The CIA’s admission that it destroyed video tapes of the interrogations of terrorists has resulted in a predictable outcry from both Republicans and Democrats. Purportedly, the tapes showed harsh interrogation methods, including waterboarding, and politicians of all stripes were fairly quick to condemn the practice and the CIA’s involvement in it.
There is no doubt that, occasionally, severe interrogation methods produce valuable information that can be processed into actionable finished intelligence. Arguing that these methods should be used because more is at stake than the niceties of good manners, some people pose hypothetical situations such as this:
We know that a terrorist has information that will permit us to save the lives of thousands, and time is running out. Why not torture him to extract it?
In many ways it’s hard to argue with this logic. We have never been averse to doing things which seem reprehensible but which are the only routes to succeeding against our enemies. Take World War II, for example. We embarked on an unrestricted bombing campaign to beat the Axis, whose surrender we demanded unconditionally. To that end, the Allies firebombed Dresden and Tokyo and we dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, killing thousands of civilians. Had we lost the war, there is an argument that our leaders would have been tried as war criminals, and so might often does make right. In the event, we controlled the outcome at the cost of more than 400,000 American lives, created the United Nations, and rebuilt Germany, the rest of Europe and Japan.
But the hypothetical situation described above is hypothetical precisely because it is difficult if not impossible to envision a circumstance in which it could actually exist. How do we know he has the information? How do we know time is running out? If we already have this information, there are undoubtedly more reliable ways to get the rest of it. And in the real-life intelligence business, actionable information is that which requires verification from at least one other independent source. In addition, both sources usually need to be those who have provided quality information in the past. Waterboarding somebody typically won’t get you what you need, no matter how much time you have.
In my experience interrogating captured soldiers, I have extracted plenty of useful information with less odious techniques. In particular, low-ranking enemy troops will often yield merely to the offer of cigarettes and medical care. True, there is usually an inverse relationship between the tactical value of a captive’s information and the ease with which it can be extracted, but it’s also true that the typical captive under duress will tell an interrogator what he thinks his captor wants to hear, just to get him to stop. Usually, though not always, coerced information isn’t worth very much.
However, a major issue that should not be lost amid the rhetoric about the techniques of interrogation is the destruction of the tapes. It is not unusual to tape interrogations, and indeed I would argue that they should all be taped when possible. Human memory is often unreliable, and a tape will eliminate all doubt about what was asked, answered and translated.
All classified information has a life cycle, and eventually many documents are de-classified and become available for public study and scrutiny. But destroying classified information, especially when its existence has been denied, the contents are contentious and legal counsel had advised against it, could as a minimum be viewed as lousy judgment.
Jack Jacobs is a military analyst. He is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam and also has three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.