Q&A: What does the CIA interrogation report mean for U.S. national security?

Dec. 16, 2014, 2:15 p.m.

Last week, the Senate Intelligence Committee released a hotly contested report detailing the brutal interrogation techniques used by the CIA. Deemed by the report as ineffective and grossly misrepresented, the CIA's tactics included numerous forms of violence.

B. Rose Huber of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University discussed the report with Jacob Shapiro, associate professor of politics and international affairs. Shapiro studies political violence, economic and political development in conflict zones, security policy and urban conflict.

Question: Of the report's findings, which are the most concerning?

Answer: The apparent lack of a coherent strategy behind the use of brutality is the most troubling to me. I don't know how to rank the various heinous, apparently unproductive things done to both guilty and innocent detainees. What I know is that engaging in such activities in a haphazard and ill-considered manner is even worse than doing them as part of a coherent, if morally atrocious, strategy.

I'm also troubled by the lack of any systematic effort to understand whether such interrogation practices actually yielded valuable intelligence. In any public policy of unknown efficacy that will be in place for some time, it is simple malpractice not to include an evaluation component. Given the volume of people being interrogated by the CIA, that could easily have been done across a range of techniques, interrogation team compositions, and so on. That it was not reflects a lack of interest in adapting and learning, which should trouble us deeply.

Q: There are those that objected to the release of the report, fearing that it would lead to violence overseas. Do you share those concerns? Why or why not?

A: I share the concern, but I am much more concerned with allowing the behaviors depicted in the report to remain in the dark. There needs to be as little doubt as possible in the minds of American citizens — as well as future leaders in government — about what went on during this period and about how it yielded no discernible increase in the safety of Americans.

Q: The report's overall conclusion seems to be that harsh interrogation measures didn't work. Do you agree? If so, what should have been done instead?

A: Absolutely. The report shows that the program yielded huge amounts of erroneous information, which ate up invaluable investigative resources. So, even if it led to some breaks, it would be unclear whether it was a net benefit. But there's no good evidence that it led to any meaningful breaks. Of the 20 cases occasionally cited in various CIA statements as instances where torture — let's call it what it was — worked, the report shows that none stand up to scrutiny. Given the vast legal jeopardy so many participants in the program are in, you would think that by now someone would have leaked facts demonstrating the value of the program if such facts exist. No one has.

And this was entirely predictable. Not only was there no experience base in employing such techniques in the U.S. government (for obvious reasons), there is plenty of evidence from the field of psychology showing that trauma and stress mess with peoples' recall. Thus, even if such techniques bring someone to the point where they wish to cooperate, their recollection is almost certain to be suspect.

What should have been done instead is what the FBI and apparently the CIA called for initially: lawful interrogation by teams of trained, experienced interrogators (we have thousands of them, they are called police detectives) using tested elicitation techniques and backed up by intelligence personnel who had been tracking this movement since the mid-1990s and thus knew many of the individuals, ideological tropes, and so on.

Q: President Barack Obama said the interrogation program has done "significant damage to America's standing in the world." Do you agree? If so, how can this be remedied going forward?

A: Yes. We need more transparency about the program and a return to the use of domestic courts to prosecute terrorism subjects when they can be captured alive in ways that do not pose unacceptably high risks to U.S. personnel.

Q. More generally, how should we use this report going forward? Should any policies be changed?

A: Absolutely. The United States should develop a cadre of experienced interrogators with the necessary backgrounds to rapidly assume roles running interrogations of terrorism subjects as needed. This could surely be done through a volunteer program in which domestic law enforcement officers could receive a week or two of training per year so that they could be prepared to be detailed on short notice.

A systematic research and development program should then be put in place to figure out which of the legal approaches to interrogation work most effectively. If interrogation is to be a key source of intelligence for the United States for the next decade — as seems likely given the prominent position of nonstate security threats in the set of threats facing the country — then figuring out how to do it well merits at least a fraction of the funds spent on developing signals (i.e, communications or electronics) intelligence capabilities or new weaponry.