J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
A workman cleans the floor at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Va. Senate investigators condemned CIA interrogation practices after the 9/11 attacks, but President-elect Donald Trump has suggested such methods can be effective.

If Trump wants waterboarding, this could be why

Most interrogators say controversial techniques like waterboarding are ineffective and counterproductive. But a small cadre of experts is arguing that, in specific circumstances, they can get results.

Throughout his campaign and in the weeks following his victory, President-elect Donald Trump has made it clear that the question of whether America should torture suspected terrorists in its custody could – and should – be rekindled.

Upon taking the oath of office eight years ago, President Obama banned waterboarding as a form of torture. Mr. Trump has said repeatedly that he would like to bring it back, along with techniques that are “much stronger” and “so much worse.”

“Don’t tell me it doesn’t work – torture works,” Trump told the Sun City retirement community in South Carolina last February. “Believe me, it works. OK, folks?”

Though Trump has moderated his comments somewhat since then – most notably after learning that his pick to head the Defense Department, retired Gen. Jim Mattis, opposes waterboarding – he continues to insist he has not changed his mind. “If it’s so important to the American people, I would go for it,” he said of reinstating waterboarding.

It suggests American policy on so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, or EITs, could be at another pivot point. But would a Trump administration essentially return to a Bush-era policy that saw Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged 9/11 mastermind, waterboarded 183 times?

The answer, analysts say, depends on whether Americans’ believe the assessment overwhelmingly reached by the intelligence community: Specifically, that EITs are ineffective and likely even counterproductive. 

Yet a small but tenacious group of advocates continues to argue that they have a place in an interrogator’s toolkit. 

Critics call these advocates a “torture lobby” and worry that they could gain influence in a Trump administration by a thin-end-of-the-wedge argument: that EITs, used sparingly, are sometimes necessary. 

That is the case put forward by James Mitchell, the psychologist who won a $180 million Central Intelligence Agency contract to use methods like waterboarding on Mr. Mohammed.

“I don’t want to be the poster boy for waterboarding. I don’t like it,” but it’s effective “if it’s done properly,” he says, adding that he is not advocating torture, which he doesn’t consider waterboarding to be. 

Mohammed wouldn’t have talked otherwise, he insists. “The fact is, on the worst of the worst, those people who know the most about those folks who are trying to kill us, there needs to be some sort of strategy. We have to think it through.” 

Where Americans stand

Polls suggest most Americans might side with Mr. Mitchell. A 2014 ABC NEWS/Washington Post poll found that 58 percent say that torture of suspected terrorists is sometimes or often justified, and 19 percent say that it can be justified, albeit rarely. One fifth rule it out entirely.

This poll came on the heels of the release of a 500-page executive summary of an investigation of the CIA detention program. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found no proof that EITs stopped a single terrorist attack. 

The findings are backed by a considerable body of research and recent field experience that suggests EITs don’t work, analysts add.

“There was so much false and fabricated information coming out of these interrogations – though I hesitate to call them interrogations because it discredits professional interrogators – that we wasted time and resources, and the threat level kept going up and up because of fabricated information,” says Mark Fallon, an interrogator and former deputy assistant director for counterterrorism at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. 

That experience, as well as the momentum of the past eight years under President Obama, might make it difficult to reverse policy.

There is considerable resistance within the CIA , too, to reinstating EITs – in some cases from moral trepidation, in others from a fear of legal consequences.

“Multiple investigations, grand juries, and congressional star chambers have a way of doing that to you,” retired Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA, told NBC News last February. If Trump wanted the CIA to resume waterboarding, he said, then he would have to “bring [his] own damn bucket.”

You guys are wimps

Mitchell says he too has felt burned by government investigations fueled by “obsessive political correctness." That said, he adds that he personally witnessed cases of abuse within the CIA among some who wanted to use EITs as punishment for disrespect (which Mitchell says he did once) or because the interrogators mistakenly believed a detainee was withholding information. 

“Some things happened inside of the CIA that weren’t part of that program that were wrong,” and, beyond that, were “probably torture,” he adds. “There were people in the building who wanted to continue” waterboarding, “and they wanted to use it more often.”

He recalls waterboarding Abu Zubaydah, a detainee at Guantánamo Bay who was accused of being a senior lieutenant to Osama bin Laden. After three days, Mr. Zubaydah, who had previously lost an eye in CIA custody, started answering questions. Mitchell and his colleagues told CIA higher-ups that waterboarding was no longer necessary. 

The response? “They said, ‘You guys are [wimps], he’s turned you, there’s going to be another attack and you’ll have blood on your hands. If you aren’t going to do it, we’ll send people who will,” Mitchell recalls. 

Mitchell solved the dispute by agreeing to waterboard Zubaydah one more time with “one very senior CIA person” present. After watching the session, the CIA officials concluded that “He just doesn’t know anything else about what’s going on, and they gave us permission to not do it [to him] anymore.”  

Torture critics point to this anecdote, as well as to the 183 times Mohammed was waterboarded, as a clear case of overzealous criminality and the danger of opening the door to EIT techniques generally. There will always be those who abuse them, they say. Mitchell insists it sounds worse than it is. Though interrogators were permitted to pour water over the mouths of detainees like Mohammed for a total of 40 seconds, Mitchell says he soon concluded that that length of time was “just too much.”

Janet Hamlin/AP/File
A sketch of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed at pretrial hearings at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba in 2013.

“I decided it should be somewhere between three and 12 seconds, and the average time was about eight seconds,” he says.

Still, waterboarding was never his favorite enhanced interrogation technique. “I liked walling,” Mitchell says, which involved building a wall with a wrestling mat of sorts, and another piece of plywood behind it to act as a “clapper,” he explains. “When you bounce somebody’s shoulders, it makes a horrible racket and the inner ear gets swishy and a little bit dizzy,” he says. “If it is done properly – if you control the neck – the worst that happens is that they would get a minor abrasion.”

Once detainees were “cooperative,” Mitchell says he preferred to move on to other intelligence gathering methods. “So [Mohammed] had three weeks of EITs, and then never again, not even when they were trying to find out the location of bin Laden,” Mitchell says.

Mitchell says that he also had “great concerns about these guys – once they started working with us – getting sour because they were in isolation.” So he would conduct what he called “maintenance visits.”

“We would just stop by and play board games with them or go to the basketball court and play basketball or go to the gym and lift weights with them or watch a movie with them.”

Mohammed liked to give lectures with a dry erase board. “We would go and listen to him lecture, so he’d have something to do when he wasn’t servicing intelligence requirements, and occasionally something useful came out of that,” Mitchell says.

“He is probably the brightest person I have ever seen in my life, and I have seen some pretty bright people.”

French fries and calls to mom

The usefulness of rapport-building techniques is precisely the point, says Mr. Fallon, the Naval investigator who also served as chairman of the High-Value Research Group that Mr. Obama established in 2009 to study the effectiveness of interrogation approaches.

Mitchell, he notes, comes to the issue as a Search Escape, Rescue, and Evade (SERE) clinical psychologist for the Air Force. The program teaches US troops to resist torture. But a resistance survival program based on other nations’ torture techniques should not be the basis for the US interrogation, says Fallon.

Mohammed’s behavior shows why, he adds. 

“When we first had detainees at Gitmo [Guantánamo], we couldn’t shut them up. You think [Mohammed] wasn’t proud of what he did? He could spout about how great he was, things he did to the Evil Satan United States,” he says.

“When you start out with abuse, and two months later you’re playing basketball or chess and saying, ‘I made this amazing discovery,’ well, you may have done it two months earlier if you didn’t start with the abuse.” 

The value of rapport-building techniques is borne out in the past decade of research, as well as in his own practical experience, says Fallon, author of the forthcoming book, “Unjustifiable Means: The Inside Story of How the CIA, Pentagon, and US Government Conspired to Torture.”

“We’ve gotten good information with tea and cookies, with French fries and food, by allowing detainees to make a call home,” Fallon says. “If you started a conversation yelling at me, how likely am I going to be to respond?”

For this reason, the most effective interrogators at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan in 2001 were “the folks borrowed from the FBI” who used Mafia family-breaking techniques “to figure out the network,” recalls a former senior US Army officer. “There was no need or inclination for EITs.” 

Cultivating some level of respect and trust goes a long way. One of the most helpful discoveries the High-Value Detainee Research Group has been the nearly forgotten work of a Nazi interrogator named Hanns Scharff.

Early on, he witnessed a brutal interrogation and decided that would not be his method. Instead, he would take the POWs in his charge on long walks, let them read US newspapers, and even allowed one pilot to take a plane up in the air and land it (with just enough gas in the tank to do both), so that they could debate the pluses and minuses of their country’s aircraft later in a bar he had built specifically for his prisoners.

After the war, Pentagon officials invited him to give lectures. It was hard work, he told them. He had to build extensive dossiers on each pilot and often made outlandish statements just so the POWs would feel compelled to correct him. In interrogations with 500 US and Allied pilots, he claimed to have elicited useful information from all but 20.

In a research experiment based on Scharff’s techniques, participants overwhelmingly believed that they had revealed far less information to their interrogator than they actually had. 

Paying a price

For his part, Mitchell agrees that it is often in “fireside chats” following interrogations – in which he would tell detainees that the interrogation was over and he just wanted to get their input on how it went – that he has gleaned some of his best information. 

But such techniques without waterboarding would never work on Mohammed, Mitchell insists, because he would consider companionship or snacks “too cheap” a price to pay for sharing information.

Mitchell argues that many of the toughest detainees feel as though God has asked them to pay a suitable-enough price for sharing information with the enemy. Only when they have paid it – in the form of EITs – can they feel more free to talk, reassured that God will forgive. 

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
Camp X-Ray at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base was used as the first detention facility for Al Qaeda and Taliban militants captured after Sept. 11. It has since been closed.

But Mitchell concedes that EITs take a toll on the interrogators. And so he tells himself, he says, that when patients are moaning during waterboarding “it is a good sign: You don't do that stuff if you're suffering from some sort of airway problem.”  

The Senate report said the first waterboarding sessions with Zubaydah left him “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.”

While waterboarding is “horrific,” Mitchell says, he and the president-elect reject the moral argument frequently made by the military that the US must treat its detainees the way it expects US forces to be treated.

“Did somebody tell ISIS, ‘Look, we’re going to treat your guys well. Will you please do us a favor and treat our guys well?’ They don’t do that,” Trump said last March. “We are playing by the rules, but they have no rules. It’s very hard to win when that’s the case.” The current US ban on waterboarding, he added, is a sign of weakness. 

“There are some people who think that it’s better that hundreds die than we lose the moral high ground. But the government doesn’t exist so it can stack up bodies like cord wood to protect the government,” says Mitchell, who published a book late last year on his experiences as an interrogator entitled, “Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Moties of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America.” 

“The American people need to have a debate about how they want to protect themselves,” he adds.

On that, Fallon agrees. While he accuses Mitchell of pushing his ideas for profit, he says Americans should have an open conversation about interrogation.

“People died in CIA custody – we killed people. Atrocities were committed,” he says. “We need to talk about that.”

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