Stupidity, at the right intensity, can be thrilling as well as threatening. The current national stupidity regarding gaining information from captured terrorists is both. Read all you want, and you won’t get beyond the notion that there are only two choices – barbaric cruelty or ineffective rule-book begging. Let’s broaden the lens.
During World War II, Nazi Germany, with no rule book and limitless cruelty, scored its big successes outside the torture chamber. Let’s say they captured the American pilot of a new fighter plane in 1943. They’d lead the pilot politely to a normal office where a German intelligence officer who spoke unaccented American English (born, maybe, Cleveland, Ohio) invited the American to have a seat. A forgotten gesture that set the desired mood was the offer of a cigarette. (“We have American and British brands. The French cigarettes make you feel like you’ve had your mouth around the exhaust pipe of a Greyhound bus, and I don’t think you’d like our German cigarettes at all.”) There followed a little smalltalk about, maybe, the New York Yankees.
Then the German would say something like, “What kind of leaders do you have who would let you do battle with our fighters in your Northrup Black Bullet that can’t do more than 390 miles-per-hour.” “What the hell are you talking about?” the American might snap back defensively. “That Black Bullet can do 465 mph!” A naïve example, maybe, but the point is, a relaxed mood and a friendly conversation set the climate for any number of prisoner mistakes.
After that war the British were eager to know how close the Germans were to developing the atomic bomb. Again, no nastiness. They simply put every captured German nuclear scientist together in a comfortable dormitory, treated them well and recorded every single word they said to one another. It was boring looking for nuggets of information amidst all that conversation, but it was a breeze for the Brits, who’d broken the German code early in the war.
Many Americans would protest the violation of the terrorists’ privacy. Super-brilliant journalist and commentator Jonah Goldberg said on Fox News he’s been asking all his friends if they’d rather be waterboarded or assassinated. He reported that waterboarding had a commanding lead. Presumably more people would prefer being eavesdropped on than water-boarded or assassinated.
Moving now from the anecdotal to the practical. This practical suggestion definitely falls into the category of “I guess you had to be there!” I was there. The doctor was about to “sedate” me in his office for a minor surgical procedure. As I lay on the table and rolled up my sleeve for the shot, I could upside-down read the label of the medication he was loading into the hypodermic needle – “pentathol.”
“Hey” I asked. “Is this sodium pentathol you’re about to give me?” Affirmative. “And isn’t this the famous so-called ‘truth serum,’” I asked. Again, affirmative. “Does it really work?” I asked. The doctor was a friend of mine and an imaginative good sport.
“Yes,” he said. “It really works. Would you like a demonstration?” Affirmative! “Think of a secret, a personal secret. Do you believe you’ll be telling me that secret within 60 seconds?” “No way!” I said. “Count backwards from 100 when I stick you,” he instructed. “And try to hang onto your secret as long as you can.”
One hundred. Nothing. Ninety-nine. A little brain-fuzz, but close to nothing. Ninety-eight. Unusually rich relaxation. Ninety-seven. Ecstasy. Ninety-six. Enriched ecstasy. Ninety-five. What’s such a big deal about that secret anyhow? Ninety-four. This is my friend. He makes me feel so good. Why should I deny him this little story? Ninety-three. Who needs this damned “secret” anyhow? I’m glad to get rid of it. Ninety-two. Man, sharing is a lot of fun. I hope he enjoys it. Ninety-one. Wait, Doc. There’s more. You haven’t heard the best part yet.
And all this, mind you, was in the 1970s. Psychotropic drug effectiveness must have advanced since then. This process is not only humane, but more pleasurable than any terrorist deserves.
Journalism has now done its job. That’s as far as I can take you.
As America was closing in on the Nazis at the end, one unit seemed to be having unusually good results getting intel from German prisoners. Every mother in Germany was hoping, begging and praying that their soldier sons could surrender to the British or Americans; anybody but the vengeful Russians.
“We got ahold of a Russian colonel’s uniform,” explained a veteran of that unit, “and we dressed up one of our buck privates as a Russian colonel. The ‘Russian colonel’ strutted all around the German prisoner compound in full regalia.”
So, why the huge intelligence-gathering success?
“Whenever one of the German prisoners would ask one of us Americans, ‘Who’s he?’ we’d say, ‘Oh, that’s Colonel Volkov. He’s our Russian liaison officer. If a German prisoner refuses to answer our questions, we turn him over to Col. Volkov.’”
“The Russians have a different way of questioning them?”
“From then on,” explained the American, “we didn’t need any different way.”