Twenty years ago, in what some regard as the start of the terrorist war against America, Hezbollah suicide-bombers attacked the US Embassy and the Marine barracks in Beirut, slaughtering more than 250 Americans.
Only one man was punished for those crimes – Keith Hall, the CIA agent in charge of the investigation. He was fired because he was seen as too tough, too aggressive in his interrogation of suspects.
In retrospect, this has to be regarded as a strategic error. As reported by journalist and author Mark Bowden: “William Buckley, who was Hall's station chief, was subsequently kidnapped, tortured, and killed. He was among fourteen Western civilians kidnapped in Beirut in 1984.”
The following year, TWA Flight 847 was hijacked and Navy diver Robert Stethem was murdered. Terrorists went on to hit us again and again throughout the 1980s – e.g. soldiers in a Berlin disco in 1986, Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie in 1988 -- and even more often in the 1990s. Washington's responses were feckless. The consequence was the spectacular atrocity of September 11, 2001 to which, at long last, the US has responded forcefully.
But it appears we still have lessons to learn – and unlearn. The evidence for that: Army Lt. Col. Allen B. West is facing a court-martial.
Col. West's story is by now familiar: While interrogating a hostile suspect in a village near Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, he drew his pistol and fired it twice – not at the suspect but close enough to inspire fear and, the Colonel hoped, a spirit of cooperation.
The trick worked. The suspect revealed the details of a planed sniper attack and even named names. Arrests were made. As Col. West told The Washington Times, his only goal was to “keep my soldiers out of potential ambush. There were no further attacks from that town.”
For achieving that result, Col. West did not receive a medal; instead he was charged with assault. He was given a stark choice: Resign and forego his pension or face court-martial. He has chosen the latter, and an inquiry is underway.
This raises an unpleasant issue that Americans need to begin to discuss: How far should interrogators go when questioning terrorists and terrorist suspects – those who flagrantly violate the rules of war and have therefore forfeited Geneva Convention protections? I'd argue that there is a line that shouldn't be crossed – but that Col. West did not cross it.
I'd argue that interrogators should not kill or maim suspects. They should not gouge out eyes or chop off fingers. They should not apply electrodes to suspects' genitals.
But they shouldn't try to frighten them as Col. West did? Or knock them off a chair -- the harshest action Keith Hall took? To insist on that standard means more Americans will be killed and that warriors like Col. West and Keith Hall will be drummed out of our fighting forces, to be replaced by graduates of sensitivity training courses. Is it really better to spill American blood than to risk raising suspects' blood pressure?
Mr. Bowden – whose reporting on this issue for the Atlantic Monthly is probably the best there is – calls interrogation “the dark art.” It's also something of a lost art, at least in the U.S. As Mr. Bowden has noted, the CIA used to have an intensive course in interrogation techniques but that ended in the 1970s. Evidence that the methods employed were not beyond the pale includes this: Those who took the course were obliged to play the role of captives and experience the “stress and duress” that interrogation subjects would suffer.
In fiction, the dilemma of the interrogation room is straight-forward: A suspect knows that a time bomb is ticking; an interrogator needs to know where it is. So he'll do anything to make the suspect talk. But that's rarely the situation in which real-life interrogators find themselves.
More common is what is taking place right now at Guantanamo Bay. There, most of the suspects have no knowledge of imminent acts of terrorism. What they do know are procedures – how communications are conducted and with whom, where to secure funds, what sorts of approval are necessary before undertaking missions, what kind of targets are preferred, how recruitment of new terrorists proceeds, where and how training of terrorists takes place, where safe houses are located.
To elicit the maximum information in such a situation, experts say, requires not torture but rather “coercion” -- a sustained regimen of rewards and punishments that leads the subject to decide to cooperate. Experts say the subject must be made to feel that his interrogators are in absolute control of his life -- that they alone are the key to all comfort and discomfort, pressure and relief, imprisonment and release.
For maximum effect, an uncooperative subject would be punished with isolation, sleep deprivation, cold or heat, monotony, the playing of annoying music. He might be forced to sit or stand in uncomfortable positions for long periods of time. He might be served only unappetizing foods.
But the same subject also would be rewarded for even small acts of cooperation, in order to establish psychological patterns that, over time, lead the subject to decide it is in his interest to reveal what he knows.
Some would say that what the interrogator strives to do is to instill the “Stockholm Syndrome,” the feeling of dependence and even loyalty that some hostages come to feel for their kidnappers. Think Patty Hearst.
Is that really beyond what Americans are prepared to stomach -- even when we're fighting an enemy whose ambition is to randomly massacre as many innocent civilians as possible?
If you want to know the answer to that question, wait and see what fate befalls Col. West.