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Inside the Secret War Against al Qaeda
By Chris Mackey
By Greg Miller
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In The Interrogators, Chris Mackey, the senior interrogator at Bagram Air Base and in Kandahar, where al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners were first detained and questioned, lifts the curtain. Soldiers specially trained in the art of interrogation went face-to-face with the enemy. These mental and psychological battles were as grueling, dramatic, and important as any in the war on terrorism. We learn how, under Mackey’s command, his small group of “soldier spies” engineered a breakthrough in interrogation strategy, rewriting techniques and tactics grounded in the Cold War.
Mackey reveals the tricks of the trade, and we see how his team — four men and one woman — responded to the pressure and the prisoners. By the time Mackey’s group was finished, virtually no prisoner went unbroken.
Most students slipped quite naturally out of their school uniforms at Immaculate High School in Danbury, Connecticut, and into the country's better universities. I slipped out of my uniform and into army fatigues. I was seventeen when I enlisted in 1989, and it came as a surprise to all of my friends but one, Sean McGinty, who enlisted with me. We suffered from a debilitating condition: too many siblings. Our working-class parents—my father was a telephone line repairman, McGinty's an accountant—had made it clear some time earlier that we were going to have to pay our own way through college. And so we decided to enlist together, jokingly trying to be the first to complete the army oath so as to be "senior" to the other in our new military lives. McGinty skipped a phrase or two, arriving at the "so help me God" line first. I would argue for years that he had invalidated his oath by jumping ahead, but that was a debate I would never win.
Originally we thought the infantry would be good. The army brochures made it all look fairly glamorous, with lots of pictures of armored personnel carriers rolling through German landscapes and Teutonic villagers smiling at passing Americans. But my father had been an artilleryman who was called up from the Connecticut National Guard during Korea, and he wanted me to pursue a military field far away from cannons and endless gunnery drills. The Saturday morning after McGinty and I signed up, I found myself waiting in a parking lot with my father, while a parade of distinctly unmilitary people walked into a vaguely industrial-looking building surrounded by a chain-link fence. A yellow fifties hot rod pulled into the lot and a tall man stepped out and stooped to pick up a knapsack from the rumble seat. My father, taller still, stretched out his big hand and the two men smiled at each other and exchanged greetings. "So this is your boy," the man said, pausing to conduct a quick inspection. I was inspecting him, too. He sported an outrageous pompadour haircut that looked about as military as a ponytail. His wrinkled battle dress uniform was practically white with wear. An absurd unit patch on his shoulder depicted a pilgrim with a blunderbuss.
The first few minutes reinforced every stereotype about the reserves and national guard. The man, First Sergeant Staib, excused himself to tend to the business of his office, which appeared to consist of drinking Dunkin' Donuts coffee and kidding around with his colleagues. My father and I stood in the vestibule looking at plaques honoring Soldier of the Year for 1975 and the winning platoon in the 1969 handball competition. Only the posters exhorting soldiers to "protect classified documents" and "Beware the Bear" indicated there might be something here of interest. All the while, overweight soldiers with gray hair and outdated uniforms pushed by to join a gaggle in the center of a gymlike open area.
After his doughnut, Staib came out of the adjoining office, stood at the top of the open area, and bellowed, "Fall in!" His Hollywood-quality command voice startled me. The resulting movement wasn't exactly a scramble, more of a high-speed shuffling, but the suddenness of the soldiers' motion, and their final arrangement in neat little squares of troops, was more than a little impressive. Suddenly Staib's uniform didn't look so wrinkled after all.
After the formation, Staib brought my father and me into an office. The unit's commander was there, a Major Gregoire, and a very old female officer who looked so much like a nun I nearly called her "sister." They asked me if I knew what the unit did, and I said something like "only that you are linguists." They smiled and said that was more or less correct, but that there was more to the story. In fact, they were an interrogation unit, responsible for questioning prisoners of war, refugees, border crossers, and other sources of intelligence information. Interrogators, I thought.
After a chat with Staib, the commander, and the nun, I was taken around the dirty facility and introduced to the various groups. Sizing them up, I was a little concerned that they were the grown-up versions of the nerds and dweebs I had tried so hard to steer clear of in school—maybe a little conscious that I was too close to them on the social ladder for comfort. The last thing we did was sit in on a practice interrogation. A large group of reservists stood or sat around a little wooden table. A man about thirty with a very big nose and mustache sat in one chair, while a slightly older, balding man sat opposite. Sitting behind the big-nosed man was a particularly old fellow with white hair, glasses, and a crooked front tooth. If there had been a few banjos, it might have been a scene from a Louisiana bayou.
The balding man was the interrogator. He posed questions to the big-nosed fellow in English. The crooked-toothed guy translated the English into German, whereupon Big Nose answered in German. The German was translated back into English, and the balding interrogator scribbled in his notebook. After the first few questions passed through this circuit, there developed a kind of disjointed conversation. "How did you come to be captured, Mah-yohr Schmidt?" Big Nose said something about conducting reconnaissance on the river Elbe for his unit. The balding guy asked questions about the prisoner's men: why hadn't they helped him avoid capture as they had done? He began to suggest that Schmidt was a coward. Soon the balding man was screaming at Schmidt, who in response began to look more and more dejected. This went on for some time.
The script was well written. The prisoner was overcome by his ordeal. The violence of his capture had affected him deeply, and he was unprepared for the flurry of insults and baiting his interrogator offered. He was reduced nearly to tears by the grilling. Then the tenor of their conversation changed. The bald interrogator produced a cigarette. The prisoner declined, too distressed to accept. But he began to talk, yielding information about his unit as if he were unburdening himself of personal secrets he no longer wished to keep.
When the show was over, I found my father in the motor pool speaking with Staib. We parted company with our uniformed hosts, making promises of speaking again soon and various nonbinding expressions of interest. My father asked for my impressions on the way home, and I told him I thought it was interesting but not exactly very military. Not being "military" was the point, my father said. "It's the intelligence corps, after all."
That comment began to sink in. I started to realize there might be advantages to the new route, not least of which was the opportunity to study a foreign language as part of the initial training.
I spoke with McGinty about all this. We debated the merits of the infantry and the intelligence corps in the bleachers of the school gym. McGinty visited the reserve unit a few weeks later and was impressed enough to at least consider a change. With some reluctance (and lots of lobbying by parents who thought the intelligence corps sounded significantly less dangerous than being an infantry grunt), we revisited our recruiter. The big sergeant seemed to accept our change of heart pretty well—almost as if he'd expected it, really. Although he tried to get us to join the intelligence corps as active-duty troops, the six-year commitment was a little too much. The training even for the reserves was long and would give us a good flavor of life in the army. If we liked it we could always switch to active duty, but going the other way—from active duty to the reserves—wasn't possible. Sean and I signed our contracts alongside the signatures of our parents, a requirement for enlisting under the age of eighteen. We were in the army now, and achieved some minor celebrity at school because of it.
We spent the rest of our senior year going to the reserve center once a month for training. We were paid, given uniforms, and because of our high school Spanish, were attached to the unit's Latin America section. We sat spellbound weekend after weekend as Chief Warrant Officer Edward Archer, an Argentinian with a voice reminiscent of Ricardo Montalban's, described the various techniques and methods for persuading enemy prisoners to talk. He stressed the importance of basic skills, of leveraging one's own personality strengths, and of having a broad knowledge of military structure, tactics, and equipment. When summer arrived and high school graduation came, the other members of the reserve unit gave McGinty and me a farewell party as we prepared to depart for boot camp. The unit even gave us going-away presents: army ID cards showing our ages to be twenty-one rather than seventeen.
Among army intelligence recruits, the Defense Language Institute, or DLI, was often referred to as the Defense Lust Institute. The reputation was one of an idyllic existence among the palms, studying after class on the beach, and wild parties with beautiful California girls. As McGinty and I rode a bus from the San Francisco airport south toward Monterey, we were struck by the wide highways, the stucco houses, the palm trees, and the dizzying array of fast-food places. Even the little reflectors embedded in the highway constituted a curiosity for two kids from the Northeast. Then there were the girls. Right away, I wished I had picked a language with a longer course of instruction than German, still a priority tongue in those waning Cold War days.
Our new barracks looked like high-rent condominiums. McGinty and I were billeted together and discovered a private bathroom, a television, and a refrigerator. After twelve weeks of basic in Missouri, at Fort Leonard Wood, this was paradise. There were thirty students in the German class, divided into three sections of ten each. There were two navy pilots, two West Point Rhodes scholars, an army sergeant MP, a Louisiana National Guard officer learning German because the French course had filled up, and a large group of young, green soldiers like McGinty and me. The vast majority were going into the forces as intelligence professionals, but there were some nonservice personnel, mainly State Department types, and then there were spouses and assorted dependents when class space permitted. Classes at the DLI become very close. There are always a few weddings in a class (we had four), usually followed by divorces when the pressure of the school is over.
Sometimes it seemed like the DLI was a repository for every ethnic stereotype. The Italian instructors always seemed to be having picnics. Russians were socialist technocrats, forever organizing sports days and parades. The Arabs were always accusing their students of conspiracies. And the Germans were obsessed with structure and order. My instructors were twelve grandmotherly, but exceedingly strict, native Germans. Under their instruction, we didn't learn just to conjugate verbs, but to sit up straight, enunciate, and be timely in all things.
"PAZZ IN YER HOMEVERK ALFA-BETIKLY!"
Class went from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., with an hour break for lunch. The first hour was always Nachrichten, whereby students would take turns summarizing news stories in German. This was followed by quizzes, language labs, reading hours, and audio-visual sessions in which students watched German TV programs recorded twenty-four hours a day by satellite dishes all over the post. The last hour was my favorite, and by far the most valuable. The class broke up into groups, two or three students to an instructor, and they picked topics to discuss, the more controversial the better. The ground rules were simple: speak only in German. Sometimes we'd go to the kitchen and chat while we cooked German food. Sometimes we'd go for walks on the shore a short distance away, the locals tolerating a daily inundation of budding linguists. It was a fantastic language workout and great fun.
The culminating event of the DLI is the Defense Language Proficiency Test, a three-day ordeal that is a sort of bar exam for soldiers who must prove they've learned a foreign language to begin their careers in intelligence. About half those who passed were headed to Fort Huachuca, the army's intelligence center and school in southeastern Arizona, the other half to the signal intercept school at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas. Either way, it meant back to life as army trainees, back to drill sergeants.
We took the DLPT in a set of low-lying, Polynesian-looking exam buildings on the edge of the post. There were several who didn't make the cut and others who were surprised by their poor performance. I did okay; smack in the middle of the pack, and along with McGinty, headed for the desert.
Interrogation is as old as war, but interrogators—that is, soldiers specially trained to question prisoners—are a relatively recent addition to military ranks. Through most of military history, when prisoners were captured, they were questioned by whoever was on hand. There's even a scene in the Iliad in which Ulysses and Diomed capture a Trojan spy and question him themselves, extracting information on the strength and disposition of Trojan troops. (In the end, they cut his throat, leaving his head "rolling in the dust while he was yet speaking," but that's another matter.) They didn't cuff him and take him to the rear to turn him over to clean-uniformed intelligence troops. There was no instruction on interrogation in the Achaean army, no doctrine to follow, no choreographed "approaches" to use to get prisoners to talk. And there wasn't any of that in any other army either until well into the twentieth century.
The U.S. Army was no exception. Prisoners were always considered important sources of information. Indeed, senior commanders, including George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant, were known to sometimes take it upon themselves to question high-value captives. But in general, interrogation was regarded as low-skilled labor, a tedious task that commanders tended to assign to troops who couldn't be put to more productive use doing something else. Capturing prisoners was the hard part, asking them questions was barely worth mentioning alongside more daring categories of intelligence collection. In his account of intelligence methods in the Civil War, University of Nebraska historian Peter Maslowski wrote that interrogation "was less romantic than spying, less dangerous than scouting and cavalry reconnaissance, and as mundane as reading the enemy's newspapers."
The first troops that had anything in common with today's interrogators were created in World War I. American units took their places alongside British and French forces that had already been fighting for several years, were far better organized, and had developed significantly more expertise in gathering intelligence. Warfare was changing, fueled by new technologies—including tanks, airplanes, and radios—that required armies to evolve from masses of men to collections of specialized components. The infantry obviously played the predominant role in the trench warfare of World War I, but militaries needed men to operate their new machines, and better-trained intelligence personnel not only to decrypt codes and analyze aerial photos, but to ask the right questions of captured prisoners. Assessing the enemy was no longer just about tracking soldiers, it required understanding the enemy's weapons systems, supply lines, operational tactics, and organization in enough detail that even small bits of information from a detainee could help piece together a larger intelligence puzzle. American forces were so unprepared for these new requirements that at first they had to rely on their European counterparts even for the most rudimentary training. U.S. soldiers assigned to intelligence duties including interrogation were sent to the British Army Intelligence School at Harrow, England, for weeks of instruction. By July 1918, the U.S. Army had set up its own tiny intelligence school in Langres, France. (Interrogator trainees even practiced on actual German prisoners before being assigned to field units.) But at the end of the war, the troops went home, the U.S. Army shrank back to its peacetime dimensions, and whatever expertise these interrogators acquired on the job was institutionally forgotten. Two decades later, the army's intelligence apparatus had to be entirely rebuilt.
Whatever intelligence assets it had squandered, the U.S. military didn't waste time mobilizing for World War II. In July 1940, a month after German troops entered Paris, the army issued its first field manual on interrogation, or more specifically, on the "examination of enemy personnel, repatriates, documents and material." The twenty-eight-page manual described in detail how prisoners were to be evacuated from the front lines, discussed the use of carrier pigeons to transmit time-sensitive information, and warned interrogators to observe the Geneva Conventions' ban on coercion. It devoted pages to listing what sort of information to seek from prisoners from various kinds of enemy units. But there was no mention of anything resembling the sixteen distinct approaches outlined in today's interrogation manuals. Indeed, about the only guidance it offered on method was that "a cigarette or a cup of coffee will frequently elicit more accurate and important information than threats."
The manual was part of a flurry of field guides that the War Department published that year. In June 1942, the army opened its first centralized intelligence training center, at Camp Ritchie, Maryland, a former national guard armory a few hours north of Washington, D.C. Its first priority was to train interrogators, but the army found itself so ill equipped to teach the subject that it had to bring a British colonel over from the School for Interrogators of Prisoners of War at Cambridge to help get the program off the ground.
The interrogator trainees were mainly soldiers who grew up in German- or Italian-speaking households. (Japanese linguists were schooled at other facilities in California and, later, Minnesota, but there were so few Japanese POWs that the emphasis was on document exploitation, not interrogation.) The students at Ritchie learned "methods of interviewing, personality analysis, ways of influencing people and making friends (the Dale Carnegie approach applied to prisoners of war)," according to an internal army history of Camp Ritchie. They practiced interrogating instructors who spoke in German and wore German uniforms supplied by the Brits. The program ended with a massive eight-day exercise in which all of the troops from various disciplines staged mock exercises under conditions the army tried to make realistic by blasting battlefield sounds over base loudspeakers. The first class was "long on theory and short on experience," the army study said. But within months Camp Ritchie was producing a stream of trained, foreign-language-fluent interrogators for the front, and within three years, the program had trained 2,641 interrogators who spoke German and 326 who spoke Italian. Each division got two prisoner-interrogation teams, and each team consisted of two officers and four enlisted men. Camp Ritchie was no accomplishment on the order of the Manhattan Project, but it was considered a major success in the army, and one army review after another praised the contributions of interrogators in the war. A report by the Twelfth Army Group, dated July 1, 1945, was typically appreciative: "All Corps agreed that prisoners of war constituted by far the most fruitful source of information."
Camp Ritchie shut down after the war, but the army didn't make the same mistake it had after World War I. Interrogation units became permanent parts of the active-duty and reserve forces. The interrogation manual swelled from twenty-eight pages to ninety-plus, as the army's training and doctrine staffs incorporated techniques borrowed from allies and law enforcement experts, gradually delineating the cookie-cutter interrogation approaches in use today. Immediately after World War II, intelligence schools were set up in Georgia and Kansas before the army consolidated much of its intelligence training at Fort Holabird, near Baltimore, in the mid-1950s. When that space became too cramped the Army Intelligence Corps set its sights on a location with seemingly nothing but room to grow: a nearly forgotten fort in the Huachuca Mountains in southern Arizona. The dusty, rustic encampment had been established in 1877, serving as the army's headquarters in its campaign against Geronimo and the Apache tribe. In 1971 Fort Huachuca became the home for the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School, and the training ground for hundreds of interrogators every year.
We crossed Arizona in a tiny airplane that seemed to fly sideways through a lightning storm that illuminated the desert and clouds below like the surface of some gaseous moon. "Moon" was the word that sprang to mind when we landed, too: the horizon was seabed flat save for what appeared to be colossal gray gravel heaps in the farthest distance. The tiny airport was almost exclusively for military transients, with their PX-purchased T-shirts bearing mottos like "3rd Signal Battalion: The Signal Dogs" and luggage made of fake camouflage embossed with a gold U.S. Army seal. Nine months at the DLI had allowed my hair to grow out to prearmy levels, and Tom's was longer still. We got into a taxi with two fare options: to the post, and out of the post. Sensibly, it cost the same: two dollars for either direction.
Reilly Barracks, where the interrogators were billeted, stretched three city blocks, with apertures and nooks and platforms making it look like a battleship. The trees outside were staked into place as if they had to be tied down to keep from fleeing this arid climate. There were dozens of concrete slabs in front of the building, each separated by a bed of white landscaping rocks, carefully raked and evenly distributed. On the slabs were hundreds of outlines of boot soles, which formed the unmistakable forty-five-degree angle of the position of attention. They must really start at the basics here, I thought. The drill sergeants have even painted the proper spacing for one's feet.
Next morning, all of Reilly Barracks was ordered to turn out in battle dress uniforms on those concrete slabs and the reason for the boot prints was revealed. It wasn't to guide soldiers in the spacing of their feet; the marks were from boot soles and polish melting onto the concrete in the scorching Arizona sun.
The main instructional facility was a converted World War II barracks. Half of the ground floor was a classroom. The other half was office space for the instructors and the latrine. Above, on the second floor, was a single long hallway with twelve doors. Each door led to a small room with just a table and three chairs. A camera poked out from the ceiling in each space. There were tiles on the wall to absorb noise and thick shades on the windows to keep out even a sliver of natural light.
Class started with an overview of what lay ahead. As each section was introduced, I was struck by how cool the job I had enlisted for sounded. An ominous-sounding course called Air-Land Battle was scheduled for more than two weeks. Warsaw Pact Battle Doctrine also sounded very manly. Intelligence Collection in Unconventional War made us feel like we were going to be part of something from Wild Bill Donovan's Office of Strategic Services, the OSS. And on the syllabus horizon was the most tantalizing material of all: the black arts, the approaches, the techniques for "breaking" prisoners.
But before we could get near any of those subjects, we had to pass a section on the Geneva and Hague Conventions. These were the bibles for interrogators, documents we had to know inside and out, and treat with a reverence that was sometimes hard for a group of hormonal young soldiers to muster. The Geneva Conventions cobble together a series of international agreements that date back to 1864, when Henry Dunant, the Red Cross founder who had been horrified by the abandonment of wounded soldiers at the Battle of Solferino, led an effort to get nations to agree to protect the sick and wounded in wartime. In 1929 two more conventions were added, requiring belligerents to treat prisoners humanely, provide information about them, and permit visits to prison camps by neutral representatives. After the carnage of World War II, still more conventions were added, spelling out the rules regarding treatment of prisoners that are the basis for the enforcements in effect today. They ban torture, coercion, and punishment for prisoners who refuse to provide more than basic identification. We spent days reading the conventions aloud in class, passage by passage, and were tested on even the most obscure points. Even so, it was clear after only a single reading which passages mattered most to future interrogators. The language practically jumped out at you: the prohibitions on "violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture," and on "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment"; the Article 13 stipulation that "prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity"; and the simple requirement that "prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated."
The instructors, who typically had a knack for making even the most fascinating material dull as dirt, were remarkably creative in the ways that they impressed upon students why these laws had to be obeyed without exception. Of course, the first and often most effective motivation for enforcement was self-interest. Anyone caught violating the conventions could expect to spend a good chunk of time at the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Those grim prospects were repeated so often that by the end of our time at Huachuca the three syllables "Lea-ven-worth" were ringing in our ears.
Then there was the slightly more nuanced argument that the conventions ought to be observed because failing to do so only produced bad intelligence. Staff Sergeant Casey, our senior instructor, hammered home the idea that prisoners being tortured or mentally coerced will say anything, absolutely anything, to stop the pain. All of the instructors told us stories of the experiences of army interrogators working in Vietnam alongside South Vietnamese units that would do the most unspeakable things to prisoners—take two of them up in a helicopter and shove one out the door, torture one of the prisoner's relatives right in front of him—and the squeals of anguish and false information that would flow. The goal of interrogation isn't just to get prisoners to talk, our instructors stressed, it's to get them to tell the truth.
- On Sale
- Jul 19, 2004
- Page Count
- 512 pages
- Little, Brown and Company