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People's Weekly Brief: Great Interrogation Debate

It was close to 0300 this morning when I remembered just how effective sleep deprivation is as an interrogation tool. I admit it's been a few years since undergoing interrogation training, but several nights in a row during which I've been allowed mere snippets of sleep have resulted in flashbacks. It's also resulted in an inability to operate heavy machinery, but that's not really germane to our topic.

About two weeks ago we had a new addition to the family, a bouncing baby boy who apparently requires, at most, three hours of sleep per day. Usually between the hours of noon and 3 p.m. This then allows him to stay up during the nighttime in the event anything interesting happens.

My teenage daughter, also a creature of the night who daily objects to the early start time for her school, is impressed with the baby's ability to stay awake for long stretches of time. She's also impressed with his ability to burp and emit really loud noises from his butt, which apparently, to early teens, is all you need for good street cred.

We're lucky in the sense that the baby doesn't stay up crying during the night… he just stays up. He's not colicky, cranky or mildly peeved about anything; he's just hanging out. So last night, actually early this morning, as I'm sitting in the chair with the Cubs' future third baseman in my lap, I start thinking about the debate we've been having in this country over the use of certain interrogation techniques, including sleep deprivation, on captured terrorists.

Author's Note: I apologize in advance if I offend anyone with the use of the word "terrorist." I suppose I could go with the phrase "suspected terrorist"… perhaps "alleged terrorist." My point being, it would be a shame to offend terrorists, terrorist sympathizers and all those who believe that the only reason we have such people is because of the misguided actions of the United States and its allies. And I apologize also to John Edwards for wasting time on a column involving the nonexistent War on Terror.

Now mind you, I am in no way comparing a few sleepless nights watching the little dude fill his diaper with actual sleep deprivation. However, having had the benefit of being involved in said interrogation training in the past, I feel somewhat pseudo-qualified to pontificate. Besides, I decided the column I had written previously for this week needed work.

Over the past couple of years there has been a very public debate over what does and does not constitute appropriate, legal interrogation techniques when dealing with terror detainees. Much has already been printed and said about the various techniques employed by the CIA and the military, with an equal amount of histrionics on both sides of the political spectrum.

One side screams that anything other than the due process of law is a moral travesty, violates the terrorist's rights and shakes the very foundations of our society as we know it, casting us all into a bottomless, dark, hopeless pit of despair. To summarize in an uber simplistic fashion, this side believes that the sun rises and sets on the Geneva Convention, that secrecy automatically leads to evil acts and all questioning of detainees should take place under the bright lights of the U.S. judicial system. If you are in this camp and believe I've misstated your case, send rebuttals to peoplesweeklybrief@hotmail.com.

The other side argues for an unregulated playbook (stopping short of torture, however that may be defined), noting that without the ability to use all sorts of extreme techniques (stopping short of torture, however that may be defined) the terrorists are just a short step away from killing us all. My God, just watch an episode of 24. Again, if you reside on this side of the fence, and take umbrage, please send feedback.

Here's a surprise. Somewhere in the middle resides something resembling the truth. Finding that middle ground, where common sense, ethical concerns and the nature of the enemy converge, is probably as likely to occur as the Cubs winning the Series this year. Or any year until my son joins the team.

Here's where I stand.… Torture is wrong, both for moral and operational purposes. Now, frankly, when dealing with a violent individual who sees nothing wrong with strapping on explosives and blowing up as many innocent civilians as possible, my concern over the use of torture tends to be more from an operational standpoint than a moral one.

The CIA has known for a long time that torture doesn't provide you with credible, actionable intelligence. They don't engage in torture, despite what many uninformed yet highly opinionated, pious folks believe. Is it because the Agency is chock full of morals and ethics? Could be, but more to the point, it's because experienced operators understand that it doesn't produce a good product.

Unfortunately, defining torture is a bit like defining pornography. You know it when you see it, which of course results in constant disagreement over what constitutes torture, and what is referred to as "enhanced" or "expedient" methods of interrogation.

This is where it gets very murky. Debate has been raging on Capitol Hill for some time now over the concept of "enhanced" methods. The CIA has been essentially in a holding pattern since the Department of Justice failed to endorse certain methods that are considered harsher than those approved in the new Army Field Manual for use by military interrogators.

The Bush Administration is close to issuing an executive order that will set the rules for the CIA when dealing with detainees. It is anticipated that the order, while preventing what could be considered the harshest methods (such as the well-publicized "waterboarding"), will allow for certain "enhanced" methods that go beyond the techniques allowed in the Army Field Manual. Let's hope so.

While the Agency does not outline or provide guidelines for their interrogation techniques (I'm hoping the logic of that makes sense to everyone), there has been much talk of methods such as sleep deprivation, temperature manipulation and stress positions.

Do I think these are useful tools for the kitbag when dealing with certain high value detainees? Absolutely. Are these techniques necessary or operationally appropriate for every detainee? Of course not. Every interrogation subject is unique and requires a bespoke program based on his background, culture, biography, educational level, operational experience, potential urgency of his knowledge and countless other factors.

The camp that champions full rights and due process of law for terror detainees believes that the approval of "enhanced" methods is a slippery slope, inevitably leading toward torture, moral decay and possibly the use of drugs more powerful than marijuana. Actually, it's poor management, lack of oversight and insufficient facility controls that create abuses in the interrogation system. If what is allowed and what is not allowed is clearly explained to those operating in the system, and management does its job, whether in the military or the CIA, the system works.

An interesting read, if you haven't already done so, is a study released by the Intelligence Science Board several months ago that examined the strengths and weaknesses of our interrogation practices and capabilities since 9/11. It's a 300-plus-page statement of the obvious, and at times, an exercise in theoretical babble, but interesting nonetheless.

It's a fairly harsh look at our capabilities, at one point stating that we have failed to create a sufficient cadre of trained, language-capable interrogators. Can't argue with that statement, although it's not for lack of trying. An experienced, language-proficient interrogator is a very difficult resource to develop. They state that some of the techniques used by interrogators since 9/11 have been amateurish, outmoded and unreliable. I'd have to agree that the naked detainee pyramid from Abu Ghraib qualifies as all three.

And, my personal favorite… some of the experts advising on the study recommend that we use sophisticated marketing techniques of today in designing our approach to interrogating violent jihadist, Islamofascists or whatever we're calling the terrorists now. Perhaps we need to understand the nature and mindset of today's terrorist better before we use the power of positive thinking and persuasive marketing speak on him or her.

It's an unfortunate fact, we're at war. I'm sorry, John, I just don't buy your bumper sticker rhetoric. Al Qaeda and a myriad of wannabes with similar aspirations are spending their waking days trying to figure out how to kill Americans and our allies, overseas and here in the United States. There are a lot of talented people in our military, intelligence agencies and law enforcement working every day to try and thwart the terrorist ambitions.

Anytime we are fortunate enough to capture one of these individuals, I believe we need the ability to use, when necessary, appropriate means to gain their cooperation. Take torture off the table, no question about it. But let's not think that a good talking to, or beating them with court proceedings, will gain the cooperation of someone willing to kill themselves in order to kill you.

That's just my opinion. Let me know yours, send your thoughts and comments to peoplesweeklybrief@hotmail.com. Given the fact that I'm up every night now, I guarantee I'll read all your emails. Next week, the results from the Peoples Weekly Brief Current Events Quiz. Stay safe.

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Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures. In addition, Baker is a writer for a BBC drama to begin production in July 2007.