One Reason Why Gitmo Failed and (I Hope) Obama Won’t

Soon after the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay was established to lock up "the most dangerous men in the world," Pentagon leadership put detention and interrogation operations under the command of Major General Geoffrey Miller, an infantry officer and artillery specialist.

"When he took over the facility, General Miller knew so little about questioning Al Qaeda suspects that he probably did not even know how to spell ‘interrogation,’" one senior interrogator has told me.

The mistakes that were made at Guantanamo have made international headlines. Many were the result of poor policy decisions. Experienced interrogators were often left out of the decision making process or their suggestions were ignored, according to interrogators who worked at and evaluated interrogation and detention practices at Guantanamo Bay.

For example, CampDelta – the permanent detention facility for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo – was constructed in a way that hindered intelligence collection. Detainees were housed closely together. They could see and talk to each other. Every time one went to the interrogation booth, the other detainees watched.

Senior interrogators warned camp administrators not to build the detention facility in this way. They were ignored.

As Erik Saar, a Sergeant who worked at Gitmo in 2002 and 2003, recounts in his book "Inside the Wire," detainees who were led away for interrogation sessions "had teachers and encouragers waiting for them back in those cells to tell them, ‘You must stay strong brother. Your reward is yet to come.’"

Saar recounts a story of a detainee whose fellow cellmates were so convinced that he was talking freely to his interrogators that they jeered and taunted him until he finally was driven to attempt suicide. "They had a great deal of incentive back on the cell blocks not to talk," Saar writes.

Part of the failure to consult with interrogators on interrogation policy is due to the way the U.S. Army is structured. Interrogation is usually not practiced by senior officers. It is a line expertise and is handled primarily by chief warrant officers, sergeants and specialists.

It is rare to find a senior level officer who has actively participated in an interrogation, yet it was these senior level officers – like General Miller – who were setting interrogation policy in consultation with officials like Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

President Obama has taken an important first step in moving towards a more sensible interrogation policy with his Jan. 22 Executive Orders that close Guantanamo, ban torture and end the use of CIA secret prisons.

The orders also establish a special advisory committee that will have 180 days to study interrogation issues and make recommendations to the President about interrogation policy. Among other things, the advisory committee will consider whether or not the CIA should have special rules that allow its interrogators to use abusive techniques while questioning suspects.

The committee will be chaired by the Attorney General and will include other senior policy makers like the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence. Many fear that the committee will not include individuals with experience interrogating hostile detainees.

"You wouldn’t ever ask a room full of dentists to perform brain surgery," Ken Robinson, a former U.S. Army Special Forces officer, wrote me yesterday in an email discussion about the president’s new advisory committee. Robinson is such a skilled interrogator that he was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame. (Yes, there is such a thing.) "Subject matter experts – with real world experience – must have their seat at the table," he added.

In a previous conversation I asked Robinson about managing detainee’s access to each other. (I interviewed Robinson for a 15-minute US Army training film about the difference between the way interrogation is portrayed on TV and the way it is practiced in the field.) Robinson told me the following story:

"We caught two brothers and we knew they had information that we wanted. When we caught them they had been in the field – dirty, grimy. We immediately separated one from the regular prison population. The other we left in detention with other prisoners. But we cleaned up the one we separated. We treated him sort of like a king. Gave him a shower, a shave. Nice clothes.

We had someone whisper among the regular prisoners that the brother we had isolated was talking to us. Then, after a little time, we walked the clean one by the brother in regular detention. No handcuffs. Just walking. Out of ear shot. The brother in regular detention saw that something unusual was going on. We never got any intelligence out of the brother we cleaned up. But the brother in regular detention didn’t know that. He assumed we already knew everything so it was easy to get him to talk. He didn’t feel like he was telling us anything we had not already learned."

In setting this country’s interrogation policy, its time we start listening to people like Robinson.

David Danzig is the Director of the Primetime Torture Project at Human Rights First.

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