The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of Us Warfare by James F. Dunnigan
by James Dunnigan
April 8, 2002
The hundreds of al Qaeda prisoners held by the United States are likely to be an intelligence bonanza. But it may take a while before the results are in. The most promising suspects are being held at the U.S. naval base in Cuba. This is to avoid possible legal complications in the United States.
Keep in mind that this is a unique situation. We know that most of the al Qaeda terrorists we have dealt with over the last ten years have gone through the al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, and that many (if not all) of the al Qaeda we captured in Afghanistan have also gone through those camps. But for many of these guys, that's as far as it goes. They haven't actually done anything yet.
But we know, from past experience, that most al Qaeda members would really like to kill Americans if they got the chance. The American legal system is not equipped to deal with this, and if the al Qaeda prisoners were brought to the United States, there's a chance that civil liberty, or pro-al Qaeda lawyers could find a judge to set some of these prisoners free. That's what happens when the legal system has not caught up with a new reality.
How will we get information out of these suicidal terrorists? We'll talk to them, a lot. Forget everything you may have seen on TV about interrogating the usual suspects. There are major differences between military and criminal interrogation. Military interrogation is more like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, to get a better picture of what the enemy is up to, while a criminal interrogation is just a maze, and all you want to do is get to a confession.
While some of the prisoners are smart and know how to keep their mouths shut, most do not. How do we know this? Simple, the American military has lots of experience in this department. During World War II, we learned to deal with fanatical Japanese and Nazi German POWs. The basic trick is to pick up as many bits of information as you can and play big-time mind games on the hard cases. The important thing is we want to get the professional interrogators to work on them.
A first-rate interrogator is generally strictly hands off. He knows how to get the information using words, gestures and some pretty effective psychological techniques. Not using physical violence is a matter of professional pride. It's also another of the tricks. Most of the al Qaeda prisoners come from cultures where the cops and secret police usually go straight for the torture angle.
Yes, torture can work, but it often kills your subjects and often scares them into giving false information. Face it, if the guy you're working over really doesn't have anything to tell you, he'll tell you anything to stop the pain. And that will leave you with another false lead, one that you will not easily discard because you tortured it out of someone. The only time torture is really useful is when you suspect that time is critical, as when other evidence indicates a terrorist operation is about to happen and the guy you have may well know some important details.
What are these mind games? They are similar (but not identical) to the techniques used by a trial lawyer when cross-examining a witness. Keep in mind that not all witnesses are going to tell the truth, and others don't really know what they know. So if you've seen a really good trial lawyer rip into a witness, you have an idea of what a good interrogator can do. In addition to that, the people interrogating al Qaeda prisoners have other advantages. As information is collected on the prisoners (from the prisoners themselves, or from other sources) the interrogators can use a form of plea-bargaining to get more information. The interrogators can get in touch with the prisoner's family and discuss the situation with them. Maybe an anguished telephone call or cassette tape from mom will help loosen tongues.
And when you are dealing with a lot of prisoners from the same organization, you can cross check data to see who's telling the truth, and who isn't. The crosschecking can also clear up fuzzy memories. As you collect more information, and get inside more of the prisoners, it becomes possible to turn some of the al Qaeda men and get them to work for you, or to insert one of your own agents into the camp to elicit more information through casual conversation. With some prisoners, you can also bargain. There are privileges that can be traded for information. Want to get in touch with the folks back home? Make it worth our while to allow that. Want to get out of here? What have you got to make that possible?
Over weeks, and months, a lot can be gotten out of the prisoners about what al Qaeda is up to and how it operates. It just takes patience, and a lot of talking.
Meanwhile, you have to be careful. Most of these men would like nothing better than to kill Americans. Mamdouh Mahmud Salim, captured in 1998, tried to kill a Federal prison guard in 2000, and managed to blind the guard in one eye and cause brain damage with a sharpened toothbrush. Think of any prison movie you've ever seen, and jack up the viciousness, desperation and violence several notches.
The al Qaeda prisoners are very dangerous. We can only hope the feds have brought some of their professional incarceration experts down to Cuba, because your average MP trained for prison duty is not prepared for the really hard core. These prisoners are the guys who have been recruited for suicide missions. Some of them are just the "lost boys" of the Islamic world looking for a cause. Others are well trained and smart, the classic ringleaders for some nasty prison situations.
Remember, your average prison is not full of suicidal fanatics. The camp
in Cuba is. Keep them secure, keep them alive and keep them talking and
we will get a lot out of them.
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