CIA torture based on ‘voodoo science’ of advocates - US intelligence expert
Terror is a new trend of 21st century. Raised by the so-called War on Terror, it just flourished, and every month more and more people from all strata of society, from countries all across the globe join extremist ranks. What moves them to war? How can terror be fought? And who’s to blame for a world in which we have to live under everyday threat of terrorist attack? We ask these questions to veteran US intelligence official and interrogation expert Mark Fallon on Sophie&Co.
Sophie Shevarnadze: Mark Fallon, veteran U.S. intelligence official, interrogation expert - welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us. Now, Jordan executed two terrorists, following the brutal killing of Jordanian pilot by Islamic State militants. Is that an effective retaliation to terrorists - eye for an eye? Do they even care?
Mark Fallon: Time will tell, whether the position of the Jordanian government is effective, but certainly, adding more aggressive efforts to the coalition is needed at this point.
SS: But do you feel like the terrorist care that other people, on the other side, execute their own - meaning, the terrorists?
MF: Well, I would suspect that they care, because one of the people executed was someone they were trying to get released. So, there was meaning to them in that, and, again, it was a bit of revenge and retaliation on the part of the Jordanian government - and that’s not an uncommon reaction to a brutal attack like we saw there.
SS: I’d like to talk a little bit more about how to negotiate with terrorists - or do we have to negotiate with terrorists? The U.S. and other countries - they refuse, they say “no negotiation with terrorists”. Is it ever acceptable to talk to terrorists in your opinion, does that save lives?
MF: Certainly, I think they have to enter in some type of dialog. When we say “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” that might be in a context of hostage exchange or something in that regard. But certainly, we are developed assets within terrorist organisations, we are listening to terrorists, and we are creating counter-narratives to what they’re saying. So, it is important that we hear what message they are trying to send, and really determine what are the underlying messages that they are trying to communicate.
SS: No, but I’m really talking about direct communication, direct negotiations - do you ever negotiate with terrorists? Is it effective, in your opinion?
MF: Certainly, entering in some type of dialog, particularly if it is a terrorist state, rather than an individual terrorist - there certainly may be some room for entering into that type of dialog with whomever your adversary is.
SS: Do you feel like there’s room to negotiate with ISIS?
MF: I think there’s room to have communications with ISIS. It depends on what your definition is of “negotiate with them”. Certainly, there was some type of dialog at some point, because there were discussions about the pilot being released - although it seemed to be a ploy and a subterfuge on the part of ISIS, but certainly, you cannot expect to be totally devoid of any type of communications. There will be contact, there will be communications, generally, in any type of conflict.
SS: You brought up hostages, early on - is paying ransom the answer, or do you just have to face the beheadings and executions that we’ve seen recently?
MF: Ransom is a key issue here. The challenge is that one of the primary means for terrorist financing is through kidnapping and ransoms. So, if you are going to pay ransom, you do risk the possibility that you’re actually increasing the risk to your country, because they are able to then use that funding for more recruiting, for more bombs and ammunitions - for whatever it is to fund their activities.
SS: I’m just asking you not as someone who has represented the government at some point, but, you know, as a person who has a family, I’m sure - do you think we should pay the ransom if someone is held hostage, instead of just waiting till that person is being beheaded in front of the whole world on the camera?
MF: Again, it’s an incredible challenge and it takes some very difficult leadership decisions - but you have to determine what your policy is. If you are going to pay ransom, then you do run the risk that you’re going to increase their desire to kidnap your people. The challenge has come from the fact that it is not a unified position - so there are some countries that have a strict “we will not pay ransom” policies, and then there are other countries who might pay ransom. So, it’s not a unified position - until there is that unified position, there is an ability to obtain fuding through kidnapping, ransom and taking hostages - then the risk is always going to be there.
SS: You have personally seen many people who end up being terrorists, let’s say. What are their character traits, as they have in common?
MF: You can’t just say there are any kind of character traits... the one thing that I have found in terrorist recruiting - whether it’s learning from some of the terrorists that I’ve spoken with, or their recruiters, or the “radicalizers” - it is the fact that it is generally about identity. What drives someone to engage in violent extremism, regardless of the brand, whether its combatants in Northern Ireland with the IRA or loyalists, if you go down with Indonesia, Malaysia, you look at Jamaa Al-Islamiya, it is generally question of identity within individual that will drive them to a group - and that is what the recruiters capitalise on, it is giving them a source of identity, because they’re generally from the disaffected population.
SS: So, if I am understanding you right, “identity” meaning it’s easier to recruit a person who has a lack of “identity”, who wants to belong to some sort of group - am I correct?
MF: Yeah, they all seem to want to belong to something. If you look at the backgrounds, if you look at that generally, and I’ll make some generalisations - they are from disaffected groups, populations. And again, if you look across the spectrum - and I’ve participated in studies on this, we were going around the world and we talked to a number of violent extremists, and other combatants, and we went into Northern Ireland, we went into France, we went into some Scandinavian countries, we went down to the South-East Asia; and what you find when you talk to these individuals, there are triggers that might set them off, but it is generally, when you talk to them, that sense of identity that drives them to group and gets them to engage in the activities that that group wants them to do.
SS: And you’re saying there’s no difference - or you saw no difference - between the Irish terrorists that you have worked with...I mean, not worked with, but spoken to, and the Islamic terrorists?
MF: Yeah, we are all individuals, so it’s hard… people always want to try to see that there is some specific characteristic there that leads someone directly into terrorism or violent extremism, and some people might be highly educated, some might be uneducated, but generally what I would say across the board is, it is that sense of identity that drives them. I found that talking to folks in Northern Ireland who were part of that conflict many decades ago, to folks in the jails in Indonesia and Malaysia - who were more recent inductees into the jail system there. It is that identity that has driven them to do what they were doing.
SS: Now, this terrorists, for you, they were an enemy with information to extract - by did you at any point see them as human?
MF: Oh, absolutely, we’re all human beings, and as despicable as their actions might be, as a professional criminal investigator who is doing an interrogation, your goal is to extract information; it’s to elicit accurate and reliable information that is useful as either intelligence or as evidence. So, what you have to realise is as heinous as those acts might be, they are human beings and the best way to approach them is through understanding that and then capitalising on their nature, once you understand where they are coming from.
SS: Did you see any of the terrorists you faced repent or feel sorry for what they’ve done?
MF: Absolutely. Many of them felt that they were tricked into getting into violent extremism and good many of them feel quite a bit of remorse. Some even are now trying to engage in strategies that I call “disengagement strategies” - they are actually trying to convince people not to go into violent extremist groups.
SS: When you’re facing a terrorist sitting next to you, or in front of you, defeated, in your power, cracked under interrogation - you, as a military man, do you feel satisfaction, defeating your enemy, or you feel sorry for them?
MF: You have a job to do, and certainly, I would feel a great sense of satisfaction whenever there is information elicited that could help as actionable intelligence that could help save lives, or it might be used to help convict someone who has committed heinous crimes - so certainly, there’s great deal of satisfaction, but you mentioned something that is kind of common about somebody “cracking” - and if you watch television shows and movies, there’s always that person that “cracks”; in reality information seeps out - and it’s a long, deliberate process, we are continuing to elicit information and then trying to validate it and to corroborate it, and then go back and try to elicit more information - so it is not the Hollywood version, usually, where there’s just a “cracking”. It’s a seepage and a flow of information, that may be useful.
SS: So while that information is being seeped out, you are obviously making an effort to understand the person who is sitting in front of you, so does that in any way hinder your ability to do your job, because you are kind of starting to understand that person and relate to that person?
MF: No, actually it is critical to doing your job. The best interrogators know their subject and know their subject matter, so they will study the individual before they go in. I am often referred to as an “interrogator”, and I don’t refer to myself as an “interrogator”. I was an investigator, and interrogation was a part of what I did as an investigator, but the key was understanding the facts and circumstances I was looking at - so that when I did interrogate someone, I would understand when the information was accurate and when it was not accurate. If I did a lot of background information about individual, I would have a much better chance of understanding when they were being deceptive or not - so that knowledge, I think, is critical for someone to do an effective interrogation.
SS: Now, obviously everyone’s wondering why so many people these days go and follow jihad and end up being member of ISIS. You have all these different people from America, France, Great Britain, even Russian muslims - who know very little about their religion, and they still end up going there, fighting with ISIS. So, when you meet these people and you’ve met a lot of them - do they end up terrorists because of an idea, or they mostly are joining up for the thrill?
MF: That’s a good question, and that’s one that I think most people have wrong. This is not a religious war. This is a war over land, this is a war over ideology - but it’s not a war about theology. ISIS knows very little about religion. I talked to one former IRA member one time and asked him how he got through being under blanket - was it due to his faith being a catholic? And he said, “what would make you think that, America has this wrong - I am an atheist! This isn’t about religion, this is about being loyal to the UK or being national to the Republic of Ireland.” So, the media and of lot of pundits call this “a religious war”, and I just don’t buy into it. That was a narrative that Bin Laden created, that is used to recruit people, but that is not what I have found to be the driving factor in folks who have killed people and bombed people.
SS: And then there’s who want out - and recently Uyghur fighters were executed by ISIS for deserting. Does that mean that there’s no way back for someone who is disillusioned with their choice?
MF: That has actually, frankly, played to the advantage of some of the countries when folks went across to fight, and this is something that occurred with Al-Shabaab. There was a great concern that people who travel from the U.S., go over there, be trained, had a kill, and then come back - fortunately those people were over there, and some of them were killed, and some of them committed suicide, and their passports were taken and they were not able to get back. So, the fact that ISIS is actually doing that might actually be to the advantage of the countries that these citizens are leaving from - because they actually don’t have a way to get back to their home countries.
SS: Let’s talk a bit about torture. Now, you were a chief investigator on DOD task force. You’ve developed interrogation policies, training programs, oversaw thousands of terrorist suspect investigations - under your guidance, was any of reliable information obtained through torture? And did it save lives?
MF: No, I am unaware of any accurate and reliable information that was a direct product of torture.
SS: Okay, so the bigger question then is - why was it used for so long, if it is inefficient?
MF: Well, if you look at how it was created, the EIT program was created within the CIA, but it was not created by interrogation professionals; the core competency of the CIA is not interrogations, they’re a human intelligence organisation primarily. Once they went down this road, and they created programs that were ill-advised, were not based on any evidence-based research, it was what a lot of my friends call “voodoo-science” - they were kind of locked into that narrative, and they misled the White House, they misled the Congress, they misled the media and they misled the American public for years, and that’s all documented in what’s called now “the Torture Report”.
SS: And obviously, when you talk about torture, Guantanamo always comes up, and the conditions in that prison, the torture that went on there, it’s all public knowledge at this point - and also, a selling point for jihadist recruiters. Why did the U.S. military and the government allowed itself to behave like that if the end result is only even more terrorism?
MF: Absolutely. There were misguided policies that were created at the time, and there’s an incredible price that we will pay for decades to come. Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib were major recruiting assets for terrorists groups, they were for years. The CIA’s RDI program, the EIT has gravitated from the CIA to Guantanamo Bay and then the general in charge of Guantanamo Bay was sent into Iraq and was credited with “Gitmo-ising” Iraq, and helped contribute to what happened at Abu Ghraib, so clearly from my perspective, my professional opinion is that RDI program was a significant threat to our national security, because it actually enabled Al-Qaeda and other groups to recruit terrorists to fight against us, and to raise funding to use against us. It was clearly, clearly, a terrible mistake, and it’s a price we’re going to continue to pay.
SS: But also, 9/11 was something that started this whole War on Terror, and major section of the Congressional intelligence on 9/11 report has been classified for the past 13 years - what is in there that has to stay hidden from public?
MF: That I don’t know. I was not privy to those classified portions, I do know that some members of the 9/11 commision are now advocating that some of that might want to be released at this point. The problem, I know, when I was in the government, the real challenge was ensure that really classified information was redacted from different studies. You should not be redacting political information or embarrassing information. The real key is would the disclosure of that information have an averse impact on your national security - and that’s some of the problems that we saw with the CIA RDI programme: they classified things and redacted information and they tried to keep information from the public, not for national security purposes but possibly for political purposes, for career purposes and for embarrassment purposes. If you look at what has been disclosed in the Torture Report, you can see some very-very revealing information that has been disclosed after quite a bit of challenges between the U.S. Senate and executive brands over disclosing that information.
SS: Before the start of War on Terror, Al-Qaeda was a relatively small organisation, and now it has opened up shop across the Muslim world, and its offshoots are now a threat on their own, actually - that’s not a very good track record. What went wrong with War on Terror, in your personal opinion?
MF: Of course, for me, the first salvos in this war were really on the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000. It quite a bit went wrong. At the time, and I was investigating Al-Qaeda at that time, the numbers of Al-Qaeda were estimated to be probably between 200-400 people at the time of the USS Cole attack and 9/11 attacks. Unfortunately, we did not have very good strategies to counter them - and we countered them with tactics rather than strategies and now Al-Qaeda ranks are in the thousands and it has become a brand. I think we could have done things differently, and I think we should have done things differently, had we treated detainees with greater dignity and respect, it would have enabled us to elicit more accurate and reliable information and intelligence, had we tried them before a just process, whether that be military commissions or in the U.S. court system, but if we led by example, and actually had proceedings that were transparent and that utilised the rule of law - I think things might have been different and could have been different. Unfortunately, particularly the Iraq war enable Al-Qaeda to say that they were right, because Bin Laden was saying we would invade Iraq, Bin Laden was saying this was about oil, and so that invasion actually helped Bin Laden quite a bit in terrorist recruitment.
SS: Thank you very much for this interesting insight, we were talking to Mark Fallon, former U.S. intelligence officer and interrogation expert, talking about his experience in dealing with terror. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.