As details emerge about harsh tactics used against Guantanamo Bay detainees, some scientists, veteran interrogators and members of Congress think the United States needs a more systematic way to go about interrogations.
They have proposed a Center for Excellence in Interrogation, a place to gather the best science, to share research among the nation's intelligence services and to train military interrogators on a career path.
“If we can be more effective by being skilled than by being brutal, then we're fools not to be more skilled,” said Robert Coulam, director of the Center for Health Policy Research at Simmons College in Boston, and an intelligence consultant.
He and other scientists have been warning the United States for years that almost no research exists to tell interrogators the best way to get information out of suspected terrorists.
Never miss a local story.
Two years ago, the Intelligence Science Board told top intelligence officials, in a report that ran nearly 375 pages long, that more behavioral research needs to be done into the art and science of interrogations. In a series of chapters, researchers laid out a strategy that included stress experiments with highly trained military forces, research into behavior in foreign cultures and analyses of historical records from prisoners of war.
But the recommendations came years after interrogators at Guantanamo Bay had waterboarded two suspected terrorists 266 times, after interrogators stripped detainees and menaced them with dogs at military prisons, and after Bush administration lawyers had given the go-ahead to confine a top al-Qaida suspect inside a box with a caterpillar to capitalize on the man's fear of bugs.
“This is a very nasty business with a very important purpose,” said Coulam, who wrote the first chapter of the Intelligence Science Board's report, which was published by the National Defense Intelligence College.
Government, he said, ought to be humble about how much it understands about interrogation, and how much of the brutality against detainees was meant to gather information versus demonstrating ruthlessness.
“You can end up, perhaps, having to torture, as some have said,” Coulam said, “But it appears as if we started there. We didn't end up there.”
Air Force Col. Steven Kleinman, a reserve senior intelligence officer for U.S. Central Command in Tampa, said intelligence agencies need more professional interrogators to prevent abuses.
“I'm professional enough as an intelligence officer to say let's look at (my methods),” said Kleinman, who suggested a Center for Excellence in 2005. “We need a science-based approach to this.”
U.S. Rep. David Price, a Democrat from Chapel Hill, has filed legislation proposing the center. Price said he wants to make the practice of interrogation more consistent with American values.
“I think we've too often treated this function somewhat carelessly,” he said.
Such a center might more likely be run by the government than at a university. But Price, whose district includes UNC Chapel Hill and Duke, didn't rule out an academic center.
But the plans for interrogation research make some observers queasy, including anti-torture advocates who worry that research might open the door to coercion.
“There's a public debate, and everybody's saying, ‘We have to look at it,'” said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has represented detainees from Guantanamo. “You don't have to look at it. You don't use torture.”
Still, the quest for more research could raise important ethical questions. If science says harsh coercion tactics work, for example, should the United States take part? What if lives were at stake? How many lives?
“There are some things that we don't do to other human beings in a country with our values,” Price said. “There are certain moral standards you live by.”
But research shouldn't be about torture, cautioned John Hutson, a retired rear admiral and former judge advocate in the Navy.
“That's the wrong question,” said Hutson, who has testified to Congress and met with President Obama about interrogations. “People might concede that torture does work. At least, it works on occasion. The real question is: Do other techniques work better?”
Hutson said he remains skeptical of whether research might be more about justification.
“Torture is the technique for the lazy, the stupid, the pseudo-tough,” Hutson said. “It's not hard to do. What's hard to do is rapport development, making the person want to talk and want to tell you the truth.”
The FBI and CIA differed greatly in their approaches at Guantanamo, with the CIA initially using coercive measures to garner information. The FBI has told Congress that its rapport-building technique works better in yielding valuable information without the potentially devastating geopolitical consequences of coercion.
Given the long-term implications of interrogations, government leaders have to understand what they're dealing with as they train military and civilian interrogators, Coulam said.
“This is playing with fire,” he said. “And people who do it face pressures and temptations that don't necessarily bring out the best in human behavior. Especially in difficult settings, we have reason to believe that unless (interrogators) are supremely disciplined, they're going to slip into torture.”
Rye Barcott, a former Marine captain who led intelligence squads in Iraq, said he was shocked at the lack of training he saw among some interrogators. When he visited Abu Ghraib, there were 5,000 detainees and less than two dozen interrogators.
“This is too important to just learn on the job,” Barcott said.
Barcott, a 2001 graduate of UNC Chapel Hill now studying at Harvard, said the best interrogators understand that they're conducting a negotiation.
“Power is held in both hands, and the skilled interrogator knows that,” he said.
Coulam said science could not answer definitively whether torture works. Interrogators would still have to consider political and ethical risks for every situation.
“Some of this is against the law, and do we really want to tolerate this level of illegality?” he asked. “Science alone isn't going to get us off the hook.”