AMU Editor's Pick Homeland Security Intelligence Opinion Terrorism

CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program: Just or Unjust?

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

By Dr. William Hanson
Special Contributor for In Homeland Security

Last week, I asked my American Public University System (APUS) students to comment on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, and I greatly appreciated the thoughtful responses I received. Whether they agreed with the SSCI report or not, the content gave all of us some pause, and sparked the desire to reflect on this issue.

As a companion piece, I provided a 2009 Thomas Friedman article that helped to put the original decision in better context. Friedman noted that it’s important to consider the actions taken with an eye to the context of the time – for whatever reason, we were caught flat-footed by 9/11 and our intelligence agencies were scrambling to both find the trail to the perpetrators and to prevent the follow-on attacks that we thought would be coming.

Additionally, and as several of my students noted, there was a strong desire for revenge. I totally agree with that. I had left my Pentagon assignment shortly before the attacks, and fortunately my office was on the other side of the building. But one of my officers lost her husband – so it was personal for me as well.

With those two things in mind, there was no doubt that the government was in scramble mode, and it is no surprise when the government reached out to whoever they could to put together an interrogation program. Why the CIA, who had no expertise in interrogation, chose to build this from scratch rather than reaching out to trained interrogators in other parts of government, is somewhat of a mystery, but it happened.

In that scenario, it is also no surprise that they reached out to Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) instructors, since they were the only ones who had experience with harsh interrogation techniques. SERE used those techniques on American flyers going through the training.

I can well remember my own SERE experience, where I was put in a coffin-sized box full of insects, with more of them dumped on me before they closed the lid. I was also subjected to a number of harsh physical techniques – some of which SERE discontinued due to safety issues.


With all that said, I would submit there is a significant logical problem with the decision – the techniques used in SERE were designed to show aircrews how to resist harsh measures. For that, they were quite effective – at least they were for me.

On the other hand, the SERE techniques were not designed to elicit information. As such, nobody should expect that they would work any better than tried and true interrogation methods – a point reinforced by CIA Director John Brennan’s statement that whether the methods worked or not is “unknowable.”

Moving forward, one of the key issues at hand is whether the program was properly vetted and supervised. Recent statements by some participants call into question whether all parties understood exactly what was happening. In a Dec. 14 2014 interview with CNN, John Yoo, one of the authors of the Justice Department memos used to justify the “enhanced interrogation program,” when asked about some of the techniques used: rectal feeding, threatened rape of family members, injured detainees forced to stand for hours, responded, “Well, those are very troubling examples. They would not have been approved by the Justice Department. They were not approved by the Justice Department at the time.”

Yoo continued, “But I agree with you, if there were people who had to undergo what you have just described, none of those were approved by the Justice Department. I don’t believe they’re approved by the headquarters at CIA, too.”

“Instead, what you had I think you [sic] was a lot of chaos and miscommunication going on in the very first months after 9/11 when both people in the White House, the executive branch and Congress, were demanding that the CIA become aggressive and get started on going after al-Qaida.”


One of the other issues that comes out in just about everyone’s responses is the role of Congress; both in its oversight function and in the production of the report. Clearly, we would have wanted to see a definitive, bipartisan report of this matter – it is too important to merely become a partisan political football. However, opponents have pointed to the procedural flaws rather than rebutting the detailed allegations – other than simply saying, “It’s not true. Take my word for it.” Since the report was drawn from the CIA’s own documents, there should be ample documentary proof to reveal if the Committee Majority did indeed “cherry pick” the documents. Given that almost the entire program was revealed, we should expect to see declassified documents to rebut the assertions in due course.

At the same time, it does seem that Congress was at least somewhat complicit in this matter. If Congress did approve of everything that was done in the program, the more disturbing aspects of the program would seem to indicate that Congress was not willing to dig very deeply into the matter, and was willing to take the CIA’s word that everything was on the up-and-up.

The other thing that appears to be clear is that the people on the front lines who carried out the program were mostly good people and patriots who were trying to do their duty in very difficult circumstances. The reports that many participants found the measures taken to be unsettling are testimony to that.

However, there is also ample experimental and actual evidence that even good people can do evil things, provided that their victims are dehumanized and someone in authority appears to sanction their actions. For example, the infamous Milgram experiments showed the willingness of ordinary people to torture someone else to death. Practically, the complicity of German civilians recorded in the book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, shows that this is not just true in experimental settings.


This is why Israel, in its guidance for interrogating terrorists, is very clear in drawing a bright line between what is permissible and what is never permissible. The Landau Commission, formed in 1987 to investigate a similar scandal relating to treatment of prisoners by IDF and Shin Bet interrogators, noted the danger of inadequate guidance in its report, “… for the methods of police interrogation which are employed in any given regime are a faithful mirror of the character of the entire regime. And let us add here: all the more so with respect to the interrogation methods of a security service, which is always in danger of sliding toward methods practiced in regimes which we abhor.”

The Landau report goes on to specifically reject the contention that, because terrorists operate outside the law, the Security Services should be allowed to do so as well. The Commission closed its discussion of this approach with a flat denunciation of this approach. “This way must be utterly rejected.”

Similarly, the Commission rejected the contention that the Security Services be their own judge of what is permissible and what is not, declaring that this is the way “of the hypocrites: they declare that they abide by the rule of law, but turn a blind eye to what goes on beneath the surface.”

Instead, the Landau Commission firmly directed a clearly-defined rule of law. In section 4.5 of their report, the Commission provided a ringing endorsement for upholding and enforcing strict standards, noting, “it is incumbent upon the State and its authorities including the GSS, [General Security Services – Shin Bet] to preserve humanitarian behavior and human dignity in their treatment of terrorists, in order to uphold the credo of the State itself as a law-abiding State grounded in fundamental concepts of morality. Any infringement of these basic concepts, even as against those who would destroy the State, is liable to recoil on us by engendering internal moral corruption.”

Continuing in section 4.8, “We are convinced that if these boundaries are maintained exactly in letter and in spirit, the effectiveness of the interrogation will be assured, while at the same time it will be far from the use of physical or mental torture, maltreatment of the person being interrogated, or the degradation of his human dignity.”

In this regard, we can hardly claim that the Israelis are fuzzy-thinking altruists on this front. Instead, the guidance laid out by the Landau Commission represents their hard-won experience in dealing with incessant internal and external terrorism, and it is grounded in the notion that if they descend to the terrorists’ level, that is an even greater danger to the survival of the state than terrorism itself.


Finally, unless you are a student of history, you are probably unfamiliar with the wave of anarchist terrorism that swept both the U.S. and Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the U.S., this included the assassination of a sitting US President (William McKinley), and a mass-casualty bombing of Wall Street using a wagon loaded with explosives. In Europe, anarchist terrorism killed about 2,000 people in total.

Despite these deaths, it was the overreaction to the assassination of just two people – the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife – that was by far the most destructive act of all. The overreaction to the events in Sarajevo, 1914, set into motion the events that resulted in the death millions of people and the fall of three empires; World War I.

In closing, whether you believe the contentions of the Senate report or not, there is ample evidence that we, the American people, should insist that any detainee or interrogation program operate under strict and exacting guidance, be closely supervised, and above all operate within the rule of law. Similarly, the haste in which we reacted and the apparent confusion and miscommunication in the months immediately following 9/11 makes it clear that overreaction is always a possibility. We ignore the hard-won example of the Israelis and the lessons of Sarajevo in 1914 at our peril.

About the Author:
Dr. William Hanson is an Associate Professor of Security and Global Studies at American Public University System (APUS). Prior to coming to APUS, Dr. Hanson had a distinguished career in the U.S. Air Force, retiring as a Colonel. His key assignments included duty as Chief, Long Range Strategic Planning for the Air Force and Chief, Strategy and Policy Division, US Strategic Command.

Comments are closed.