NEWS & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Refusing to end the torture debate

Inside a 9/11 mastermind’s interrogation

In a makeshift prison in the north of Poland, Al Qaeda’s engineer of mass murder faced off against his Central Intelligence Agency interrogator. It was 18 months after the 9/11 attacks, and the invasion of Iraq was giving Muslim extremists new motives for havoc. If anyone knew about the next plot, it was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

The interrogator, Deuce Martinez, a soft-spoken analyst who spoke no Arabic, had turned down a C.I.A. offer to be trained in waterboarding. He chose to leave the infliction of pain and panic to others, the gung-ho paramilitary types whom the more cerebral interrogators called “knuckledraggers.”

Mr. Martinez came in after the rough stuff, the ultimate good cop with the classic skills: an unimposing presence, inexhaustible patience and a willingness to listen to the gripes and musings of a pitiless killer in rambling, imperfect English. He achieved a rapport with Mr. Mohammed that astonished his fellow C.I.A. officers.

A canny opponent, Mr. Mohammed mixed disinformation and braggadocio with details of plots, past and planned. Eventually, he grew loquacious. “They’d have long talks about religion,” comparing notes on Islam and Mr. Martinez’s Catholicism, one C.I.A. officer recalled. And, the officer added, there was one other detail no one could have predicted: “He wrote poems to Deuce’s wife.”

Mr. Martinez, who by then had interrogated at least three other high-level prisoners, would bring Mr. Mohammed snacks, usually dates. He would listen to Mr. Mohammed’s despair over the likelihood that he would never see his children again and to his catalog of complaints about his accommodations.

“He wanted a view,” the C.I.A. officer recalled.

The story of Mr. Martinez’s role in the C.I.A.’s interrogation program, including his contribution to the first capture of a major figure in Al Qaeda, provides the closest look to date beneath the blanket of secrecy that hides the program from terrorists and from critics who accuse the agency of torture.

Beyond the interrogator’s successes, this account includes new details on the campaign against Al Qaeda, including the text message that led to Mr. Mohammed’s capture, the reason the C.I.A. believed his claim that he was the murderer of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and the separate teams at the C.I.A.’s secret prisons of those who meted out the agony and those who asked the questions.

In the Hollywood cliché of Fox’s “24,” a torturer shouts questions at a bound terrorist while inflicting excruciating pain. The C.I.A. program worked differently. A paramilitary team put on the pressure, using cold temperatures, sleeplessness, pain and fear to force a prisoner to talk. When the prisoner signaled assent, the tormenters stepped aside. After a break that could be a day or even longer, Mr. Martinez or another interrogator took up the questioning.

Mr. Martinez’s success at building a rapport with the most ruthless of terrorists goes to the heart of the interrogation debate. Did it suggest that traditional methods alone might have obtained the same information or more? Or did Mr. Mohammed talk so expansively because he feared more of the brutal treatment he had already endured? [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — When Scott Shane refers to “the interrogation debate,” he’s already revealing an implicit position that runs as a subtle thread all the way through this article: if “it” works then it’s arguably justified.

The preponderance of the evidence he presents, suggests that the good old torture routine — which might not fit the Fox 24 cliche but falls squarely inside a long cinematic tradition where thugs and calm interrogators work hand-in-hand — really did work. And if it worked, maybe it shouldn’t be sullied with the term only critics use and be called “torture.”

Except — and this is of course where Shane egregiously misframes the debate — the heart of the debate is not whether torture can be shown to be expedient: it is whether the methods of interrogation used fit an internationally recognized definition of torture.

Since no less of a military authority than Abu Ghraib investigator, Major General Antonio Taguba, has come out and unequivocally declared that, “only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account,” one has to ask: Why is the New York Times still willing to suggest that the debate on torture has not been answered?

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One thought on “NEWS & EDITOR’S COMMENT: Refusing to end the torture debate

  1. Stephen Ward

    Blackstone, the great English Jurist, quoted the Marquis of Beccaria who sarcastically said that the correct amount of torture to apply can be gauged by the amount needed to make an innocent man plead guilty. The founding fathers of America were familiar with the Marquis of Beccaria’s book “On Crimes and Punishment” as well as Blackstone’s Commentaries. They would be astonished were they to visit the United States today.

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