Last week, President Obama placed the FBI in charge of interrogating terrorism suspects abroad, removing the CIA from this role. Critics of this decision claim that we will get less intelligence as a result. But the CIA’s use of torture has endangered our ability to get intelligence all along, right here at home.
The debate about the use of torture has focused on the CIA because it is the organization primarily responsible for gathering intelligence abroad. But a significant portion of our foreign intelligence is obtained within our own borders, by the FBI. That’s because almost every country has its own foreign intelligence service—its version of the CIA—that sends agents to the United States to steal our defense secrets, commit economic espionage, and harass dissidents who have sought refuge here. The FBI has exclusive jurisdiction, as part of its counterintelligence mandate, to find out who these people are and what they are doing.
A second and arguably more important goal of the FBI is to persuade some of these people, or “targets,” to change sides and share the information they have about their own governments and countries with us. It’s the real-life James Bond scenario: developing “double agents” and obtaining critical foreign intelligence in the interest of national security. The FBI uses the fact that it operates on American soil to its advantage. FBI agents, unlike their CIA counterparts, can operate openly, rather than covertly. FBI agents also do not have to worry about hostile host governments discovering their activities and disrupting their intelligence networks. This means that the FBI is in a relatively strong position to produce a steady stream of valuable intelligence that is difficult to obtain abroad.
Some of these targets run afoul of the law during their stays in the United States. In those instances, threats, like that of deportation, can induce them to share the information they have. But most of these targets are not criminals. They are diplomats, scientists, or scholars with access to classified information or foreign nationals with important ties to their home countries. Consequently, the information they have to offer is obtained because they choose to give it. FBI agents must figure out what makes these people tick and in particular what will entice them to cooperate. This can include financial gain, educational opportunities for their children, medical treatment for themselves or a family member, or even the chance to stay in the United States and have a better life.
But getting people to flip is primarily a psychological game rather than a material one. After all, the FBI is asking its targets to commit the ultimate act of disloyalty to their country—treason. Few people are willing to make this leap quickly, even in exchange for the most lucrative or attractive offer. It’s an FBI agent’s job to slowly win the target’s trust and help him rationalize his decision to switch his allegiance. In my experience as a former FBI agent who both participated in and observed successful recruitments, it’s much easier to do this when a target has, at some level, a sense of admiration and respect for the United States. A nugget of goodwill toward America offers an agent the chance to step in, gain the target’s confidence, and convince him that playing for Team USA is worth the risk.
Policies like the use of torture make it more difficult for the FBI to develop relationships based on trust. Even when torture is used on a few people and in another country, and by a different agency, it casts doubts on the U.S. government’s overall willingness to act in good faith. Targets often project the skepticism about the United States that torture fosters onto individual FBI agents, who are often the only face of the government they see. In short, torture is fundamentally at odds with the image of the United States as a country that will play by the rules, and that is how the FBI must be perceived in order to do its job.
Whether President Obama’s decision to put the FBI in charge of interrogating suspects abroad as well as at home will yield more or less information from terror suspects remains to be seen. The FBI’s past success with some high-level detainees is promising: FBI agent George Piro, who was in charge of interrogating Saddam Hussein, was able to get the former dictator to talk by, among other things, reading his poetry, helping him plant a flower garden, and bringing him cookies on his birthday. More recently, former FBI agent Ali Soufan testified to Congress that he was able to gain information about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed from terrorist detainee Abu Zubaydah while nursing him back to health (and before the CIA began its harsher tactics, which Soufan argues backfired). Clearly, the FBI’s traditional methods can work.
But whatever we conclude about the effectiveness of torture on terrorism suspects abroad, we will never use it to elicit information from people within the United States. That leaves trust and cooperation as our most promising means of getting intelligence domestically, and maintaining our good-guy image is vital to that effort. Any intelligence obtained through torture has to be balanced against the diminished capacity of the FBI to effectively exploit its intelligence base here at home. We should remember that when we calculate what kind of interrogation is a net gain or loss for our national security.