Why would a CIA official interrogating a suspected al-Qaeda terrorist impersonate a Pentecostal preacher “laying on hands”? I was perplexed to read a recent Guardian article alleging a Guantanamo Bay interrogator would “put one hand on the forehead of a detainee, raise the other high in the air, and in a deep Southern drawl say things like, ‘Can you feel it, son? Can you feel the Spirit moving down my arm, into your body?’”
I served as US attorney from 2001 to 2006. I served as a US Navy JAG officer and prosecution team leader between 2008 and 2014 at the Office of the Chief Prosecutor, US Military Commissions. I have been to Guantanamo Bay many times, including the detention camps. I have sat face to face with a suspected al-Qaeda member and his attorney. I am also an evangelical Christian and the son of a Southern Baptist minister. I can tell you, this isn’t how you interrogate a suspected terrorist.
Typically, after a crime occurs, an investigator questions the suspect. A skilled interrogator will obtain a confession to a crime. There are many rules regarding permissible types of interrogation, but the most important thing is that the interrogator wants a truthful and voluntary statement that can be used in court.
Prosecutors are ethically bound to introduce only untainted evidence before the court. Trial judges, using the well-established doctrine called “the exclusionary rule,” will bar statements and evidence not provided voluntarily.
I don’t think imitating a revivalist preacher about to “slay someone in the Spirit” would taint evidence. It’s not inhumane. But it is bizarre, and it shows the level of desperation the interrogators must have felt in getting actionable intelligence. That desperation has led to dark places in the recent past.
In 2002, the George W. Bush administration’s Justice Department released a legal memorandum that cleared the way for abusive interrogation techniques—called “enhanced interrogation techniques” or EIT. The memo authorized sleep deprivation, stress positions, slapping a detainee across the face, and waterboarding, which simulates the experience of drowning.
When I learned about the EIT memo, I knew federal courts would not accept evidence obtained through these techniques. I also knew there was tremendous pressure put on law enforcement officials to get convictions of terrorism suspects. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 made America scared and desperate. We were all concerned about another attack and felt duty bound to stop it. I remember James Comey, then deputy attorney general, telling all the US Attorneys to “shake the trees” and stop the next attack.
The Justice Department had actually prosecuted Texas Sheriff James Parker in 1983 for waterboarding criminal suspects. But in the topsy-turvy, Alice in Wonderland world of Guantanamo, contractors had Justice Department clearance to use abusive interrogation techniques. The shining city on the hill lost its light when it came to the treatment of some alleged war-crimes suspects in the years after 9/11.
An experienced federal criminal investigator will tell you they have many authorized techniques when they question suspects. The most effective is what the FBI calls rapport-based interrogation, which means the agent seeks to establish a relationship with the suspect and treats them humanely as required by federal law. That leads to true and voluntary confessions.
My good friend and former FBI agent Ali Soufan interrogated many al-Qaeda suspects and was successful in getting actionable intelligence from them. He treated them all decently and was rewarded with information that could be used in court. Soufan and other federal agents had experience in interrogating suspected terrorists. The CIA contractors shockingly did not have any experience with suspected terrorists or even criminals. Such was the state of our desperation in the immediate years after 9/11. We believed in flimflam artists. So maybe it’s not surprising to hear allegations that one of the interrogators was a fake revivalist too.
Most Americans today don’t have the cultural literacy to know what the terms like “being slain in the Spirit,” “receiving the second baptism,” or being “fire baptized” even mean. Maybe they’ve seen a Benny Hinn video on YouTube. But I doubt an al-Qaeda suspect would have any idea why an interrogator would do the things described in the Guardian article, or what it would mean to say, “Can you feel it, son? Can you feel the Spirit moving down my arm, into your body?”
The agency does not reveal its “sources and methods” of gathering intelligence. It is not legally obligated to provide the complete truth to anyone outside of Congress, an internal review, or federal law enforcement. So I view claims that this tactic “got results” with great suspicion.
This technique was not authorized by the Justice Department and was a highly unorthodox attempt to convince a suspect to confess. The debacle of “enhanced interrogation techniques” resulted in Congress passing the Detainee Treatment Act, which prohibited abusive and ineffective methods. The Justice Department also withdrew the “torture memorandum.” Now, almost 20 years after the execrable memo was released, here are more attempts to justify another bizarre technique.
It appears to me that the “preacher” was extemporizing, or “calling an audible” to use a football term. I don’t believe this to be in violation of Common Article III of the Geneva Conventions—which applies to non-state actors like terrorism suspects and mandates humane treatment—but it is disturbing nonetheless.
American evangelicals should be concerned about this report. For a CIA officer to use a Pentecostal technique to question an alleged war criminal is nonsensical and ineffectual. Beyond that, this weaponized use of revival preacher behavior shows utter disdain of our culture and our practices. Most importantly, we serve a God who made all in his image as written in Genesis 1:27. Christ died for all, even al-Qaeda suspects.
David C. Iglesias is an associate professor of politics and law at Wheaton College and is the director of the Wheaton Center for Faith, Politics and Economics. He retired as a captain in the US Navy JAG Corps and served as the US attorney for the District of New Mexico in the George W. Bush administration.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the magazine.