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Sources Holler Back: Part II

And here’s more hollering back, this time from longtime CIA polygrapher John Sullivan. John’s got a problem with my portrayal of FBI interrogations.

Dear Spencer,

Re your comments on FBI interrogators:

Comparing CIA interrogations with FBI interrogations is comparing apples with oranges. The overwhelming majority of FBI interrogations are done on criminal suspects who have been arrested. More importantly, most of these interrogations are done on individuals in whose language and culture the FBI interrogator is well versed. In most cases, the interrogator has a lot of biographical data on his Subject, criminal record (if any) and can fake relating to or identifying with his Subject. There is also leverage. There can be real negotiation between an FBI interrogator and his Subject, i.e. a reduction in sentence or even a "walk."

One can not compare this type of interrogation with a CIA interrogation of a terrorist or Jihadist. Most of these interrogations have to be done through an interpreter. There is a basic lack of understanding of the history and culture of the Subjects that severely limits the effectiveness of such interrogations.

In your article, you made no mention of Michael Koubi, the legendary Israeli interrogator. May I refer you to Mark Bowden’s interview, "The Truth About Torture," that appeared in the September 11, 2003 Atlantic Monthly and his related article, "The Dark Art of Interrogation," that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in October 2003. If I wanted to learn something about interrogating Arabs, Israel is the first place I would go.

My point wasn’t to say that CIA shouldn’t conduct interrogations, nor that CIA had nothing to learn from places like Israel about how to conduct interrogations. It was, rather, that the brutality stemmed from ignorance, and the neglect of precisely the sorts of interrogations that Sullivan conducted at CIA. Bowden’s pieces are interesting, but they do suffer from some post-9/11 enthusiasm for what he euphemistically refers to as "smacky-face." In a subsequent piece about the hunting of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Bowden reports about a successful pursuit of a terrorist that didn’t involve torture. It would have been helpful if Bowden tried to reconcile his two pieces.

But Sullivan, of course, is an opponent of torture, so I’m not exactly sure what he means by citing the 2003 Bowden articles. (Hopefully this post will prompt yet more hollering back!) His FBI point is a good one. But can’t it be overcome? You can foresee a situation where CIA interrogators could offer inducements to detainees — movement to a prison in the U.S. where they’ll receive due process, or something that I can’t think of but smart lawyers can. Similarly, like I said to my previous source, it’s true that we have to do most interrogations through translation, but that just speaks to my piece’s broader point of how parlous the state of CIA interrogation is in. Maybe the agency should consider extra inducements or the relaxation of standards for Arab-Americans or Americans of backgrounds relevant to human-intelligence gathering/interrogation in the war on terrorism.

In fact what are those inducements? What are those standards? Sounds like something I should report on further.

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