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From Waterboarding To Toothpaste Ads

Abu GhraibTwo weeks ago, several Republican Presidential candidates competed to tell their cheering supporters how much they wanted to play Jack Bauer. Last Saturday, the model for such insanity, Dick Cheney, assured West Point graduates that the quaint rules in the Geneva Conventions and U.S. Constitution against mistreating prisoners were only for hypocritical terrorist girlie men.

Cheney and the candidates received wild ovations, but none has been asked what their statements might mean for the US soldiers still being held captive, or the five Britons seized yesterday, possibly by Iraqi police loyal to Shi’ite militia. Who among these I-had-other-priorities tough guys has the credibility to ask that these captives be treated humanely?

My guess is that Mr. Cheney and the wannabe Presidents in the Republican party will be more upset when they read about the “interrogation experts” working for the Intelligence Science Board, the group responsible for recommending interrogation techniques to the US military and CIA. It seems these experts think torture is just, well, old fashioned and unprofessional and should be replaced by techniques learned from, among other things, selling toothpaste.

As the Bush administration completes secret new rules governing interrogations, a group of experts advising the intelligence agencies argue that the harsh techniques used since the 2001 terrorist attacks are outmoded, amateurish and unreliable.

The psychologists and other specialists, commissioned by the Intelligence Science Board, make the case that more than five years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush administration has yet to create an elite corps of interrogators trained to glean secrets from terror suspects.

While billions are spent each year to upgrade satellites and other high-tech spy machinery, the experts say, interrogation methods — possibly the most important source of information on groups like Al Qaeda — are a hodgepodge that date from the 1950s, or are modeled on old Soviet practices.

While the experts may or may not feel squeamish about torture, it appears their concerns are more practical:

There is little evidence, they say, that harsh methods produce the best intelligence. “There’s an assumption that often passes for common sense that the more pain imposed on someone, the more likely they are to comply,” . . . [but] some of the experts involved in the interrogation review, called “Educing Information,” say that during World War II, German and Japanese prisoners were effectively questioned without coercion.

“It far outclassed what we’ve done,” said Steven M. Kleinman, a former Air Force interrogator and trainer, who has studied the World War II program of interrogating Germans. The questioners at Fort Hunt, Va., “had graduate degrees in law and philosophy, spoke the language flawlessly,” and prepared for four to six hours for each hour of questioning, said Mr. Kleinman, who wrote two chapters for the December report.

Mr. Kleinman, who worked as an interrogator in Iraq in 2003, called the post-Sept. 11 efforts “amateurish” by comparison to the World War II program, with inexperienced interrogators who worked through interpreters and had little familiarity with the prisoners’ culture.

“We have a whole social science literature on persuasion,” Mr. Borum said. “It’s mostly on how to get a person to buy a certain brand of toothpaste. But it certainly could be useful in improving interrogation.”

The Republican defenders of harsher techniques were assured by Yoo and Addington that if the President authorizes it when fighting terrorists, it is not a crime, allowing them to disregard statements from our top generals and mushy arguments from those like Philip D. Zelikow, the former adviser to Ms. Rice, who simply said the techniques were immoral. Zelikow called it “a grave mistake to delegate to [such] attorneys decisions on the moral question of how prisoners should be treated.”

One of the lawyers Zelikow no doubt had in mind was one Scooter Libby. Ironically, it is Mr. Libby and his secret friends who now argue it would be immoral if they were exposed and he were punished for outing a “covert agent” and covering it up by lying to the FBI and a federal Grand Jury. The mere threat that forcing Libby to watch Crest commercials from behind bars might “educe” him to tell us what he knows about others’ complicity in betraying our intelligence community and lying the country into war is enough to awaken even their “delicate sensitivities” to those quaint little rules. But I suspect this crowd doesn’t fully appreciate the connection.

Abu Ghraib photo credit from

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley