In a fascinating essay called “The Ploy” in the current Atlantic, Mark Bowden explains how an elite group of Special Operations troops in Iraq known as Task Force 145 got the information that led to the killing last year of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. In an online discussion forum regarding military affairs that I belong to (it’s called the Warlord Loop), Bowden’s article has been criticized by current and former intelligence officers for being overly detailed and for revealing our TTP’s (tactics, techniques, and procedures) to the enemy.
That seems a legitimate concern, but his essay raises another issue as well: have we handcuffed our soldiers with overly restrictive rules for the handling of detainees? The story repeats claims made in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other outlets that prior to the Abu Ghraib scandal of 2004, Task Force 6-26 (the predecessor to 145) had used some rough tactics: “Interrogators . . . were reportedly stripping prisoners naked and hosing them down in the cold, beating them, employ ‘stress positions,’ and keeping them awake for long hours.”
All that ended after Abu Ghraib. “Physical abuse was outlawed, as were sensory deprivation and the withholding or altering of food as punishment,” Bowden writes. “The backlash from Abu Ghraib had produced so many restrictions that gators [the nickname for interrogators] were no longer permitted to work even a standard good cop/bad cop routine. The interrogation room cameras were faithfully monitored, and gators who crossed the line would be interrupted in mid-session.”
In the Wall Street Journal, Kyndra Rotunda, a former officer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps who served at Guantanamo, offers further details on what sort of practices are no longer allowed. Interrogators cannot withhold detainees’ access to Qur’ans or any food or water. (All detainees receive their filling halal meals and their Qur’ans, no matter what they do.) They cannot stop piping in the call to prayer or refuse to tell detainees the direction of Mecca. They are even having a hard time using teams of shrinks (known as Behavior Science Consultation Teams) to monitor suspects for signs of duplicity.
In other words, in the rush to crack down on abuse, practices that would seem to stop well short of any reasonable definition of torture (the good cop/bad cop routine, for Pete’s sake!) have been jettisoned. Interrogators are left with a battery of approved techniques from the new army field manual on interrogation. As described by Bowden these include “’ego up,’ which involved flattery; ‘ego down,’ which meant denigrating a detainee; and various simple con games—tricking a detainee into believing you already knew something you did not, feeding him misinformation about friends or family members, and so forth.”
Bowden’s article describes how, in the hands of first-class interrogators, such “con games” could be used to elicit information from a couple of al-Qaeda operatives—information that led Task Force 145 to pinpoint Zarqawi’s location. But one wonders how much information coalition forces in Iraq or Afghanistan aren’t getting because interrogators aren’t as skilled, or detainees as gullible, as those in “The Ploy.”
Even in the case chronicled by Bowden, one threat was used effectively to elicit information. He writes: “The well-publicized abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere put all detainees on edge, and assurances that the U.S. command had cracked down were not readily believed. The prospect of being shipped to the larger prison—notorious during the American occupation, and even more so during the Saddam era—was enough to persuade many subjects to talk.”
By now, any sentient detainee will know that Abu Ghraib has been shuttered (its replacement is Camp Bucca in southern Iraq) and that there is not much that their American captors can do to them. If they didn’t know that already (and all the smart ones do), they surely will after al Qaeda translates Bowden’s article and places it online as part of their training for handling captivity.