WASHINGTON — The controversy over destroyed CIA videotapes has highlighted weaknesses in American intelligence agencies' methods of interrogation of Al Qaeda suspects, according to current and former officials and experts, who say those methods are compromising the ability to extract critically important information about the threat from Islamic extremism.
Congress, the Justice Department and the CIA inspector general are investigating why the CIA destroyed tapes of its 2002 interrogations of two alleged senior Al Qaeda leaders, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al Rahim al Nashiri. Investigators think Zubaydah was recorded being waterboarded -- a controversial tactic that mimics the experience of drowning. The tapes were destroyed in 2005.
By their own accounting, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies have not videotaped the interrogations of potentially hundreds of other terrorism suspects. That indicates an outmoded level of secrecy and unprofessionalism, the interrogation experts contend.
They say that the U.S. is behind the curve of current best practices, and that videotaping is an essential tool in improving the methods -- and results -- of terrorism interrogations. And the accountability provided by recording is needed to address international concerns about the United States' use of harsh, potentially illegal techniques, these experts add.
They say that the United States could learn a lot from methods used by Israel, Britain and other countries with decades of experience in interrogating terrorists but that so far, it has not.
"We are operating in a vacuum," said Col. Steven M. Kleinman, a reserve senior intelligence officer for the Air Force's Special Operations Command who was a military interrogator in Panama, during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and in Iraq in 2003. "We are not giving our interrogators the skill set or the tool chest to get the information that we need in the war on terrorism."
Kleinman is one of several government experts participating in a study of interrogation for the Intelligence Science Board, an advisory body of the national intelligence director's office and other U.S. intelligence agencies.
Last year the board issued its first report, a politely worded but critical document titled "Educing Information: Interrogation: Science and Art." It concluded that the U.S. government had not in any scientific manner studied the effectiveness of its methods of interrogation since the end of World War II and that it was still using the same unproven techniques.
Time to 'professionalize'
If the CIA had videotaped its interrogations of as many as 100 "high-value" terrorism suspects, Kleinman and other study participants said, then details could have been archived for in-depth comparison and analysis by a range of government experts.
"It is essential to take this craft to the next level and professionalize it," Kleinman said.
CIA spokesman George E. Little said he could not discuss internal interrogation practices, including whether the CIA had reviewed terrorism interrogation videos recorded by countries that work closely with the United States.
"The fact of the matter is that the careful, professional and lawful questioning of hardened terrorists has produced thousands of intelligence reports, revealed exceptionally valuable insights on Al Qaeda's operations and organization, foiled terrorist plots, and saved innocent lives," said Little.
The Intelligence Science Board's report concluded that U.S. intelligence agencies had done so little questioning of hostile subjects since the 1950s that individual interrogators "were forced to 'make it up' on the fly" after the Sept. 11 attacks. And little has changed since then, the report said.
"This shortfall in advanced, research-based interrogation methods . . . may have contributed significantly to the unfortunate cases of abuse that have recently come to light," such as Abu Ghraib and the controversy over the CIA's interrogation of suspects, the report said.
The board issued recommendations this year about how the government should improve interrogation efforts, including identifying ways to build a cadre of well-trained professionals who could use noncoercive techniques in line with international norms.
Those recommendations have gone largely unheeded, several study participants said.
"There doesn't seem to be a core agency in the U.S. government that has this on its radar screen," said participant Randy Borum, a forensic psychologist who recently served as the principal investigator on a "Psychology of Terrorism" initiative for U.S. intelligence agencies.
The report said the government needed to conduct more research on whether coercive methods ever work.
Such methods are sometimes necessary, said one counter- terrorism official.