Fast thinking at the CIA
The Senate Committee report on the CIA’s use of extreme interrogation techniques has elicited some vigorous and interesting responses. My SAIS colleague John McLaughlin says that the program was effective, citing chapter and verse. John McCain says it wasn’t and that it doesn’t matter, since it was the wrong thing to do.
But the most interesting response was by John and his colleagues in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, where they write:
The detention and interrogation program was formulated in the aftermath of the murders of close to 3,000 people on 9/11. This was a time when:
• We had evidence that al Qaeda was planning a second wave of attacks on the U.S.
• We had certain knowledge that bin Laden had met with Pakistani nuclear scientists and wanted nuclear weapons.
• We had reports that nuclear weapons were being smuggled into New York City.
• We had hard evidence that al Qaeda was trying to manufacture anthrax.
It felt like the classic “ticking time bomb” scenario—every single day.
In this atmosphere, time was of the essence and the CIA felt a deep responsibility to ensure that an attack like 9/11 would never happen again. We designed the detention and interrogation programs at a time when “relationship building” was not working with brutal killers who did not hesitate to behead innocents. These detainees had received highly effective counter-interrogation training while in al Qaeda training camps. And yet it was clear they possessed information that could disrupt plots and save American lives.
Those who have read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow will recognize several characteristics of fast thinking in this account. Notably: the hasty reaction to threatening events, overestimate of their probability and intensity matching, in which potential harm to the United States is viewed as far worse than the abuse of a few individuals.
But I would add this: such thinking is not malicious. It is natural and even necessary to survival. I have no doubt but that John and others involved thought they were doing the right thing (and ensured that they had the necessary legal authority to back them up–fast thinking does not preclude the more deliberative approach). They found themselves in what they perceived as an intensely threatening situation and did what they felt necessary to avoid harm to all of us. They are patriots. No one should doubt that.
What we should doubt is whether we have put in place the institutional mechanisms required to prevent quick reactions of this sort that violate international agreements and American norms, to the overall detriment of national security. If you doubt that, you can have a look at the Washington Post’s “10 most harrowing excerpts from the CIA interrogation report.” But I don’t recommend it. The details are truly disturbing and may precipitate more fast thinking that misses the mark.