On occasion, every now and then while reading the news, I like to play a little game I call "What would Bin Laden think?" It goes something like this…
I open the morning newspapers, scan the headlines for crazy items and try to read the stories from Bin Laden’s point of view. It doesn’t have to be Bin Laden, you can substitute your favorite crazed terrorist. Here’s an example from last week:
"CIA Chief’s Waterboarding Admission Prompts Senate Democrats’ Demand for New Probe."
If I’m Bin Laden, what’s the reaction upon reading that? I envision something like the following…
Interior Cave, Breakfast Nook, Daytime
Bin Laden at the table, somewhat disheveled, occasional spoonfuls of Lucky Charms as he absentmindedly scans the North Waziristan Daily Register.
Ayman…dude…check this out.
Zawahiri shuffles in from next door, hair all akimbo, wearing a mud mask and halfway through eating a Hot Pocket…
What’s up, Sheikster?
Front page… 'CIA Chief’s Waterboarding Admission Prompts Senate Democrats’ Demand for New Probe'… is that crazy or what?
Ayman leans over to read the headline, dribbling some Hot Pocket on Bin Laden’s shoulder.
(Mumbles as he reads to himself)
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) called on the Justice Department to open a criminal inquiry into whether past use of waterboarding violated any law… yatta yatta yatta….Human Rights Watch called the CIA director’s testimony an explicit admission of criminal activity… blah blah blah… a Justice Department investigation should explore whether waterboarding was authorized and whether those who authorized it violated the law, said Durbin in a letter to the attorney general…
Huh…crazy…but I like that Durbin guy.
(Scanning the story further)
Look here… they waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed… I would’ve liked to do that one myself. What a tool, giving up all that information… he should be shot.
Boy, you gotta love America.
Bin Laden turns in his seat as he spits out his cereal, glaring at Ayman.
I’m speaking sarcastically, of course… seriously. Who hates America more than I do? Really, don’t take everything so literally.
Six years in a cave, I’m supposed to have a sense of humor?
Relax. You wanna play some 'Guitar Hero'? I’ll fire up the PS2.
OK, maybe I’ve taken some liberties, but I suspect that I’m right about their fascination and amusement with our endless handwringing and angst over our limited use of waterboarding in very specific cases.
Oh, my God, how can we live with ourselves? Aren’t we better than that? What would our forefathers say? Aren’t we a freakin’ shining light on a hill for all others to follow? How can we sleep at night? What a load of crap.
We’re facing an enemy that our forefathers never envisioned, let alone our recent fathers when they drafted the Geneva Convention. I’m all for dignity and respect and proper treatment of prisoners of war as outlined in the Geneva Convention’s Common Article 3. But do you suspect that perhaps Common Article 3 was written with a different kind of war and a different kind of enemy in mind?
It’s one thing to expect state-sponsored armies to respect certain protocols, but are we really serious when we think that Al Qaeda will honor Article 3 just because we do?
Yet that’s the nature of the argument that gets tossed around when everyone gets all frothy at the mouth screaming about CIA torture. This is the same enemy that straps explosives to mentally impaired women and sends them marching off into crowded markets.
I’m supposed to feel bad about myself because I support the very limited use of an aggressive interrogation technique against an enemy that uses people with Down syndrome as bomb delivery devices?
Another of my favorite arguments from those who categorize anything other than direct questioning as torture is that aggressive techniques never work. Well, I hate to sound like the insensitive guy, but me thinks that on occasion, the very focused, limited and specific use of something other than chatting can produce credible intelligence.
Just like all snowflakes are different, no two terrorists are alike. I’d like to think I’m the first to compare terrorists to snowflakes.
What I mean is that each interrogation situation and each subject is different, based on personality, background, experience, available intelligence, potential threats and a host of other factors.
Saying that aggressive techniques never produce credible information is a sweeping blanket statement that is as stupid and naïve as saying that all liberals like the smell of patchouli and love to play hackey sack, although, admittedly, I’ve never met one who doesn’t. Personally, I prefer Frisbee.
Mind you, there’s an important distinction that needs to be made here. I’m not arguing that torture can produce credible results. I agree that we should never condone nor engage in torture; I’m saying there are aggressive techniques, including waterboarding, that don’t fall in the realm of torture.
Also included here would be such things as the use of stress positions, temperature variations within appropriate parameters, sleep deprivation within appropriate guidelines and, under careful supervision, the showing of "Teletubbies" repeats.
My esteemed associates on the other side of this debate essentially argue that anything other than a stern talking to is torture. They sweep all other efforts into the same torture category, regardless of whether it’s a simple stress position designed to make the subject uncomfortable or the most heinous of acts, which any sane individual would naturally identify as torture.
This simple debate technique allows them to grab the wonderful moral high ground by describing everything the CIA does as torture. In their super black and white world, there are no allowable aggressive steps… it’s either direct questioning or nothing.
Now for the vast majority of suspects, aggressive techniques are absolutely not necessary.
In what may be a high-handed, back-handed slap (a tricky maneuver requiring years of practice and a certain amount of dexterity) at the CIA, the FBI director and folks at the Defense Intelligence Agency have commented in public that they’ve managed to get intelligence from interrogation subjects without any aggressive techniques.
If it blows your skirt up to state the obvious then that’s a terrific talking point. Not to disappoint those who may think they’re above it all because they don’t use aggressive techniques ever, but the CIA also has obtained lots of credible information by doing nothing more than clever, labor-intensive direct questioning. And the point is?
There are some hard cases that do not respond to the open, good cop approach. In those select cases and, in particular, when there is a concern that another attack may be imminent and there are credible reasons to believe the detainee has actionable intelligence, there is a need to be able to consider other options in a controlled, approved and limited manner.
In 2002 and 2003, when the CIA waterboarded three high-value detainees, the technique was approved by the government and was allowable under very specific conditions. From an operator’s perspective, it was not long after Sept. 11, there was real concern that another significant attack was being prepared and these three hard cases were not responding to direct questioning or other, less aggressive and approved techniques.
Now, using their holier-than-thou superpowers, Sen. Durbin and other members of the Democratic Justice League want to investigate and prosecute CIA personnel for, ummm, lemme’ see… for uh…. Oh, for working in an approved manner to try and gather information designed to prevent the deaths of innocent civilians. Maybe I’m missing the point.
Folks who view my perspective as horrific and a threat to our humanity perhaps would prefer an interrogation program that is limited to the options defined in the U.S. Army field manual for interrogation. In that scenario, regardless of how tough the detainee is, how imminent the threat is or how many lives may be at stake, our interrogators will have the ability to do such things as engage in direct questioning, use positive reinforcement or play on the detainees' emotions.
Frankly, I couldn’t break the average American teenager using those choices. But nevermind, at least we could all feel good about ourselves. Bin Laden would want it that way. So that’s nice.
Let me know your thoughts on the subject. Send your comments to email@example.com.
Till next week, stay safe.
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.