Donald P. Gregg
served as national security adviser to Vice President George H.W. Bush
When former Vice President Dick Cheney warned last week that terrorists will be emboldened by President Obama's decision to close Guantanamo and to ban harsh interrogation techniques, I was reminded of a story.
During wartime service with the CIA in Vietnam from 1970 to 1972, I was in charge of intelligence operations in the 10 provinces surrounding Saigon. One of my tasks was to prevent rocket attacks on Saigon's port.
Keeping Saigon safe required human intelligence, most often from captured prisoners. I had a running debate about how North Vietnamese prisoners should be treated with the South Vietnamese colonel who conducted interrogations. This colonel routinely tortured prisoners, producing a flood of information, much of it totally false. I argued for better treatment and pressed for key prisoners to be turned over to the CIA, where humane interrogation methods were the rule - and more accurate intelligence was the result.
The colonel finally relented and turned over a battered prisoner to me, saying, "This man knows a lot, but he will not talk to me."
We treated the prisoner's wounds, reunited him with his family, and allowed him to make his first visit to Saigon. Surprised by the city's affluence, he said he would tell us anything we asked. The result was a flood of actionable intelligence that allowed us to disrupt planned operations, including rocket attacks against Saigon.
Admittedly, it would be hard to make a story from nearly 40 years ago into a definitive case study. But there is a useful reminder here. The key to successful interrogation is for the interrogator - even as he controls the situation - to recognize a prisoner's humanity, to understand his culture, background and language. Torture makes this impossible.
There's a sad twist here. Cheney forgets that the Bush administration followed this approach with some success. A high-value prisoner subjected to patient interrogation by an Arabic-speaking FBI agent yielded highly useful information, including the final word on Iraq's weapons programs.
His name was Saddam Hussein.