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.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Submitting Evidence to the Spanish Court on U.S. Torture Plans

Posted by Valtin at 6:28 PM |

Scott Horton has reported that "Spanish prosecutors have decided to press forward with a criminal investigation targeting former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and five top associates over their role in the torture of five Spanish citizens held at Guantánamo." The others targeted are John Yoo, Jay Bybee, David Addington, Doug Feith and William Haynes.

I wrote a series on the issue of grounds for prosecution not too long ago. Now I'd like to help the Spanish prosecutors by supplying some basic evidence, courtesy of the Senate Armed Services Committee Report on "the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody", released late last year.

The rationale for the prosecution is established international law, the same sort of law that led to Spain charging August Pinochet for war crimes, led by the same Spanish judge that referred the Bush crew for possible prosecution, Baltasar Garzon.

Setting the Stage

As one reads the following, please keep in mind that there are many current controversies concerning memos written by Bush's Office of Legal Counsel that were meant to legitimize "aggressive" interrogation techniques and treatment of "war on terror" prisoners. Tomorrow, in fact, is the deadline set by a U.S. court for the release of some of these memos still kept secret, including one dated August 1, 2002 by Jay Bybee (or ghost-written by John Yoo and/or David Addington) giving legal approval to a host of "enhanced interrogation" techniques, including reportedly waterboarding.

The evidence I supply here predates that portion of the timeline. Whether or not Obama releases these memos, there is plenty of evidence to proceed with prosecutions. Jason Leopold reported at The Public Record last Saturday that the Department of Justice told the judge in the ACLU suit to "release documents related to 92 interrogation videotapes that were destroyed by the CIA in 2005" that they would only give information on videotapes going back to August 2002. But, as Leopold explains, the FBI Inspector General already documented FBI agent reports of "near torture" interrogations of prisoner Abu Zubaydah as far back as May 2002.

And now, of course, we also have the release of a previously secret report by the International Committee of the Red Cross documenting torture by the CIA.

But all that in good time, for now I want to discuss Department of Defense and Defense Intelligence Agency collaboration with the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency in plotting "exploitation" practices to be used by U.S. interrogators that would draw upon the torture training model of JPRA's SERE program. SERE is administratively part of Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) for the Department of Defense.

The timeline for this begins as early as December 2001, before, as the SASC report makes clear, Bush's presidential order, based on an opinion by Alberto Gonzales made as early as January 9, 2002, which "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." The pre-January 2002 timeline is crucial, as it stands outside, i.e., is prior to, all governmental attempts to cover their intent to torture, and to break international laws and treaties to which the government was signatory.

I humbly suggest that those with means forward what follows to the Spanish prosecutors, once the final announcement of warrants issued is made. The fact that we are still waiting, and the day has passed in Spain, and no warrants have been issued, speaks to the probable amount of strong political pressure from the U.S. exerted on Spain at this time. (For more details on how the struggle for prosecutions is playing out in the United States, including the role of Democratic Senators Feinstein and Rockefeller insisted that CIA torture suspects like Stephen Kappes, #2 at CIA now, were kept on in the Obama-Panetta reign, the better to stifle possible prosecutions of CIA officials -- such shutdown of prosecutions got a push from CIA Director, former Clinton staffer Leon Panetta last week -- see Glenn Greenwald's recent article.)

In what follows, I concentrate on a period at the very beginning of the Bush torture program's existence, as it came into being.

The Evidence

I have added in bold emphases where I felt appropriate, to guide the reader to the essential points. But I strongly recommend that those interested read not only the full quote herein, but the entire report.
(U) 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. While the President’s order stated that, as “a matter of policy, the United States Armed Forces shall continue to treat detainees humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of the Geneva Conventions,” the decision to replace well established military doctrine, i.e., legal compliance with the Geneva Conventions, with a policy subject to interpretation, impacted the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody.

(U) 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.

(U) JPRA is the DoD agency that oversees military Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape (SERE) training. During the resistance phase of SERE training, U.S. military personnel are exposed to physical and psychological pressures (SERE techniques) designed to simulate conditions to which they might be subject if taken prisoner by enemies that did not abide by the Geneva Conventions. As one JPRA instructor explained, SERE training is “based on illegal exploitation (under the rules listed in the 1949 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War) of prisoners over the last 50 years.” The techniques used in SERE school, based, in part, on Chinese Communist techniques used during the Korean war to elicit false confessions, include stripping students of their clothing, placing them in stress positions, putting hoods over their heads, disrupting their sleep, treating them like animals, subjecting them to loud music and flashing lights, and exposing them to extreme temperatures. It can also include face and body slaps and until recently, for some who attended the Navy’s SERE school, it included waterboarding.

(U) Typically, those who play the part of interrogators in SERE school neither are trained interrogators nor are they qualified to be. These role players are not trained to obtain reliable intelligence information from detainees. Their job is to train our personnel to resist providing reliable information to our enemies. As the Deputy Commander for the Joint Forces Command (JFCOM), JPRA’s higher headquarters, put it: “the expertise of JPRA lies in training personnel how to respond and resist interrogations – not in how to conduct interrogations.” 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 Exhibits

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. We only have the fax cover sheet at present. I have been informed that the full document is not available as it concerns a different governmental entity, one that did not sign off on declassification, as yet. Perhaps when the full unredacted SASC report is released, supposedly very soon now, we will be able to add another exhibit.
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.
"Mr. Shiffrin refers to Mr. Richard Shiffrin, who worked for William Haynes's in Donald Rumsfeld's DoD General Council office. Mr. Haynes is reportedly one of the officials the Spanish prosecutors intend to indict. Lt. Col. Dan Baumgartner was then head of JPRA.

In June 2008, Dan Baumgartner also gave testimony under oath to the Senate committee regarding the Dec. 2001 approach by DoD. From his testimony:
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.
The theme of JPRA promoting SERE expertise surfaces in Iraq a little less than two years after the first DoD approach. 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".
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.

Other Evidence: Re John Walker Lindh

Finally, I would like to suggest that there is at least one other piece of evidence related to this early use of torture and/or planning for torture. This concerns the report by Jesselyn Radack, a Justice Department attorney in 2001, tasked as a legal ethics advisor in DoJ's Professional Responsibility Advisory Office, with advising on the procedures surrounding the interrogation of the captured American John Walker Lindh in Afghanistan.

Radack wrote in 2007:
According to a secret document I obtained in June 2004, an Army intelligence officer "advised that before interviewing Lindh, instructions came from higher headquarters for him to coordinate with JSOTF [the Joint Special Operations Task Force] JAG officer. He was told . . . he could collect on anything criminal that was volunteered."

But Higher Headquarters told the intelligence office more than that. Rumsfeld's office told him not to handle Lindh with kid gloves. In a stunning revelation, the documents states: "The Admiral told him that the Secretary of Defense's counsel had authorized him to 'take the gloves off' and ask whatever he wanted." These instructions to get tough wth Lindh, contained in the document I have, are the earliest known evidence that the Bush Administration was willing to push the envelope on how far it could go to extract information from suspected terrorists.
Unfortunately, Ms. Radack does not supply the date for this document, or to whom it was addressed by the Army Intelligence officer in question. I'm sure that the Spanish court could obtain this document in full, if it so desired.

Concluding Remarks

Truly the evidence is massive for government malfeasance and crimes against humanity in the planning and use of torture and other cruel, inhumane, and degrading procedures against detainees held by both the Department of Defense and the CIA in the past eight years. Moreover, as documented by both myself and the Center for Constitutional Rights, a program that maintains illegal interrogation methods persists within current U.S. procedures, primarily, though not limited to, the use of techniques like isolation, partial sensory deprivation, and sleep deprivation, in Appendix M of the current Army Field Manual.

I congratulate the Spanish prosecutors in advance for taking on this crucial litigation, if in fact the warrants are finally issued. The U.S. is also bound by both domestic and international law to take up prosecutions, and it is a serious dereliction of law and duty of the highest order that this has not already occurred.

I hope either Spanish, or other, including U.S. prosecutors, take up the evidence I have presented here as telling documentation of U.S. official plans to subvert the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture, if not the U.S. War Crimes Act, and to have done so prior to the issuance of any executive office legal opinions that would have made it supposedly legitimate (an assertion to any legitimacy I also believe to be without merit).

U.S. readers of this should flood the DoJ offices with demands to initiate prosecutions forthwith. The rule of law is at stake. If the highest officials in the land can break the most serious laws with impunity, then there is no rule of law. There is only tyranny.

Also posted at Invictus

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Minutes from a Torturers' Meeting at Guantanamo

Posted by Valtin at 1:22 PM |

What follows below was transcribed from a PDF of the original document (or a copy of same), posted on the website of Senator Carl Levin, Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee. It, along with a wealth of other documentation, was used in preparing the SASC's highly critical report late last year on interrogations and detainee treatment, which concluded that high officials bore responsibility for the mistreatment and torture of prisoners under U.S. control.

The document below constitutes the minutes from a meeting held at Guantanamo in early autumn, 2002. It is presented with minimal editorial comment, as I believe it speaks for itself. So far as I know, no other transcription of this document, minus certain excerpts, has ever been published or posted before. It is done so here as a public service, to promote the position that prosecution of the government's torture crimes is of paramount importance.

Cast of characters:
Lt. Col. Diane Beaver, the Staff Judge Advocate at Guantanamo; Lt. Col. Jerald Phifer, who sent a memo to Maj. Gen. Michael E. Dunlavey, Commander of Joint Task Force (JTF) 170, requesting approval for more "severe interrogation techniques" (Dunleavy told a superior that Phifer was his "point of contact" on interrogation matters); Major John Leso, a military psychologist, who was present at the torture interrogation of Mohammed al-Qahtani(Leso, like Major Burney in the minutes, were members of the Behavioral Science Consultation Team [BSCT] -- Burney is reportedly a psychiatrist -- last month, the Convening Authority of Military Commissions at Guantanamo dropped the charges against al-Qahtani, concluding his treatment amounted to torture); Dave Becker, representing the Defense Intelligence Agency; and John Fredman, then chief counsel to the CIA's counter-terrorism center.

I'd like to make only two observations that I think are relevant at this point. One, it is clear that coercive interrogations amounting to torture had already begun at Guantanamo prior to this October 2002 meeting. In the document itself, the participants have a general discussion recalling how prisoner "063", Mohammed al-Qahtani, "has responded to certain types of deprivation and psychological stressors," indicating, perhaps, that al-Qahtani was some kind of experimental test case. (H/T to Trudy Bond, who noted this fact in an article published at Counterpunch earlier this year.)

Secondly, it struck me when transcribing these minutes the degree to which John Fredman, the CIA legal counsel and rep to this meeting, dominated the discussion. All the participants seem to bow to his authority, especially on legal issues, with Lt. Col. Beaver chiming in as well. While the BSCT members -- who are the medical professionals present -- appear to criticize "fear-based" interrogations techniques at the beginning of the meeting, in favor of rapport-building, as well as abusive environmental "approaches," as the discussion veers more and more to propositions regarding blatant torture, like the "wet towel" (waterboarding) technique, nary a protest is heard from these individuals, who have by their actions disavowed the ethics of their medical and/or psychological professions.

One final note: the acronym LEA refers to Law Enforcement Agency, and basically refers to the FBI. The acronym SERE, which appears throughout, refers to the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape program found in the various military branches. Meant to inoculate U.S. servicemen against the rigors of enemy capture and torture, Sen. Levin's investigation documented the various ways in which SERE methods were reverse-engineered to provide torture techniques for use by the military and CIA on prisoners held under U.S. control. So far as we know, the first approach by the Defense Department (specifically, by DoD Chief Counsel William J. Haynes, II) to the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, parent department for SERE, regarding information on SERE techniques, was in December 2001, well before any legal memo by Bush's Office of Legal Counsel allowing (illegally) for abusive treatment of detainees. There can be no alibi that DoD was following legal advice or protected by presidential order at that point in time.

Re transcription: I have tried to follow as much as possible the layout, spelling, punctuation, and font emphasis of the original. Bullets have been changed to asterisks, arrows to long dashes. All brackets and parentheses are as in original, unless otherwise indicated.
Counter Resistance Strategy Meeting Minutes

Persons in Attendance:

COL Cummings, LTC Phifer, CDR Bridges, LTC Beaver, MAJ Burney, MAJ Leso, Dave Becker, John Fredman, 1LT Seek, SPC Pimentel

The following notes were taken during the aforementioned meeting at 1340 on October 2, 2002. All questions and comments have been paraphrased:

BSCT Description of SERE Psych Training (MAJ Burney and MAJ Leso)

* Identify trained resisters
      * Al Qaeda Training

* Methods to overcome resistance
      * Rapport building (approach proven to yield positive results)
      * Friendly approach (approach proven to yield positive results)
      * Fear Based Approaches are unreliable, ineffective in almost all cases

* What's more effective than fear based strategies are camp-wide environmental stratetgies designed to disrupt cohesion and communication among detainees
      * Environment should foster dependence and compliance

LTC Phifer: Harsh techniques used on our service members have worked and will work on some, what about those?

MAJ Leso: Force is risky, and may be ineffective due to the detainees' frame of reference. They are used to seeing much more barbaric treatment.

Becker: Agreed.

-- At this point a discussion about ISN 63 [Mohammed al-Qahtani] ensued, recalling how he has responded to certain types of deprivation and psychological stressors. After short discussion the BSCT continued to address the overall manipulation of the detainees' environment.

BSCT continued:

* Psychological stressors are extremely effective (ie, sleep deprivation, withholding food, isolation, loss of time)

COL Cummings: We can't do sleep deprivation

LTC Beaver: Yes, we can -- with approval.

* Disrupting the normal camp operations is vital. We need to create an environment of "controlled chaos"

LTC Beaver: We may need to curb the harsher operations while ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross -- added by transcriber] is around. It is better not to expose them to any controversial techniques. We must have the support of the DOD.

Becker: We have had many reports from Bagram about sleep deprivation being used.

LTC Beaver: True, but officially it is not happening. It is not being reported officially. The ICRC is a serious concern. They will be in and out, scrutinizing our operations, unless they are displeased and decide to protest and leave. This would draw a lot of negative attention.

COL Cummings: The new PSYOP plan has been passed up the chain

LTC Beaver: It's at J3 at SOUTHCOM.

Fredman: The DOJ has provided much guidance on this issue. The CIA is not held to the same rules as the military. In the past when the ICRC has made a big deal about certain detainees, the DOD has "moved" them away from the attention of the ICRC. Upon questioning from the ICRC about their whereabouts, the DOD's response has repeatedly been that the detainee merited no status under the Geneva Convention. The CIA has employed aggressive techniques on less than a handful of suspects since 9/11.

Under the Torture Convention, torture has been prohibited by international law, but the language of the statutes is written vaguely. Severe mental and physical pain is prohibited. The mental part is explained as poorly as the physical. Severe physical pain described as anything causing permanent damage to major organs or body parts. Mental torture described as anything leading to permanent, profound damage to the senses or personality. It is basically subject to perception. If the detainee dies you're doing it wrong. So far, the techniques we have addressed have not proven to produce these types of results, which in a way challenges what the BSCT paper says about not being able to prove whether these techniques will lead to permanent damage. Everything on the BSCT white paper is legal from a civilian standpoint. [Any questions of severe weather or temperature conditions should be deferred to medical staff.] Any of the techniques that lie on the harshest end of the spectrum must be performed by a highly trained individual. Medical personnel should be present to treat any possible accidents. The CIA operates without military intervention. When the CIA has wanted to use more aggressive techniques in the past, the FBI has pulled their personnel from theatre. In those rare instances, aggressive techniques have proven very helpful.

LTC Beaver: We will need documentation to protect us

Fredman: Yes, if someone dies while aggressive techniques are being used, regardless of cause of death, the backlash of attention would be extremely detrimental. Everything must be approved and documented.

Becker: LEA personnel will not participate in harsh techniques

LTC Beaver: There is no legal reason why LEA personnel cannot participate in these operations

-- At this point a discussion about whether or not to video tape the aggressive sessions, or interrogations at all ensued.

Becker: Videotapes are subject to too much scrutiny in court. We don't want the LEA people in aggressive sessions anyway.

LTC Beaver: LEA choice not to participate in these types of interrogations is more ethical and moral as opposed to legal.

Fredman: The videotaping of even totally legal techniques will look "ugly".

Becker: (Agreed)

Fredman: The Torture Convention prohibits torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment. The US did not sign up on the second part, because of the 8th amendment (cruel and unusual punishment), but we did sign the part about torture. This gives us more license to use more controversial techniques.

LTC Beaver: Does SERE employ the "wet towel" technique?

Fredman: If a well-trained individual is used to perform [sic] this technique it can feel like you're drowning. The lymphatic system will react as if you're suffocating, but your body will not cease to function. It is very effective to identify phobias and use them (ie, insects, snakes, claustrophobia). The level of resistance is directly related to person's experience.

MAJ Burney: Whether or not significant stress occurs lies in the eye of the beholder. The burden of proof is the big issue. It is very difficult to disprove someone else's PTSD.

Fredman: These techniques need involvement from interrogators, psych, medical, legal, etc.

Becker: Would we blanket approval or would it be case by case?

Fredman: The CIA makes the call internally on most of the types of techniques found in the BSCT paper, and this discussion. Significantly harsh techniques are approved through the DOJ.

LTC Phifer: Who approves ours? The CG? SOUTHCOM CG?

Fredman: Does the Geneva Convention apply? The CIA rallied for it not to.

LTC Phifer: Can we get DOJ opinion about these topics on paper?

LTC Beaver: Will it go from DOJ to DOD?

LTC Phifer: Can we get to see a CIA request to use advanced aggressive techniques?

Fredman: Yes, but we can't provide you with a copy. You will probably be able to look at it.
An example of a different perspective on torture is Turkey. In Turkey they say that interrogation at all, or anything you do to that results in the subject betraying his comrades is torture.

LTC Beaver: In the BSCT paper it says something about "imminent threat of death",...

Fredman The threat of death is also subject to scrutiny, and should be handled on a case by case basis. Mock executions don't work as well as friendly approaches, like letting someone write a letter home, or providing them with an extra book.

Becker: I like the part about ambient noise.

-- At this point a discussion about the ways to manipulate the environment ensued, and the following ideas were offered:

* Medical visits should be scheduled randomly, rather than on a set system
* Let detainee rest just long enough to fall asleep and wake him up about every thirty minutes and tell him it's time to pray again
* More meals per day induce loss of time
* Truth serum; even though it may not actually work, it does have a placebo effect.

Meeting ended at 1450.

***********
The Immediate Aftermath

It is worth noting some of the administrative responses to this meeting. On October 11, a week after the Counter Resistance Strategy Meeting, LTC Jerald Phifer wrote a request to Major General Michael B. Dunleavy, Commander at Guantanamo, requesting use of Counter-Resistance Strategy techniques. He divided them into three categories of intensity.

Category I included direct approach and rapport building techniques, but also false identification of national identity of the interrogator, yelling at the detainee, and "techniques of deception." Category II techniques included use of stress position, isolation up to 30 days, light/auditory deprivation, 20 hour interrogations, nudity, hooding, and use of phobias "to induce stress." Category III techniques included the "wet towel" (waterboarding) treatment, threats of death to the prisoner or his family, and exposure to cold.

On the same day, the Staff Judge Advocate at Guantanamo, LTC Diane E. Beaver, wrote a legal brief that concluded "the proposed strategies do not violate federal law." She did suggest, though, that Category II and III techniques undergo further legal review "prior to their commencement." Still on the same day, Maj. Gen. Dunleavy wrote a memo to the Commander of U.S. Southern Command asking for approval of the techniques. He concluded, without exception, that "these techniques do not violate U.S. or international laws.

On October 25, 2002, General James T. Hill, Commander at SOUTHCOM, forwarded the request to use the techniques to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While he worried about the legality of some of th Category III techniques, particularly the death threats, he urged them to consider that he wanted "to have as many options as possible at my disposal."

A few days after that, on October 28, 2002, Mark Fallon, Deputy Commander at Criminal Investigation Task Force (CITF) sent a memo to a colleague. He was uneasy about what he had read in the Counter Resistance Strategy Meeting Minutes. He told his colleague the comments of Beaver and others "looks like the kinds of stuff Congressional hearings are made of." The techniques "seem to stretch beyond the bounds of legal propriety."
Quotes from LTC Beaver regarding things that are not being reported give the appearance of impropriety.... Talk of "wet towel treatments" which results in the lymphatic gland reacting as if you are suffocating, would in my opinion; shock the conscience of any legal body looking at using the results of the interrogations or possibly even the interrogators. Someone needs to be considering how history will look back at this.
If you wish to repost this essay you can download a .txt file of the html here (right click and save). Permission granted.

Also posted at Invictus and Progressive Historians

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Anti-Torture Activists Chase Brennan from CIA Post

Posted by Valtin at 3:13 PM |

The Washington Post reports in an article today that the "criticism of a number of groups" regarding John Brennan's positions on torture and rendition led him to withdraw his name from nomination to CIA director in an Obama administration.
Brennan's withdrawal came three days after a group of about 200 psychiatrists and academics wrote to Obama opposing his appointment, saying Brennan was tainted by his association with some of the CIA's most controversial policies of the Bush era. They include the use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods against captured al-Qaeda leaders in secret CIA prisons.

"Mr. Brennan served as a high official in George Tenet's CIA and supported Tenet's policies, including 'enhanced interrogations' as well as 'renditions' to torturing countries," the coalition stated in the letter. The group said Brennan's appointment would "dishearten and alienate those who opposed torture under the Bush administration."
I congratulate the psychologists and other health and academic professionals who helped demonstrate that there is anger and opposition to torture policies among much of the professional class and intelligentsia in this country. But this is a nuanced victory in a skirmish with a dangerous enemy, and I am admittedly someone who differs on tactics with those who helped orchestrate Brennan's defeat. (Let's not forget that a number of others on the left, and even conservatives like Andrew Sullivan opposed the Brennan would-be nomination.)

The CIA should be abolished. It cannot be reformed. It's bureaucracy was forged in a world of covert wars and abusive interrogation research. Asking for someone who is "anti-torture" to head the CIA would at most drive the worst elements of torture underground. It might end, for awhile, the "enhanced interrogation techniques" (so-called "touchless torture") that is the CIA's expertise. But it does nothing to address the evils of covert secret action that derails foreign governments, nor is there any outcry against the use of targeted assassinations undertaken by the CIA over the years.

An example of how good feelings over a victory can lead to a false sense of comfort, consider the decision today by the Obama administration to put forth Bush's Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for another go at the post.
President-elect Barack Obama has decided to retain the Bush administration's Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, in his current position, at least for a year....

Such a move, if confirmed, could also incite the Democratic left, which had based much of its support on Obama's slowly melting pledge to withdraw American combat troops within 16 months and start immediately.

Gates has been a loyal steward of the successful surge, which Obama long appeared reluctant to admit during the political season....

On paper at least Gates and Obama also disagree over the need for a European missile defense system now, with Obama saying he wants the technology to be more proven before any installation talk.
Perhaps someone will remember that last August, Gates was implicated by the New York Times as a prime participant in the Pentagon's own policy of secret detention in Iraq of foreign fighters, and rendition of prisoners to foreign countries, such as Saudi Arabia, where monitoring of interrogations and possible abuse is impossible. As the Times reported (emphases added):
Many of these militants are initially held, without notification to the Red Cross, sometimes for weeks at a time, in secret at a camp in Iraq and another in Afghanistan run by American Special Operations forces, the military officials said.

They said that foreign intelligence officers had been allowed access to these camps to question militants there, as a prelude to the transfers....

American military officials said the transfers required assurances that the prisoners would be well taken care of, but they would not specify those assurances, and human rights advocates questioned whether compliance could be monitored.

While the militants are in American custody, Pentagon rules allow them to be held at the Special Operations sites in Balad, Iraq, and Bagram, Afghanistan, for up to two weeks, with extensions permitted with the approval of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates or his representative, military officials said.
As Aaron Glantz noted in 2006, after the hearings approving Gates as Secretary of Defense:
No Senator asked Robert Gates about a plan he wrote for President Reagan for an invasion of Lybia to "redraw the map of Northern Africa." No one asked him about his record of falsifying intelligence during the Cold War and his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal.

No Senator asked Robert Gates about his claim, in written testimony given before his public hearing, that he believes in the doctrine of preemptive strikes on other countries, the policy position that got us in the mess in Iraq.

No Senator asked Robert Gates about his claim, in written testimony given before his public hearing, that he believes Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction and that he still – even in hindsight – thought the invasion was a good thing.
Perhaps I am wrong. I'm quite ready to admit it. But you cannot stop the hydra-headed monster that is the military-industrial-intelligence establishment by playing musical chairs. Does it matter to the 200 opponents of Brennan that Gates was a primary participant in the military's own version of rendition, up to the present day (the Times story is actually dated last August)? Or that he has conducted secret detentions, prosecuted Bush's "War on Terror", as a supporter of the torture-loving Contras in Nicaragua under Reagan's term of office, or any number of negatives concerning this stalwart defender of the ruling elite?

Abstractly, I imagine the answer to the last question is yes. But concretely, campaigns such as the one that appears to have helped nix Brennan put illusions in the overall reformability of institutions that have a proven negative track record of human rights abuses and anti-democratic actions for over fifty years. In this day and age, one has to be practically a flame-breathing radical to note the CIA cannot be trusted, no matter who runs it.

I respect those who might argue against me that we have to pick and choose our battles, that we raise public consciousness through campaigns against public figures, and perhaps even do some good in the process. I cannot deny such arguments. While respecting such arguments, I also strongly believe that the dangers of sowing illusions about change are real, and that they disarm activists in the face of the struggle that really lies ahead.

Perhaps the disagreements elaborated herein are redolent of the old arguments of reform vs. revolution, or between stagist views of progress and change and those who see history as punctuated by qualitative leaps over old ways of thinking and doing. I think it's my fate to play the "ultra-left" role in this instance, and, in this instance, I'm not sorry to do it.

In any case, I am glad to see Brennan have to slink off (back to his job as CEO of the private intelligence company, Analysis Corporation). I salute those, like Stephen Soldz, who organized the letter-writing campaign, who have the guts to take on the powers that be. I hope they take my criticism with the good faith with which it's offered.

Also posted at 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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