The Terrorists, the 'Torture' & the Tapes

A woodpecker, a striped brown and white woodpecker to be more exact, has been banging holes in the side of my house for the past several weeks.

I know his markings because I set up a motion activated video recorder to gather evidence on the culprit. I’ve got maybe five minutes of video showing this little winged jerk pounding away on my wooden shingles.

When I say holes, I mean lots of them, probably 35 or 40, some the size of the little pecker himself. It’s a territorial thing, or at least that’s what bird experts in my town have told me. He considers the house to be his apparently. I have no idea if he also thinks he owns the contents of the house.

At first it was an interesting development, a product of living in a somewhat rural setting. After he drilled more than a dozen holes it became less interesting and more of an irritant. By the time the little bastard had banged his way up the entire side of the house, it was clear the pecker had to be removed.

We tried a few sensitive, bird friendly methods… hanging aluminum foil, a plastic owl, filling the holes… nothing deterred our little friend. So the other day I shot him with my trusty Red Ryder air rifle. It was a hell of a shot, if I do say so myself. He had flown from the side of the house up to a tree in our front yard, maybe some 45 yards out.

In all honesty, with an air rifle on a breezy day and a small target high up in a large tree, I figured at best I would possibly scare him. Send a pellet whizzing by his little pecker head as he sat fat and happy. Possibly give him something to think about. Maybe he’d fly off in search of some other house to destroy.

As it turns out, he dropped like a rock onto my yard. It was a clean shot and there was no pain or suffering. Unless you consider the cost of replacing the ruined shingles, which my contractor predicts to be just north of $4,000. I’d put that in the pain and suffering category.

Anyway, standing over the little guy I had a passing thought that perhaps I should feel bad about terminating this bird’s existence. Should I feel conflicted? Yes, the pecker had done significant damage to the homestead, but he’s one of God’s creatures. The navel gazing lasted for about three seconds before I took him out back and buried him in the ad hoc family hamster and gerbil pet cemetery.

Conflicted? What a load of crap. The pecker was ringing up additional home repair charges every damn day. I tried to deal with him in a civil, sensitive and caring manner. That didn’t work so we had to resort to Plan B. Now the pecker is no more.

Because my mind tends to wander, I had an interesting thought while tossing some dirt over the dead bird. By the way, he did receive a proper burial and headstone. I view the situation with the woodpecker with the same attitude I have towards terrorists and dealing with terrorists. Frankly, this could be my best segueway ever.

Here’s where I’m going… I’m a family loving, god fearing, good neighbor kind of person. Be considerate, play well with others, work hard, provide for your family, be honest and don’t whine. You can go a long ways in life just following a few simple guidelines.

Concurrently, while trying to be a good person, I have no problems with infringing on the rights of terrorists through the use of enhanced interrogation techniques. Conflicted? Not a bit. No angst, no moral dilemma, no fuss no muss.

And yet, if you read the media and listen to the pundits, we seem to be a nation wracked with angst over the choice between good and evil. Do we allow ourselves to occasionally aggressively interrogate high value detainees and risk losing our souls, or at least lay waste to all that our forefathers stood for? Or do we embrace transparency… and promise that for the sake of feeling righteous we’ll forsake any potentially disconcerting enhanced techniques and simply chat the detainees into submission?

This issue has jumped back into the spotlight this past week following the news that the CIA, back in late 2005, made the internal decision to destroy video of interrogations involving two of our earliest captures, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. The CIA’s Director, Gen. Michael Hayden, explained the other day that the tapes were destroyed in part because they no longer had any intelligence value and in part to protect the identities of the agency officers seen in the tapes. By the way, the tapes were made in 2002.

Those who view the U.S. government, and of course the CIA, as diabolical and evil, heard the news about the tapes' destruction and made the logical assumption (logical from their point of view) that the tapes were destroyed to cover up past torture and mistreatment of detainees. And God knows what else. Possibly the real answer to who killed JFK.

Regardless, what I find extremely interesting is the notion, held by some folks, that the world is black and white. If you believe that there are times when enhanced techniques may be called for in an interrogation, then clearly you’re in the wrong. And worse, you’re evil, a Bush lackey and destroying the foundation of our society.

These folks argue that anything we do beyond discourse with a prisoner tilts over into the realm of torture. Getting all frothy at the mouth, they then argue that torture (see how they quickly throw everything under the torture label) never leads to accurate information, doesn’t work, destroys our reputation around the world and serves to fan the flames of hatred against the United States.

Sometimes, they even lapse into a self righteous explanation as to how we brought this on ourselves through our boorish behavior and bellicose ways. Apparently, it’s our fault the terrorists target the United States.

Personally, I think we can have our cake and eat it too. We can be a nation that values family, God (in his and her many forms according to your own beliefs), justice and the American Way (as defined by Superman) while concurrently not losing sleep if on occasion a terrorist detainee has to be subjected to whatever enhanced techniques fall short of torture.

Mind you, we’ve said it before here at the PWB and we’ll say it again… the CIA, the intel community, the military and the administration of the United States must never condone or engage in torture. And here’s where the world is clearly not black and white. What constitutes torture? How do you find common ground in such a diverse society as ours?

Torture is wrong for ethical and for operational reasons. I have no problem agreeing with the fellas at Human Rights Watch on that particular point. Are there techniques that could be used during interrogations that don’t constitute torture and are appropriate for specific high value, difficult and potential time-sensitive cases? You bet your woodpecker there are.

Can the enhanced techniques produce accurate information? Yes. Can they also produce inaccurate or questionable information? Of course. Again, this isn’t black and white. Here on Planet Earth, it’s all a bit messy that way. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.

It’s a bit like the brief outrage over the conflicting National Intelligence Estimates on Iran. The 2005 NIE said Iran was hell bent on producing nuclear weapons. The 2007 NIE stated that we’re not sure of Iran’s intent and that they stopped their weapons development program in 2003. Oh my God, cried some black and white types…how could this be?… doesn’t this show an intelligence failure or at least some type of screw up?

Uhh…no, it means we have different sources now and the reporting is different. I thought we all wanted an intelligence community capable of reassessing its reporting and changing course when the intelligence deemed it necessary.

Getting back to the subject at hand… the primary objective when beginning an interrogation of a new detainee is to determine if they possess any knowledge of an imminent threat. That clearly is a time sensitive issue. Most information, even if it’s not related to an impending operation, is perishable. After determining if the subject has knowledge of an immediate nature, the objectives are to pull all the operational and strategic intelligence possible from the detainee.

What’s the point of videotaping interrogations? There could be many reasons: the need to ensure that the sessions are accurately transcribed, an opportunity for other linguists and experts such as psychologists to review the comments, behavior and body language of the subject or maintaining a record of their current medical condition or medical concerns.

What is irritating about the current ruckus over the CIA’s destruction of the tapes is that we have another self-inflicted wound by the agency. The organization sometimes seems in serious need of a savvy public relations firm. I don’t care that the agency destroyed the tapes, I care that they are now about to take another ass-kicking because they mishandled the issue in a simple way.

Here’s what I mean. For a period of time after the tapes were made they had certain operational value. However, once they had been reviewed ad nauseum to ensure the session transcripts were accurate, operational details were recorded, experts had viewed the images to put the detainee comments into context etc., they no longer had any operational value. Perhaps there was a thought that we could hold onto them for training purposes, but the most important product from any interrogation is the written transcripts containing any actionable or strategic intelligence. That’s the historical record.

If the decision had been to simply destroy the tapes at that point, we likely would be focused on some other issue right now. Reducing classified holdings, whether paper or other medium, is standard practice in the intelligence community, just as it is in the private sector for sensitive corporate information. There’s nothing diabolical about it.

However, in early 2003, with the tapes still sitting on the shelf and the jungle drums starting to beat about the interrogation and detention process, agency lawyers decided to brief members of Congress, the White House and Justice Department about the existence of the videotapes. At that point, the CIA legal staff indicated that the agency was planning on destroying the tapes. Worth noting also is that the lawyers reviewed the tapes and confirmed that the techniques used were within bounds of what at the time was deemed legal and acceptable.

At this point in the discussion, it’s important to remind our readers that the engine of decision making in Washington is powered in large part by the hot air mechanism referred to as Cover Your Ass. Once informed of the tapes existence, no one in their right mind would concur with the agency’s suggestion that they destroy the videos. And so they recommended against it.

Once the agency had briefed the various outside players, it should have been written in stone that the agency will forever keep the tapes on the shelf. Why would anyone in the CIA involved in this process believe that somehow the existence of the tapes would not eventually become public knowledge? Having briefed the outside world, it was no longer a simple operational decision to be made by the Operations Directorate. They should have assumed that it was now a matter of public record, or certainly would be once some goober yacked up the information to show how clever they are.

The CIA personnel involved should have understood that this was no longer their decision to make. Frankly, I don’t attribute any nefarious designs to the destruction of the tapes… having worked in the agency for 15-plus years I’ve seen behind the curtain and am comfortable that the CIA, nor the intelligence community in general, is out to screw the American public. It’s staffed by hard working, patriotic people trying their best to serve this country. Good decisions get made, bad decisions get made. Some operations work, some don’t.

Those who see the world in black and white unfortunately will clearly see this as evidence that the CIA is engaged in hideous acts designed to ruin our value system and trample the rights of terrorists everywhere. The more self righteous among them will condescendingly imply that the average American doesn’t understand what’s happening and needs to be protected against this assault on our American values.

But that’s just my opinion. Let me know your thoughts and comments. By the way, we extended the PWB’s first annual Just Shut Up contest for another week because of the number of entries still coming in. The staff is working overtime to tally up the results and determine winners.

Till next week, 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.

Mike Baker is the Co-Founder of Diligence LLC, a leading global intelligence, security and risk management firm. Prior to starting Diligence, Mike spent over a decade and half with the CIA as a covert field operations officer. He is a regular contributor in the national and international media on intelligence, security, counterterrorism and political issues. He appears regularly on Fox News, as well as other major media outlets.