Khalid Sheikh Mohammed after being captured in 2003. Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS
While meeting with the New York Times last month, President-elect Donald Trump was asked about waterboarding. He explained that Gen. James Mattis, his choice for Defense secretary, said he “never found it to be useful.” The general reportedly advised, “Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers and I do better with that.” At the risk of making a man nicknamed Mad Dog mad, I have to respectfully disagree.
Gen. Mattis, a retired Marine four-star, is by all accounts a gentleman, a scholar, and a hell of a warfighter. I have the greatest respect for him, and the full nuance of his views might have been lost in the retelling. But on the subject of questioning terrorists, I have some practical experience. In 2002 I was contracted by the Central Intelligence Agency to help put together what became its enhanced-interrogation program. I spent much of the following six years at “black sites” around the world, trying to extract lifesaving information from some of the worst people on the planet.
It is understandable that Gen. Mattis would say he never found waterboarding useful, because no one in the military has been authorized to waterboard a detainee. Thousands of U.S. military personnel have been waterboarded as part of their training, though the services eventually abandoned the practice after finding it too effective in getting even the most hardened warrior to reveal critical information.
During the war on terror, the CIA alone had been authorized to use the technique. I personally waterboarded the only three terrorists subjected to the tactic by the CIA. I also waterboarded two U.S. government lawyers, at their request, when they were trying to decide for themselves whether the practice was “torture.” They determined it was not.
I volunteered to be waterboarded myself and can assure you that it is not a pleasant experience. But no one volunteers to be tortured.
Waterboarding was never the first, nor the best, choice for most detainees. We started out with the “tea and sympathy” approach and only escalated to harsher methods when it became clear that the detainee held vital information that might save innocent lives and was determined not to provide it. We quickly moved away from enhanced interrogations as soon as the detainee showed even a little cooperation.
The people I dealt with were not run-of-the-mill battlefield detainees, but hardened terrorists. Men like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. These people were hellbent on bringing about further devastation.
I would ask Gen. Mattis this: Imagine being captured by America’s enemies. Would you give up important secrets that could get fellow Americans captured or killed in exchange for a Michelob and a pack of Marlboros?
In our case, it is not as if we had unlimited time to see if we could buddy up to terrorists to find out if another attack was on the horizon. There were multiple attacks being planned at the time. For example, not long after 9/11 the CIA was told of an al Qaeda effort to obtain nuclear fissionable material. When KSM was captured in 2003, we asked whether another major attack was in the works, and he responded, “Soon you will know.” We didn’t have time to dither.
Critics will point to the 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report that declared enhanced interrogation didn’t work. The investigation cost $40 million and took five years, yet investigators didn’t even speak to anyone involved in the program. Anyway, a report produced by an extremely partisan congressional committee deserves skepticism to begin with.
I am not advocating that Mr. Trump “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” as he suggested during the campaign. But the president-elect needs to think through what to do when the U.S. captures a major terrorist who likely has information about an impending nuclear, chemical or biological attack. Is he prepared to say that if intelligence cannot be elicited using only the tactics contained in the Army Field Manual—as President Obama has directed—we will simply have to live with the consequences?
Some in government have argued that for the U.S. to maintain the moral high ground, all harsh interrogation tactics should remain illegal, as they have been since the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2016 was enacted.
Yet in a ticking-time-bomb scenario, should CIA officers just do whatever is necessary and hope for clemency in the trial that would follow? As someone who was thrown under the bus by the Obama Justice Department, I believe it is unreasonable to expect CIA officers to put their lives at risk to protect a government that will not do its best to protect them in return. Overemphasize political correctness, and we will be standing on the moral high ground, looking down into a smoking hole that used to be several city blocks.
Mr. Mitchell, a retired Air Force officer and former CIA contractor, is the author of “Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America,” out last month from Crown Forum.