FEATURE: Can Mike McConnell fix America’s intelligence community?

The spymaster [PDF]

I asked how he [Mike McConnell, the US Director of National Intelligence,] defined torture.

“There’s a history of people making claims that it’s not torture if you don’t force the failure of a major organ,” McConnell said, referring to the infamous 2002 memo by John Yoo, a Justice Department lawyer, who argued that an interrogation technique was torture only when it was as painful as organ failure or death. “My view is, that’s kind of absurd. It’s pretty simple. Is it excruciatingly painful to the point of forcing someone to say something because of the pain?” McConnell leaned forward confidentially. “Now, how descriptive do I want to be with you? I don’t want to tell you everything, and why is that? Look, these guys talk because, among other things, they’re scared.”

McConnell asserted that it was not difficult to evaluate the truthfulness of a confession, even a coerced one. “And as soon as they start to talk we can tell in minutes if they are lying,” he said. “One, you know a lot. And you know when someone is giving you information that is not connecting up to what you know. You also know when to use a polygraph.”

McConnell refused to specify what new methods had been approved for the C.I.A. “There are techniques to get the information, and when they get the information it has saved lives,” he said vaguely. “We have people walking around in this country that are alive today because this process happened.”

Couldn’t the information be obtained through other means?

“No,” McConnell said. “You can say that absolutely.” He again cited the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. “He would not have talked to us in a hundred years. Tough guy. Absolutely committed. He had this mental image of himself as a warrior and a martyr. No way he would talk to us.” Among the things that Mohammed confessed to was the murder of Daniel Pearl. And yet few people involved in the investigation of Pearl’s death believe that Mohammed had anything to do with the crime; another man, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, was convicted of killing Pearl. I mentioned McConnell’s hero, General Powell, whose disastrous speech to the United Nations, in February, 2003, made the case to the world for invading Iraq—a case founded on faulty intelligence. Part of Powell’s presentation was based on the testimony of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, an Al Qaeda operative who was captured by Pakistani forces in December, 2001. The Pakistanis turned him over to the Americans. According to Jack Cloonan, a former F.B.I. agent involved in the interrogation, Libi was providing useful and accurate intelligence until the C.I.A. took custody of him and placed him inside a plywood box for transport. He was reportedly sent to Egypt and tortured. (An agency spokesman said, “The C.I.A. does not transport individuals anywhere to be tortured.”) Libi allegedly told his interrogators that the Iraqi military had trained two Al Qaeda associates in chemical and biological warfare. This was the essence of Colin Powell’s claim: Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and was working with Al Qaeda. Neither assertion was true. How could we ever trust information obtained under torture when such methods had already led us into a catastrophic war?

“Now, wait a minute,” McConnell said. “You allege torture. I don’t know. Maybe it was. I don’t know.” He wasn’t in office at the time.

I asked what personal experiences informed his views.

McConnell recalled that before going to Vietnam he had participated in the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape program. “You had to go through jungle training, get slapped around, knocked down, put in a box, physically abused,” he said. “That’s to prepare you for what the enemy might do to you.” McConnell was thrown into a covered pit with a snake. There was no room to stand or move around. “They would open up the thing and whack you a few times and close it down,” he said. “They beat us up reasonably well.” However, he knew that he was not going to die.

Waterboarding was not a part of the training when McConnell went through SERE, although it sometimes has been. “You know what waterboarding is?” he asked. “You lay somebody on this table, or put them in an inclined position, and put a washcloth over their face, and you just drip water right here”—he pointed to his nostrils. “Try it! What happens is, water will go up your nose. And so you will get the sensation of potentially drowning. That’s all waterboarding is.”

I asked if he considered that torture.

McConnell refused to answer directly, but he said, “My own definition of torture is something that would cause excruciating pain.”

Did waterboarding fit that description?

Referring to his teen-age days as a lifeguard, he said, “I know one thing. I’m a water-safety instructor, but I cannot swim without covering my nose. I don’t know if it’s some deviated septum or mucus membrane, but water just rushes in.” For him, he said, “waterboarding would be excruciating. If I had water draining into my nose, oh God, I just can’t imagine how painful! Whether it’s torture by anybody else’s definition, for me it would be torture.”

I queried McConnell again, later, about his views on waterboarding, since this exchange seemed to suggest that he personally condemned it. He rejected that interpretation. “You can do waterboarding lots of different ways,” he said. “I assume you can get to the point that a person is actually drowning.” That would certainly be torture, he said. The definition didn’t seem very different from John Yoo’s. The reason that he couldn’t be more specific, McConnell said, is that “if it ever is determined to be torture, there will be a huge penalty to be paid for anyone engaging in it.” [complete article – PDF]

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