The first CIA agent to die in the war on terror was an evangelical Christian. He was killed on Sunday morning, November 25, 2001.
Questioning an Al Qaeda fighter in northern Afghanistan, Johnny "Mike" Spann asked the prisoner why he had come to Afghanistan. The prisoner shouted, "To kill you!" He lunged for Spann's throat, unleashing a prison riot. As prisoners rushed toward Spann, he fired on his attackers. When his weapons were empty, the prisoners killed Spann and booby-trapped his body.
The war on terror is a fight against fanatics. The day before Spann was killed, two prisoners carried out successful suicide attacks with grenades on two commanders of the Northern Alliance (America's Afghan allies). The next morning, a Western television crew recorded Spann and another CIA agent saying American officers would guarantee to abide by the Geneva Conventions only with prisoners they held—not with those in our Afghan allies' hands.
Spann didn't live long enough to experience the many dilemmas of terrorist interrogation, torture, and prisoner abuse. But had he done so, to whom could he have turned for Christian counsel? Could he have confided to his local pastor secrets that he was sworn to never divulge? The agent's job is uniquely dangerous, fraught with complex ethical dilemmas that few pastors and theologians have experienced.
In recent months, Christianity Today interviewed Christians serving in the military and intelligence services to gain their perspective on the fight against Al Qaeda, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and particularly the role of Christians in applyinig aggressive, torture-like interrogation methods.
Spying and the Bible
Christians told CT that they desperately needed biblical insight, because Christians are deeply involved in the chain of influence, all the way from Washington to military and intelligence operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba's Guantanamo Bay, including:
President Bush, who exempted suspected terrorists from protections in the Geneva Conventions. On February 7, 2002, Bush signed a statement that declared, "I … determine that none of the provisions of Geneva apply to our conflict with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan or elsewhere throughout the world."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who, with acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, argued behind closed doors that U.S. torture policies harm the war on terror.
Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, his aide John Yoo, and other evangelical lawyers, who promoted a "new paradigm" to fight the war on terror, which they claimed "renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners."
Lt. Gen. William G. "Jerry" Boykin (popular as a speaker at churches before the Pentagon told him to lower his profile), who has been a key Pentagon planner in the worldwide pursuit of Al Qaeda terrorists.
And, in the field, individuals like Spann and evangelical enlisted men, including Joseph P. Darby, who blew the whistle in 2003 on violations at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, which a military investigation called "sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses."
On the front line, officers and interrogators sometimes clash sharply over specific ways to get detainees to disclose information. Christian military and intelligence professionals find it difficult to find safe, unbiased spiritual insight about interrogation methods. There are Bible studies at the CIA, run by the wife of an influential White House aide. But can members of the Bible study really debate openly the biblical merits of Bush administration policy and practices in the war on terror?
Occasionally, a Christian intelligence professional will circulate something about intelligence activities in the Bible—like Moses and Joshua dispatching spies into the Promised Land. One such item was titled, "A Bible Lesson in Spying." Others have passed along articles from Israeli periodicals looking at intelligence activities in the Bible.
One little-used resource is Puritan John Thurloe, who has been called Oliver Cromwell's "master spy." Thurloe developed many surveillance and interrogation methods. Among his guidelines, he prohibited torture. He believed that Christian gentlemen, under questioning, would be too afraid of divine punishment to lie under oath. He also thought that torture violated human dignity and that humans under torture would falsely confess things to escape pain.
Christians especially need guidance, because a number of theological and psychological elements come into play during an interrogation. Experts in human interrogations have long realized that an effective interrogator exerts godlike control over a person in custody. According to a study of CIA operations in Europe, the most successful interrogations close out all options to the prisoner except "the light and hope at the end of the tunnel" offered by the interrogator. "Darkness encompasses the captive: He knows and hopes nothing except what his interrogator supplies."
Christian intelligence professionals agree that interrogations may have a quasi-theological element, so it is little wonder that interrogators asked to "play God" are tempted to inflict punishment to gain information.
Of course, the flip side of seeing an interrogator as godlike is defining a prisoner as subhuman. Chris, a CIA operative who graduated from an evangelical Christian college, doesn't want to go there. He told ct, "Prisoners are humans with souls, consciences, and a mind that we want to be revealed."
Just as God is a hidden God (Isa. 45:15), so humans have the ability to keep hidden their innermost knowledge. Paul Tournier, the late Swiss physician and author of The Healing of Persons, wrote that God's image in human beings means they have the unique ability to create, keep, and share secrets.
This feature of personhood gives each individual a unique personality, one with depth and mystery. Anthropologist Rhoda Metraux, once a star in the Office of Strategic Services (the CIA's predecessor), told me before her death, "The greatest creation of mankind is secrets. An intelligence officer plumbs the secrets of a person. The officer is touching what is unique about humans. Animals do camouflage naturally, but they don't do secrets."
Enemies seal their enmity by keeping secrets from each other and plotting in secret against each other. Torture is a coercive way to get at those secrets. Yet, according to Christian intelligence experts, torture can backfire for just this reason: It may create a resolve in the prisoner to maintain his human dignity and moral superiority over the interrogator by not giving away any secrets.
Others also wonder if forcing a person to reveal their secrets destroys them in some way. Intelligence interrogators say they "break" a person when they get him to give up secrets. Being tortured to reveal one's innermost thoughts is usually experienced as a violation like rape, according to counselors who work with torture survivors. Prisoners "broken" by torture have nightmares, difficulty in personal relations, and high rates of suicide, according to U.S. and British intelligence studies. In New York City, Mark Keller of Bellevue Hospital's Center for Treating Torture Victims says torture victims not only experience physical ailments, but they also remain withdrawn and typically have enormous difficulty resuming normal life.
Since the 9/11 attacks, intelligence experts have accepted the reality that religiously motivated militants are willing to kill themselves and others at will. These individuals don't fit into the same categories as an "innocent until proven guilty" suspect in a domestic crime case or a uniformed soldier captured as a prisoner of war.
Some Christian professionals, who spoke with CT on a confidential basis, believe that "operational context" may override otherwise strong prohibitions against torture, especially when many lives are imminently at risk. After 9/11, Bush set in motion new strategies to interrogate suspected terrorists. His staff produced legal studies that defined terrorists as "unlawful combatants,"putting their legal status in doubt under the
Geneva Convention.Not everyone agreed with the policy shift, but there seemed to be little room for objections. Administration supporters labeled dissenters as disloyal or even traitorous. Regarding The Washington Post reporter who revealed that the CIA had ferried prisoners to Poland, one highly placed evangelical general rhetorically asked ct, "When are they going to throw the reporter and his source in jail for treason?"
Thus, commanders in the field are faced with a three-way clash: their training prohibiting torture, uncooperative detainees, and the green light to use harsher methods to get results.
In this ambiguous mix, punitive harshness has become increasingly normalized, according to author Chris Mackey, the pseudonym for an American interrogator who worked in Afghanistan after 9/11. Co-author of The Interrogators: Inside the Secret War Against Al Qaeda, Mackey says he saw his military intelligence unit in Afghanistan gradually ease into a "fear-up" strategy. This fear-inducing method, only one of the 16 methods of interrogation allowed in the Army Field Manual, became the preferred one among the interrogators who replaced Mackey's group.
One much-decorated general said the new protocol has become: "Don't ask, don't tell"—meaning intelligence professionals have implicit permission to use highly aggressive and injurious means to extract information.
Yet historically, intelligence professionals have believed torture is unreliable, because a tortured individual is driven to say anything to stop the pain. In 2004, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the American commander in charge of detentions and interrogations in Iraq, endorsed that view.
Miller claimed that the number of "high-value" reports went up after coercive practices such as sleep deprivation, hooding, and stripping were prohibited in 2003. As recently as November 29, Porter Goss, the new director of the CIA, declared, "Torture is counterproductive."
The better quality of intelligence may simply be the result of a natural learning curve on how to interrogate post-9/11. Before 9/11, interrogators used milder techniques that they had learned at places like the U.S. Army's intelligence school at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. But Al Qaeda terrorists learned how to resist those techniques. "Our schoolhouse methods were woefully out-of-date," writes Mackey.
During combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2002 and 2003, interrogators dealt daily with life or death dilemmas: Torture or get blown up. Torture and get court-martialed. Don't torture, don't get blown up, but get demoted. The interrogators who spoke with CT about this period admit they weren't producing much information. So, they found ways to rationalize dramatically harsher treatment.
Waterboarding is the method that has gained the most public notice. It's a technique that makes a prisoner think he is drowning. Also, the CIA is practicing "extraordinary rendition," sending individuals to other nations that have fewer qualms about using torture. Then there is the regular use of intimidating threats.
"Ladies, you can get a 'special visa' to Guantanamo," an interrogator with the Third Army Division told his male Muslim prisoners in Afghanistan. The soldier, who asked for anonymity, recounted his experience during a recent interview with ct.
"You will be placed in cages where you may be dealt with at leisure by a bull of our choice," he told the prisoners. "Or, you can tell us what we want to know now." The soldier is an ordinary Southern Baptist churchgoer from Texas. He voted for fellow Texan George W. Bush, explaining, "He's a Christian man."
Reflecting on his experience with interrogation and torture, the soldier says, "It is just the way it is. We have no choice. No one in church would understand. I am going to just download and delete this period of my life."
Religious IgnoranceScholars have recently pointed out that interrogators-in-training are not receiving enough information about the religious dimensions of the war on terror. Pauletta Otis of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life says that the intelligence agencies' training programs she visited hardly addressed the role of religion, such as fundamentalist Islam: "Most of the emphasis was on gaining intelligence on politics, economics, and the military," she said.
Furthermore, interrogators are not encouraged to reflect on how their faith and morals should influence the interrogation process. Their ethical training consists of legal guidelines.
Author Mackey said when a captive asked for a Bible to read, he declined the request, because, "I was afraid of what would happen if that got out." When Muslim captives wanted to talk religion, interrogators were confused. Mackey recalls a Muslim captive in Afghanistan who wanted to debate the doctrine of the Trinity. (Muslims are taught that Christians worship three gods.)
Officers, perplexed at the often deep religious motivations of their prisoners, are stymied in collecting intelligence. Col. Charles Borchini, a recently retired specialist in psychological operations for the U.S. Army Special Forces, says that after 9/11, "We can no longer ignore the role of religion."
Worldview IssuesMackey says he discovered that successful interrogations resulted in changes in worldview, somewhat like a religious conversion.
Mackey observes. "One of our biggest successes in Afghanistan came when a valuable prisoner decided to cooperate …. precisely because he realized he would not be tortured. He had heard so many horror stories. When he was treated decently, his worldview snapped. Suddenly, we had an ally."
Christians in intelligence services told CT that the torture debate must be approached as a worldview issue in another sense, as well. Recalling his stint as an interrogator in Afghanistan, Mackey said, "I was drifting toward relativism in my faith. But I was confronted with militant Muslims who want to destroy us, and also my own ambivalent moral responses. I am not a relativist any more."
For however long the global war on terror lasts, Christians in America's intelligence services say that believing Christians must never surrender their absolute spiritual values.
Tony Carnes, a CT senior writer, is based in New York City.
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