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Torture and the Harvard Man

By Glenn L. Carle

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report assessing the merits of “enhanced interrogation”—America’s euphemism for torture—which sits classified and unpublished in a Capitol Hill vault.

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.

Glenn L. Carle, Harvard ’78 is a former CIA field officer. He is speaking in the Winthrop House Perini-Woods SCR Memorial Speaker Series on Tuesday, November 19, at 7 p.m. in the Senior Common Room.

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