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, August 25, 2009

Expose (Part 1): NYT Misses Full Story on Mitchell-Jessen

Posted by Valtin at 1:38 AM |

Originally posted at Firedoglake

This is the first of a three part series on the origins of the Mitchell-Jessen torture program. By its conclusion, we'll have a pretty good picture just how the torture program originated in the White House, or Vice President Cheney's office, and how it came to be implemented via the use of ex-military psychologists.

In order to make these connections, we must first consider the established narrative thus far, exemplified by Scott Shane's new article on Mitchell and Jessen in the 12 August New York Times. The article's description of the Mitchell-Jessen story may work as a prosecutorial brief, but it presents a narrative about the origins of the SERE-inspired torture program that is misleading in certain particulars. As a result, though the article has some interesting new bits of information, and appears to be the result of a great deal of work, it presents an overly simplistic view of how the torture program originated.

In Shane's view, former Survival, Evasion, Escape, Resistance, or SERE psychologists, working many years for the Air Force's survival training programs, were the bad apples who "helped lead the United States into a wrenching conflict over torture..." In almost every case where Shane could have expanded the story, linking Mitchell and Jessen to larger forces and entities, he backed off, blurred over crucial details, or misrepresented important relationships.

By all accounts, James Mitchell and John "Bruce" Jessen have a lot to answer for. Their actions in the Abu Zubaydah interrogation, which included the use of torture techniques of stress positions, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and others, later made "legal" by the Office of Legal Counsel memos written or represented by John Yoo, David Addington, and Jay Bybee, marks them as guilty of war crimes.

In Shane's version, an entrepreneurial James Mitchell "impressed" the CIA's Cofer Black and Jose Rodriguez, Jr. "by his combination of visceral toughness and psychological jargon." Mitchell had developed a theory, so Shane explains, that a psychological doctrine called "learned helplessness" could be used to make resistant Al Qaeda prisoners comply with interrogator demands. While more experienced interrogators criticized this view, somehow Mitchell prevailed.

Misty Origins

When it comes to the period where the torture program is believed to have started -- sometime in December 2001 -- the New York Times article adds little of substance. Mitchell's theories are said to have been "attracting high-level attention" in CIA circles. How these theories got there is unknown. It could have via a brainstorming session at the home of former American Psychological Association President Martin Seligman. Shane remarks that Mitchell met and fawned over Seligman, who was the originator of the "learned helplessness" theory. But nothing is reported about Mitchell retailing his own theories on reverse-engineering SERE training at this event, and Seligman reports he knew nothing of what Mitchell was planning.

Mitchell's interrogation ideas could have been disseminated through CIA contacts from Mitchell's last known assignment, which according to Shane was with "an elite special operations unit in North Carolina." But the Times article is mum on this, too. In fact, the entire connection between special operations forces and Mitchell and Jessen, or their parent SERE agency, is neglected in the article. For instance, when Shane writes about Mitchell's first contracting company, Knowledge Works, he fails to mention the company was founded in conjunction with Special Operations Psychologist Lt. Colonel John C. Chin.

What follows is the crucial section of the Times article describing the implementation of the Mitchell plan:

At the C.I.A. in December 2001, Dr. Mitchell’s theories were attracting high-level attention. Agency officials asked him to review a Qaeda manual, seized in England, that coached terrorist operatives to resist interrogations. He contacted Dr. Jessen, and the two men wrote the first proposal to turn the enemy’s brutal techniques — slaps, stress positions, sleep deprivation, wall-slamming and waterboarding — into an American interrogation program.

By the start of 2002, Dr. Mitchell was consulting with the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorist Center.... One person who heard some discussions said Dr. Mitchell gave the C.I.A. officials what they wanted to hear....

By the end of March, when agency operatives captured Abu Zubaydah, initially described as Al Qaeda’s No. 3, the Mitchell-Jessen interrogation plan was ready. At a secret C.I.A. jail in Thailand, as reported in prior news accounts, two F.B.I agents used conventional rapport-building methods to draw vital information from Mr. Zubaydah. Then the C.I.A. team, including Dr. Mitchell, arrived.

This explanation of the origins of the torture program leaves a lot to be desired (and really offers nothing new). How did Mitchell's "theories" come to the attention of the CIA? Why did they give Mitchell the assignment of "reviewing" the so-called Al Qaeda manual, which had been in Western hands for at least six months? And how did an assignment to review Al Qaeda resistance techniques become a prospectus for an offensive torture program?

Next up in the series: Going After the Bigger Fish

Also posted at Invictus

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Monday, July 07, 2008

NYT Limited Hangout on SERE Torture & U.S. Biological Warfare

Posted by Valtin at 12:32 AM |

Ex-CIA high official Victor Marchetti wrote:
"A 'limited hangout' is spy jargon for a favorite and frequently used gimmick of the clandestine professionals. When their veil of secrecy is shredded and they can no longer rely on a phony cover story to misinform the public, they resort to admitting - sometimes even volunteering - some of the truth while still managing to withhold the key and damaging facts in the case. The public, however, is usually so intrigued by the new information that it never thinks to pursue the matter further."
Scott Shane's New York Times article, China Inspired Interrogations at Guantánamo (7/2/08), details the use of Albert Biderman's "Chart of Coercion" by members of the the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape program, or SERE, program to teach torture techniques to interrogators. The article is a fine example of how to conduct a limited hangout, or selected revelation, of intelligence-related material. Its headline and story is disingenuous or betrays ignorance. The aim of the article is to demonstrate the nefariousness or deviance of those who taught SERE techniques to U.S. interrogators, and to hide the truth about the derivation of those techniques, and to the history of the their use by U.S. government agencies.

One only has to read my June 25 article on the same subject, Nuts & Bolts: How U.S. Organized Torture Program, and then compare it with Shane's article to understand the difference between an artfully constructed faux-expose and an in-depth study of an important story. (One commenter at Mathew Yglesias's blog over at The Atlantic suggested I had scooped The New York Times. I'll note for the record that some of the points in Shane's article first appeared in my essay; for instance, the linking of the Biderman chart to deprogrammers websites. I'll let the fact that the diary was the first to fully expose the Biderman charts techniques speak for itself.)

The only new information the Times article reported was the identification of the source material for Biderman's "Principles", adumbrated in a "Chart of Coercion" used as a didactic device by SERE instructors, described as first appearing in an article by Albert Biderman in a September 1957 issue of the Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. The article was entitled Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions from Air Force Prisoners of War. (In my own article, I had noted -- erroneously, as it turns out -- that the chart had first appeared in a 1970s... but then I don't have the Times anonymous sources. As we shall see, Mr. Shane only discovered a part of the story.)

Mr. Shane's article writes:
The recycled chart is the latest and most vivid evidence of the way Communist interrogation methods that the United States long described as torture became the basis for interrogations both by the military at the base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and by the Central Intelligence Agency.
What the author fails to mention:

1) The study of Communist interrogation methods was part of a decades-long research program in the effects of coercive interrogation techniques, including use of sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, drugs, semi-starvation, isolation, and other techniques, conducted by the CIA and various military intelligence agencies to the tune of millions of dollars, and included the use of fake academic groups, university researchers, hospitals, and secret experimentation upon U.S. and other countries' civilian population (Mr. Shane could have referenced the New York Times in-house library, where he would have found the NYT August 2, 1977 article, "Private Institutions Used in CIA Effort to Control Behavior," by Nicholas M. Horrock). The findings of this ongoing research project into mind control and torture were implemented by the CIA, and possibly other military intelligence and/or police agencies, as even a cursory glance at the declassified version of the CIA's own 1963 counterintelligence interrogation manual demonstrates.

2) The Times article also is incorrect in its conclusion that particularly "Chinese methods [of interrogation and torture] had been recycled and taught at Guantánamo." Mr. Shane mistakes the fact that the Biderman-SERE chart originated in an article on POW reactions from the Chinese/Korean War with the U.S. for the full history of how U.S. torture was derived. In the Biderman article itself, Mr. Biderman made clear that there was nothing especially novel about Chinese methods of coercive interrogation (although it is true that the Chinese relied more heavily on group pressures and thought reform than other countries did). Biderman concluded (bold emphasis added):
It is that the finding of our studies which should be greeted as most new and spectacular is the finding that essentially there was nothing new or spectacular about the events we studied. We found, as did other studies such as those of Hinkle and Wolff, that human behavior could be manipulated within a certain range by controlled environments. We found that the Chinese Communists used methods of coercing behavior from our men in their hands which Communists of other countries had employed for decades and which police and inquisitors had employed for centuries.
Furthermore, the chart in question, labelled "Communist Coercive Methods for Eliciting Individual Compliance," was itself not the original version of this chart. Biderman himself, in the article cited by the Times notes that the chart of techniques is but a "condensed version" of an "outline" produced by the author before a U.S. Senate subcommittee investigating "Communist Interrogation, Indoctrination and Exploitation of American Military and Civilian Prisoners" in June 1956. As for Chinese use of these techniques, towards the end of his article, Biderman states:
It should be understood that only a few of the Air Force personnel who encountered efforts to elicit false confessions in Korea were subjected to really full dress, all-out attempts to make them behave in the manner I have sketched. The time between capture and repatriation for many was too short, and, presumably, the trained interrogators available to the Communists too few, to permit this.
Over and over, Mr. Shane's article tries to portray the torture of detainees at Guantanamo by U.S. interrogators and jailers as something derived from Chinese forms of torture, and he uses the Biderman chart to punctuate his argument. But the evidence from Biderman's own article, and the preponderance of evidence from both primary and secondary historically sources points to a more complex and nuanced view of the origins of U.S. torture. The emphasis upon so-called Chinese origins serves two purposes: it uses the scandal of U.S. torture to make propaganda points against the Chinese, and furthermore, it perpetuates a cover story regarding U.S. use of bacteriological warfare during the Korean War that ascribes its blown cover to the fiction that North Korean and Chinese interrogation were meant to produce "false confessions," as I explain below.

False confessions and the elicitation of information via torture

Published along with Biderman's essay in the September 1957 Bulletin is another article by government researchers, Lawrence Hinkle and Harold Wolff, who are referenced in the Biderman article mentioned above. This article -- The Methods of Interrogation and Indoctrination Used by the Communist State Police -- has as much, or more interest, to those who wish to study the development of governmental torture by the United States, has, for instance, its own very interesting charts, and examines the history of Russian state security procedures, going back to Czarist times. Wolff and Hinkle also describe key differences between Russian-Soviet and Chinese forms of interrogation. The latter's emphasis on re-education of political belief and the role of group pressures to produce the same is cited by both Biderman and Hinkle and Wolff as a chief difference between the two forms of communist-derived interrogation.

Wolff and Hinkle's article, based on studies they had conducted for the military and CIA -- their initial report had remained classified for a number of years -- also produced a number of charts. Two of them are as remarkable as the now more publicized version describing Biderman's so-called "principles." Entitled "A Typical Time Table - Easter European Secret Police Systems (Communist)", the table outlines a period of detention lasting up to 250 weeks. The outline describes an initial period of isolation, followed by the beginning of interrogation, all to be undertaken under a regimen of "progressive disorganization" of the prisoner's psyche. A second table, "The Detention Regimen" describes the procedures to be used, including "Total Isolation... No View Outside, Light in Ceiling Burns Constantly", sitting and sleeping in "fixed position", noting, "Pain May Result from Fixed Positions During Sleep and When Awake." Additionally, food is to be "Distasteful -- just Sufficient to Sustain Nutrition."

The point of all this is to produce a state within the prisoner that includes fear, uncertainty, fatigue, pain, humiliation, and therefore "Great Need to Talk" and "Great Need for Approval of Interrogator." Again, all of this is duplicated in the CIA's own 1963 manual, and subsequently in manuals produced by the CIA for training of foreign interrogators, armed forces and police in the mid-1980s.

Did all this torture, whether by Soviet, Chinese, Korean, or U.S. interrogators produce actionable intelligence? Did it produce "false confessions?

In order to answer these questions, we must be clear about what these techniques were meant to produce, and that was, as the Hinkle/Wolff essay makes clear, "progressive disorganization" of the prisoner. Under this weakened state of existence, and in a state of near-total dependency, the interrogator works the art of establishing rapport. The results themselves are related to what is meant to be produced.

When the Soviet Stalinist government of the 1930s meant to discredit old elements of the regime, labelling former cadre of the Communist Party "enemies of the state", the intended result was the "false confession." At that time, the Dewey Commission in the United States (named after the respected U.S. academic who chaired the investigation, John Dewey) investigated and cleared Leon Trotsky and other "old Bolsheviks" from the wild prosecutorial claims of the Russian prosecutors. It was the "confessions" of some of these former leaders of the Soviet Union that seemed so inexplicable at the time. The drama of the situation was captured by novelist Arthur Koestler in his famous novel, Darkness at Noon.

Much later, the supposed confessions of Hungarian Cardinal Josef Mindszenty after his 1948 arrest by the Stalinist police greatly puzzled Western observers. It was supposed that he was tortured, but even then, how had he been made to "confess" in such a relatively brief period of time?

The issue of false confessions elicited under torture had its largest airing when, in 1952-53, captured U.S. airmen told their captors that they had engaged in dropping biological weapons on North Korea and China as part of the U.S. air campaign against those countries. The accusation was vigorously denied by the United States, and a propaganda campaign was begun in the guise of investigating the "brainwashing" of U.S. prisoners. Wild stories of mind control drugs and secret interrogation techniques that could gain unique influence over the personalities of its victims were circulated. It was in this environment that Albert Biderman, Lawrence Hinkle, Harold Wolff, Robert Jay Lifton and others were enlisted to study how the Chinese had produced the "false confessions" of U.S. POWs.

Except, were the confessions false?

Publicly, that was the story. But when researchers met behind closed doors, or at professional meetings, a different story emerges. At a 1957 symposium organized by the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry (GAP) on "Methods of Forceful Indoctrination: Observations and Interviews", Dr. Louis West noted that "the enemy had a considerable degree of success in obtaining intelligence information and in forcing prisoners to engage in propaganda activities" (emphasis added; the quote is from GAP Symposium No. 4, July 1957, published by GAP Publications Office).

(Robert Jay Lifton, quoted in Mr. Shane's New York Times argument as saddened that Chinese interrogation methods were used by the U.S., a "180-degree turn" by U.S. interrogators, was a prominent presenter at this same conference, along with Dr. Edgar Schein of MIT, and the aforementioned Dr. Lawrence Hinkle. When I asked Dr. Lifton some time ago, and in another context, if he had any "personal memories or thoughts" about the work of Drs. Biderman, Hinkle and others, he replied by e-mail that he had no personal memories of these individuals.)

After the airmen were repatriated back to the United States, they all recanted their "confessions", although they had to do so under threat of court martial, a remarkable threat to issue, if the confessions were on the surface of them false.

U.S. Biological Warfare in Korea?

The U.S. chemical and biological warfare program after World War II was one of the most expensive and secretive campaigns ever undertaken by the U.S. government, comparable to the Manhattan Project. The NYT article makes much over the production of "false confessions" to the use of biological weapons by the U.S. during the Korean War. But there is an alternate, studied case demonstrating that the execrable and illegal use of such weapons occurred. (Both chemical and biological warfare were banned by the 1925 Geneva Convention.)

While there is no smoking gun document, there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence, much of it detailed by Canadian academics Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman in their 1998 book, The United States and Biological Warfare (Indiana University Press). More recently, respected bioethicist Jonathan Moreno, Senior Policy and Research Analyst for the President Clinton's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, has called Endicott and Hagerman's claims "compelling, if not conclusive", and the U.S. research program in biological warfare worthy of further investigation.

I cannot do justice to the full extent of information unearthed by Endicott and Hagerman, but the following is a brief summary of the data.

*** At the close of World War II, the United States, under the authority of General Douglas MacArthur granted immunity to members of Japanese Unit 731 "in exchange for data of research on biological warfare". Led by the infamous General Shiro Ishii, this covert branch of the Japanese Imperial Army, based in Manchuria, a conquered portion of China, engaged in the worst sort of experimentation, including live vivisection of POWs, deliberate infection of disease, and study of disease "vectors" of infection, as by fleas, to study the suitability of large-scale bacteriological warfare. According to Jonathan Moreno, in his book Undue Risk, according to recent research Unit 731 may have been responsible for the deaths of over 270,000 civilians.

*** In 1950, U.S. spending on biological warfare research was $5.3 million. In 1951-1953, the high-water mark of the Korean War, money spent on such development was $345 million -- a lot of cash in 2008 dollars. Truman's Secretary of Defense George Marshall approved the recommendation of the Stevenson Committee two weeks after the Chinese entry into the Korean conflict. Chaired by Earl Stevenson, and including representatives from U.S. Rubber, AT&T Co., Harvard Medical School, and a secretariat "drawn from the Defense Department, the Research and Development Board, the Chemical Warfare Service, and the Air Force" (Endicott & Hagerman, p. 45), the Committee recommended "an increase in funding and for research and development to bring biological weapons to operational readiness as soon as possible" (p. 47).

*** U.S. government documents, such as the memo, "Mechanism of Entry and Action of Insecticidal Compounds and Insect Repellents" (Oct. 26, 1952), attached to the 1953 Fiscal Year Budget, which included the following (p. 77):
Application to BW [Biological Warfare]: $25,000 (35% of $72,000).

Information on the mechanism of action of insecticides is applicable directly to problems involved in both the offensive application of and protection against insect dissemination of biological agents. Under project 465-20-001, insect strains resistant to insecticides are being developed. These represent a potentially more effective vehicle for the offensive use of BW of insect borne pathogens....
Another memo -- reproduced as an appendix to Endicott and Hagerman's book (p. 202) -- dated March 17, 1953, from the Air Force Chief of Plans to the Chiefs of War Plans and of Psychological Warfare, notes:
The Psychological Warfare Division will direct and supervise covert operations in the scope of unconventional BW and CW [Chemical Warfare] operations and programs and the psychological aspects of BW and CW....

The War Plans Division will... Integrate capabilities and requirements for BW and CW into war plans... Participate in the determination of munitions requirements for BW and CW to implement improved plans.
Why this document doesn't serve as a "smoking gun" in the eyes of most is beyond me. But extraordinary claims, as such are allegations of serious war crimes, demands a great deal of evidence. There is much more such evidence in Endicott and Hagerman's book, but I cannot reproduce it all here. One important discussion of the evidence occurred in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in May/June 1999. Another discussion, concerning the relevance of newly "discovered" Soviet documents and their effect upon the controversy, occurred in the Cold War International History Project Bulletin in Winter 1998.

*** Chinese documents, and the U.S. airmen confessions are another, if controversial, source of information. Altogether, 36 U.S. officers gave statements to the Chinese of involvement in U.S. operational use of biological weapons, including two colonels and two captains. Endicott and Hagerman's book lists a number of manuscript and Chinese government document sources. Also of significance is the Report of the International Scientific Commission for the Investigation of the Facts Concerning Bacteriological Warfare in Korea and China, published by the Chinese, which offered over 600 pages of documentary evidence. Needless to say, this report, which found plausible the charges of bacteriological warfare, examining spent bomb casings and medical documents, among other evidence, was not widely distributed in the U.S., though Time Magazine pilloried it when it appeared. The Commission was headed by Dr. Joseph Needham, a very respected British author and researcher.


The New York Times article, China Inspired Interrogations at Guantánamo, is a sophisticated use of journalism in the service of propaganda. While it attaches the recent use of torture and coercive methods of interrogation by the United States to some of its origins in the study of communist methods of interrogation, it does so in a one-sided way. It attributes methods of detention and treatment of prisoners that was not unique to China. If anything, the U.S. model of psychological torture is probably closer to that used by the Soviet secret police. In any case, this type of torture was not developed by the communists, but had its origins in the police procedures of autocratic governments, not least that of Czarist Russia.

The article also fails to mention the long interest of military and U.S. intelligence agencies in the use of these methods, nor their implementation by the U.S. government, long before the "war on terror" and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were twinkles in the eye of the current administration. One wonders how SERE officers and personnel like being the scapegoats for a U.S. policy that goes back decades.

Finally, the article perpetuates a mythology as to the use of "false confessions" during the Korean War to mask the origins of U.S. research into mind control and coercive interrogation that go back at least to the U.S. Navy's Project Chatter in the late 1940s, and the CIA's Operation Bluebird in 1950, both well before the Korean War. The purpose of this form of propaganda is to cover-up very serious questions about the use of biological warfare approved by the highest levels of the U.S. government, a serious war crime if it in fact, as appears very probable, occurred. In any case, the destruction of documents by the United States over the years makes a reconstruction of our own history extraordinarily difficult. CIA director Richard Helms ordered all MKULTRA documents destroyed in 1973; luckily, one cache of these documents had been copied, and became available later, but much remains unknown, because destroyed.

Many of the Korean War documents were also destroyed, or remain classified or hidden. Endicott and Hagerman note that they were told that archivists at the U.S. National Archives say that some files of the Chemical Warfare Service were recalled by the Army and destroyed in the period 1956 to 1969 (p. 256).

We cannot know the entire story of U.S. covert operations, including the research into torture interrogations, and the use of chemical and biological weapons. The fact that decades after the fact it is difficult to access information on these subjects speaks for itself, as does the destruction of much of the documentation.

The New York Times prides itself as the paper of record in the United States, that publishes "all the news that's fit to print." But as in the run-up to the Iraq War, the NYT, like much of U.S. mainstream media, has acted as a conduit for the official "line" of the U.S. government, much as Pravda and Izvestia once did for the sclerotic Kremlin bureaucracy. The widespread disbelief in the Warren Commission explanation of the Kennedy assassination, and the popularity of conspiracy television shows like The X-Files reflects a nascent consciousness among the mass of the American population that the truth is too often hidden from them.

It is a shame to see with what alacrity the Chinese torture model has been taken as gospel by both bloggers and conventional media sources. Most seem to have never even purused the actual documents that are quoted. Others speak and write passionately about subjects they have barely even studied. In George W. Bush's America, there is nothing needed more than the ability to think clearly and analytically, with an independent and curious mind, and a willingness to take the truth, whatever it may be, wherever it will take us. If that means entering a dark territory where what one believed to be true and honorable turns out to be otherwise, then the sooner we travel such a journey the better.

Originally posted at Invictus

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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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