In last week's New York Times, Scott Shane explains the workings of the interrogation program and its architects -- a pair of military retirees and psychologists named Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen.
Though neither man had ever conducted an interrogation, researched the subject, studied al-Qaida or Arab culture, they were experts in SERE -- Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape -- a program designed to prepare U.S. soldiers for the rigors of enemy interrogation.
Mitchell and Jessen used interrogation techniques of the Chinese communists, North Vietnamese and others to expose soldiers to what might await them in captivity. "It was clear that this is what we'd expect from our enemies," one psychologist involved in SERE told Shane. "It was not something I could ever imagine Americans would do."
But the Bush administration's post-9/11 counterterrorism policy embraced these techniques. Abu Zubaydah, considered a high-level al-Qaida operative, was held at a secret prison in Thailand and waterboarded 83 times.
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was waterboarded an astounding 183 times. At least two dozen more prisoners were subjected to this type of treatment.
There is little hard evidence these interrogations thwarted terrorists' plans. Indeed, Zubaydah's brutal treatment started after he provided vital information in conventional interrogations, and the waterboarding ended when CIA officials determined he had no more useful information to offer.
The Obama administration terminated the CIA interrogation program. The Justice Department is considering a criminal probe of Mitchell and Jessen, and will decide if lawyers who approved the harsh techniques violated ethics rules.
The CIA is expected to release a critical report on its program, completed in 2004.
Repressive regimes use these harsh practices to break the will of prisoners, make them compliant and force confessions that serve the rulers' agendas. That Americans adopted the same techniques forces the question: Were they pursuing that twisted goal as well?
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