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Best of 2009: FBI Interrogators Argued in 2002 That Enhanced Interrogation Techniques Were Illegal and Ineffective

All day, we’re re-running our favorite blog posts of the last year. This post was originally published on Nov. 8, 2009.

As former Vice President Dick Cheney and some Republican lawmakers continue to debate whether torture works and was a legitimate interrogation technique during the Bush administration, it’s almost jaw-dropping to read some of the memos that were written by the real experts on interrogation techniques in the U.S. government, warning the Defense Department all the way back in 2002 that the sorts of abusive techniques they were considering, and in some cases already using, were not only bound to fail, but were unequivocally illegal.

One memo, drafted in November 2002 by personnel from the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit — the unit best trained to understand human behavior and how to interpret and manipulate criminal suspects — was among the documents released by the government on Friday as part of the ongoing Freedom of Information Act litigation brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. The memo was sent to the Commanding General and Jt. Task Force 170 — the unit of the Southern Command in charge of detaining and interrogating detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

The BAU, explained elsewhere in documents released on Friday, is “comprised of Supervisory Special Agents with an average of 18 years of experience in criminal and counterintelligence investigations.”

The memo lays out clearly and simply what the interrogation experts at the FBI knew about interrogations of terror suspects, what would or would not work on them, and what sort of conduct was illegal. And it reads much like the sorts of arguments we’re now hearing from the America Civil Liberties Union and other civil and human rights organizations arguing that senior defense department officials and lawyers who approved abusive techniques ought to be criminally investigated.

“Central to the gathering of reliable, admissible evidence is the manner in which it is obtained,” the authors write to the General. “Interrogation techniques used by the DHS [Defense Human Intelligence Services, part of DoD] are designed specifically for short term use in combat environments where the immediate retrieval of tactical intelligence is critical. Many of DHS’s methods are considered coercive by Federal Law Enforcement and [Uniform Code of Military Justice] standards. Not only this, but reports from those knowledgeable about the use of these coercive techniques are highly skeptical as to their effectiveness and reliability.”

Most of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay had already been interviewed repeatedly overseas by the DHS, so the FBI recommended a different approach be taken at Guantanamo.

The FBI favors the use of less coercive techniques — ones carefully designed for long-term use in which rapport-building skills are carefully combined with a purposeful and incremental manipulation of a detainee’s environment and perceptions.

The BAU staff explain:

FBI/CITF agents are well trained, highly experienced and very successful in overcoming suspect resistance in order to obtain valuable information in complex criminal cases, including the investigations of terrorist bombings in East Africa and the USS Cole, etc. FBI/CRT interview strategies are most effective when tailored specifically to suit a suspect’s or detainee’s needs or vulnerabilities. Contrary to popular belief, these vulnerabilities are more likely to reveal themselves through the employment of individually designed and sustained interview strategies rather than through the haphazard use of prescriptive, time-driven approaches. The FBI/CITF strongly believes that the continued use of diametrically opposed interrogation strategies in GTMO will only weaken our efforts to obtain valuable information.

The memo goes on to list the interrogation techniques being used, and then to list which ones are “not permitted by the U.S. Constitution.” Those include: the use of stress positions for more than four hours; hooding; 20-hour interrogation segments; stripping a detainee of all clothing; and exploiting individual phobias, such as fear of dogs, to induce stress. They also include the use of scenarios designed to convince a detainee that death or severe pain is imminent for him or his family; waterboarding (here called “use of wet towel and dripping water to induce the misperception of drowning”); and exposure to cold weather or water.

All of those techniques, we now know, continued to be used by the Defense Department.

The FBI also warned that the use of such techniques would make any evidence derived inadmissible in federal court and if admissible in a military commission, likely to be given “little or no weight.”

The FBI drafters of the memo further explained that most of those techniques, particularly the last four, would also violate the U.S. anti-torture statute. It recommended that they not be used.

We know that the Pentagon and CIA went ahead and used them anyway. Instead of relying on their top experts in the FBI, they relied on a plan developed by a couple of private psychologists with no experience whatsoever in interrogating terror suspects and who cribbed much of their plan from a study of Chinese Communist techniques used to obtain false confessions from American prisoners during the Korean war. Senior U.S. officials then sought legal opinions from the Office of Legal Counsel that would tell them that these techniques, contrary to the FBI’s opinions, were not illegal. Conveniently, those opinions did cast the techniques described in a completely different light.

The most recently released memos have not gotten much attention, as torture fatigue sets in and the Bush torture program becomes old news. But the FBI memo is important because it adds to the growing body of evidence that senior defense department and CIA officials deliberately ignored the opinions of the best trained and most experienced people in the government about interrogations that abusive interrogations would not work and were not legal. Add that to the rest of the evidence that senior Bush administration officials did not act in good faith in relying on the Office of Legal Counsel memos that justified the techniques the Defense Department and CIA were using, and this latest declassified memo adds weight to the argument that something fishy was going on at the highest ranks of government that demands further investigation.

This latest memo also sheds light on why some in the Defense Department and some Republicans are now so eager to try Guantanamo detainees in military commissions rather than in Article III federal courts. They know that the evidence extracted from the prisoners under the “enhanced” methods Cheney is still defending doesn’t stand a chance in front of an independent U.S. federal court judge.

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