FOREWARD: The United States figures it can get plenty out of the newly captured Chemical Ali. But how? And are these ‘interrogation’ techniques being readied for American citizens?
We Have Ways of Making You Talk
a breath of fresh air from the media.
So Chemical Ali is back from the dead. You may remember that this infamous cousin of Saddam Hussein was reported killed early in the war, during those heady days when “smart bombs” supposedly solved big problems in Iraq.
Well, it has since become obvious that the smart bombs weren’t so smart and neither was the intelligence that guided them—and that Chemical Ali (real name Ali Hassan al-Majid) was alive and well and on the run, just like Saddam himself.
How he was caught this week, precisely, nobody in the Coalition is saying. But they’re sure happy to have him. He earned his nickname using poison gas on Kurdish Iraqis in 1988, but his list of offenses is much longer than that. He ran the bloody campaign of murder and torture in Kuwait under Iraqi occupation in 1990. He helped butcher Shiites when they revolted in 1991. He even slaughtered two of Saddam’s traitorous sons-in-law in 1996. This thug is a walking encyclopedia of atrocity. He might know where to find Saddam’s missing weapons of mass destruction. He might even know where to find the missing Saddam.
“We won’t know, will we, until we have an opportunity to visit with him?” CENTCOM Commander Gen. John Abizaid told the expectant press when Chemical Ali’s capture was announced. “After that we’ll know a little bit more.”
But how do you make a man like this talk? We Americans have ways, it would seem, and they were recently outlined by none other than Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. No need to get out the battery cables or fingernail pliers, it seems. The only thing Jacoby tortures is prose. “Interrogation is the art of questioning and examining a source to obtain the maximum amount of usable, reliable information in the least amount of time to meet intelligence requirements,” Jacoby writes in a legal brief. “DIA’s approach to interrogation is largely dependent upon creating an atmosphere of dependency and trust between the subject and interrogator.”
Actually, we know from other documents declassified over the years that when it comes to questioning hard cases, dependency is a whole lot more important than “trust.” Suspected bad guys are isolated and dependent for every bit of information they receive, even the time of day. The interrogators have the power to grant or withhold permission for every bodily function, including sleep. It’s amazing how fast most people break down under such circumstances.
If that doesn’t work, the treatment can get rough. But you have to read between Jacoby’s lines to figure that out. Because the enemy in the war on terror is so hard to identify and doesn’t fight the kind of war the United States spent trillions of dollars to wage, Jacoby tells us “innovative and aggressive solutions are required.” A “robust program” has been put in place during which “interrogations have been conducted at many locations worldwide by personnel from DIA and other organizations in the Intelligence Community.”
As one of Jacoby’s subordinates in the U.S. Navy explained to me, the idea is to keep most of the important players out of the United States. Apparently there is no shortage of black holes in which to soften up the bad guys, although only a few are publicized. “The most interesting thing about interrogations is how the U.S. government and military capitalizes on the dubious status (as sovereign states) of Afghanistan, Diego Garcia, Guantanamo Bay, Iraq and aircraft carriers to avoid certain legal questions about rough interrogations,” my friend told me. “Whatever humanitarian pronouncements a state such as ours may make about torture, states don’t perform interrogations, individual people do. What’s going to stop an impatient soldier, in a supralegal location, from whacking one nameless, dehumanized shopkeeper among many?”
Not the law, certainly. But should we complain? These American interrogators have worked their magic on some of the very bad actors in Al Qaeda, which is one reason the United States is a little safer today than it was two years ago.
But there are some real problems with all this. First of all, as a Lebanese torturer—er, interrogator—of my acquaintance once told me, the real challenge comes if someone is telling the truth: “How do you know?” And what if that truth doesn’t fit with what you really want to hear? And what your bosses really believe—really know in their souls to be the truth? What if, for instance, there really are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq because they really were destroyed to keep United Nations inspectors from finding them? The United States now has captured 37 of the 55 most-wanted Iraqis in the famous pack of cards. That’s what all of them are saying, and lesser-known scientists have told the same story. Yet still the WMD beat goes on.
The means of making people talk, even relatively benign means, become problematic when you don’t actually care what they say.
Still, as a freedom-loving American, that’s not what worries me most about Jacoby’s rationale for robust interrogations in faraway places. What worries me is that it was submitted in January to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York to explain techniques used on an American citizen by DIA interrogators after that citizen was arrested and jailed in the United States of America.
The man’s name is José Padilla. Some 15 months ago, Attorney General John Ashcroft commanded worldwide attention when he announced dramatically (on live TV from Russia of all places) that Padilla had been plotting to set off a “dirty bomb” in the United States. Padilla, a high-school dropout and former gang member from Chicago, had drifted into the orbit of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and had been persuaded to bring a terror campaign back to the United States. Or, rather, to think about doing it. Or, at least, he surfed the Web trying to find out how he might do it. The FBI questioned him for a month, then handed him over to the Pentagon.
Padilla was declared an “enemy combatant” based on the assertion—not the presentation—of “some evidence” by the administration that he was a bin Laden bad guy. As an enemy combatant, Padilla has no right to appear in court. And he has no right to see a lawyer. Indeed, by executive fiat, he’s been deprived of every inalienable right with which our creator endowed us. The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights has filed a brief in the case damning this approach as (quoting James Madison) “the very definition of tyranny.”
And for what? Whatever Padilla knew in May 2002 when he was caught, the intelligence he can give these days is not exactly real-time. Indeed, the only information he’s received at the Naval Brig in South Carolina, probably including when it is day and when it is night, comes from his interrogators. So why not let him see counsel? Why not present him to the court?
Admiral Jacoby’s rationale is fascinating: first of all, because there might be something the interrogators missed, or can find out if there are new suspects captured somewhere else sometime. And you wouldn’t want Padilla to have any sense of hope if they need to question him again: “Any delay in obtaining information from Padilla could have the severest consequences for national security and public safety.” Secondly—and this is what’s really creepy—because Padilla might reveal “sources and methods.” That is, he might talk about precisely those means that were used to make him talk, therefore he can never be allowed to talk at all.
If the courts buy this line of argument, then we Americans can kiss our sweet rights goodbye. And reading the admiral’s brief, you have to ask yourself if that isn’t really the goal: to give the president and his people the power to treat all Americans like José Padilla, unless and until we give the answers expected of us.
August 22, 2003
© 2003 Newsweek, Inc.