FBB Special Report: Trump, “Black Sites,” and “Enhanced Interrogation”

Tom Warwick

This morning, the Washington Post obtained an executive order drafted by the Trump Administration calling for a policy review that could authorize the Central Intelligence Agency to reopen “black site” prisons overseas and potentially restart the Bush-era interrogation tactics that are tantamount  to torture. Even considering the reauthorization of these tactics is a mistake that will hurt our ability to defeat terrorists, their organizations, and the underlying conditions that they seek to exploit.  

“Enhanced interrogation” was one of several new strategies implemented in the war on terror. These techniques employed at “black sites” like Guantanamo Bay have not just been ineffective, but are possibly the most counterproductive strategy used. Since these prisons came into operation in 2002, they have come to represent the surrender of the moral high ground and the abandonment of the very principles our country is supposed to represent, a fact that terrorist organizations like al Qaeda have been able to exploit for their own purposes.  The prisons and the activities taking place within in them have been the focus of jihadist propaganda as far back as 2005.  “Gitmo” has been featured prominently in the al Qaeda English-language magazine Inspire.  The magazine has featured essays written by former detainees who have returned to al Qaeda, in which they describe their experiences and call on “new individuals to join the jihad”.  The treatment of prisoners has also been a topic in several of Anwar al-Awlaki, one of bin Laden’s top lieutenants, lectures aimed at “recruiting impressionable individuals to jihad”.  One of these “impressionable individuals” was the Fort Hood shooter, Nidal Hassan, who “was impressed by Awlaki’s message and was encouraged (although not directed) to carry out an attack on The States by the cleric himself.”

In addition to being a moral and public relations disaster, there has been no evidence that the “enhanced interrogation” tactics have been successful in producing usable intelligence. While there is limited data available on the relationship between torture and the quality of intelligence received (mostly due to the level of secrecy surrounding these acts), throughout history the use of torture as an interrogation device has been recognized as ineffective. As early as 400 AD the Roman Jurist Ulpian “noted that information obtained through torture was not to be trusted because some people are ‘so susceptible to pain that they will tell any lie rather than suffer it'” (Costanzo, 2009). This realization has been echoed by CIA operatives, members of the interrogation teams at Guantanamo, and is even written into the US Army Field Manual, which explains that “strategically useful information is best obtained from prisoners who are treated humanely, and that information obtained through torture has produced faulty intelligence” (Costanzo, 2009).  While there is not much data on information gained through torture, there have been multiple studies conducted on the relationship between false confessions and the “much less coercive” interrogation tactics used by the civilian criminal justice system (Costanzo, 2009).  In one of these studies researchers identified 125 proven false confession cases over a thirty year period and found that “[confessions] tend to occur in the most serious cases – 80% confessed to the crime of murder and another 9% to the crime of rape” and “because only proven false confessions were included in the study (e.g. cases in which the confessor was later exonerated by DNA evidence) the actual number of false confessions over that period is far higher” (Costanzo, 2009).  The study ultimately concluded that “as the coerciveness of the interrogation increases, so does the probability of eliciting a false confession” (Costanzo, 2009).  It stands to reason that because of the exponentially higher levels of coercion involved in “torture-based” interviews, the number of false information would be substantially higher (Costanzo, 2009)

Whether or not the President ultimately decides to reauthorize those sites and these tactics remains to be seen; but the fact that we are even considering them is an insult to the ideals we are supposed to hold as Americans. General David Petraeus, the former Director of Central Intelligence Agency and the former Commander of US Central Command, summarized the dangers of these types of policies best when he stated “situations like [Guantanamo] and other situations like that are non-biodegradables. They don’t go away. The enemy continues to beat you with them like a stick”.


You can read the draft Executive Order here.


Print Sources Cited:

Costanzo, Mark A., and Ellen Gerrity. “The Effects and Effectiveness of Using Torture as an Interrogation Device: Using Research to Inform the Policy Debate.” Social Issues and Policy Review3.1 (2009): 179-210. Web.

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