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Carle writes: "The United States Senate recently produced a massive report assessing the merits of 'enhanced interrogation' - America's euphemism for torture - which sits classified and unpublished in a Capitol Hill vault."

(photo: unknown)
(photo: unknown)

Torture and the Harvard Man

By Glenn L. Carle, The Harvard Crimson

22 November 13


he United States Senate recently produced a massive report assessing the merits of "enhanced interrogation" - America's euphemism for torture - which sits classified and unpublished in a Capitol Hill vault.

The Obama Administration opposes declassification, but that doesn't mean we don't know what it says. Indications are that the report confirms what I learned in 23 years of working in the CIA and revealed in my book, "The Interrogator": Torture does not work and provides virtually no useful intelligence.

I was involved in the enhanced interrogation program and served as a senior officer responsible for terrorist reporting. The foundation of my understanding, however, came not from my government training but from the lecture halls of Harvard.

The realization came as an al-Qaida prisoner sat frozen before me, my own fingers numbing from the cold. My CIA superior had ordered me to "do whatever it takes" to get the prisoner to talk and lead us to Osama Bin Laden, emphasizing the point with a jab to my chest. I stared at the shackled detainee. Incongruously, Sanders Theatre, 12,000 miles and 25 years away, came to mind. And I thought of Mr. Magoo.

My sophomore year I took Humanities 103: "The Great Age of Athens" with the fabled John H. Finley '25. Legend was that a former student of Finley's had created Mr. Magoo based on the scholar's eccentricities. And the professor was … distinctive. He hemmed, and wheezed, and held the text he was reading an inch from his eyes, bottle glasses forgotten atop his head. He spoke like bagpipes, in disjointed clauses, an incomprehensible nasal drone in iambic pentameter, communing with shades 2,400 years dead, unaware that 400 undergraduates were suppressing giggles before him.

But I thrilled to "The Iliad," "The Odyssey," "The Oresteia," and above all, Thucydides' "Peloponnesian War." When the lectures ended I had to run across the Yard, down Boylston Street (now John F. Kennedy) to Watson Rink (now the Bright-Landry Hockey Center) for hockey practice.

As I ran from Sanders to hockey I took away the political and moral lessons Finley taught in his lecture on "The Peloponnesian War:" The Melian dialogue, of course, is perhaps the most distilled case in the Western canon of the clash between morality and realpolitik. But it was Thucydides' psychological insights that were most relevant to me in my career; few of my peers had studied the humanities as I had.

Thucydides teaches that understanding the deep human motivators of fear, honor, and interest enables us to understand foreign relations as well as our enemies. Understanding those motivators also makes a good operations officer, one better equipped to recruit spies and conduct successful interrogations.

For intelligence work and interrogation are profoundly human enterprises.

My superiors, and particularly the neoconservative armchair interrogators who designed and ordered "enhanced interrogation," lacked this psychological insight. They equated power with strength and were obtuse to human nature. It was clear that "enhanced interrogation" was illegal; it was also clear to me that enhanced interrogation created fear and anger, and made psychological understanding, and therefore successful interrogations, impossible. Torture is atavistic, an expression of power, the humiliation of a foe. It has nothing to do with obtaining intelligence. These impulses are rooted in our fears and in our amygdalas, not the reasoning portion of our brains, and so torture recurs whenever humans are afraid, or angry, and have power over one's imagined foe. Only our laws - reason codified and applied - can protect us to any extent from our impulses.

I rejected "enhanced interrogation" - torture - out of hand. Instead, I talked with my prisoner. Sixteen hours a day sometimes. I established a rapport with him. We spoke of religion, his aspirations and motivations, his preferences on all sorts of topics. I assessed his fears, what would give him honor or tarnish it, what he wanted - his "interest." I wanted to understand, and so take advantage of, my prisoner's own needs.

It all went back quite consciously to Sanders Theatre. I had learned from Thucydides to understand the subject, while the architects of enhanced interrogation believed it necessary to "break" them. And as they ignored their opponent's humanity, we became inhuman ourselves, failing both practically and morally.

The case, like the entire program of enhanced interrogation, proved a disgrace. The man was not what we believed him to be. It is a long, painful story, an allegory for the horrors of the War on Terror. But I was able to retain my humanity and my honor and yet fulfill my mission of interrogating an al-Qaida detainee successfully, quite explicitly because of my study of Thucydides in Sanders Theatre long ago.

I am sure the blocked Senate report on enhanced interrogation will show what I lived: Enhanced interrogation does not work. Interrogation based on rapport does. The report needs to be published so that the truth is known and the false debate ended.

I re-read "The Peloponnesian War" 30 years after taking "The Great Age of Athens" as a sophomore and years after interrogating my al-Qaida detainee. It made me cry. your social media marketing partner


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+5 # indian weaver 2013-11-22 16:43
Isn't Obama the Torturer and Terrorist a "Harvard Man" (or a Harvard Beast)?
+7 # tigerlille 2013-11-22 23:41
I thought that the CIA had rejected torture sometime ago, and were employing a really effective technique: bribes, large amounts of cash. What happened? Did Cheney and Rumsfeld need to get their rocks off, or is the explanation more subtle than that?
+9 # Kootenay Coyote 2013-11-23 05:11
& Sophocles’ Antigone has much to say, brillliantly, about ‘the clash between morality and realpolitik’. Through its action, the ruler of Thebes has affirmed the integrity of the state over human decency, & loses his brother’s family & his own as a relentless consequence. Its final chorus (in one translation) closes starkly in words that lose none of their relevance today:

Here behold a man who learned wisdom: too late.

Carle learned in time. & America...?
+14 # kalpal 2013-11-23 05:33
Torture according to the Spanish inquisition is almost entirely useful in obtaining confessions, most of which are offered to stop the pain and meet the needs of the torturer but lack much of any veracity.

It does make politicians and powerful ignorant fools feel virtuous and creates a false sense of accomplishment.
+15 # hwmcadoo 2013-11-23 06:18
I suspect torture has little to do with misguided ideas of intelligence gathering, rather it is a cover for sadism.
-8 # RMDC 2013-11-23 09:14
If this guy really worked for the CIA and really understood torture, he would know this is an irrelevant statement, "Torture does not work and provides virtually no useful intelligence."

Torture is not about gaining information. There's a huge history of CIA torture experimentation going back to the early 1950s. It was never about interrogation, although that is often what the CIA (and others) told the mass media because the mass media might understand that.

Torture is about behavior modification. that's why the torture teams in Guantanamo are called BSCT or Biscuit Teams. It means Behavioral Science Consultant Teams.

Torture has always been the attempt to erase someone's mind and replace it with one designed for uses by the CIA. The torture camps the CIA runs all over the world are where suicide bombers and other mindless zealots are created.

Torture is about researching and developing techniques for behavioral modification and mind control that can then be applied to the larger world population. Most of the people held in Guantanamo or the other camps are just guinea pigs for behavioral experimentation .

Please don't insult us with any more Harvard nostalgia bullshit about information. We are way beyond that now.
+5 # ormondotvos 2013-11-23 13:43
Sounds like your mind's been made up. Do you know by whom?
0 # Edwina 2013-11-24 10:24
Beautiful. I wish the "Harvard men" who are our political leaders and policy makers were listening, rather than those of us who already know how self-defeating our cruel and militarized foreign policy is. Our torture doesn't even work as behavior modification--o therwise we would not have to keep people at Guantanamo and other black sites.
0 # RobertMStahl 2013-11-24 11:24
Excellent, truly excellent! Direction is all that there is, really. 'Tis a bigger question than torture or death, but I, too, remain in a sustained container of confusion for the perpetuation of these ills, this continuity of that so darkened side of history in lieu of what some of us know, and all of us suspect, is entirely missing, WHERE this leaves.

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