Friday, October 06, 2006

Torture, talk and ice cream: A professional spy’s Interrogation 101 Primer – for Congressmen and Bush administration hacks

Quite a few years ago, I had a revealing chat with a retired American spy.

For reasons of discretion I won’t tell you why or where it happened, who he was, or which branch of what service he worked for. Suffice it to say that some years earlier, during the Viet Nam war, he found himself in Saigon. Among his duties, he interrogated Viet Cong prisoners suspected of having useful information.

He had deliberately volunteered for this duty, I learned, after giving up a “safe” and relatively cushy job in Europe under the command of another American who believed in snatching suspected communist agents off the street and “beating the crap out of them in the hope they’d tell us something.”


It was all, he complained, repulsively “inelegant” and in violation of everything he’d learned in– oh let’s call it an intelligence training program. He mentioned – years before the subject ever came up in national debate – that torture usually produces only what the victim thinks you want him to say so you’ll stop the pain, if it produces anything at all. “Professional interrogation techniques,” he insisted, were far more likely to result in valuable intelligence.

Naturally I was curious. What the hell is “elegant” interrogation? What makes it “professional” or “unprofessional?” How can you pry information out of people who refuse to talk without torturing them?

“Well,” he said, “let me give you one example. Somebody brings me a prisoner who I believe has some useful information about Viet Cong troop movements and locations. So I sit him down and I have a little discussion with him.”



“Yes, discussion” said the retired spy, “I’d say to him, ‘I am pleased and honored to offer you two alternatives. The first alternative is, you give me no information or bad information. If you prove to be that uncooperative, I will feed you lots of rich, delicious food. You will get to eat ice cream and chocolate cake three or four or five times a day. If you refuse to eat your ice cream, I will melt it, put it in a funnel, and force it down your throat.

“’I will also sing your praises. I will go to a certain bar in Saigonthat we know to be a Viet Cong listening post, and a friend and I will get very drunk, and I will gossip very loudly about what wonderful information we are buying from you.

“‘After you have gained 50 or so pounds from your rich food diet, I will give you a haircut, dress you in a brand new suit and throw you out in the street. Your own people will kill you within 24 hours, and I shudder to think what they will do to you in the last few hours before you die.

“‘The other alternative is, you give us useful information. We will check it out, and if it proves reliable, we will put you on a diet of water and just enough rice to keep you alive until you lose 20 or 30 pounds. Then we will rough you up, break your leg, and leave you out on the Ho Chi Minh trail armed with a believable cover story about your injury, evasion of capture, and survival until your own people pick you up. You will return to the Viet Cong a hero.

“‘The choice is yours. Ice cream or a broken leg. Which will it be?’”

Surprising numbers of prisoners vastly preferred the broken leg, said my spy friend.


No doubt some partisans of torture will point to administration assertions that the torture is working and has enabled us to prevent many acts of destruction, mass murder and sabotage. You have a right to be highly skeptical of these claims.

What are these so-called events that torture and long detention have prevented? Nobody will get specific. They’re protecting intelligence sources, they insist.

Aw come on! Do you mean to tell me that a bunch of Alchaida suicide bombers were prevented from, say, blowing up the Washington Monument but don’t know it and still think the obelisk fell down? Believe me, if an enemy operation actually was prevented, the enemy has to have noticed. Why doesn’t some enterprising Washington news reporter shout out a followup question to the administration’s claims of interdicted terrorism?

Or is there such a thing as an enterprising Washington news reporter any more?

The bottom line? I don’t know how badly our presumed enemy prisoners are getting treated while you read this, but if it were my call I’d start waving containers of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey or Cherries Garcia at them in a menacing way.

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