- The Washington Times - Monday, May 17, 2004

In the summer of 2002, Brig. Gen. John Custer was on assignment from the Army’s Military Intelligence training school at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Military officials will not disclose the objective of Gen. Custer’s work in Guantanamo, but after his return he revised military training techniques used in the Department of Defense’s most elite interrogation schools.

In a 2003 interview published in the base newspaper, the Fort Huachuca Scout, Gen. Custer himself said that he was proud of integrating the “lessons learned” at Guantanamo into military intelligence doctrine. In the same interview, Gen. Custer said that TRADOC, the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, had approved the revisions he recommended and increased funding for Fort Huachuca to raise the number of interrogation trainees by 400 percent this fiscal year.

Citing the need to maintain “operational security,” an Army spokesman at TRADOC declined to discuss the specific changes that resulted from Gen. Custer’s recommendations. But if my reading of Gen. Custer’s on-the-record statements is correct, it is the first indication of a command-level decision to incorporate the coercive interrogation techniques used at Guantanamo into standard military intelligence procedures. At the time of his Guantanamo mission, Gen. Custer was deputy commanding general at Fort Huachuca. His current position is director of intelligence (J2) for U.S. Central Command, where he reports directly to CENTCOM Commanding Gen. John Abizaid.

There are indications of a change in military interrogation techniques in Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba’s report on the prison abuses at Abu Ghraib. In his report, Gen. Taguba references an earlier mission to Abu Ghraib by Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who was then in charge at Guantanamo. According to Gen. Taguba, Gen. Miller advised that prison guards employ “emerging strategic interrogation techniques” in their handling of detainees, so as to create “conditions for successful exploitation” during interrogations. Gen. Taguba further says that Gen. Miller used Joint Task Force-Guantanamo “procedures and interrogation authorities as baselines for its observations and recommendations.”

Put simply, military police guards who say they were acting under the direction of military-intelligence personnel are probably telling the truth. The interrogation techniques the world has become familiar with through the leak of photographs at Abu Ghraib were refined at Guantanamo over the past two-and-a-half years. But the photographs don’t tell the whole story. The approach relies on carrot and stick. In addition to coercive interrogation tactics, Joint Task Force-Guantanamo also uses rewards and incentives to encourage cooperation. It is probable that the objective of Gen. Custer’s assignment to Guantanamo was to integrate JTF-GTMO techniques into standard military-intelligence training and interrogation techniques, especially the Strategic Debriefer Course and Intelligence Support to CounterTerrorism Course taught at Fort Huachuca.

Gen. Custer’s Guantanamo mission did not occur in a vacuum. After September 11, a broad spectrum of authorities across American society debated the ethics and utility of torturing terrorist suspects. In 2002, law professor Alan Dershowitz published an essay, “Torture of Terrorists,” which recommended a quasi-judicial approach, including the issuance of “torture warrants.” Talk of torture was widespread throughout the media.

The following year, the Defense Department sponsored a Joint Services Conference on Professional Ethics that featured a debate over torture. The annual JSCOPE conference exists to “clarify ethical issues for the conduct of military professionals,” according to organizers. The conference drew 200 attendees, primarily from the armed services and service academies.

Air Force Maj. William D. Casebeer argued at the conference that “torture interrogation is permissible in tightly constrained circumstances.” Maj. Casebeer outlined torture methods, including “putting a hood over a suspect, bombarding them with noise, depriving them of food and sleep (only minimally), or forcing them to stand.” While theoretically ethical, Maj. Casebeer warned, however, that in actual cases torture interrogation would be difficult to justify. Jean Maria Arrigo presented an opposing paper cautioning that the social consequences of torture usually outweigh its benefits.

Although Americans were horrified to see photographic images of prisoner abuse, there is nothing new about any of the techniques used at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel lists identical practices — constraining detainees in painful positions, sexual abuse, solitary confinement, lack of clothing, sleep deprivation, beatings and threats against the detainee or family. It says Israel’s General Security Service, or Shin Beth, used such practices against Palestinians until the Israeli Supreme Court prohibited the interrogation techniques. Britain employed similar interrogation methods against Irish Republican Army suspects.

“Although a democracy must often fight with one hand tied behind its back,” Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in 1999, “it nonetheless has the upper hand. Preserving the rule of law and recognition of an individual’s liberty constitutes an important component in its understanding of security. At the end of the day, they strengthen its spirit and its strength and allow it to overcome its difficulties.”

Most opposition to torture is morally based, but there are also practical reasons to oppose the interrogation techniques used at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Intelligence professionals say they often elicit garbage. To spare themselves further abuse and humiliation, broken suspects tell interrogators what they think they want to hear, even if they have to make it up.

In February 2003, President Bush raised the national threat level to orange because of a high risk of terrorist attacks on “soft” targets,likeapartment buildings, hotels or shopping malls. Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge held a press conference advising Americans to be on guard against terrorist attacks and prepare family emergency plans. The heightened threat level remained in effect for two-and-a-half months. No terrorist plot was detected, and no attack took place.

According to a senior, knowledgeable CIA official, the information that led to the heightened alert came from interrogation of Guantanamo detainees. There have been similar spikes in the national threat level over the past two-and-a-half years, stemming from coercive detainee interrogations.

Because the Guantanamo “emerging strategic interrogation techniques” appear to have become the baseline for military intelligence interrogations worldwide, what is urgently needed is an independent evaluation of the value of the interrogation techniques being used at Guantanamo. They may be less valuable than was originally believed.

We now have enough experience to make that determination objectively, by comparing bad leads and false alarms to useful intelligence. This review should not be left to those in charge of Guantanamo, who will predictably be inclined to justify their methods, but should be undertaken by a multi-agency task force of intelligence professionals.

Those charged with the review should bear in mind Jean Arrigo’s warning at the 2003 JSCOPE debate:

“The historical record is not entirely clear, but suggests that initial gains from torture interrogation are later lost through mobilization of moral opposition, both domestically andinternationally,and through demoralization or corruption of the torturers and their constituencies.”

John B. Roberts II worked in the Reagan White House. He writes frequently on terrorism and national security.

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