My Guantanamo Experience: Support Interrogation, Reject Torture


America should reject torture. This would reinforce our commitment to America’s founding values and support excellence in intelligence collection for the defense of our nation.

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As the 10th anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001 approaches, I have come to the conclusion that America needs interrogation in its war arsenal and that we must reject torture. Oxymoron? Absolutely not. From 2004 until 2006 I was an interrogator at Guantanamo Bay. I speak from experience.

Prior to the 9/11 attacks, as I completed my PhD in Arabic and Islamic studies, I applied to a mass number of three-letter government departments and agencies for a job. Yet many months and even more resumes later, I was unemployed.

A decade ago, to study history, languages, and cultures for a PhD and seek a job in public service was like wearing a neon sign over one’s head that flashed, “Don’t hire me.” I was told I was “over-educated,” that I had studied something “obscure and irrelevant,” and that in my early 30s I was, yes, “too old” for the jobs I’d qualify for, and that my research and teaching experience in graduate school counted for “nothing.”

Unfortunately, it took the catastrophe of 9/11 to make my humanities degree a valuable asset. Starting late in the fall of 2001, I began to work for the Department of Defense, first as a contractor for a year and then as a civilian employee of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) for six years. In work ranging from strategic engagement of foreign audiences to interrogating detainees at Guantanamo, my studies in culture, religion, history, and foreign languages served as excellent preparation.

I volunteered for this work. I cared about public service and national security and was pleased to have an opportunity to use my Stanford and Yale education by supporting our military as a civilian.

The most demanding, challenging, and meaningful assignment during my years working for the military was serving as an interrogator at Guantanamo Bay. Becoming an interrogator was not my idea, but when I was asked to go, I went willingly.

I completed training provided by the military for uniformed, i.e., active duty and reservist, interrogators. During this training, I was fortunate to receive instruction from interrogators whose conflict experience ranged from the Vietnam War up to and including post-9/11 interrogations. These experienced, skilled professionals consistently taught that interrogation which follows the guidelines of the Army Field Manual, namely rapport-based interrogation, is both what is right and what works. My experience at Guantanamo consistently confirmed this.

Until now, I have neither written nor spoken publicly about my work as an interrogator. Public support for torture in interrogation from certain quarters of the American public, and the risks at stake if the public misunderstands what interrogation is, deeply trouble me. So I have decided to write, to the extent possible, about the nature of interrogation and my experience.

I think it is particularly important to address the topic of interrogation now as campaigning ramps up for the 2012 presidential and congressional elections. Candidates and voters need to understand how valuable interrogation is for the protection of our nation, how wretched torture is, and why torture is not a method of interrogation properly understood.

For too long since 9/11, public discussions of interrogation have been dominated by the uninformed assertions of “armchair interrogators,” a term coined by former CIA interrogator and now opponent of torture Glenn Carle.

All too often, inexperienced pundits have presented us with a stark choice between security and humane treatment of detainees. This is a false set of options. The real contrast is between torture, on the one hand, and security through interrogation consistent with respect for the humanity of the detainee, on the other.

I believe that America, as a country that defends human dignity, is a country worth defending, and I want our country to remain in that position. Torture, however, is an affront to human dignity on at least three levels.

(1) Torture violates the dignity of the detainee. We may not like our enemies, but they are human beings; as such they deserve respect for their basic human dignity.

(2) Torture degrades the integrity of the interrogator. When we recruit men and women into our armed forces and as civilians working for the military, we should offer them opportunities to serve with honor, not pressure them to engage in profound moral evil.

(3) Torture betrays the dignity of those who suffer from intelligence failures; this includes those who may be victims of otherwise preventable attacks. Torture is not only unnecessary and abusive to detainees; in intelligence collection torture is counter-productive. Instead of torture, the populations that interrogators seek to protect by intelligence collection deserve nothing short of excellence in the collection process.

First, torture is cruel and thus wrong. As Christopher Tollefsen explains, “if torture is understood to mean an intentional damaging of bodily or personal integrity, then it is intrinsically wrong, and hence absolutely prohibited.” Tollefsen goes on to explain how certain U.S. “interrogation” techniques really amounted to torture when used in combination:

standing naked, shackled, deprived of sleep, kept awake with cold water and loud noise, prevented from cleaning oneself after defecation, and subject to painful (though not physically damaging) slaps and disorienting smacks against a wall—and then subject to repeated waterboarding over a course of weeks or months: this looks like precisely the sort of choice . . . to disrupt an agent’s capacities for personal integrity by disrupting his control over his emotions, choices, self-awareness and self-image, connection to other human beings, and judgments.

Second, engaging in torture damages the torturer. The starting point for torture is the dehumanization of a detainee. Those who dehumanize others corrupt themselves in the process; dehumanization of others is a paradigm shift in how two people relate to each other, and as such it has an impact on both sides of the relationship. Once the detainee’s human status no longer matters in the mind of the torturer, he or she can unleash personal, even national, aggression. The detainee is subjected to suffering and the torturer lets go of reason, one of the marks of humanity, and descends into rage.

Third, torture is antithetical to effective intelligence collection. Torture is not just ineffective; it is counter-effective. To understand why torture and interrogation are incompatible, one needs to consider what interrogation itself is. In contrast to the dehumanization underlying torture, the interrogator must begin with an eye to the detainee’s humanity. In order to draw necessary breadth and depth of information from the interrogation process, the interrogator, assisted by analysts, must discern, “What is this person’s personality? Values? Beliefs? Culture?”

As is true of any human being, a detainee is a unique, complex web of beliefs, values, behaviors, past experiences, relationships, loyalties, and culture which are carried around in the heart and mind. The information an interrogator wants is embedded in that web. To get at it, an interrogator must be able to find the most efficient and effective way to discern a route through the labyrinth of that web. From this the interrogator can find openings for rapport-oriented emotional connection and build on these.

A moment of violence might provoke a quick response, but the response is likely to be one of defense—doing, saying anything, no matter how false, to stop the violence—and a jolt in response to violence may at best only skim the surface of an individual. Interrogation is different altogether. An interrogator seeks depth and breadth of information.

Getting to such depth and breadth requires finding a way to create an opening in the internal web of the detainee’s person. Perhaps an insecure young man craves having someone treat him with dignity. Perhaps a lonely detainee misses the attentive care and wisdom of a favorite aunt. Perhaps a proud warrior wants to feel respected for how hard he has fought for his beloved cause. These are the types of emotional openings a skilled interrogator can home in on and then build from in order to form a connection between the interrogator and the detainee.

One piece of information leads to another, and another, and so on, as the interrogator learns how to read the detainee and comes to find out what the detainee values, what motivates him, and what he knows.

The well-trained interrogator committed to personal integrity and professional excellence knows that the humanity of the detainee is of central importance. He or she learns to leave his or her personal emotional responses outside of the process. The detainee’s hopes, dreams, quirks, foibles, and idiosyncrasies, i.e., components of the detainee’s humanity, must be the core focus of all efforts.

Thus torture and interrogation are opposites. Torture eliminates the humanity of the detainee and unleashes what is inside the torturer, whereas interrogation is built precisely on the humanity of the detainee. Thus dehumanization in torture actually creates a barrier for interrogation.

Torture, moreover, stains America’s reputation. It brings decay rather than improvement and excellence to our intelligence collection professionals. Also it can undermine public support for detention and interrogation in times of military conflict from those Americans who, rightly, reject torture, but conflate torture with legitimate interrogation. And a lack of public support from certain quarters for our national intelligence efforts can in and of itself be a barrier to intelligence collection. We need to consider not only today’s conflicts, but also those of tomorrow, which surely will come. For these and other reasons torture in interrogation should be of particular concern to those who want to support intelligence collection for the prevention of future aggression.

What our nation needs is a rejection of torture in order to support intelligence collection through interrogation. We must eliminate the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” from our discussion. Methods implied by this phrase do not “enhance” interrogation. Techniques of cruelty and torture are no enhancement nor are they part of the interrogation methods of the U.S. military.

From my experience as an interrogator, I consider rejection of torture both an affirmation of human dignity and an expression of support for excellence, integrity, and long-term sustainability in intelligence collection.

Whether and how we Americans conduct interrogations reflect who we are as a people. Humane treatment of detainees, and interrogation, are vital for our security and they are, when carried out with excellence and integrity, entirely consistent with each other. For Americans voting soon in presidential and congressional primaries and elections, now is the time to consider that what we need is national level leadership that supports interrogation and rejects torture.

Jennifer S. Bryson is Director of the Islam and Civil Society Project at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ. She holds a B.A. from Stanford in Political Science as well as an M.A. in History and a Ph.D. in Arabic and Islamic studies in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Yale.

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