Trump’s call to bring back torture alarms professional interrogators

Donald Trump’s advocacy of torture in last week’s Republican debate has alarmed professional interrogators.
Donald Trump’s advocacy of torture in last week’s Republican debate has alarmed professional interrogators. AP

Hard-nosed interrogators who say they’ve thwarted terror attacks in the United States by extracting key information from suspects have a message for Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner, who’s vowing to bring back waterboarding and even harsher questioning techniques if elected president:

Don’t do it.

Trump has become famous this campaign season for making incendiary statements, from accusing Mexican immigrants of being rapists to urging a ban on all Muslims entering the country. But his recent pledge to return “enhanced interrogation techniques” to the methods U.S. interrogators can employ has sent ripples across the country’s close-knit circle of forensic psychologists, intelligence analysts and terror experts inside the government and beyond.

Trump made the pledge in an exchange on combating terrorism during a Republican debate in New Hampshire last Saturday, three days before that state’s first-in-the-nation primary, which the New York billionaire won going away.

“I’d bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” Trump said.

His justification, he explained, was the brutal murders executed by the Islamic State and other jihadist groups.

“In the Middle East, we have people chopping the heads off Christians, we have people chopping the heads off many other people,” Trump said. “Not since medieval times have people seen what’s going on.”

The audience of Republican activists applauded Trump’s stance, but it caused dismay among experts.

“I’m not really surprised because Mr. Trump is just catering to his voters,” Ali Soufan, a pioneering former FBI interrogator who in Senate testimony in May 2009 accused the CIA of having lied about the success of its brutal techniques, told McClatchy. “He appears to be running on a war-crimes platform. This is possible because, unfortunately, no one has been held accountable for our past torture, and when you don’t have people being held accountable, others are going to repeat it.”

Executive Order 13491, issued by President Obama in January 2009 two days into office, ended the Bush-era CIA interrogation program against terror suspects

Soufan, a Lebanese-American who as an FBI agent went undercover to investigate al Qaida and was the lead investigator into the bombing of the USS Cole and 9/11, now runs the Soufan Group, a New York-based firm that advises corporations and governments on security.

Maria Hartwig, a psychology professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice just blocks from Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan, said Trump’s debate comments alarmed her.

“I think it’s disgraceful and worrisome,” said Hartwig, a leading academic expert on police and intelligence interrogations. “It betrays a complete lack of understanding about the nature of intelligence-gathering. Torture, in short, has repeatedly been categorized by professional interrogators as an amateur approach. It’s simply not an effective way of getting diagnostic information.”

President Barack Obama formally ended the use of torture in the anti-terror fight with an executive order issued Jan. 22, 2009, two days after he took office. Obama’s order halted the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation program that had permitted waterboarding, forced “rectal rehydration,” sexual humiliation and other techniques documented in a December 2014 Senate report.

Seven years after Obama’s order, the specter of past torture still haunts the country.

34 The number of ‘mobile interrogation teams’ dispatched around the world since 2010 under a joint program run by the FBI, CIA and Pentagon

The trial before a military commission at the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other alleged Sept. 11 plotters has been delayed for years because of their defense lawyers’ claims that their confessions and other evidence against them is fatally tainted by how they were treated at CIA “black sites” in foreign lands.

In the days since Trump’s public support for waterboarding and other forceful ways of questioning terror suspects, the Obama administration has waged a quiet counter-campaign against any attempt to re-legitimize such abusive techniques.

In a rare move to discuss a classified program, the FBI called in reporters for sit-down interviews with the head of a little-known initiative named the High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, called HIG (rhymes with “jig”) by intelligence insiders.

“Everything that we do, all the techniques that we employ and train, are humane, lawful and based on the world-class research that we’re doing,” Frazier Thompson, the group’s director, told McClatchy on Wednesday. “And what that world-class research says and has shown to us is that the rapport-based techniques . . . will elicit more credible intelligence and evidence than any other type of technique. So that’s how we operate.”

The same Obama executive order that ended the torture techniques set up a task force to examine the most effective ways of interrogating and detaining terror suspects.

Seven months later, in August 2009, that task force issued recommendations. Forming the HIG program, set up the following year, was a key suggestion.

“There is no tension between strengthening our national security and meeting our commitment to the rule of law, and these new policies will accomplish both,” then-Attorney General Eric Holder said in disclosing the task force findings.

Administered by the FBI, the HIG group reports to the chiefs of that law enforcement agency, the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s main espionage arm.

Rapport is having an ability to have a two-way conversation between two individuals. It doesn’t mean you like me or I like you.

Frazier Thompson, FBI executive in charge of the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group

Citing the need to protect its members’ identities and its methods, Thompson declined to provide examples of the HIG group’s operations beyond saying he’s sent 34 interrogation teams on missions around the world to question people thought to have significant ties to, or knowledge of, terrorist groups.

The teams consist of one to six or more people, among them the best-trained interrogators, linguists, intelligence analysts and “subject-matter experts” on the individual to be questioned and the terror organization to which he has ties. The missions have produced actionable intelligence, Thompson said, but he declined to provide details.

The FBI executive, however, pushed back at some media depictions of rapport-based interrogation as a “soft” approach toward suspected bad guys.

“Some see rapport as being friends and being able to have a good time together,” Thompson said. “Well, that’s not rapport to me. Rapport is having an ability to have a two-way conversation between two individuals. It doesn’t mean you like me or I like you. But we’re being, to some degree and level, honest with each other and at least willing to talk with each other.”

Mark Fallon, a former senior official in the Department of Homeland Security who now heads the HIG program’s advisory research committee, also endorsed the approach, saying recent scientific research has proved what seasoned interrogators have known for years: rapport-based techniques produce much better intelligence than coercion.

Fallon, who helped lead the investigation of Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the Egyptian-born “Blind Sheik” convicted of helping plan the 1993 World Trade Center bombings, cited a recent study showing that physically forceful questioning impedes the memory of the person being interrogated.

“It’s a fact that interrogation professionals have known for years, and now the science has validated it,” Fallon said. “A rapport-based approach is the most effective in obtaining accurate and reliable information.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Marie Hartwig’s surname.

James Rosen: 202-383-0014; @jamesmartinrose