For much of his Army career David Irvine preached a kinder, gentler interrogation style: Legal under international military law, effective against the most stubborn enemy, and – above all – moral.
Satisfied that his instruction to would-be interrogators was consistent with Army-wide tactics, the retired brigadier general was crushed, last year, when he learned his nation’s flag had flown over prisons where U.S. troops abused suspected enemy fighters.
And the horror of it all, the Salt Lake City resident says, is that none of it ever needed to happen.
“What has gone on over the past few years is completely off the book,” he said.
That book, the Army Field Manual for Intelligence Interrogations, directs soldiers to use its principles and techniques within the constraints of the Hague and Geneva Conventions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice – noting repeatedly that “the use of force, mental torture, threats, insults, or exposure to unpleasant and inhumane treatment of any kind is prohibited by law and is neither authorized nor condoned by the U.S. Government.”
Those instructions, Irvine fears, have been all but forgotten in a new world of warfare.
Irvine does not possess the intimidating presence one might expect of an interrogations expert. The slightly built 61-year-old from Bountiful owns William H. Macy features and a Mr. Rogers demeanor, with thin lips and a weary smile. He’s partial to bow ties, suspenders and monogrammed shirts.
And indeed, the career reservist has never looked a war prisoner in the eye, felt the pressure to obtain information to save his fellow soldiers’ lives or seen, first hand, a prisoner’s grave determination not to talk.
But for 18 years, ending with his 2002 retirement, the Army entrusted Irvine with the training of scores of interrogators. And at least one powerful former prisoner of war feels the veteran’s insights are valuable as the U.S. seeks to improve its intelligence collection capacity while cleaning up an image that has been soiled by scandal.
On Monday, Arizona Republican John McCain stepped onto the U.S. Senate Floor and read a letter signed by Irvine and 10 other former high-ranking military officers, encouraging approval of amendments to a defense bill that would define the term “enemy combatants” and tighten existing law prohibiting cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of prisoners.
In essence, the letter stated, future interrogations of detainees in Defense Department custody should simply conform to the Army’s manual.
“Had the manual been followed across the board, we would have been spared the pain of the prisoner abuse scandal,” the officers wrote.
“The Army Field Manual and its various editions have served America well, through wars against both regular and irregular foes,” he told Senate colleagues. “The manual embodies the values Americans have embraced for generations while preserving the ability of our interrogators to extract critical intelligence from ruthless foes. Never has this been more important than today in the midst of the war on terror.”
The White House has threatened to veto the legislation if it is passed. On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist attempted to prevent a vote on the McCain amendment and several others by limiting debate on the bill. Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett voted in favor of limiting debate, but when the vote failed, Frist pulled the bill off the Senate schedule.
Hatch’s staff declined comment on the vote, but Bennett spokeswoman Emily Christensen said her boss’ vote was not intended to prevent the passage of any specific amendment.
“Senator Bennett does not condone the mistreatment of enemy prisoners and has expressed outrage at the reports of prisoner abuse,” Christensen said. “He believes, however, that these incidents are an anomaly and supports the administration position that the Department of Defense has the necessary policies in place to deal with these issues.”
She said Bennett’s vote to end debate was intended only to speed along passage of the entire $491 billion bill. But after Frist decided to pull the bill, and with the Senate headed into a month-long recess, future action isn’t expected until after Labor Day.
Irvine doesn’t buy Bennett’s “anomaly” argument – or the contention the Defense Department is prepared to deal with abuses.
“The Army explanation that these acts are being ginned up by a half dozen low-ranking reserve soldiers just doesn’t ring true,” he said, noting that the photographs of abuses in Abu Ghraib have been followed by descriptions of abuses in other prisons – implicating many dozens of other soldiers and making the purported ignorance of senior officers implausible.
“It is obvious that there has been a complete breakdown of command discipline and a complete departure for the Army’s policy on treating prisoners of war,” he said.
Irvine disregards claims of those who say tougher techniques are necessary to extract information from religious zealots, noting that Israel, which “got very good at torture” in its struggle against its Arabic enemies, has banned the practice. The former chief interrogator for Israel’s General Security Services, Michael Koubi, has said the most important skill for an interrogator is to know the prisoner’s language – something the U.S. military has struggled with.
Since his retirement, Koubi has questioned whether torture, as a means of extracting valuable intelligence, is worth its moral price.
Others have no doubt whatsoever.
“Torture,” said McCain, whose five years in a North Vietnam prison gave him some experience with the matter, “doesn’t work.”
Nonetheless, in the classes Irvine taught, there was always someone who felt the Field Guide’s provisions didn’t go far enough. “There are always going to be those who feel that the ends justifies the means,” he said. “Those who feel the training they got was too Mickey Mouse for the circumstances they find themselves in.”
Acting on such seductive thinking, he said, results in the forfeiture of “any moral objection to similar kinds of treatment.”
And that scares him most of all.
“We’ve lowered the bar ourselves – if X-Y-Z is OK for us to do, it’s OK for the same treatment to be meted out to our people if they’re captured,” he said. “It’s not rocket science; it’s the Golden Rule.”
Salt Lake Tribune reporter Robert Gehrke contributed to this report.