Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Torture, Inc.

Torture has been systematically perfected by the CIA since 9/11, according to this New Yorker article by Jane Mayer, one of the most disturbing things I've read on the subject (and there has been quite a bit of disturbing reporting over the last three years or so):
Accurately or not, Bush Administration officials have described the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo as the unauthorized actions of ill-trained personnel, eleven of whom have been convicted of crimes. By contrast, the treatment of high-value detainees has been directly, and repeatedly, approved by President Bush. The program is monitored closely by C.I.A. lawyers, and supervised by the agency’s director and his subordinates at the Counterterrorism Center. While Mohammed was being held by the agency, detailed dossiers on the treatment of detainees were regularly available to the former C.I.A. director George Tenet, according to informed sources inside and outside the agency. Through a spokesperson, Tenet denied making day-to-day decisions about the treatment of individual detainees. But, according to a former agency official, “Every single plan is drawn up by interrogators, and then submitted for approval to the highest possible level—-meaning the director of the C.I.A. Any change in the plan—even if an extra day of a certain treatment was added—was signed off by the C.I.A. director.”

On September 17, 2001, President Bush signed a secret Presidential finding authorizing the C.I.A. to create paramilitary teams to hunt, capture, detain, or kill designated terrorists almost anywhere in the world. Yet the C.I.A. had virtually no trained interrogators. A former C.I.A. officer involved in fighting terrorism said that, at first, the agency was crippled by its lack of expertise. “It began right away, in Afghanistan, on the fly,” he recalled. “They invented the program of interrogation with people who had no understanding of Al Qaeda or the Arab world.” The former officer said that the pressure from the White House, in particular from Vice-President Dick Cheney, was intense: “They were pushing us: ‘Get information! Do not let us get hit again!’ ” In the scramble, he said, he searched the C.I.A.’s archives, to see what interrogation techniques had worked in the past. He was particularly impressed with the Phoenix Program, from the Vietnam War. Critics, including military historians, have described it as a program of state-sanctioned torture and murder. A Pentagon-contract study found that, between 1970 and 1971, ninety-seven per cent of the Vietcong targeted by the Phoenix Program were of negligible importance. But, after September 11th, some C.I.A. officials viewed the program as a useful model. A. B. Krongard, who was the executive director of the C.I.A. from 2001 to 2004, said that the agency turned to “everyone we could, including our friends in Arab cultures,” for interrogation advice, among them those in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, all of which the State Department regularly criticizes for human-rights abuses.

. . .

Many officials inside the C.I.A. had misgivings. “A lot of us knew this would be a can of worms,” the former officer said. “We warned them, It’s going to become an atrocious mess.” The problem from the start, he said, was that no one had thought through what he called “the disposal plan.” He continued, “What are you going to do with these people? The utility of someone like K.S.M. is, at most, six months to a year. You exhaust them. Then what? It would have been better if we had executed them.”

. . . Lacking in-house specialists on interrogation, the agency hired a group of outside contractors, who implemented a regime of techniques that one well-informed former adviser to the American intelligence community described as “a ‘Clockwork Orange’ kind of approach.” The experts were retired military psychologists, and their backgrounds were in training Special Forces soldiers how to survive torture, should they ever be captured by enemy states. The program, known as SERE—an acronym for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape—was created at the end of the Korean War. It subjected trainees to simulated torture, including waterboarding (simulated drowning), sleep deprivation, isolation, exposure to temperature extremes, enclosure in tiny spaces, bombardment with agonizing sounds, and religious and sexual humiliation. The SERE program was designed strictly for defense against torture regimes, but the C.I.A.’s new team used its expertise to help interrogators inflict abuse. “They were very arrogant, and pro-torture,” a European official knowledgeable about the program said. “They sought to render the detainees vulnerable—to break down all of their senses. It takes a psychologist trained in this to understand these rupturing experiences.”

The use of psychologists was also considered a way for C.I.A. officials to skirt measures such as the Convention Against Torture. The former adviser to the intelligence community said, “Clearly, some senior people felt they needed a theory to justify what they were doing. You can’t just say, ‘We want to do what Egypt’s doing.’ When the lawyers asked what their basis was, they could say, ‘We have Ph.D.s who have these theories.’ ” He said that, inside the C.I.A., where a number of scientists work, there was strong internal opposition to the new techniques. “Behavioral scientists said, ‘Don’t even think about this!’ They thought officers could be prosecuted.”

Nevertheless, the SERE experts’ theories were apparently put into practice with Zubaydah’s interrogation. Zubaydah told the Red Cross that he was not only waterboarded, as has been previously reported; he was also kept for a prolonged period in a cage, known as a “dog box,” which was so small that he could not stand. According to an eyewitness, one psychologist advising on the treatment of Zubaydah, James Mitchell, argued that he needed to be reduced to a state of “learned helplessness.” (Mitchell disputes this characterization.)

Steve Kleinman, a reserve Air Force colonel and an experienced interrogator who has known Mitchell professionally for years, said that “learned helplessness was his whole paradigm.” Mitchell, he said, “draws a diagram showing what he says is the whole cycle. It starts with isolation. Then they eliminate the prisoners’ ability to forecast the future—when their next meal is, when they can go to the bathroom. It creates dread and dependency. It was the K.G.B. model. But the K.G.B. used it to get people who had turned against the state to confess falsely. The K.G.B. wasn’t after intelligence.”

As the C.I.A. captured and interrogated other Al Qaeda figures, it established a protocol of psychological coercion. The program tied together many strands of the agency’s secret history of Cold War-era experiments in behavioral science. . . . According to Alfred McCoy, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, who has written a history of the C.I.A.’s experiments in coercing subjects, the agency learned that “if subjects are confined without light, odors, sound, or any fixed references of time and place, very deep breakdowns can be provoked.”

Agency scientists found that in just a few hours some subjects suspended in water tanks—or confined in isolated rooms wearing blacked-out goggles and earmuffs—regressed to semi-psychotic states. Moreover, McCoy said, detainees become so desperate for human interaction that “they bond with the interrogator like a father, or like a drowning man having a lifesaver thrown at him. If you deprive people of all their senses, they’ll turn to you like their daddy.” McCoy added that “after the Cold War we put away those tools. There was bipartisan reform. We backed away from those dark days. Then, under the pressure of the war on terror, they didn’t just bring back the old psychological techniques—they perfected them.”

The C.I.A.’s interrogation program is remarkable for its mechanistic aura. “It’s one of the most sophisticated, refined programs of torture ever,” an outside expert familiar with the protocol said. “At every stage, there was a rigid attention to detail. Procedure was adhered to almost to the letter. There was top-down quality control, and such a set routine that you get to the point where you know what each detainee is going to say, because you’ve heard it before. It was almost automated. People were utterly dehumanized. People fell apart. It was the intentional and systematic infliction of great suffering masquerading as a legal process. It is just chilling.”

. . .

. . . [D]etainees were “taken to their cells by strong people who wore black outfits, masks that covered their whole faces, and dark visors over their eyes.” (Some personnel reportedly wore black clothes made from specially woven synthetic fabric that couldn’t be ripped or torn.) A former member of a C.I.A. transport team has described the “takeout” of prisoners as a carefully choreographed twenty-minute routine, during which a suspect was hog-tied, stripped naked, photographed, hooded, sedated with anal suppositories, placed in diapers, and transported by plane to a secret location.

A person involved in the Council of Europe inquiry, referring to cavity searches and the frequent use of suppositories during the takeout of detainees, likened the treatment to “sodomy.” He said, “It was used to absolutely strip the detainee of any dignity. It breaks down someone’s sense of impenetrability. The interrogation became a process not just of getting information but of utterly subordinating the detainee through humiliation.” The former C.I.A. officer confirmed that the agency frequently photographed the prisoners naked, “because it’s demoralizing.” The person involved in the Council of Europe inquiry said that photos were also part of the C.I.A.’s quality-control process. They were passed back to case officers for review.

A secret government document, dated December 10, 2002, detailing “SERE Interrogation Standard Operating Procedure,” outlines the advantages of stripping detainees. “In addition to degradation of the detainee, stripping can be used to demonstrate the omnipotence of the captor or to debilitate the detainee.” The document advises interrogators to “tear clothing from detainees by firmly pulling downward against buttoned buttons and seams. Tearing motions shall be downward to prevent pulling the detainee off balance.” The memo also advocates the “Shoulder Slap,” “Stomach Slap,” “Hooding,” “Manhandling,” “Walling,” and a variety of “Stress Positions,” including one called “Worship the Gods.”

In the process of being transported, C.I.A. detainees such as Mohammed were screened by medical experts, who checked their vital signs, took blood samples, and marked a chart with a diagram of a human body, noting scars, wounds, and other imperfections. As the person involved in the Council of Europe inquiry put it, “It’s like when you hire a motor vehicle, circling where the scratches are on the rearview mirror. Each detainee was continually assessed, physically and psychologically.”

. . .

According to sources familiar with interrogation techniques, the hanging position is designed, in part, to prevent detainees from being able to sleep. The former C.I.A. officer, who is knowledgeable about the interrogation program, explained that “sleep deprivation works. Your electrolyte balance changes. You lose all balance and ability to think rationally. Stuff comes out.” Sleep deprivation has been recognized as an effective form of coercion since the Middle Ages, when it was called tormentum insomniae. It was also recognized for decades in the United States as an illegal form of torture. An American Bar Association report, published in 1930, which was cited in a later U.S. Supreme Court decision, said, “It has been known since 1500 at least that deprivation of sleep is the most effective torture and certain to produce any confession desired.”

Under President Bush’s new executive order, C.I.A. detainees must receive the “basic necessities of life, including adequate food and water, shelter from the elements, necessary clothing, protection from extremes of heat and cold, and essential medical care.” Sleep, according to the order, is not among the basic necessities.

In addition to keeping a prisoner awake, the simple act of remaining upright can over time cause significant pain. McCoy, the historian, noted that “longtime standing” was a common K.G.B. interrogation technique. In his 2006 book, “A Question of Torture,” he writes that the Soviets found that making a victim stand for eighteen to twenty-four hours can produce “excruciating pain, as ankles double in size, skin becomes tense and intensely painful, blisters erupt oozing watery serum, heart rates soar, kidneys shut down, and delusions deepen.”

. . .

The former officer said that the C.I.A. kept a doctor standing by during interrogations. He insisted that the method was safe and effective, but said that it could cause lasting psychic damage to the interrogators. During interrogations, the former agency official said, officers worked in teams, watching each other behind two-way mirrors. Even with this group support, the friend said, Mohammed’s interrogator “has horrible nightmares.” He went on, “When you cross over that line of darkness, it’s hard to come back. You lose your soul. You can do your best to justify it, but it’s well outside the norm. You can’t go to that dark a place without it changing you.” He said of his friend, “He’s a good guy. It really haunts him. You are inflicting something really evil and horrible on somebody.”

. . .

“All these methods produced useful information, but there was also a lot that was bogus.” When pressed, one former top agency official estimated that “ninety per cent of the information was unreliable.” Cables carrying Mohammed’s interrogation transcripts back to Washington reportedly were prefaced with the warning that “the detainee has been known to withhold information or deliberately mislead.” Mohammed, like virtually all the top Al Qaeda prisoners held by the C.I.A., has claimed that, while under coercion, he lied to please his captors.

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