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 specialists, 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 the tapes of its interrogations of two alleged senior Al Qaeda leaders, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri in 2005, three years after they were made. Investigators believe that the videotapes showed Zubaydah being waterboarded, a controversial tactic that mimics the experience of drowning.
But the fact that the CIA and other US intelligence agencies say they have not videotaped the interrogations of potentially hundreds of other suspected terrorists indicates an outmoded level of secrecy and unprofessionalism, the current and former interrogation specialists contend.
They say that the United States is behind the curve of current best practices, and that videotaping is an essential tool in improving the methods - and results - of questioning terrorism suspects.
And the accountability it provides is needed to address international concerns about the United States' use of coercive and potentially illegal techniques in interrogations, these specialists add.
The United States could learn a lot from methods used by Israel, Britain, and other countries with decades of experience in interrogating terrorists, they say, but so far, it has not.
"We are operating in a vacuum, said Colonel Steven M. Kleinman, a reserve senior intelligence officer for the Air Force's Special Operations Command. He was a military interrogator in Panama and 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 continuing study of interrogation for the Intelligence Science Board, an advisory body of the Directorate of National Intelligence and US intelligence agencies.
Last year the advisory group issued its first report, a politely worded but critical document titled "Educing Information-Interrogation: Science and Art." It concluded that the US government has not in any scientific manner studied the effectiveness of its methods of interrogation since the end of World War II and that it is still using the same unproven techniques.
Kleinman and other study participants said that the CIA's failure to videotape its interrogation of as many as 100 "high-value" terrorism suspects has prevented its capturing the details of those interrogations in a way that they can be archived, compared, and analyzed in-depth 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 has reviewed or analyzed videotaped interrogations of terrorism suspects made by other 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," Little said.
The Intelligence Science Board's report concluded that the CIA and other US 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, 2001, attacks, and its authors say that little has changed since then.
"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 advisory group issued recommendations earlier this year about how the US government should improve its interrogation efforts, including identifying better ways of building a well-trained cadre of professionals who can use noncoercive techniques that are not at odds with international norms.
So far, however, those recommendations have gone largely unheeded, several study participants said.
"There doesn't seem to be a core agency in the US government that has this on its radar screen," said study participant Randy Borum, a forensic psychologist who recently served as the principal investigator on a "Psychology of Terrorism" initiative for US intelligence agencies.
The report said the government needs to do more research to determine whether coercive methods ever work. One US counterterrorism official said they are sometimes necessary.
"If someone is implying that professional interrogation always has to involve rapport-building and stroking, I wouldn't want to defend that position were the country facing an imminent terrorist attack," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the US interrogation program is classified. "Some people think that Perry Mason-style questioning works against hardened terrorists. That's sometimes not the case."
The US investigations in coming months aim to determine why the CIA destroyed the tapes in November 2002 and stopped making new ones.