Choices of War: Detain and Interrogate, or Kill?

In May 2007, I concluded my remarks to the graduates of Duquesne University (my Alma Mater) with these words: “Life will soon bring you increased responsibilities, and it is rare that you will have a legitimate choice to do nothing. Responsibility usually demands action.”

In fact, during my tenure at CIA, acting was often tough and a little lonely since the Agency was serving a government whose definition of the war on terror far outstripped any other and a president with a bolder view on how to conduct the conflict than many (eventually most) in the Congress thought appropriate, and within the executive branch, CIA operated on the outer edges of executive prerogative more than any other arm of government.

Take the fraught issue of detentions and interrogations. We had emptied the so-called black sites in September 2006, but we certainly had not closed them. So when Abdul Hadi al Iraqi, a veteran al-Qa’ida commander, was captured in late 2006 as he was traveling back to his homeland, that is where he wound up. He had a tough guy reputation within al-Qa’ida—cold blooded, hard charging, no nonsense. He had also developed, largely through news accounts, an incredibly cartoonish idea of what CIA did and how we did it. When he arrived at the black site, we informed him who we were and also told him who he was, cutting through a cloud of aliases he was using.

He cooperated almost immediately, offering a string of smug rationalizations for talking: “You know everything about us, we know everything about you. It won’t matter in the end. It will just be a waste of time because we are going to prevail regardless of how much you know about us . . . so what I say here won’t matter.”

Our interrogators welcomed his words but warned that at his first verifiable lie in the debriefings to come, they would change the tenor of their questioning.

CIA subject matter experts tested him with a number of knowns, which he answered credibly, and then moved on to unknowns which the interrogators all agreed he had also answered credibly. Hadi told his interviewers that he was impressed with their questions and their knowledge. He said it was like they had been there.

Abdul Hadi’s interrogators briefed me on all of this in early 2007, and I invited them to come back to my office the next day to meet with Senator Feinstein who was on my calendar. It was all part of making Congress a partner in how we handled detainees.

The interrogators pretty much repeated their account for the Senator who then asked if they were aware of any attacks that had been thwarted because of their previous work with detainees. They deflected that as a question better asked of analysts and said their job was to condition detainees to respond credibly to questioning and, while they were aware of a number of occasions where attack information was revealed and reported, they did not have a box score on it.

After the interrogators explained how Abdul Hadi’s inaccurate version of what he did led to his cooperation and our decision to proceed with a standard debriefing (meaning, we did not immediately jump to enhanced techniques), the Senator asked if this was how we were going to conduct interrogations “from now on.” They told her that this was the way that interrogations had always been conducted: begin with an interview to determine the detainee’s willingness to cooperate voluntarily and credibly and stick with that if it is producing an appropriate level of information. At the first sign of fabrication, though, the interrogators were prepared to request approval for enhanced techniques.

The Senator then turned to me and asked what I knew about Russian poisonings in London (Alexander Litvenenko’s Polonium poi soning was two months earlier). We were done talking about interrogations.

I had wanted Congress to be part of a dialogue on our practices and develop a consensus going forward on how we handled and interrogated detainees. That required a serious discussion with Capitol Hill. That never really happened. The members were too busy yelling at us and at one another.

In the end, Congress had no impact on the shape of the CIA interrogation program. It lacked the courage or the consensus to stop it, endorse it or amend it.

We finally simply informed the Hill that we would seek legal authority from the Department of Justice to use six enhanced interrogation techniques (EITS); we would not put anyone into CIA custody without an “exit plan” (meaning the Guantanamo Bay detention center or a third country); we would keep detainees for a short, fixed period (about two months); it would require a positive decision to extend that period; and we would contemporaneously inform the appropriate committees of the status of every detainee and their treatment.

Ironically, we had more productive discussions on these matters with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) than we did with Congress. The White House was not particularly enthusiastic about that, but they did not get in the way, either. ICRC officials became frequent visitors to Langley. The ICRC has a passion for secrecy that rivals the Agency’s; their access, like much of ours, depends on secrecy—so at least in one sense, we were kindred spirits.

The Agency also quietly gave notice to the ICRC before transferring some of the later detainees to Guantanamo, and we offered what information we could to help keep ICRC people safe around the world.

But it was difficult to reconcile differences given that our respective missions and goals were in conflict. Being obliged to gather intelligence, we felt we were most effective when prisoners were held secretly with no outside contact. The primary goal of the Red Cross, however, is to notify families of prisoners and arrange visitation. We did not believe that Geneva Convention rules required notification and visitation because of the unlawful combatant status of our detainees, but the Red Cross disagreed based on common international practice. We were exploring an approach to notification (informing the ICRC that we had somebody) when the 2008 election made our discussions moot.

Although we often failed to find mutual understanding with the ICRC, we did develop a sense of mutual respect. In one meeting, I was struck by their observation that “CIA often refuses to answer our questions, but when it does, we know the answers are true.” At least somebody believed us.

Muhammad Rahim al Afghani was captured in the summer of 2007. Rahim was a tough, seasoned jihadist, who had prepared Tora Bora as a hideout for Bin Laden in December 2001. He was not cooperative and did not seem frightened by the prospect of interrogation.

He was one tough Afghan (one of my counter terrorism veterans said Afghans were routinely tougher than Arabs), and he was fanatically loyal to bin Laden, and loyalty continued to be a big thing with him.

Indeed, he later wrote a letter from Guantanamo to his Ohio-based lawyer trashing Akron native Lebron James as a “very bad man” for leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers.

We knew that Rahim had been a fixer and facilitator, and we had good reporting that senior al-Qa’ida leaders along the Afghanistan–Pakistan border began to relocate when he was captured. They apparently thought he knew something.

I authorized EITS on Rahim: a grasp of the lapels and of the chin, two slaps (a backhanded tummy slap and an insult slap to the face), and eventually a liquid diet and extended sleep deprivation.

I remember staring down at the page, pen in hand, hesitating to take that step.

As the interrogator who had questioned Abu Zubaida (CIA’s first black site detainee) once told me, no one wants to be in these circumstances. I never came close to her situation of standing face to face with a defiant terrorist, but I had visited Camp 7 at Guantanamo after CIA deliv- ered fourteen detainees to DoD custody there in September 2006. It was hard to catch even a glimpse of the men in their solitary cells, but I could survey each of them via TV monitors in the control room. Some were sleeping, some praying, some pacing, others fingering prayer beads.

The facilities were clean and bright, there was an exercise room, and detainees could talk to adjacent prisoners from each cell’s porch-like extension. Contact was all tightly controlled (and electronically monitored), of course.

Detainees could also draw on a library and a collection of music and videos (although some complained that the offerings were less robust than at the black site). Harry Potter books were immensely popular.

It was a civilized confinement, but there was no getting around the fact that these people were going to be in these circumstances forever.

As I was about to leave, the camp staff showed me the empty Styrofoam container that had been used to deliver Abu Zubaida’s lunch that day. He had etched on it in pencil the kind of stylized lightning bolts and complex designs one is accustomed to seeing on a high schooler’s notebook. I was told he did that routinely.

There was something a little poignant about Zubaida’s adolescent artwork. It reminded me that, although I took professional satisfaction in his and the others’ confinement, it offered little personal joy. You can only dehumanize an enemy from a distance.

Still, life required a decision. This time, about Muhammad Rahim. With his humanity fully in mind, I signed the authorization to begin EITS.

Some are probably upset by that. Fair enough. And we have now made it so legally difficult and so politically dangerous to grab and hold someone that America (not just CIA) is largely out of the detention and interrogation business.

But as I said in the speech in Pittsburgh, it is rare when life allows you just to do nothing.

We continue to act today. But now instead of capture, detention, and interrogation, we simply default to the kill switch to take terrorists off the battlefield.


Michael V. Hayden was the director of the CIA from 2006 to 2009. This essay is an excerpt from his recent book, Playing to the Edge.

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