WASHINGTON — The heated debate in recent weeks about harsh interrogation treatments at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere highlights what some scientists have been warning the U.S. for years: that almost no research exists to tell interrogators the best way to get information out of suspected terrorists.
Two years ago, the Intelligence Science Board told top intelligence officials, in a report that ran nearly 375 pages, that more behavioral research needs to be done into the art and science of interrogations. In a series of chapters, researchers raised questions and laid out a strategy that included stress experiments with highly trained military forces, research into behavior in foreign cultures and analyses of historical records from prisoners of war.
However, the recommendations came years after the government had waterboarded, or simulated drowning on two suspects 266 times, after interrogators had stripped the detainees and menaced them with dogs, and after lawyers had given the go-ahead to confine one high-value detainee inside a box with a caterpillar to capitalize on the man's fear of bugs.
"This is a very nasty business with a very important purpose," said Robert Coulam, who wrote the first chapter of the Intelligence Science Board's report, "Educing Information," published by the National Defense Intelligence College.
For that very reason, he said, the government ought to be humble about how much it understands about interrogation, and how much of the brutality against detainees was meant to gather information vs. demonstrating ruthlessness.
"You can end up, perhaps, having to torture, as some have said," said Coulam, the director of the Center for Health Policy Research at Simmons College in Boston, in an interview. "But it appears as if we started there. We didn't end up there."
Now, as details emerge about coercive techniques and as the war on terror continues with no end in sight, some in Congress think the U.S. needs a more systematic way of going about interrogations.
Some researchers and veteran interrogators have urged the creation of a Center of Excellence for Interrogation, a place to capture the best science, to share research among the nation's intelligence services and to train military interrogators on a career path.
"If we can be more effective by being skilled than by being brutal, then we're fools not to be more skilled," Coulam said.
Air Force Col. Steven Kleinman, a reserve senior intelligence officer for the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., said various intelligence agencies need more professional interrogators to prevent abuses.
"I'm professional enough as an intelligence officer to say let's look at (my methods)," said Kleinman, who suggested a Center for Excellence in 2005. "We need a science-based approach to this."
Rep. David Price, D-N.C., filed legislation proposing the center because, he said, he wants to make the practice of interrogation more consistent with American values.
"I think we've too often treated this function somewhat carelessly," he said.
The plans for interrogation research make some observers queasy, including anti-torture advocates who worry that research might open the door to coercion.
"There's a public debate . . . and everybody's saying, 'We have to look at it,'" said Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has represented detainees from Guantanamo. "You don't have to look at it. You don't use torture."
Still, the quest for more research could raise important ethical questions for Price and others. If science says harsh coercion tactics work, for example, should the U.S. take part? What if lives were at stake? How many lives?
"This is Ethics 101," Price said.
"There are some things that we don't do to other human beings in a country with our values," he said. "There are certain moral standards you live by."
However, the research shouldn't be about torture, cautioned John Hutson, a retired rear admiral and former judge advocate in the Navy.
"That's the wrong question," said Hutson, who has testified to Congress and met with President Barack Obama about interrogations. "People might concede that torture does work. At least, it works on occasion. The real question is: Do other techniques work better?"
Hutson said he remains skeptical of whether research might be more about justification, but, he added, interrogators need training.
"Torture is the technique for the lazy, the stupid, the pseudo-tough," Hutson said. "It's not hard to do. What's hard to do is rapport development, making the person want to talk and want to tell you the truth."
The FBI and CIA differed greatly in their approaches at Guantanamo, with the CIA initially using harsher, coercive measures to garner information. The FBI has told Congress that its rapport-building technique works much better in yielding valuable information without the potentially devastating geopolitical consequences of coercion.
Given the long-term implications of interrogations, government leaders have to understand what they're dealing with as they train military and civilian interrogators, Coulam said.
"This is playing with fire," he said. "And people who do it face pressures and temptations that don't necessarily bring out the best in human behavior. . . . Especially in difficult settings, we have reason to believe that unless (interrogators) are supremely disciplined, they're going to slip into torture."
Rye Barcott, a former Marine captain who led intelligence squads in Iraq, said he was shocked at the lack of training he saw among some interrogators. When he visited the Abu Ghraib prison, there were 5,000 detainees and less than two dozen interrogators. Many were just 19 years old, learning on the job.
"This is too important to just learn on the job," Barcott said.
Barcott, a 2001 graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who's now studying at Harvard, met with Price and his staff as they developed a long-term strategy for interrogators. The best interrogators understand that they're conducting a negotiation, Barcott said.
"Power is held in both hands, and the skilled interrogator knows that," he said.
For now, Price is working to get the Center for Excellence and his ideas for long-term career growth inserted into the intelligence authorization bill. Price said he would like to see the Obama administration take on the issue as well, though he hasn't talked in detail with officials there.
Just after becoming president, Obama ordered that the Army Field Manual — largely unchanged since World War II — would be used as the guide to interrogations. It includes techniques with monikers such as "Pride and Ego," "Mutt and Jeff," and "We Know All."
The decision was meant to quell coercive techniques. Scientists, however, said even the Army's methods require study.
"Virtually none of them — or their underlying assumptions — are based on scientific research," Randy Borum, a forensic psychologist at the University of South Florida, wrote in the Intelligence Science Board's report.
James Carafano, a senior fellow in homeland security and defense at the conservative Heritage Foundation, agreed that research might help. However, he said that it might come too late to be useful in the U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He said it would be wrong to presume that noncoercive techniques would work better than coercion.
"There are all kinds of things about (the proposal) that make me pessimistic," Carafano said. "Science proceeds at its own pace and doesn't respond well to public policy."
And here, even some researchers agree.
Coulam, one of the Intelligence Science Board report's authors, said that science could never answer definitively whether torture works. Interrogators still would have to consider political and ethical risks for every situation.
"Some of this is against the law, and do we really want to tolerate this level of illegality?" he asked.
"Science alone isn't going to get us off the hook either way here."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY