In building a case for their sweeping conclusion that the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques were simply “not effective” during the years after 9/11, Senate Democrats cited in their report example after example in which another tactic, known as “rapport-building,” succeeded in extracting valuable intelligence from al Qaeda suspects.
But the document offers hardly any explanation of what the rapport-building approach entails, a factor that has triggered heated debate over whether the technique really worked and would have continued to work if the CIA had relied on it for extracting intelligence from the most hardened al Qaeda suspects.
One former interrogator who spent dozens of hours questioning al Qaeda suspects said there is no question. The rapport-building approach is the most effective way to “get inside the mind of a detainee,” said Robert McFadden, who served as special agent in charge in the Naval Criminal Investigative Service until 2011.
The technique relies on an interrogator’s deep situational awareness rather than on physical scare tactics that are known to produce as many irrational statements as valuable information from a suspect, said Mr. McFadden.
The goal, he said, is “to create an atmosphere of omnipotence over the detainee.”
For the most “hard-bitten al Qaeda suspects,” he said, the interrogator is ideally “someone who speaks Arabic and is deeply versed in the culture and history of Islam — along with everything available from the intelligence community about the suspect, his cohorts, the conspiracies he’s been involved in previously, and everything there is to know about him up to the time of capture.”
The interrogator then can begin to “peel the onion” through many hours of conversation in search of an internal factor that drives the suspect and can be used strategically to open deeper communication.
“Every human being has something that’s a key driving motivator of behavior,” said Mr. McFadden, who claimed to have personally succeeded with the tactic on a “very high-ranking al Qaeda operator” in Yemen during the immediate aftermath of 9/11. After hours of conversation, he said, the suspect suddenly revealed that his lifestyle as a warrior for Osama bin Laden meant he had met his own son and daughter only briefly.
“That’s the kind of thing we think of as a wedge — a small wedge in the door,” said Mr. McFadden. “We keep going back to it, calibrating it very carefully in the course of conversation, dropping little hints with subtlety over days and many hours that maybe, just maybe, there’s a possibility for the suspect to work toward seeing his son and daughter one day.
“I can say with a high, high degree of certainty and confidence that almost always we get the information we’re going after and get it efficiently and quickly,” he said.
The hotly debated report by Senate Democrats specifically referenced the technique’s effectiveness when used by FBI agents and by authorities in Pakistan, who often arrested and interrogated terrorist suspects before turning them over to the CIA, where they were subjected to waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other treatment that human rights advocates and others have described as torture.
CIA officials have not disputed the potential effectiveness of rapport-building but have argued that significantly more detailed information was pulled from several detainees who were subjected to such harsh interrogation techniques.
Former agency officials also have taken issue with the claim that rapport-building works quickly and could have been used reliably for the most hardened al Qaeda suspects after 9/11.
“We’re talking about a handful of the senior most al Qaeda people caught at a time when we were under enormous pressure to get information quickly,” said Bill Harlow, a former chief spokesman for the CIA. “Could you have eventually buddied up to them and got them to cooperate? Maybe so.”
But CIA officials weren’t going to take that chance in the face of intelligence reporting that al Qaeda could be planning a second massive attack on the United States.
Mr. Harlow, who co-authored a 2012 book defending the use of harsh interrogation techniques with Jose Rodriguez, a former head of the CIA’s Clandestine Service, said the agency did not abandon the rapport-building approach after 9/11.
“In fact we utilized it heavily as soon as suspects were in custody. If the suspects went along with it, great, but if not, we’d introduce these [enhanced interrogation] sessions and then, in between the sessions, interrogators would try to establish rapport,” he said. “Eventually, they did and these detainees became [like] consultants for the CIA.”
Such comments suggest that whatever technique interrogators use, the goal is the same: to get a detainee to cooperate.
Mr. Rodgriguez, who oversaw the CIA’s post-9/11 interrogation activities, said as much himself in a 2012 interview with CBS. “The program,” he said, “was about instilling a sense of hopelessness and despair on the terrorist, on the detainee, so that he would conclude on his own that he was better off cooperating with us.”
But the Senate Democrats’ report suggests several detainees were cooperating before they were handed over to the CIA. The report maintains that FBI interrogators pulled valuable intelligence from terrorist suspects by using the rapport-building technique in several other cases, most notably that of high-level al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah.
Zubaydah provided “information to FBI special agents who were using rapport-building techniques, in April 2002, more than three months prior to the CIA’s use of ‘[Justice Department]-approved enhanced interrogation techniques,’” the document states.
It makes similar assertions about success that authorities had in Pakistan. A lengthy footnote on page 244 of the report outlines how a Pakistani interrogator “who had developed rapport” with Ammar al-Baluchi — the nephew of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed — obtained valuable intelligence about al Qaeda plots to target U.S. interests in the South Asia nation.
The footnote asserts that al-Baluchi provided “referenced information” during the interrogation sessions “prior to entering CIA custody and being subjected to the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.”
But the document does say exactly what the interrogator did to achieve the rapport. The very mention of Pakistan — a nation long cited by rights organizations for routinely torturing criminal and terrorism suspects — has prompted speculation that Senate Democrats may have ignored the possibility that al Qaeda suspects were also secretly tortured, or at least threatened with torture, while in the custody of the South Asian nation.
In its own reports over the past decade, the State Department has consistently cited claims that Pakistani intelligence operatives have “tortured and abused individuals in custody,” using such tactics as beatings, burning with cigarettes, hanging upside down, prolonged isolation and even “electric shock” treatment.
The conclusion, meanwhile, that the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques were simply “not effective,” has ignited a political firestorm. Human rights activists and liberals are cheering the Senate Democrats’ report, while several officials from the George W. Bush administration say its main assertion is just not true.
CIA tactics used on detainees worked, former Vice President Dick Cheney said. If given the chance, he said, he would push for enhanced interrogation techniques to be used “again in a minute” to prevent a terrorist attack.
A majority of Americans apparently agree. Fifty-nine percent say the CIA’s treatment of terrorist suspects was justified, compared with 31 percent who said it was unjustified, according to a recent Washington Post/ABC poll.
In light the political sensitivity surrounding the question, CIA Director John O. Brennan chose careful words to describe the agency’s view of its activities. At a rare televised news conference this month, he said it was “unknowable” whether crucial intelligence could have been gleaned any other way.
Some say such claims are nonsense. “There is a long history of research in social science leading to the following conclusion: Brutal, harsh interrogation techniques do not work. They do not lead to useful or true information,” said Alice LoCicero, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based clinical psychologist and a co-founder of the Society for Terrorism Research.
“There is also a great deal of knowledge about the effects of intense fear. Intense fear, whether of torture or any other event, does not lead to rational thinking,” she said. “It makes people passive, hysterical [and] irrational.”
Patrick G. Eddington, a former CIA analyst now at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, said there is no “evidence anywhere on planet Earth that torture has ever been effective.”
“There’s really no question that rapport-building is absolutely key to getting good intelligence.”