Last October I attended a reunion of World War II veterans who worked at a secret prisoner-of-war interrogation center at Fort Hunt, Va., near Washington, where many of the top Nazi scientists were interrogated. Some 20 of us, all in our 80s and 90s, came together, many for the first time in more than 60 years, for two days of reconnecting and recollecting.
The camp at Fort Hunt, which was devoted entirely to the interrogation of high-level prisoners of war was one of the most secret projects of the war and was codenamed "PO Box 1142." Many of us on the PO Box 1142's small staff, myself included, were refugees from Germany or Austria, since fluency in German was a requirement for the assignment.
At our reunion it was difficult to avoid reflecting on the contrast between the methods of interrogation we had used and those in vogue at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, not to mention the CIA's "dark sites" in various unnamed countries. One of my fellow veterans said that he got more information from those he interrogated by playing chess or ping pong with them than he would ever have gotten through torture. Another said that we did not commit torture because when you torture you lose your humanity. In truth, some kind of pain-inflicting physical contact would never have occurred to us.
On the second day of our reunion, a retired Army general, an Air Force reserve colonel and a recently retired Defense Intelligence Agency official all commented on the results we were able to obtain at PO Box 1142 by complying with the Geneva Conventions. They also condemned the "aggressive" techniques the Bush administration has put into use as immoral, illegal and of doubtful validity.
Since that reunion in October I have asked myself what could account for this contrast in interrogation techniques. Could it be that the detainees at Fort Hunt had less important information to offer than those at Abu Ghraib? No, the German prisoners provided confirmation about the Nazis' V-2 rocket work at Peenemuende and their later-abandoned efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
Could it be that the Fort Hunt detainees were more willing to talk because they knew Germany was about to lose the war? No, because some of the most valuable intelligence was obtained by 1142 interrogators in the early years of the war from captured U-boat officers.
Could it have been that "they" were not doing it to our people? No, because the whole notion of officially sanctioned "heightened aggressiveness" techniques originated with the Nazis.
What is it, then, that makes torture, for the first time in decades, a legitimate subject of pro and con discourse? What is it that allows President Bush to say "We do not torture" while refusing to admit that waterboarding, perhaps the cruelest form or torture since the days of the inquisition, constitutes torture? I can only come to one conclusion - that somehow the notion of humanity as the ultimate defense against torture must have fallen off the table.
Peter Weiss is a retired intellectual property lawyer in New York; he wrote this for Human Rights Watch, New York, N.Y.
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