30+ torture memos remain sealed while thousands of torture photos will eventually be released. Be prepared: Learn the deep history of US torture in SERE, Vietnam, Latin America, GMTO, Black Sites and beyond in American Torture.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Senate Report Nails Rumsfeld, Sets Up War Crimes Trial

Posted by Valtin at 2:06 PM |

They may not have meant to do it, but the Senate Armed Services' Committee released a report by Senators Carl Levin and John McCain that gives us the best timeline to date on administration decisions to begin torturing detainees. The report, an Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody, also describes the means by which both the Pentagon and the CIA approached agencies within government, leading to the very top of the Bush Administration, and how the latter rushed in a series of presidential orders, and memos by the Office of Legal Counsel, to redefine torture law in order to provide legal cover for their blatant violation of the laws of war and those against torture.

The Washington Post article covering these developments, Report on Detainee Abuse Blames Top Bush Officials, is listed as the most viewed item of the day. And for good reason, for anyone who knows how to read such material can see the bombshell that resides within.

Those in the anti-torture community are fond of repeating the fact that torture is a jus cogens norm, that is:
"a norm accepted and recognized by the international community of States as a whole as a norm from which no derogation is permitted and which can be modified only by a subsequent norm of general international law having the same character." Link
But when it comes to the question of prosecuting Rumsfeld and others for the crime of torture, it's generally accepted (by the mainstream media and cable punditry) that the Bush Administration has created sufficient legal cover for themselves, and that we will have to look to international intervention, under the concept of universal jurisdiction, to prosecute these individuals.

But even by their own pathetic lights, the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld troika and their assistants failed to protect themselves, as their rush to cover their tracks came TWO MONTHS TOO LATE. They are still trying to keep certain documents secret, it seems, and we must demand they see the light of day, so we can proceed with the prosecutions. (By "we" I mean an Obama Justice Department.)

Here's the key paragraphs in the narrative of the report, at least when it comes to the most vulnerable part of their defense against prosecution. Keep in mind that Levin/McCain begin their narrative with the "Presidential Order [that] Opens the Door to Considering Aggressive Techniques."

On February 7, 2002, President Bush signed a memorandum stating that the Third Geneva Convention did not apply to the conflict with al Qaeda and concluding that Taliban detainees were not entitled to prisoner of war status or the legal protections afforded by the Third Geneva Convention. The President’s order closed off application of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which would have afforded minimum standards for humane treatment, to al Qaeda or Taliban detainees.
So, now they think they are covered against violations of the Geneva Convention. But they didn't think, or they forgot that they were seeking to break, or already breaking the Geneva Convention, and a host of other treaties and laws, at least as early as December 2001.

Again, from the report (emphasis added):
In December 2001, more than a month before the President signed his memorandum, the Department of Defense (DoD) General Counsel’s Office had already solicited information on detainee “exploitation” from the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), an agency whose expertise was in training American personnel to withstand interrogation techniques considered illegal under the Geneva Conventions.
JPRA runs the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, or SERE program, under which military personnel considered at risk of capture are "tortured" under controlled circumstances, with the aim of inoculating them against confessing or revealing secrets under pressure. The SERE program specialized in exposing its recruits to waterboarding, nudity, stress positions, degrading behavior, and sensory overload and sensory deprivation. It was slam everything but the kitchen sink against a person to make them break. During training there are doctors and psychologists around to keep these things from getting out of control. But some of these doctors or psychologists evidently thought they could use their knowledge of the program to "reverse-engineer" it and provide interrogation expertise to the military when asked.

And they were asked first in December 2001:
Given JPRA’s role and expertise, the request from the DoD General Counsel’s office was unusual. In fact, the Committee is not aware of any similar request prior to December 2001. But while it may have been the first, that was not the last time that a senior government official contacted JPRA for advice on using SERE methods offensively. In fact, the call from the DoD General Counsel’s office marked just the beginning of JPRA’s support of U.S. government interrogation efforts.
The subsequent contact between JPRA, SERE, SERE psychologists, the CIA, and Guantanamo personnel make up the bulk of the rest of the report, and is definitely worth pursuing, and very important in its own right. (In fact, I've written much on this previously during the Senate Committee hearings.) But right now I'm concentrating on the critical first approach.

After discussing the December 2001 contact between the Department of Defense and JPRA, the narrative jumps ahead to Spring 2002. The reason for the jump will soon be clear (emphasis added):
Beginning in the spring of 2002 and extending for the next two years, JPRA supported U.S. government efforts to interrogate detainees. During that same period, senior government officials solicited JPRA’s knowledge and its direct support for interrogations. While much of the information relating to JPRA’s offensive activities and the influence of SERE techniques on interrogation policies remains classified, unclassified information provides a window into the extent of those activities.

(U) JPRA’s Chief of Staff, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Baumgartner testified that in late 2001 or early 2002, JPRA conducted briefings of Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) personnel on detainee resistance, techniques, and information on detainee exploitation.

(U) On April 16, 2002, Dr. Bruce Jessen, the senior SERE psychologist at JPRA, circulated a draft exploitation plan to JPRA Commander Colonel Randy Moulton and other senior officials at the agency. The contents of that plan remain classified but Dr. Jessen’s initiative is indicative of the interest of JPRA’s senior leadership in expanding the agency’s role.
We can quite clearly see the use of classification as a cover-up of culpability and probable war crimes. This is doubly true for the classification of any materials between December 2001 and February 7, 2002, the date of Bush's presidential order suspending Geneva rights, because ALL abuse and torture before that date has no cover that even the worst right-wing and pro-military wingnut could find a fig-leaf of bogus legal cover. And that's important because we don't want to win a formal argument about how international law covers Bush, Rumsfeld, et al.'s crimes, we want prosecutions, here, now, in this country. Frankly, I think there are more barriers to bringing charges abroad, for fear of confronting the United States, and we need to set an example for the world ourselves anyway, and try and undo the tremendous damage these individuals have done.

The report goes into succinct detail about the further descent into lawlessness by the administration, the military, and the CIA; how some fought back and tried to protest (military lawyers, CID investigators, etc.), but in the end the administration kept pushing their torture agenda, until the final paper reached Rumsfeld's desk:
With respect to GTMO’s October 11, 2002 request to use aggressive interrogation techniques, Mr. Haynes said that “there was a sense by the DoD Leadership that this decision was taking too long” and that Secretary Rumsfeld told his senior advisors “I need a recommendation.” On November 27, 2002, the Secretary got one. Notwithstanding the serious legal concerns raised by the military services, Mr. Haynes sent a one page memo to the Secretary, recommending that he approve all but three of the eighteen techniques in the GTMO request. Techniques such as stress positions, removal of clothing, use of phobias (such as fear of dogs), and deprivation of light and auditory stimuli were all recommended for approval....

(U) On December 2, 2002, Secretary Rumsfeld signed Mr. Haynes’s recommendation, adding a handwritten note that referred to limits proposed in the memo on the use of stress positions: “I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?”
In the next days and weeks I suppose (and hope) a lot more will be written on this. I have aimed this essay at what I feel is a key revelation in the Senate committee's investigation and report, one that can and should lead to the filing of charges against Donald Rumsfeld, William Haynes, and a number of others. Whether Bush can be prosecuted for his actions as president I leave to the legal minds to ponder.

Oddly, in the conclusions section of the report, the authors leave out the December 2001 solicitation to JPRA and return to a timeline wherein JPRA was approached in July 2002 for information on SERE techniques:
That solicitation, prompted by requests from Department of Defense General Counsel William J. Haynes II, reflected the view that abusive tactics similar to those used by our enemies should be considered for use against detainees in U.S. custody.
I don't know why the Committee would bury in their conclusions an aspect of the timeline that was especially culpable for the administration. Perhaps they felt that with the classification of certain documents they didn't have enough facts to back up their contentions. In that case it is even more essential to call for a declassification of all documents on the torture timeline, and the incoming Obama administration should make this a first priority, if their claims to government transparency are going to carry any weight.

In any case, there's plenty more in the report to keep any war crimes tribunal busy, and also assist those in writing a true history of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I will close with this statement by the committee shooting down the myth that the torture at Abu Ghraib was the result of bad training or a few "rotten apples":
The abuse of detainees at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 was not simply the result of a few soldiers acting on their own. Interrogation techniques such as stripping detainees of their clothes, placing them in stress positions, and using military working dogs to intimidate them appeared in Iraq only after they had been approved for use in Afghanistan and at GTMO. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s December 2, 2002 authorization of aggressive interrogation techniques and subsequent interrogation policies and plans approved by senior military and civilian officials conveyed the message that physical pressures and degradation were appropriate treatment for detainees in U.S. military custody. What followed was an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely.
No kidding!

Onwards to a prosecution of the war criminals and return to civilized norms in the United States.

Also posted at Daily Kos and Invictus

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

SASC Hits Paydirt: Full Story on SERE Torture Timeline Emerges

Posted by Valtin at 3:53 PM |

I have not had enough time to digest the wealth of new documents recently declassified by the Senate Armed Services Committee, in conjunction with their hearings today constituting Part II of an investigation into the organization of torture and abuse of detainees in Bush's "war on terror." Today's hearing concentrated on the migration of these techniques to Iraq.

The number of revelations is already startling, and it's hard to know where to begin. Since I took Senator Carl Levin to task for his rendition of the torture timeline as presented after Part I of the hearings, I think it's fair to give Sen. Levin the chance to describe the fuller story as it is now emerging. This is from his opening statement today. Noting, first, that the first set of hearings established that techniques from the Defense Department's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) program had been reverse-engineered by military psychologists into an "exploitation" or torture program of purported interrogation techniques, Levin continued:
While some have claimed that detainee abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere were simply the result of a few bad apples acting on their own, at our June hearing we heard that as far back as December 2001, senior Department of Defense officials, including from General Counsel William J. “Jim” Haynes’s office, sought out information from the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), the DoD agency responsible for overseeing SERE training. We heard how, when he later reviewed a request from Guantanamo Bay (GTMO) to use techniques similar to those used in SERE training, Mr. Haynes ignored strong concerns from the military services that some of the techniques were illegal, cut short an effort by the Legal Counsel to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to conduct a legal and policy review of the techniques, and recommended that the Secretary of Defense approve most of them for use against detainees. In December 2002, Secretary Rumsfeld approved Mr. Haynes’s recommendation, sending the message that stripping detainees, placing them in stress positions, and using dogs to intimidate them was acceptable. Policies authorizing some of those same abusive techniques in Afghanistan and Iraq followed the Secretary’s decision. We’ll hear this morning how one military commander in Iraq sought and obtained interrogation support from JPRA, an agency whose expertise, again, is in teaching soldiers to resist abusive interrogations conducted by our enemies.
"Strong concerns" from some in the military about the illegality of the techniques; the spiking of an internal legal and policy review; the migration of SERE techniques to Iraq, demolishing the official narrative that the torture at Abu Ghraib was the work of a few bad apples; these are only some of the juicy items awaiting reporters and other intrepid investigators who pursue the documents coming out of today's hearing.

"We stand ready to assist..."

Of course, I was pleased to see that my insistence on taking the Bush Administration's torture timeline back to December 2001, following upon Lt. Col. (Ret.) Baumgartner's revelations at the last SASC hearing, is gratifying. I will not, however, dwell upon this too long. Whatever reason the committee was not able to emphasize this earlier is far secondary to the truth as it is now emerging.

But the one document produced from the December 2001 contact -- a fax cover sheet from the Pentagon's Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), sent from "Lt. Col. Dan Baumgartner" to "Mr. Richard Shiffrin," who worked for Haynes's in Rumsfeld's DoD General Council office -- introduces a theme of aggressive courting by JPRA/SERE personnel to take on the interrogations/exploitation task:
Mr. Shiffrin --
Here's our spin on exploitation. If you need experts to facilitate this process, we stand ready to assist. There are not many in DoD outside of JPRA that have the level of expertise we do in exploitation and how to resist it.
This theme of JPRA pushing SERE expertise surfaces in Iraq a little less than two years later. A September 9, 2003 email from Col. Randy Moulton, Commander of JPRA to Col. Mike Okita and a redacted addressee (could this be Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who, coming from his command in Guantanamo, on September 9 was just concluding his evaluation of interrogation procedures in Iraq) again makes the same point about JPRA "expertise". (For a sample of this expertise, check out my earlier essay, "Nuts & Bolts: How U.S. Organized Torture Program.")
There is a strong synergy between the fundamentals of both missions (resistance training and interrogation). Both rely heavily on environmental conditions, captivity psychology, and situation dominance and control. While I think this probably lies within DHS responsibility lines, recent history (to include discussions with DHS, USSOCOM, CIA) shows that no DoD entity has a firm grasp on any comprehensive approach to strategic debriefing/interrogation. Our subject matter experts (and certain Service SERE psychologist) have the most knowledge and depth within DoD on the captivity environment and exploitation.
I would remind my readers here that SERE exploitation famously includes the use of physical assault, stress positions, forced nudity, sleep deprivation, sensory overload, and other forms of physical and psychological torture.

The treasure chest of interviews and documents that came out of the today's hearings will keep me and other investigators plenty busy in days to come. I'm certain I, for instance, will have more to say about this "certain Service SERE psychologist" in the near future. (Is he Bruce Jessen, implicated in earlier investigations as propagating SERE techniques to interrogators, and as a then-member of JPRA, a recipient of an April 2002 email from Moulton?)

Stay tuned.

How the Mainstream Press Covered Today's Hearings

Meanwhile, the New York Times and the Washington Post both already have their own stories out on today's hearings.

From the NY Times piece, written by Mark Mazzetti:
WASHINGTON — Senior White House officials played a central role in deliberations in the spring of 2002 about whether the Central Intelligence Agency could legally use harsh interrogation techniques while questioning an operative of Al Qaeda, Abu Zubaydah, according to newly released documents....
The meetings were led by Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, and attended by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Attorney General John Ashcroft and other top administration officials....
Mr. Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said the new documents showed that top Bush administration officials were more actively engaged in the debate about the limits of lawful interrogation than the White House had previously acknowledged.

“So far, there has been little accountability at higher levels,” Mr. Levin said.
The Washington Post story, written by Joby Warrick, amplifies this aspect of the story:
The details of the controversial program were discussed in multiple meetings inside the White House over a two-year period, triggering concerns among several officials who worried that the agency's methods might be illegal or violate anti-torture treaties, according to separate statements signed by Rice and her top legal adviser.

"I expressed concern that the proposed CIA interrogation techniques comply with applicable U.S. law, including our international obligations," John B. Bellinger III, legal adviser to Rice at the State Department and formerly her top legal aide at the National Security Council, said in written answers to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee....

The written accounts specifically name former attorney general John D. Ashcroft and former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld as participants in the discussions...
The noose is tightening around the criminals who brazenly thought they could get away with torturing individuals with impunity. I am heartened by today's hearings that moral elements within both civil and military departments of government, and in society generally, will not let this terrible blot on our country go unanswered. To do so would be to fall into the abyss. We've looked into that deep, dizzying vortex lately, and I don't think any of us likes what we see.

Also posted at Invictus

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Saturday, August 02, 2008

Why the Silence on Real Torture Timeline?

Posted by Valtin at 2:44 PM |

Last month, I examined the testimony from the Senate Armed Services Committee hearings on interrogations and torture. The hearings concentrated on the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) program, and its use of military psychologists hired by the CIA to "reverse-engineer" SERE program elements for use in coercive interrogations by the United States at Guantanamo Bay prison and elsewhere.

The timelines constructed out of this testimony and ancillary documentary evidence showed the Department of Defense turned to SERE for help in interrogating "enemy combatants" in July 2002. At least, that seems the case if you follow the summary given by SASC Committee Chair, Senator Carl Levin, adhered to in subsequent reports by every other journalist (but one).

Except, the timeline was wrong, and that fact is available for anyone to read in black and white. It was also admitted, grudgingly, by Levin himself, in an exchange with me during a "liveblog" session at Firedoglake.

As I wrote in my June 23 article:
While Senator Levin gives a fairly thorough presentation of how SERE techniques migrated to Guantanamo, including discussions and meetings and when they took place, and descriptions (at least in the documents released by the committee) of what kind of techniques were being taught, one date is inexplicably left out which Lt. Col. Baumgarten gave in his testimony. [Baumgarten is former Chief of Staff of Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) for the Department of Defense, and administratively responsible for the SERE program.] Levin concentrates upon the late July 2002 request by Richard Shiffrin, a Deputy General Counsel in the Department of Defense, for information on SERE techniques and their effects upon prisoners.... But Baumgarten's own opening statement gives a more nuanced, different story. From [Lt. Col. Baumgarten's] statement, as published online (bold emphasis added):
My recollection of my first communication with [Department of Defense] OGC [Office of General Counsel] relative to techniques was with Mr. Richard Shiffrin in July 2002. However, during my two interviews with Committee staff members last year I was shown documents that indicated I had some communication with Mr. Shiffrin related to this matter in approximately December 2001. Although I do not specifically recall Mr. Shiffrin’s request to the JPRA for information in late 2001, my previous interviews with Committee staff members and review of documents connected with Mr. Shiffrin’s December 2001 request have confirmed to me the JPRA, at that time, provided Mr. Shiffrin information related to this Committee’s inquiry. From what I reviewed last year with Committee staff members, the information involved the exploitation process and historical information on captivity and lessons learned.
Now something is very strange here, as Levin's own staff appear to have documents indicating DoD was asking about SERE techniques in December 2001, eight months before the July 2002 request everyone else is concentrating on. Why this gap? My guess is that it would take us even closer to the Oval Office than Levin or anyone else wants to go at this point. Where are these documents on the December 2001 request? Why did no one on the committee question Baumgarten about this issue during the hearings?
Senator Levin Responds

Learning that Carl Levin was to participate in a "liveblog" discussion at Firedoglake on July 15, I showed up to ask my questions. What follows are my questions and Sen. Levin's responses.
[Valtin:] Sen. Levin, Your timeline for SERE interjection into U.S. torture training goes to July 2002. But Lt. Col. Baumgarten’s own statement indicates that he was approached by Shiffren (or others?) in December 2001. This is verified, supposedly, by documents your committee staffers showed him.

Why are these documents not released? Why isn’t this Dec. 2001 part of the timeline emphasized? Would not this early of an approach to use SERE for reverse-engineering purposes put some in the Administration in greater legal jeopardy, as the OLC rulings on detainees did not come until early 2002?
[Levin:] Lt. Col. Baumgartner did so testify at our hearing. However information relating to his discussions with Shiffrin remains classified. When our report is finalized we will press the DoD to declassify this matter.
[Valtin:] Thank you for your response, Sen. Levin. I suspected this was the case. Can you comment on the significance of a timeline that begins in December 2001 instead of July 2002, as that would help educate the public as to why such documents should be declassified. DoD could certainly do their usual redactions for security purposes. Or is it not just DoD we are talking about here?

Also, Sen. Levin, why wait until your report is “finalized” to press for declassification? That could be many months from now. Why not ask for declassification… now?
[Levin:] We have many pending requests for declassification, and we’re not waiting for our report to be finalized to ask for declassification of numerous documents. The Yoo memo is an example of where we put maximum pressure on for declassification. There is only one minute left in the roll call, so I have to run. Thanks for joining me today.
I hope the reader notices the care with which Sen. Levin made his remarks. He said nothing about the significance of the Baumgartner revelations. He also answered my complaint about the lassitude in pursuing declassification of the relevant documents with a huffy protestation of how the committee is pursuing the declassification of "numerous documents" -- though not necessarily the ones in their possession showing Pentagon OCG approaches to SERE re "the exploitation process" and the "lessons" of captivity and torture interrogation in December 2001.

The Importance of the Timeline

Why bury the information on the December 2001 portion of the timeline, moving the supposedly relevant first approach to SERE to July 2002? The answer is quite simple: the Administration had not gotten all its legal ducks in a row by December 2001, a time when the first detainees, such as so-called "American Taliban", John Walker Lindh, were being captured and tortured by U.S. interrogators in Afghanistan.
Lindh was found barely alive, shot in the leg, and suffering from dehydration, hypothermia and frostbite. Although Lindh was seriously wounded, starving, freezing, and exhausted, U.S. soldiers blindfolded and handcuffed him naked, scrawled “shithead” across the blindfold, duct-taped him to a stretcher for days in an unheated and unlit shipping container, threatened him with death, and posed with him for pictures. Parts of his ordeal were captured on videotape.
From the very beginning of the U.S. "war on terror", post-9/11, Bush Administration lawyers, led by David Addington (as argued so persuasively in Jane Mayer's new book, The Dark Side), looked for ways to deny U.S. and internationally recognized rights to prisoners caught up in the anti-terrorist dragnet and ongoing military operations.

Ultimately, President George W. Bush denied that even minimal Geneva Conventions protections applied to the "illegal enemy combatants" captured by the U.S. Subsequently, in an infamous set of memos written by Addington, Jay Bybee, Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, and others, long-standing protections against torture and cruel, unusual, and inhumane treatment were taken away from the burgeoning population of prisoners, imprisoned now in ad hoc bases in Afghanistan, held on prison ships, and some subsequently either sent via "extraordinary rendition" to be tortured by foreign "allies", held incommunicado in secret CIA prisons, or shipped to the new U.S. prison constructed at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba.

On February 7, 2002, Bush signed an executive order outlining treatment of al-Qaida and Taliban detainees:
Pursuant to my authority as commander in chief and chief executive of the United States, and relying on the opinion of the Department of Justice dated January 22, 2002, and on the legal opinion rendered by the attorney general in his letter of February 1, 2002, I hereby determine as follows:

a. I accept the legal conclusion of the Department of Justice and determine that none of the provisions of Geneva apply to our conflict with al-Qaida in Afghanistan or elsewhere throughout the world because, among other reasons, al-Qaida is not a High Contracting Party to Geneva.

b. I accept the legal conclusion of the attorney general and the Department of Justice that I have the authority under the Constitution to suspend Geneva as between the United States and Afghanistan, but I decline to exercise that authority at this time. Accordingly, I determine that the provisions of Geneva will apply to our present conflict with the Taliban. I reserve the right to exercise the authority in this or future conflicts.

c. I also accept the legal conclusion of the Department of Justice and determine that common Article 3 of Geneva does not apply to either al-Qaida or Taliban detainees, because, among other reasons, the relevant conflicts are international in scope and common Article 3 applies only to "armed conflict not of an international character."

d. Based on the facts supplied by the Department of Defense and the recommendation of the Department of Justice, I determine that the Taliban detainees are unlawful combatants and, therefore, do not qualify as prisoners of war under Article 4 of Geneva. I note that, because Geneva does not apply to our conflict with al-Qaida, al-Qaida detainees also do not qualify as prisoners of war.
A list of the Bush Administration documents on interrogation can be found at this Washington Post web page, including the January 22, 2002 memo written by Assistant Attorney General Jay S. Bybee and addressed to White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales and the Pentagon's general counsel, William J. Haynes II. Bybee argued that that the War Crimes Act and the Geneva Convention did not apply to al Qaeda prisoners; the August 1, 2002 memo to White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales from Jay S. Bybee of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel concluded that techniques used to interrogate al Qaeda operatives would not violate a 1984 international treaty prohibiting torture", and others documents not mentioned here. (Of course, the WP list doesn't include new memos recently declassified, at least in part, as part of the ACLU Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the government.)

The crucial point about all these memos and executive orders is that they come after the December 2001 approach by officials of the Department of Defense looking -- against all national and international laws, treaties and covenants then in effect -- how to torture prisoners held by the United States. Keeping the "timeline" safely within the July 2002 parameter provides a veneer of legal cover, as flimsy as it might be (since torture is always illegal, and it's not clear that even the Bybee, Yoo, and other memos will protect administration officials against prosecution for war crimes, at least by international tribunal).

While I am no attorney, I strongly believe the December 2001 origin of the timeline exposes officials in the U.S. government to prosecution for war crimes by both domestic and international bodies. Congressional officials, and first among them the members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, have not seen fit to seriously address their watchdog role, satisfying themselves with toothless votes of censure, limited hang-out investigations, and a refusal to pursue impeachment against Bush and Cheney.

A Call to Activists, Attorneys, and Journalists

The December 2001 Baumgartner documents are not going to be declassified, at least not in any timely way, unless public pressure is put upon the government to do so. One little blogger is not going to be enough to push back against bureaucratic inaction and/or obstructionism. Why important reporters and/or press or bloggers have not picked up on this is beyond me, but I will withhold judgment on that score for the time being, if only the delay in coverage is remedied soon.

The smoking gun is out there. And even if these documents do not turn out to be the smoking gun I think they are, the need to know our history for the last seven years, to come to terms with how the U.S. became a torturing nation, demands that we know the truth.

Senator Levin, release the documents from December 2001 that discuss any or all approaches by government officials to Lt. Col. Baumgartner, or other SERE or JPRA individuals or bodies regarding the "exploitation" or interrogation of prisoners in U.S. custody.
Senator Carl Levin can be reached at 269 Russell Office Building, U.S. Senate, Washington, DC 20510-2202. His email link is here. His telephone number is (202) 224-6221; Fax (202) 224-1388; TTY (202) 224-2816.
Also posted at Invictus

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Nuts & Bolts: How U.S. Organized Torture Program

Posted by Valtin at 11:25 PM |

The Armed Services Committee's hearings last week on interrogation and torture gave us a startling look into how torture was taught at the Naval Prison at Guantanamo Bay. Most articles have not bothered to look deeply into what was discussed in meetings between officials of the Navy's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, or SERE, program and ranking officers and personnel at Guantanamo. This article will look in some detail at what actually occurred. (At the end, I will address an important correction and clarification to an earlier article on SERE.)

As Mark Benjamin writes in his "timeline to Bush government torture":
Soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Pentagon and the CIA began an orchestrated effort to tap expertise from the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape school, for use in the interrogation of terrorist suspects. The U.S. military's SERE training is designed to inoculate elite soldiers, sailors and airmen to torture, in the event of their capture, by an enemy that would violate the Geneva Conventions. Those service members are subjected to forced nudity, stress positions, hooding, slapping, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation and, yes, in some cases, waterboarding.
In an article the other day, I described some of SERE's rocky history, and indicated that by testimony of Lt. Col. Baumgarten, Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) for the Department of Defense, which administers SERE, he was approached by an official of the defense department for information on SERE techniques as early as December 2001. This places DoD interest in possibly reverse-engineering of SERE techniques prior to the January 9 memo by John Yoo providing legal cover to Bush administration assertions that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to detainees held in the new war in Afghanistan. In addition, it predates the January 25 memo by Alberto Gonzales, then a presidential counsel, approving the Yoo argument, and stating that when it came to interrogation of enemy prisoners, the Geneva conventions' "strict limitations on questioning" such prisoners was now obsolete.

In my opinion, and no one has been able to convince me otherwise (although I am no attorney), the query to Baumgarten in December 2001 may be sufficient evidence of war crimes, even by the twisted logic of the White House, who first wanted to torture, and then later dream up the legal justification for it. The only catch -- that no one catch them red-handed in the interim. I again encourage Senator Levin to release the documents that Lt. Col. Baumgarten says convinced him that he had been approached in December 2001. So far Levin and his committee have focused on the approach to SERE in July 2002. Why?

A Course in Torture

SERE training specialists arrived in Guantanamo in late December 2002. A copy of a SERE interrogation Standard Operating Procedure was circulated to camp officials. (All quotes from this and other documents can be found in the document release by SASC made coincident with last week's hearings.)

Most of this SERE SOP remains classified. The memo that accompanied it has been declassified, however:
Subj: GUIDELINES FOR EMPLOYING "SERE" MANAGEMENT TECHNIQUES DURING DETAINEE INTERROGATIONS....

The premise behind this is that the interrogation tactics used at U.S. military SERE schools are appropriate for use in real-world interrogations. These tactics and techniques are used at SERE school to "break" SERE detainees. The same tactics and techniques can by used to break real detainees during interrogation operations.
The document goes on to mandate SERE-related training for all instructors. The policy memo is approved by the Chief of Interrogation Control Element (ICE), Lt. Col. Ted Moss, Major Geoffrey Miller, Commanding General, Joint Task Force, Guantanamo, and a third colonel whose name I cannot read on the document as it is reproduced.

The SASC produced a small extract from the SERE SOP, dated December 18, 2002. It describes the use of "Degradation Tactics", including slaps to the shoulder, and stomach; something called an "Insult Slap"; and Stripping. In addition, it lists "Physical Debilitation Tactics", specifically "Stress Positions", including variations for kneeling, sitting, standing, something called "Head Rest Index Finger Position", and another one titled "Worship-the-Gods". Finally, the SOP commands "Demonstrate Omnipotence Tactics", via "Manhandling" and "Walling".

That would be all we know from government sources, if it weren't for an extraordinary memo by two SERE specialists written to the Officer in Charge at "FASOTRAGRULANT Det Burnswick". These two officers, John Rankin and Christopher Ross, say they were "directed to proceed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba at the request of LtCol [sic] Moss, Commander of the Interrogation Control Unit." It was their "impression" they were to provide "the theory and application of... physical pressures utilized during our training" to Gitmo interrogators. Utilizing the original SERE SOP, a training plan was worked up. The SERE trainers focused on "resistance", as it was believed that some of the high-profile detainees had undergone their own kind of resistance training, "as evidenced by the Al Queda Training Manual". The memo continues:
On the morning of 31 Dec 02, Mr. Ross and I initiated training with an in-depth class on Biderman's Principles, and the theory and practical application of selected physical pressures, [unclear word, maybe "IAW"] our "Blue Book", to approximately 24 ICE personnel. This training was conducted in one of the newly constructed interrogation facilities located at Camp Delta. During this training it was stressed that the physical pressures are only a part of the overall conditioning process designed to establish and maintain an effective captive management program.
After complaining about security glitches at Guantanamo, and rental car availability ("Future trips should utilize Enterprise Rental"), the memo concludes:
Recommend that future trainers, if requested, be thoroughly prepared to discuss and explain Biderman's Principles and captive management techniques.
Biderman, Brainwashing, and U.S. Torture

Some readers may be familiar with Biderman's "Chart of Coercion", as it has been well-circulated on cult deprogrammer websites for years. The original is supposedly from a 1970's Amnesty International publication on torture. The version released by the SASC -- originally an enclosure to Moss and Rankin's memo discussed above -- is very blurry and difficult to read. But it is almost word for word identical to this version published on the web, and can profitably be compared together.

Albert Biderman was a social psychologist who worked with the government debriefing POWs from the Korean War. At the time there was a huge controversy because many of these POWs were said to be collaborators, and some had told their captors that the U.S. had bombed Korea and China with biological weapons, a definite war crime. The U.S. called it "brainwashing" and began a crash program trying to understand the nuts and bolts of so-called mind control. Biderman became one of the outstanding researchers in this effort. In the early 1960s, he edited with a colleague a collection of research papers by psychologists and psychiatrists encapsulating the subject and entitled it "The Manipulation of Human Behavior." (Also see this review of MHB.)

Biderman became one of the premier experts in interrogation, both of the rapport-building and coercive types. Much of the knowledge gleaned by he and his collaborators was encapsulated in the "Chart of Coercion", or what SERE calls "Coercive Management Techniques". What are these techniques?

1. Isolation: This deprives the prisoner of all social support and "ability to resist". While turning the prisoner upon his own resources, it "makes victim dependent upon interrogator" (quotes are from the SERE version). Furthermore, isolation can be complete, semi, or "group isolation".

2. Monopolisation of Perception: This means again "physical isolation. Darkness or bright light. Barren environment. Restricted movement. Monotonous food." The goal? To fixate the prisoner upon his "immediate predicament", the technique also "eliminates stimuli competing with those controlled by captor," frustrating all action "not consistent with compliance."

3. Induced Debilitation and Exhaustion: This is what it seems to be, i.e., a method to weaken a prisoners' "mental and physical ability to resist." Techniques include: "Semi-starvation. Exposure. Exploitation of wounds. Induced illness. Sleep deprivation. Prolonged constraint. Prolonged interrogation" and "over-exertion", among other practices (tortures!)

4. Threats: Which "cultivates anxiety and despair", including threats of death, non return, "endless interrogation and isolation", threats against family, and "mysterious changes of treatment".

5. Occasional indulgences: To provide positive motivation for compliance, it also has the effect of hindering "adjustment to deprivation."

6. Demonstrating "Omnipotence" and "Omniscience": The purpose of this is said to suggest to the prisoner the "futility of resistance". How is this done? By "demonstrating complete control over victim's fate". (And this, by the way, is a crucial way that the ban on habeas corpus for these prisoners, recently overturned by the Supreme Court, fed into the military's torture program, by demonstrating that there was no appeal to anyone.)

7. Degradation: This is where one finds the prevention of personal hygiene, the insults, taunts, "demeaning punishments" and "denial of privacy". The goal was to damage prisoner self esteem, making "capitulation" a lesser evil. It also "reduces the prisoner to 'animal level' concerns."

8. Enforcing Trivial Demands: Again the point is to develop compliance in the captive, and takes place through "enforcement of minute rules."

So there you have it, these are the "principles" the SERE instructors insisted future trainers for interrogators at Guantanamo (and since SERE instruction migrated to Iraq and Afghanistan as well, we can presume there as well) "be thoroughly prepared to discuss and explain".

If you aren't stunned by this point, you never will be. The hubris and ambition of the American imperial quest has reached it reductio ad absurdum in reducing those who oppose it to the "animal level", and making them objects of torture and omnipotent control. There are other aspects to this scandal that are worth reporting. For instance, Stephen Soldz has just written an excellent summary of the role of military psychologists and the American Psychological Association in all this.

My conclusion is only this: now that you've read this, what are you going to do about it? It's your society. Your leaders have proven impotent in stopping this activity, and the perpetrators have not been held accountable -- yet. Ask yourself, what will I do today, tomorrow, and the next day to stop this barbarity from eating up our society entirely, from destroying the entire social fabric.

A Final Correction and a Further Clarification

In my story the other day, Media & Gov't Torture Cover-up: Sen. Levin, Release the 12/01 SERE Docs, I wasn't sufficiently clear in my description about testimony from a 1960s Green Beret officer. I wrote:
Sergeant Donald W. Duncan, a former Green Beret who served in Vietnam, recipient of two Bronze Stars, the Legion of Merit, the Vietnamese Silver Star, the Army Air Medal, and sundry other decorations, testified at a "War Crimes" tribunal chaired by Bertrand Russell in the 1960s that SERE techniques had been taught to Special Forces interrogators for use in Vietnam....
From the Russell Copenhagen Tribunal testimony (pp.31-32) (bold emphasis added):
Duncan recounts an American instruction class for the Green Berets in "Counter-Measures to Hostile Interrogation" in which the techniques of hostile interrogation are presented in great detail but not any counter-measures, of which the instructor says there are none. A sergeant asks the instructor whether the only reason for teaching the class is for training in the use of the methods of interrogation (involving torture such as lowering of a prisoner's testicles into a jeweler's vise, mutilation, etc.). The instructor replies: "We can't tell you that, Sergeant Harrison. The Mothers of America wouldn't approve. Furthermore, we will deny that any such thing is taught or intended." D. DUNCAN, THE NEW LEGIONS 123-25 (Pocket Books ed. 1968). In his testimony before the Russell Tribunal, Duncan states that this dialogue is a word for word quote. RUSSELL TRIBUNAL, supra, at 463.
As a colleague kindly pointed out to me, the implication in my account is that SERE was involved in reverse-engineering their own techniques in order to teach torture to interrogators. In fact, Michael Otterman, in his book American Torture (where I first came across the Duncan story), writes:
...by the late 1950s US Army Special Forces had coopted coursework from SERE for more sinister purposes....

Sergeant Donald Duncan joined the Special Forces in 1959. At the time, Special Forces resistance training was held at Camp Mackall and was supplemented by classroom training at the Army's nearby Special Warfare School [SWS] at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. (pp. 39-40)
Otterman goes on to explain that Duncan was an interrogation instructor at the SWS. He also quotes from Duncan's Russell Committee testimony a more forceful description of how "counter-measure" instruction was used (p. 67 of AT):
The specific purpose for teaching this [at Fort Bragg] is so the student in turn, once he is put in another country, can teach these methods to what we refer to as an 'indigenous counterpart', somebody indigenous to the country. And he in turn then would become the interrogator... In Vietnam, of course, that would be the Vietnamese.
There are two important differences from the Duncan/Vietnam example and the current scandal over SERE and torture. One, the teaching of torture was done by instructors at Special Forces' Special Warfare School (although SERE techniques may also have been utilized there). Two, the ultimate recipients of the training were to be indigenous interrogators, or torturers. The current situation has SERE teaching their techniques to U.S. interrogators and personnel.

The main point remains, after all the distinctions are pulled away: the United States armed forces as a matter of policy have at various times utilized so-called counter-resistance techniques to be used by captured U.S. soldiers as a template for torture to be used on American enemy prisoners or political opponents. The situation with SERE is not new, but part of a military or national security culture that has lost its moral bearings and committed crimes for which they have never been held accountable. (This is not to downplay those portions of the military, as currently the military lawyers, who strenuously opposed this policy).

Originally posted at Invictus and The Public Record

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Media & Gov't Torture Cover-up: Sen. Levin, Release the 12/01 SERE Docs

Posted by Valtin at 9:37 PM |

Something very odd occurred during the hearings last week of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) on the use of torture against detainees. Something crucial was missed. But before we examine that, let's first examine how the so-called responsible U.S. press covered the revelations oozing out of Washington.

When the New York Times's Mark Mazzetti and Scott Shane wrote their June 18 article on the testimony in the SASC hearings on torture of detainees at U.S. prison sites, they made a tremendous blunder in the very first paragraph. (At least I am going to grant it was a mistake, and not something more sinister.)

Oh yes, Mazzetti and Shane made their primary point, i.e., that the CIA was heavily involved in shaping interrogation techniques to be used at Guantanamo Bay's Naval Prison for "enemy combatants." The documents released by the SASC reveal that discussions took place on the use of various torture techniques, on hiding prisoners from the prying eyes of the International Red Cross, and on how to hide evidence of these crimes from any future investigators.

For instance, the CIA representative at a "Counter Resistance Strategy Meeting" at Guantanamo on October 2, 2002, agreed with his compatriot from the Defense Intelligence Agency, that videotaping interrogations was a bad idea. "Subject to too much scrutiny in court," says Dave Becker, the DIA man. "Even totally legal techniques will look 'ugly'," adds John Fredman of the CIA. This discussion, by the way, took place only a visit to Guantanamo by CIA General Counsel John Rizzo, along with other high Bush officials, including then-counsel to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, William Haynes, and David Addington, counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney, among others.

Returning then to the New York Times reporting on the Senate hearings, we find this opening statement (emphasis added):
When military officers at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, struggled in the fall of 2002 to find ways to get terrorism suspects to talk, they turned to the one agency that had spent several months experimenting with the limits of physical and psychological pressure: the Central Intelligence Agency.
Several months! Mazzetti, Shane, and the New York Times fact-checking office is only off by a factor of 100. Not only has the CIA been studying and "experimenting with the limits of physical and psychological pressure" for year, not months, they have been doing so for over five decades!

It would appear that the mission of the New York Times is to provide limited but essential cover for the intelligence agencies in their work. This means publishing partial truths of particular events, but lying or covering up on all essential matters that could harm the agencies.

The same kind of lying about history -- something akin to the falsification work of George Orwell's "Ministry of Truth -- pops up in Scott Shane's NYT article today on the CIA interrogation of Khalid Shaikh Mohammad. The article repeats the lie that the CIA in 2002 -- the year that saw the invasion of Afghanistan, the stepped-up campaign to track down and apprehend "terrorists", and the planning for the invasion of Iraq -- was "an agency nearly devoid of expertise in detention and interrogation."

And yet the opposite was true: the CIA had studied the effects of abusive detention and interrogation more than almost any other agency in the government. The results of a multi-million dollar study into coercive interrogation techniques -- centered on a deconstruction of Soviet and Chinese interrogation, and adding in intense research focus on sensory deprivation, sensory overload, and the use of psychotropic drugs -- were brought together as early as 1962 by the CIA into manual form. Anyone who wishes can today read the CIA's "Kubark" manual online and convince themselves of this fact.

It is likely true that with the invasion of Afghanistan and the meglomaniacal campaign that is Bush's "global war on terror", there was a shortage of experienced interrogators in the CIA and military. As a result, officers in the field and politicians back in Washington turned to the only other governmental entity that had serious expertise in this subject: the SERE program.

SERE & the Propagation of Torture

SERE originated in the early 1950s after Air Force pilots captured in the Korean War confessed (or not, depending on whom you wish to believe) to U.S. use of biological weapons on civilian and military targets in that war. The scandal over the pilots' "confessions" (and other pro-communist statements or collaboration by POWs) led to a re-working of the language of the military's "Code of Conduct" and a crash course in the inoculation of American military personnel against so-called Communist" brainwashing".

SERE training contained abusive techniques even from the beginning. A Newsweek article on SERE from September 12, 1955 -- "Ordeal in the Desert: Making Tougher Soldiers to Resist Brainwashing" -- describes the use of isolation, imprisonment in a coffin, electroshock, lies and insults aimed race, religion and national origin, and physical abuse upon Air Force trainees, for the purpose of "stress inoculation." According to Mike Otterman's book, American Torture, brutality within SERE led to a temporary cessation of the program in the mid-1950s.

In the mid-1970s, a SERE student and Navy pilot, Wendell Young, sued the government for millions of dollars, alleging SERE training resulted in abuse and a broken back. He alleged students had been "tortured into spitting, urinating and defecating on the American flag, masturbating before guards, and, on one occasion, engaging in sex with an instructor." The Navy admitted the physical abuse (including "water torture"), but denied the sexual torture. As more was revealed, the deaths of at least two SERE students was reported during what a Navy commander described as training that amounted to "illusions of reality." (See Newsweek article, "Navy's Torture Camp", March 22, 1976 -- of course, this article is not available online, but a reference to the Young case can be found here.)

The use of SERE techniques as a template for training of interrogators in abusive methods of educing information, i.e., torture, is not anything new, either. Sergeant Donald W. Duncan, a former Green Beret who served in Vietnam, recipient of two Bronze Stars, the Legion of Merit, the Vietnamese Silver Star, the Army Air Medal, and sundry other decorations, testified at a "War Crimes" tribunal chaired by Bertrand Russell in the 1960s that SERE techniques had been taught to Special Forces interrogators for use in Vietnam. (Thanks to Mike Otterman, too, whose book drew my attention to this forgotten episode in U.S. history.)

From the Russell Copenhagen Tribunal testimony (pp.31-32) (bold emphasis added):
Duncan recounts an American instruction class for the Green Berets in "Counter-Measures to Hostile Interrogation" in which the techniques of hostile interrogation are presented in great detail but not any counter-measures, of which the instructor says there are none. A sergeant asks the instructor whether the only reason for teaching the class is for training in the use of the methods of interrogation (involving torture such as lowering of a prisoner's testicles into a jeweler's vise, mutilation, etc.). The instructor replies: "We can't tell you that, Sergeant Harrison. The Mothers of America wouldn't approve. Furthermore, we will deny that any such thing is taught or intended." D. DUNCAN, THE NEW LEGIONS 123-25 (Pocket Books ed. 1968). In his testimony before the Russell Tribunal, Duncan states that this dialogue is a word for word quote. RUSSELL TRIBUNAL, supra, at 463.
This is the history out of which the current controversies arose. One supposes that the average reporter knows none of this, but even worse, doesn't want to know about it, because the presentation of unvarnished truth by a major U.S. reporter would jeopardize his or her career. Once in awhile, a piece of the whole story is reported, but then its forgotten or never repeated, an evanescent flickering of the light behind the thick screen of media fog, quick to disappear, easily overlooked and forgotten, a moment of courageous utterance meant to salve a reporter's or editor's uneasy conscience.

What's more typical is the unconscious statement of disparate facts, which go unresearched and unexamined. Such was the case in Scott Shane's homage to a CIA "good guy" interrogator reference above. One has to go to the end of the article to find this:
But Mr. Martinez has not turned away entirely from his old world. He now works for Mitchell & Jessen Associates, a consulting company run by former military psychologists who advised the C.I.A. on the use of harsh tactics in the secret program.
Martinez, the purported interrogator of KSM, who is praised for using techniques of gaining rapport to get good information, and contrasted with those who would use torture techniques -- never mind that Martinez is introduced to KSM after he has been softened up with waterboarding, etc. -- is exposed as just another SERE-related asset, as Mitchell & Jessen have repeatedly been outed as involved in teaching torture to military interrogators, as even Scott Shane points out. But Shane only leaves this damaging piece of evidence for the end of the article, undoing the positive portrait he paints of his chosen CIA "good guy." And, of course, he never comments on the context this revelation brings to the entire piece.

The Baumgarten Revelations

Today, SERE is administratively part of Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) for the Department of Defense. JPRA is tasked with "personnel recovery mission." While Senator Levin gives a fairly thorough presentation of how SERE techniques migrated to Guantanamo, including discussions and meetings and when they took place, and descriptions (at least in the documents released by the committee) of what kind of techniques were being taught, one date is inexplicably left out which Lt. Col. Baumgarten gave in his testimony. Levin concentrates upon the late July 2002 request by Richard Shiffrin, a Deputy General Counsel in the Department of Defense, for information on SERE techniques and their effects upon prisoners. (Mark Benjamin follows Levin's outline of events at his otherwise impressive "Timeline to Bush Government Torture".)

But Baumgarten's own opening statement gives a more nuanced, different story. From his statement, as published online (bold emphasis added):
My recollection of my first communication with OGC relative to techniques was with Mr. Richard Shiffrin in July 2002. However, during my two interviews with Committee staff members last year I was shown documents that indicated I had some communication with Mr. Shiffrin related to this matter in approximately December 2001. Although I do not specifically recall Mr. Shiffrin’s request to the JPRA for information in late 2001, my previous interviews with Committee staff members and review of documents connected with Mr. Shiffrin’s December 2001 request have confirmed to me the JPRA, at that time, provided Mr. Shiffrin information related to this Committee’s inquiry. From what I reviewed last year with Committee staff members, the information involved the exploitation process and historical information on captivity and lessons learned.
Now something is very strange here, as Levin's own staff appear to have documents indicating DoD was asking about SERE techniques in December 2001, eight months before the July 2002 request everyone else is concentrating on. Why this gap? My guess is that it would take us even closer to the Oval Office than Levin or anyone else wants to go at this point. Where are these documents on the December 2001 request? Why did no one on the committee question Baumgarten about this issue during the hearings?

Senator Levin, I thank you for bringing this issue to the fore, and in pursuing many relevant leads. I also thank you for the release of many important documents. But, Senator Levin, what about the request on SERE techniques made of Lt. Col. Baumgarten in December 2001. He says your staff has the documents on this; in fact, they were used to refresh his memory.

Senator Levin, release all the documents!

Also posted at Invictus and The Public Record

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