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Sources Holler Back: Torture Edition

Something I always thought journalists should do was to let readers see criticisms of their work made by their sources. After all, unless I show you my notebook — which would reveal the identities of people who require anonymity — how do you know if I’m quoting someone accurately or in context? Also, sometimes there’s too much stuff contained in an interview and too little space to provide it. Well, blogging kind of solves those problems. So, from time to time I’ll share with you the responses I get to my work from my sources, pending their approval, in the interest of providing a more in-depth airing of the issues I’m reporting on.

So for starters, here’s the ex-senior CIA official from my interrogation piece, the one who helped devise the agency’s interrogation program. The source emails:

My only thoughts are: (1) I don’t think you mentioned the "time is of the essence" problems with the relationship-building approach; (2) it’s hard to build a relationship when you do not speak or understand the language; and (3) it is particularly hard to build a relationship when the cultural gulf is so vast. This is not meant to say that torture works, but that other methods may fare no better. Finally, I again raise the question of what is torture.

Leaving aside the question of what is torture — the law, the Geneva Conventions and a whole lot of history make it pretty clear, if not perfectly precise — these are fair points. While the so-called "ticking bomb" case exists largely as a hypothetical, often interrogators are faced with immediacy concerns. What if a detainee’s information is perishable? It is, however, fair to say that the police and the FBI face this situation — though perhaps not on the scale of a potential terrorist attack — and they manage to operate without brutality (at least in most cases). Also, the point about language and cultural gaps is well-taken, but the answer there is pretty straightforward: put more effort into recruiting interrogators like George Piro. Obviously that’s easier said than done, and I’m not trying to take a cheap shot at CIA. But the objection here just demonstrates how far the agency still has to go to improve its interrogation work.

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