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.

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3 thoughts on “Fast thinking at the CIA”

  1. You either value American exceptionalism. There is no way around it. What is left, and what is exceptionally good, of the American exceptionalism is what the US taught the EU and passed on to EU of its values during the past 50 years and what the EU accepted as its own.

  2. Daniel: I believe those mechanisms exist, but people short-cut institutional mechanisms all the time and get rewarded for thinking outside the box. Ultimately it’s the people executing policy being held accountable for their actions, for good or bad, that will prevent these actions, if bad. Lack of accountability has become pervasive in American society, and lest I be misunderstood, it predates 9/11 and does not hew to partisan affiliation. That said, there are specific persons responsible for these acts, and though I, we, share guilt in the societal sense, they need to be held accountable. Institutional pressure served to allow, not prevent these acts. This does not mitigate their responsibility. These persons morally implicated all of us in their violations, including those who served and continue to serve honorably. They are not heroes.

  3. Notice the word McLaughlin (whom I met while he was at the CIA) does not use: “enhanced”. Nowhere in his Post article does he claim vital intelligence came from torture, merely from “interrogation” or “the detainee program”. But no one is suggestion there is anything wrong with interrogating detainees. There seems to be an attempt by current and former senior CIA officials to obfuscate, by putting torture in the same basket as the whole interrogation process and using successes of the latter to justify the former. I have no doubt these people were patriots; they may also be criminals – a lesson we who work in the Balkans know all too well.

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