in the agency that's never been settled, one that crops up and goes away -- do you fight the enemy in the gutter, the same way, or maintain some kind of moral high ground?

"I think as late as a decade ago, there were enough of us around who had enough experience to constitute the majority view, which was that this was simply not the way we did business, and for good reasons of practicality or morality. It's not just about what it does or doesn't do, but about who, and where, we as a country want to be."