Enhanced interrogation techniques

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Enhanced interrogation techniques are a term used, in the original context of interrogating persons, in U.S. Central Intelligence Agency custody, suspected of involvement in terrorism and deemed High Value Detainees by the George W. Bush Administration. These techniques became more widely used by both military and intelligence personnel. President Barack Obama's decision to release documents detailing the methods was a compromise between the views of civil libertarians and intelligence officials.[1]

Some simply consider the term to be euphemistic for torture, but the truth is more in shades of gray than a black and white decision to use torture to gain information. Virtually all of the methods came from Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training given to U.S. military personnel at risk of capture. They were adopted shortly after the 9-11 attack by officials and military commanders, at a time of shortage of skilled interrogators, although the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Attorney General at the end of the Bush administration[2] said that half of the key U.S. information on al-Qaeda came from using the techniques on the High Value Detainees.

While they may have violated criteria of the Third Geneva Convention, it had been the legal position of the George W. Bush Administration that the Conventions did not apply to al-Qaeda members and Taliban leadership. Analysis by the Bush Administration's Office of Legal Counsel also held that they did not violate the Convention against Torture (CAT) when interpreted in light of the U.S. Senate caveats on ratification of the CAT. These caveats limited the interpretation of torture to that within principles of the United States Constitution and U.S. laws prohibiting torture.

There is little question that the techniques constituted coercive interrogation. It is also fair to say that the individual methods were not of the type that caused permanent physical harm, as did the iconic rack and burning coals of the Inquisition, or more recent joint dislocations on U.S. personnel prisoners of war in the Vietnam War. Whether or not they caused psychological damage is more difficult to say. Whether or not they damaged U.S. foreign relations, or the more subtle issue of moral authority, is beyond the scope of this article.

Arguments in favor of their use include military necessity. Indeed, some legal experts, such as Alan Dershowitz, have argued that outright torture is morally justified in "ticking bomb" scenarios.[3]

General principles of methods

As originally intended by the CIA,[4]

  • Conditioning techniques to wear the detainee down to a “dependent state”
  • Corrective techniques are used to “correct, startle, or ... achieve another enabling objective” All of the corrective interrogation techniques involve physical contact between interrogator and prisoner, but were not intended to cause damage or severe pain.
  • Coercive techniques “place the detainee in more physical and psychological stress”

Steven Aftergood, of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy, after reviewing legal opinions from the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) of the U.S. Department of Justice, justifying these methods as within U.S. and international law, commented that "it appears that the OLC authors proceeded not out of sadism or indifference, but out of desperation."[5]

While the initial authorization indeed was limited to the Central Intelligence Agency, at least some of the techniques diffused to prisoners in military custody.

One particular method, waterboarding, has been singled out as most likely to be construed as torture, as by Susan Crawford, a retired judge and former Army general counsel appointed by the Bush Administration.[6] She rejected military tribunal charges for an individual subjected to this and other methods.

Use and effectiveness

The use of enhanced interrogation techniques has been extremely controversial, from a legal, moral, and pragmatic point of view. While many opponents of EITs have claimed that they constitute torture and are therefore illegal under both US and international law, another aspect regards the question of how useful they are in extracting intelligence.

Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration and a proponent of the use of EITs on high-value detainees at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, has remarked that waterboarding contributed to the gathering of crucial intelligence leading to the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011 by US Navy SEALs.[7] The same has been held by Michael Mukasey, Attorney General under George W. Bush, in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.[8] But CIA director Leon Panetta has denied these allegations and has instead noted that the use of EIT led to very little usable intelligence.[9] Also, in response to Michael Mukasey's article, Republican Senator John McCain published an op-ed in the Washington Post in which he denies the usefulness and the legality of several forms of EITs. In remarks in the Senate on May 12, 2011, McCain, himself the victim of torture at the hands of the North-Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, reported that information he requested from CIA director Leon Panetta showed that

the trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. We did not first learn from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed the real name of bin Laden's courier, or his alias, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti—the man who ultimately enabled us to find bin Laden.

In fact, not only did the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed not provide us with key leads on bin Laden's courier, Abu Ahmed, it actually produced false and misleading information.[10]

Former Justice Department official and law professor John Yoo, who was one of the authors of the so-called "torture memos" advocating EITs for high-value detainees, has disputed McCain's assessment. Yoo maintains that Khalid Sheik Mohammed may well have lied about the role of the al-Qaeda courier at whose house Osama bin Laden was hiding, but he and Abu Faraj al-Libi did give up the courier's name after enhanced interrogation:

The fact that they tried to deflect attention from the courier doesn't undermine the success of the interrogation. Their stories, which were inconsistent with those of other commanders, raised red flags. Information from multiple sources, when pulled together, can snap the right targets into focus.[11]


  1. Statement of President Barack Obama on Release of OLC Memos, Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, April 16, 2009
  2. Michael Hayden and Michael Mukasey (April 17, 2009), "The President Ties His Own Hands on Terror: The point of interrogation is intelligence, not confession", Wall Street Journal
  3. "Dershowitz: Torture could be justified", CNN Legal Center, March 4, 2003
  4. Steven Bradbury, Office of the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel, U.S. Department of Justice (May 10, 2005), Memorandum for John A. Rizzo, Senior Deputy General Counsel, Central Intelligence Agency, Re: Application of 18 USC 2340-2340A to Certain Techniques That May Be Used in the Interrogation of a a High Value al Qaeda Detainee
  5. Steven Aftergood (April 17, 2009), "OLC Torture Memos Declassified", Secrecy News, Federation of American Scientists
  6. Bob Woodward (January 14, 2009), "Detainee Tortured, Says U.S. Official: Trial Overseer Cites 'Abusive' Methods Against 9/11 Suspect", Washington Post
  7. Hannity, Sean (2011-05-03). Rumsfeld: Waterboarding Played Major Role in Al Qaeda Intel (Blog). Fox News / Hannity. Retrieved on 2011-05-17.
  8. Mukasey, Michael B.. The Waterboarding Trail to bin Laden, Wall Street Journal, 2011-05-06. Retrieved on 2011-05-17.
  9. Need ref. Can't find ref to his interview on NBC News directly after the death of Osama bin Laden.
  10. (2011-05-12) "Use of Torture". {{{booktitle}}}, S2897-S2900, Washington DC: U.S. Senate. Retrieved on 2011-05-16.
  11. Yoo, John. "Shoot First, Ask Never", National Review, 2011-06-06, pp. 18-20.