How we became torturers


Zubaydah was stabilized at the nearest hospital, and the F.B.I. continued its questioning using its typical rapport-building techniques. An agent showed him photographs of suspected al-Qaeda members until Zubaydah finally spoke up, blurting out that “Moktar,” or Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, had planned 9/11. He then proceeded to lay out the details of the plot. America learned the truth of how 9/11 was organized because a detainee had come to trust his captors after they treated him humanely.

It was an extraordinary success story. But it was one that would evaporate with the arrival of the C.I.A’s interrogation team. At the direction of an accompanying psychologist, the team planned to conduct a psychic demolition in which they’d get Zubaydah to reveal everything by severing his sense of personality and scaring him almost to death.

While there was no “smoking gun” amid the stack of documents Arrigo gave me, my reporting eventually led me to an even graver discovery. After a 10-month investigation comprising more than 70 interviews as well as a detailed review of public and confidential documents, I pieced together the account of the Abu Zubaydah interrogation that appears in this article. I also discovered that psychologists weren’t merely complicit in America’s aggressive new interrogation regime. Psychologists, working in secrecy, had actually designed the tactics and trained interrogators in them while on contract to the C.I.A.

Two psychologists in particular played a central role: James Elmer Mitchell, who was attached to the C.I.A. team that eventually arrived in Thailand, and his colleague Bruce Jessen. Neither served on the task force or are A.P.A. members. Both worked in a classified military training program known as sere—for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape—which trains soldiers to endure captivity in enemy hands. Mitchell and Jessen reverse-engineered the tactics inflicted on sere trainees for use on detainees in the global war on terror, according to psychologists and others with direct knowledge of their activities. The C.I.A. put them in charge of training interrogators in the brutal techniques, including “waterboarding,” at its network of “black sites.” In a statement, Mitchell and Jessen said, “We are proud of the work we have done for our country.”

The agency had famously little experience in conducting interrogations or in eliciting “ticking time bomb” information from detainees. Yet, remarkably, it turned to Mitchell and Jessen, who were equally inexperienced and had no proof of their tactics’ effectiveness, say several of their former colleagues. Steve Kleinman, an Air Force Reserve colonel and expert in human-intelligence operations, says he finds it astonishing that the C.I.A. “chose two clinical psychologists who had no intelligence background whatsoever, who had never conducted an interrogation … to do something that had never been proven in the real world.”

The tactics were a “voodoo science,” says Michael Rolince, former section chief of the F.B.I.'s International Terrorism Operations. According to a person familiar with the methods, the basic approach was to “break down [the detainees] through isolation, white noise, completely take away their ability to predict the future, create dependence on interrogators.”

Interrogators who were sent for classified training inevitably wound up in a Mitchell-Jessen “shop,” and some balked at their methods. Instead of the careful training touted by President Bush, some recruits allegedly received on-the-job training during brutal interrogations that effectively unfolded as live demonstrations.

Mitchell and Jessen’s methods were so controversial that, among colleagues, the reaction to their names alone became a litmus test of one’s attitude toward coercion and human rights. Their critics called them the “Mormon mafia” (a reference to their shared religion) and the “poster boys” (referring to the F.B.I.'s “most wanted” posters, which are where some thought their activities would land them).

The bitterest irony is that the tactics seem to have been adopted by interrogators throughout the U.S. military in part because of a myth that whipped across continents and jumped from the intelligence to the military communities: the false impression that reverse-engineered sere tactics were the only thing that got Abu Zubaydah to talk.

A fine clusterfuck all around, I guess.

Good fucking god.

Mitchell had a tougher approach in mind. The C.I.A. interrogators explained that they were going to become Zubaydah’s “God.” If he refused to cooperate, he would lose his clothes and his comforts one by one. At the safe house, the interrogators isolated him. They would enter his room just once a day to say, “You know what I want,” then leave again.
As Zubaydah clammed up, Mitchell seemed to conclude that Zubaydah would talk only when he had been reduced to complete helplessness and dependence. With that goal in mind, the C.I.A. team began building a coffin in which they planned to bury the detainee alive.

A furor erupted over the legality of this move, which does not appear to have been carried out. (Every human-rights treaty and American law governing the treatment of prisoners prohibits death threats and simulated killings.) But the C.I.A. had a ready rejoinder: the methods had already been approved by White House lawyers. Mitchell was accompanied by another psychologist, Dr. R. Scott Shumate, then chief operational psychologist for the C.I.A.'s counterterrorism center. Surprisingly, Shumate opposed the extreme methods and packed his bags in disgust, leaving before the most dire tactics had commenced. He later told associates that it had been a mistake for the C.I.A. to hire Mitchell.

The document is divided into four categories: “Degradation,” “Physical Debilitation,” “Isolation and Monopoliztion [sic] of Perception,” and “Demonstrated Omnipotence.” The tactics include “slaps,” “forceful removal of detainees’ clothing,” “stress positions,” “hooding,” “manhandling,” and “walling,” which entails grabbing the detainee by his shirt and hoisting him against a specially constructed wall.

“Note that all tactics are strictly non-lethal,” the memo states, adding, “it is critical that interrogators do ‘cross the line’ when utilizing the tactics.” The word “not” was presumably omitted by accident.

It is not clear whether the guidelines were ever formally adopted. But the instructions suggest that the military command wanted psychologists to be involved so they could lead interrogators up to the line, then stop them from crossing it.

In a bizarre mixture of solicitude and sadism, the memo details how to calibrate the infliction of harm. It dictates that the “[insult] slap will be initiated no more than 12–14 inches (or one shoulder width) from the detainee’s face … to preclude any tendency to wind up or uppercut.” And interrogators are advised that, when stripping off a prisoner’s clothes, “tearing motions shall be downward to prevent pulling the detainee off balance.” In short, the sere-inspired interrogations would be violent. And therefore, psychologists were needed to help make these more dangerous interrogations safer.

Soon, the reverse-engineered sere tactics that had been designed by Mitchell and Jessen, road-tested in the C.I.A.'s black sites, and adopted in Guantánamo were being used in Iraq as well. One intelligence officer recalled witnessing a live demonstration of the tactics. The detainee was on his knees in a room painted black and forced to hold an iron bar in his extended hands while interrogators slapped him repeatedly. The man was then taken into a bunker, where he was stripped naked, blindfolded, and shackled. He was ordered to be left that way for 12 hours.

At the Abu Ghraib prison, military policemen on the night shift adopted the tactics to hideous effect. In what amounted to a down-market parody of the praise heaped on Mitchell and Jessen, Specialist Charles A. Graner Jr., a former prison guard from Pennsylvania, received a commendation for his work “softening up” detainees, according to the documentary The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. He appears repeatedly in photographs, smiling and giving thumbs-up before human pyramids of naked detainees. In 2005, he was convicted on charges of abuse. In their statement, Mitchell and Jessen said that they were “appalled by reports” of alleged abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo and had not been involved with them in any way.

This is a difficult subject for me to write about. I normally stay away from PandR mostly because my english is not good enough to make my point clearly, and that is very frustrating. However, on this I have to say:

Torture as a valid means of getting information has long been in use by some US agencies. The CIA specifically approved an “interrogation manual” to be used on leftists sympathizers in Honduras, back in 1983. This included water boarding, electroshock, sleep deprivation, beatings, and worse in the case of women detainees. Torture often ended with the killing, and the the “disappearing” of detainees.

Negroponte’s time as US ambassador in Honduras is remembered as a period of wide human right’s violations committed by our governments with the consent, and sometimes help (in the form of “professional advisors”) of the US government.

I should point out that all this was widely know, but officially confirmed some 9 years ago by a government appointed “Truth commission”, which used IIRC CIA documents to document their findings.

Now, if you mean that torture was banned in the following years and only recently reintroduced, then of course my apologies. But if not, then the whole torture thing is not news (not to us anyway) and has been in use for a long time by some US governments.

Again, touchy subject for me, don’t really wanted to get into a discussion of such and ugly matter in a forum, but just had to point that out.

Edit: Spelling

New edit: found only one article in English, from the English The Guardian. It mentions the “manuals” written for use in Honduras


Most of us up in the U.S. were just ignorant of the level of abuses undertaken by U.S. agencies in the 80s in Central America. In the name of anticommunism, our government sanctioned all kinds of truly heinous activities in Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.

It’s one of the things that history books here in the U.S. just gloss over. And most Americans don’t understand why we have difficult relations with our neighbors to the south…

and “walling,” which entails grabbing the detainee by his shirt and hoisting him against a specially constructed wall.

Why does it need to be specially constructed? What’s wrong with an ordinary wall?

It doesn’t make contractors money that’s what. We have to protect the economy!

Yea, and as soon as Negroponte got to Iraq you started to hear about the same shit happening there, for example death squads. It’s amazing how that all works out.

You know, you think the guys in charge are incompetent, idiots, can’t tell their head from their ass, but then you start to think they have known exactly what they were doing from day one. And that’s what’s really scary.

We’ve done unbelievably appalling crap through “third parties”, but as far as I know this is the first time a US agency has made it a policy to do it itself. Negroponte, among other people, should be put in the dock at the Hague.

I realize it may sound a bit naive, but every time this comes up I feel a complete sense of bewilderment that we are even having this conversation. Somewhere in my upbringing, I don’t even remember when or how, I picked up the idea that torture is motherfucking wrong. Torture is exclusively performed and encouraged by evil people. Torture is the state-sponsored equivalent of rape: a crime that is never justifiable, never excusable. It makes me ill to even think of it. I’ve never watched 24 because I’ve heard it’s essentially an apologia for torture. I’ve made thoroughly evil characters in tabletop RPGs, but even in that mindset I couldn’t condone or participate in torture.

Ok, so this is nothing new. The US government’s been doing this for decades. That just makes me even more sick and angry. How the fuck can we tolerate this and still pretend to be an enlightened society? Now that we know about this, how can we let it continue? I really see this as the existential challenge to the US right now. Gay married terrorists can’t possibly do anything worse to us than we have already done to ourselves by allowing this to persist.

So is the CIA going out of its way to be the bad guy here? Because right now they freakin own the rule book on being an ass.

How on earth is it possible that our government can say, without sarcasm, that we are going after brutal dictators when we have a handbook on how to abuse people?

I’d vote for a President whose avowed policy was to disband the CIA.

Don’t cut off the nose to spite the face. The CIA fulfills some necessary functions. If it’s misbehaving the proper response is reform, not disbanding.

The problem is oversight. Who watches the watchers? Realistically, a country such as ours can’t get rid of an institution such as the CIA. We need a foreign covert spying service. What we need is a system of checks and balances.

Of course the corruption goes all the way to the top, IE: the president, and he orders torture to be used, then there isn’t much that can be done. We would have to remove the president from the ‘chain of command’, but then we would need some other agency instead.

Should it be Congress? Like the CIA, the FBI answers to the president, and I am sure if they answered to congress, we might not have so many congressional investigations going on as we do now.