Monday, April 27, 2009

The Tortured

At this point, we don't know the extent of permanent psychological damage caused to those who have been detained and tortured by the US government. Surely the harsh treatment will leave deep scars, some of which may not be treatable. Just as important, it seems to me, is that we also don't know what effect the torture will have on the interrogators who engaged in those reprehensible tactics. An interesting opinion piece written by Frank Snepp for the Los Angeles Times provides some insight into what kind of marks are left on the psyche of the interrogator.

Mr. Snepp was a CIA analyst and interrogator during the Vietnam era. He was charged with obtaining information from a high level North Vietnamese officer captured and worked over first by the South Vietnamese army. Snepp didn't slam his prisoner's head against a wall repeatedly, nor did he waterboard the man time after time after time. He did, however, keep the North Vietnamese prisoner in isolation with the air conditioning turned up, and he did impose drastic changes on the daily routine of the man, mandating breakfast at midnight and lunch at dawn. Penny ante stuff, compared to what we now know took place the past seven or so years, but to a certain extent, the precursor of those actions, at least in Mr. Snepp's view.

How can the lawyers live with those images? And what damage did the interrogators who used the techniques sustain to their souls?

These are not academic questions for me. As a CIA interrogator in Vietnam during the last five years of the war, I know I put my soul at extreme peril. I am still haunted by what I did, and I suspect that what I witnessed and perpetrated in those years set the stage for the Bush Justice Department's approach to torture

But I did become complicit in the psychological manipulation and torment of a prisoner. Never mind that the North Vietnamese inflicted far more brutal treatment on the American inmates of the "Hanoi Hilton." My "success" in promoting a "dialogue" with Tai was based on his lingering fear that, without dialogue, he would be tossed back to the brutal South Vietnamese -- an impression I encouraged. The isolation, the chilled air, the disorienting new routine were all things I imposed.

My CIA colleagues and I used to rationalize our tactics, and some still insist that psychological intimidation, verbal threats and tight handcuffs are perfectly acceptable in terms of both morality and expediency. But I believe there is an organic connection between the tactics I applied against Tai and those approved by the Bush Justice Department. Controlled brutality is a slippery slope, and once you pass through the moral membrane that should contain our worst impulses, it becomes so very easy to rationalize another step, and yet another, in the wrong direction.
[Emphasis added]

That's a heavy burden for an otherwise decent human being to carry. Now, Frank Snepp didn't go on to become a serial killer, nor did he choose to lapse into a drug or alcohol induced fog. He's a successful investigative news producer for a major television network. But he is still haunted by what he did decades ago, and that haunting has become even starker by the revelations of the past months, moving him to write this remarkable confession.

I wonder whether the current crop of interrogators will be as fortunate.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not enough attention has been paid to the effect of torture on the torturers. We know from studies by Milgram, Zimbardo and others that it is devastating.

7:01 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home