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Army intelligence officer concludes: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is more right than wrong

By Lt. Col. Douglas Pryer, U.S. Army Best Defense department of war movie reviews Torture has once again become a matter of noisy public debate. This time (thank goodness!), the reason has nothing to do with new revelations of U.S. servicemembers or CIA employees going amuck on prisoners. Instead, the cause de célèbre is a ...

Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

By Lt. Col. Douglas Pryer, U.S. Army

Best Defense department of war movie reviews

Torture has once again become a matter of noisy public debate. This time (thank goodness!), the reason has nothing to do with new revelations of U.S. servicemembers or CIA employees going amuck on prisoners. Instead, the cause de célèbre is a movie, Zero Dark Thirty. Critics of the movie say that it promotes the use of torture by linking torture to a piece of evidence that proved indispensable in America’s search for bin Laden. This, critics like Senators McCain, Feinstein, and Levin say, is a dangerous fiction not rooted in historical reality.

Fans of the movie disagree. They argue that the movie portrays this evidence as far less valuable than that obtained by clearly legal means. What is more, they say, the movie performs a service by leaving no doubt in the audience’s mind that so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" (EITs) were torture, and also by shocking the conscience of these same viewers, causing them to wonder how the U.S. government could so easily surrender founding national values to such little good effect.

I agree with the movie’s apologists. The movie does not depict torture as producing indispensable evidence. It shows morally repugnant torture producing a piece of evidence that the CIA already had but had tucked away in a file and forgot about. Seven years of torture, the movie says, produced little if any intelligence that clearly legal methods could have (and did) provide. The real narrative of the movie: A new sheriff (President Obama) comes to town who outlaws torture; subsequent CIA detective work relies exclusively on more cunning, ethical techniques involving, not just humane interrogations, but other intelligence methods; and — presto! — in two short years, bin Laden’s hideout is found and, a few months later, he is killed. Even if the movie gets many details wrong, it at least gets the basic story right.

But far more important than the movie’s historical accuracy is the deeper debate it has resurrected: Does torture work? And, even if it does work, is torture something Americans ought to be using on "hardened" terrorists (or on anyone else for that matter)?

This debate is sorely needed since most opinion polls show Americans’ support for torture steadily climbing. A 2011 Pew Research Center survey reported that 53 percent of Americans believe that torture should often (19 percent) or sometimes (34 percent) be used against terrorism suspects to gain information. That marked a steady 10 percent climb from 2004. A recent YouGov poll commissioned by a Stanford University professor indicated that, over a five-year period, the number of Americans approving of torture climbed 14 percent to 41 percent in 2012.

This trend is something that those against "torture as American policy" should be watching carefully. U.S. legislation, military regulations, and Army doctrine — most notably the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 and U.S. Army Field Manual 2-22.3 Human Intelligence Collector Operations — now enshrine prisoner treatment that is in keeping with international standards and the national values expressed by such principled American leaders as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. In our republic, though, all laws are subject to change — even those in the Constitution — if enough Americans support this change.

There is no question which side of the torture debate I fall on. First and foremost, it is clear to me that torture fails as a tactic within the most important domain of war, the moral one. It is thus something that we Americans simply ought not to do.

When people see images of torture, most empathize with the tortured rather than the torturer. This is especially true for those who identify strongly with the tortured in the first place because of in-group, out-group bias, say, because the tortured is a fellow Muslim or a fellow Iraqi. The moral judgment that this empathy has naturally generated — the judgment that those torturing are "cruel," "evil," or worse still, "inhuman" — has inspired legions of America’s enemies to fight us. At the same time, shame has decreased the will to fight of some Americans within the ranks and at home and damaged the political ability of coalition allies to support America’s military adventures abroad. Choosing torture as policy is thus rightly seen as a kind of slow moral suicide, strengthening the fighting spirit of our enemies while sapping our own fighting spirit and that of our allies.

It is also clear to me that torture is an extremely poor method for collecting reliable intelligence. This clarity derives in part from military doctrine, training, and professional reading. But it is also rooted in personal experience.

During the summer and fall of 2003, my boss and I managed interrogation operations for Task Force 1st Armored Division (TF 1AD) in Baghdad. My boss was Major Nathan Hoepner, who wrote an email in August 2003 that would one day be quoted by Tom Ricks in Fiasco. When told by the highest command in Iraq that "the gloves are coming off" and that our unit must provide a "wish list" of harsh interrogation techniques, Major Hoepner emailed a passionate rebuttal: "We need to take a deep breath and remember who we are…It comes down to standards of right and wrong — something we cannot just put aside when we find it inconvenient." He concluded: "BOTTOM LINE: We are American soldiers, heirs of a long tradition of staying on the high ground. We need to stay there."

Tragically, his impassioned plea fell on deaf ears. Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez soon signed a policy memo encouraging the use of EITs on prisoners, tactics employed at U.S. military Survival, Escape, Resistance, and Evasion (SERE) schools to teach trainees how to survive torture with honor. Sanchez replaced this memo with another in October that ostensibly required interrogators to obtain his approval for non-doctrinal techniques. However, it actually reinforced the belief of some interrogators that they themselves had the authority to order that clothing, food, shelter, light, and warmth be withheld from detainees. Thus it was that degrading, formally promulgated tactics laid the foundation for more serious crimes at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere in Iraq.

At the height of the worst abuses at Abu Ghraib, I regularly communicated with an interrogation chief working at the prison. The reason was to press him to have TF 1AD detainees re-interrogated. Despite his team’s conducting numerous interrogations for us, we did not receive ANY useful intelligence whatsoever from Abu Ghraib. Sure, they produced reports on our detainees, but invariably, these reports contained either useless information or different versions of the same stories we had already extracted using humane, rapport-based approaches.

I was not alone in my frustration with Abu Ghraib. For example, Kyle Teamey, the S2X (senior human intelligence officer) for 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, in Ramadi at the time, said: "The folks at Abu Ghraib not only failed to provide any intel of value, they turned the entire Sunni population against us. Meanwhile, we were getting actionable intel by giving detainees Skittles and a cup of coffee."

Despite our nation’s and military’s gross failures at Abu Ghraib and several other detention facilities, most interrogators at Gitmo, Iraq, and Afghanistan did not choose to torture. Why is this the case? One reason is that many shared the idealism expressed by Major Hoepner, which holds that torture is just something that Americans should not do.

But we should not dismiss professional competence as a reason, either. Those interrogators who had done their professional reading were less likely to engage in torture. In a future guest column, "Top 10 Books on U.S. Interrogation," I will provide a list of some of these books. Interrogators had also learned doctrine and conventional wisdom at the military intelligence schoolhouse that taught that torture is an ineffective intelligence tool. This conventional wisdom included the proverb, "The longest list of lies in the world is that given by the tortured." Many interrogators had taken doctrine and such conventional wisdom to heart, before they deployed.

Lieutenant Colonel Douglas A. Pryer is a military intelligence officer who has served in various command and staff positions in Iraq, Kosovo, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and, most recently, Afghanistan. He is the author of the Command and General Staff College Foundation Press’s inaugural book, The Fight for the High Ground: The U.S. Army and Interrogation During Operation Iraqi Freedom, May 2003 – April 2004. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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