Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A veteran intelligence operative on the great American interrogation disaster

When retired Army Col. Stuart Herrington talks about intelligence, and especially about interrogation issues, I listen. His time in Vietnam was captured well in his book Silence was a Weapon also published under the title Stalking the Vietcong. He ran a secret interrogation operation on an island off the coast of Panama after the invasion ...

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

When retired Army Col. Stuart Herrington talks about intelligence, and especially about interrogation issues, I listen. His time in Vietnam was captured well in his book Silence was a Weapon also published under the title Stalking the Vietcong. He ran a secret interrogation operation on an island off the coast of Panama after the invasion of Panama, where, he says, much was learned about Noriega's relations with Cuba and the PLO. He ran a similar secret operation after the 1991 Gulf War. In 2004, he was asked to look into U.S. intelligence operations in Iraq and produced a scathing report that, to my knowledge, has never been released. (As I understand it, the report wasn't classified, but only two copies were made of it.) To my knowledge, he was one of the first people to blow the whistle on Abu Ghraib and on the broader abuse of prisoners that was occurring in many locations in Iraq back then.

Last November, Herrington gave a speech at Fort Leavenworth, sponsored by the CGSC Foundation, in which he explored how U.S. interrogation operations went badly off track after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, becoming both  abusive and counterproductive. But he also worries that the remedies instituted could cripple our intelligence gathering efforts.

One of the most striking aspects of his talk is the cold professional contempt he has for Cheney, Rumsfeld and others who not only encouraged a brutal approach, but were amateurish in doing so.

When retired Army Col. Stuart Herrington talks about intelligence, and especially about interrogation issues, I listen. His time in Vietnam was captured well in his book Silence was a Weapon also published under the title Stalking the Vietcong. He ran a secret interrogation operation on an island off the coast of Panama after the invasion of Panama, where, he says, much was learned about Noriega’s relations with Cuba and the PLO. He ran a similar secret operation after the 1991 Gulf War. In 2004, he was asked to look into U.S. intelligence operations in Iraq and produced a scathing report that, to my knowledge, has never been released. (As I understand it, the report wasn’t classified, but only two copies were made of it.) To my knowledge, he was one of the first people to blow the whistle on Abu Ghraib and on the broader abuse of prisoners that was occurring in many locations in Iraq back then.

Last November, Herrington gave a speech at Fort Leavenworth, sponsored by the CGSC Foundation, in which he explored how U.S. interrogation operations went badly off track after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, becoming both  abusive and counterproductive. But he also worries that the remedies instituted could cripple our intelligence gathering efforts.

One of the most striking aspects of his talk is the cold professional contempt he has for Cheney, Rumsfeld and others who not only encouraged a brutal approach, but were amateurish in doing so.

Herrington began his talk by looking back to Vietnam, where he insisted on  providing his prisoners(and intelligence targets) with "unconditional decent treatment-food, medical care and clothing." He showed his Vietnamese colleagues, fond of using "water torture and electrocution," that "One can employ legions of effective stratagems to achieve control over a potential recruit, but brutality, abuse and torture have no place."

He used the same approach after the invasion of Panama and the Gulf War, in each case establishing "guest houses" were prisoners were given air conditioned rooms and treated well. "We afforded unconditional decent treatment to our Iraqi guests," he said. "We did not gloat over the coalition’s lopsided victory, but channeled their anger towards Saddam Hussein, who had set them up for defeat and humiliation."

His bottom line:

"There was no room on our team for charlatans who believed in sleep deprivation, inducing hypothermia, stress positions, face slapping, forced nudity, water boarding, blaring heavy metal music, or other amateurish, ineffective and ethically flawed tricks."

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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