Operatives say CIA exemption on torture a mistake

Knight Ridder NewspapersNovember 10, 2005 

— WASHINGTON —Administration officials, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, are vigorously lobbying Congress to exempt the CIA from a ban on mistreatment of detainees. But many former and some current CIA operatives say — morality aside — that mistreatment and torture aren't useful interrogation tactics and the loophole should be rejected.

"We ought to declare we don't do this. We ought to declare the intelligence isn't worth it," said Frank Anderson, a former chief of the CIA's Near East and South Asia division in the agency's Operations Directorate, the clandestine service.

There's also the question of what brutality does to those who carry it out, Anderson said.

"I will rebel against anyone who wants my son to torture, because it won't ever heal," he said, speaking at a conference this week sponsored by the Middle East Institute.

Anderson's views were echoed, with some variation, in interviews with a half-dozen current and former CIA and military officers with extensive field experience. Retired and active officers made similar arguments against abusing prisoners, but none of the current CIA or military officers would agree to speak on the record because they aren't authorized to talk to the media.

Robert Baer, a former CIA covert officer who worked in Iraq and elsewhere, said he recently spent time in an Israeli prison, talking with detainees from the radical Palestinian groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas for a British documentary about suicide bombers.

The Israelis, Baer said, have learned that they can gain valuable information by establishing personal relationships with the inmates and gaining their trust.

"They found that torture, abusive tactics, made things overall worse for them politically," Baer said. "The Israelis are friendly with their prisoners. They play cards with them and allow them to contact their families. They are getting in their minds to determine what makes up a suicide bomber."

Torture is illegal under international and U.S. law, but the Bush administration Justice Department sometimes has advanced a narrow definition of torture that would allow extremely aggressive tactics.

The real debate is over measures that go beyond those permitted by the Geneva Conventions, which regulate the treatment of prisoners of war.

President Bush has threatened to veto a measure, sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was mistreated as a POW during the Vietnam War, that would prohibit cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of detainees.

After the Senate approved the measure 90-9, Cheney and CIA director Porter Goss went to Capitol Hill to argue for an exemption for the spy agency.

Advocates for flexibility argue that, in fighting terrorism, sometimes the stakes are so high that repugnant measures are justified.

One is the so-called "ticking time bomb" scenario, in which a captured terrorist has information on an imminent attack that could kill hundreds or thousands of civilians.

Two administration officials, who asked not to be identified because they aren't authorized to speak to the press, said Cheney had described such a scenario several times, in which interrogators using generally approved methods can't pry the particulars out of the prisoner in time to prevent an attack.

Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz has argued that in such cases, torture should be used as a last resort, openly, with approval by the president or a Supreme Court justice.

But intelligence officers and other U.S. officials said the scenario was more likely to be found in James Bond films than in the real war on terrorism.

Asked how he'd handle it, McCain replied: "It's a one in a million issue, and if something was one in a million situation, I would support whatever needs to be done. But that's a one in a million situation."

"If you have exceptions, then there's more exceptions and more exceptions and more exceptions," he said.

John C. Yoo, a former deputy assistant attorney general who co-authored a controversial memorandum arguing that the Geneva Conventions don't apply in the Afghanistan war, said there were other scenarios in which coercive tactics would be justified.

Yoo, in an appearance this week on C-SPAN, cited the March 2002 arrest of Abu Zubayda, sometimes called al-Qaida's No. 3 leader, who presumably had operational knowledge of terrorist plots under way.

"I wonder whether people would want to give up the ability to interrogate in that way, and the cost of that being those plots and those operations would succeed?" Yoo said.

But intelligence officers said that torture, or tactics just short of it, rarely produced good information, and were more likely to produce bad information.

Vincent Cannistraro, a former chief of operations and analysis in the CIA Counterterrorist Center, said detainees would say virtually anything to end their torment.

Baer agreed, citing intelligence reports from Arab security services that yielded useless information. "The Saudis and Egyptians torture people all the time, but I have yet to see anything that helped us on the jihad movement and (Osama bin Laden's deputy Ayman al) Zawahri," he said.

Ibn Sheikh al Libi, an al-Qaida training camp commander who was captured, was a principal source of the Bush administration's prewar claim that Iraq had provided chemical weapons training to bin Laden's network. He was subjected to aggressive interrogation techniques—and the information on Iraq and al-Qaida turned out to have been invented.

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(Knight Ridder correspondents James Kuhnhenn and John Walcott contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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