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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Leaked! International Red Cross Report on CIA Torture

Posted by Valtin at 11:20 PM |

Mark Danner has scooped the NY Times, the Washington Post and other papers by publishing in the current New York Review of Books an essay quoting long excerpts of a leaked International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) report on "high-value" prisoners held in CIA black site prisons. The interviews took prior to their release in late 2006, and the report itself is dated February 2007, and likely was sent originally to then CIA Acting General Counsel, John Rizzo.

The prisoners interviewed by ICRC personnel included Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, Walid Bin Attash, and twelve others, all of whom, the ICRC concluded, were submitted to torture. From the report"s conclusion:
The allegations of ill-treatment of the detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill-treatment to which they were subjected while held in the CIA program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture. In addition, many other elements of the ill-treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Mark Danner, who obviously has seen the entire 43 page report, calls the report "a document for its time, literally "impossible to put down," from its opening page." He reproduces a portion of its chilling Table of Contents. This is no bedtime reading:
Contents
Introduction
1. Main Elements of the CIA Detention Program
1.1 Arrest and Transfer
1.2 Continuous Solitary Confinement and Incommunicado Detention
1.3 Other Methods of Ill-treatment
1.3.1 Suffocation by water
1.3.2 Prolonged Stress Standing
1.3.3 Beatings by use of a collar
1.3.4 Beating and kicking
1.3.5 Confinement in a box
1.3.6 Prolonged nudity
1.3.7 Sleep deprivation and use of loud music
1.3.8 Exposure to cold temperature/cold water
1.3.9 Prolonged use of handcuffs and shackles
1.3.10 Threats
1.3.11 Forced shaving
1.3.12 Deprivation/restricted provision of solid food
1.4 Further elements of the detention regime....
As one follows the narratives of the various prisoners, Danner notes that one can see the construction of the CIA-Bush torture program unfold in all its brutalizing variety before one's eyes. Even, as caught Emptywheel's eye in her reading of Danner's article, prisoner Abu Zubaydah can notice that the torturers are experimenting on the type and effects of various torture methods upon him. From Zubaydah's narrative (emphasis added):
After the beating I was then placed in the small box. They placed a cloth or cover over the box to cut out all light and restrict my air supply. As it was not high enough even to sit upright, I had to crouch down. It was very difficult because of my wounds.... I don't know how long I remained in the small box, I think I may have slept or maybe fainted....

A black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe. After a few minutes the cloth was removed and the bed was rotated into an upright position. The pressure of the straps on my wounds was very painful. I vomited. The bed was then again lowered to horizontal position and the same torture carried out again with the black cloth over my face and water poured on from a bottle. On this occasion my head was in a more backward, downwards position and the water was poured on for a longer time. I struggled against the straps, trying to breathe, but it was hopeless. I thought I was going to die. I lost control of my urine. Since then I still lose control of my urine when under stress.

I was then placed again in the tall box. While I was inside the box loud music was played again and somebody kept banging repeatedly on the box from the outside. I tried to sit down on the floor, but because of the small space the bucket with urine tipped over and spilt over me.... I was then taken out and again a towel was wrapped around my neck and I was smashed into the wall with the plywood covering and repeatedly slapped in the face by the same two interrogators as before....

This went on for approximately one week. During this time the whole procedure was repeated five times....

I collapsed and lost consciousness on several occasions. Eventually the torture was stopped by the intervention of the doctor....

I was told during this period that I was one of the first to receive these interrogation techniques, so no rules applied. It felt like they were experimenting and trying out techniques to be used later on other people.
Indeed, as Danner points out, there were changes to the interrogation-torture procedures. Since all the prisoners were kept isolated and out of contact with each other, the overall similarity of the treatment appears valid, and the differences and changes accurate. Danner reports:
Some techniques are discarded. The coffin-like black boxes, for example, barely large enough to contain a man, one six feet tall and the other scarcely more than three feet, which seem to recall the sensory-deprivation tanks used in early CIA-sponsored experiments, do not reappear. Neither does the "long-time sitting" -— the weeks shackled to a chair—that Abu Zubaydah endured in his first few months.

Nudity, on the other hand, is a constant in the ICRC report, as are permanent shackling, the "cold cell," and the unceasing loud music or noise. Sometimes there is twenty-four-hour light, sometimes constant darkness. Beatings, also, and smashing against the walls seem to be favored procedures; often, the interrogators wear gloves.

In later interrogations new techniques emerge, of which "long-time standing" and the use of cold water are notable....

A clear method emerges from these accounts, based on forced nudity, isolation, bombardment with noise and light, deprivation of sleep and food, and repeated beatings and "smashings"—though from this basic model one can see the method evolve, from forced sitting to forced standing, for example, and acquire new elements, like immersion in cold water.
Danner makes the connections which I and others have made between these techniques and the study of torture and "brainwashing" undertaken by the CIA and the military over 50 years ago, which culminated in the codification of such procedures in the CIA counterintelligence interrogation KUBARK manual of the early 1960s.

The NY Review article also confirms the ABC news report of approximately a year ago that reported how each variation and application of the torture techniques was vetted by the White House:
Shortly after Abu Zubaydah was captured, according to ABC News, CIA officers "briefed high-level officials in the National Security Council's Principals Committee," including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, who "then signed off on the [interrogation] plan." At the time, the spring and summer of 2002, the administration was devising what some referred to as a "golden shield" from the Justice Department -— the legal rationale that was embodied in the infamous "torture memorandum," written by John Yoo and signed by Jay Bybee in August 2002... Still, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet regularly brought directly to the attention of the highest officials of the government specific procedures to be used on specific detainees —- "whether they would be slapped, pushed, deprived of sleep or subject to simulated drowning" -- in order to seek reassurance that they were legal. According to the ABC report, the briefings of principals were so detailed and frequent that "some of the interrogation sessions were almost choreographed." At one such meeting, John Ashcroft, then attorney general, reportedly demanded of his colleagues, "Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly."
The Danner article, if one hasn't noticed yet, is must reading. He leaves nary a stone unturned: the complicity of some Congressional Democrats, the disaster which was the cover-up inspired Military Commissions Act of 2006, and the lies told by Bush and other administration officials to hide the truth of what was being done.

But, Danner also notes that, strangely, and for anyone who cared to read, there has been plenty of notice of what was happening in the "dark" crevices of U.S. foreign policy, even back to those dismal early months in 2002, when the torture gulag was fired up. "'Stress and Duress' Tactics Used on Terrorism Suspects Held in Secret Overseas Facilities" reads one headline from a Washington Post article from December 26, 2002.

Danner fails to make mention of the codification of many of these CIA procedures in the current version of the Army Field Manual (isolation, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation), nor is there any discussion of the use of drugs on prisoners, which has surfaced in other prisoners' narratives of their incarceration. But what Danner does capture is the sense of psychic numbing that occurs as one reads over and over of how the CIA's "alternative set of procedures" was used on this prisoner and that prisoner, as one become inured to the brutality.

After a long discussion about the relative intelligence "value" of torture, Danner settles into a discussion about what we must do now. He certainly understands that there is a very important need to educate the public about what must be done. He is a little less certain that prosecutions should or can take place, but can see how hobbled the Obama administration is by this legacy, and how, despite Obama's wish to not look back and move forward, "he and his Department of Justice will be haunted by what his predecessor did."
Many officials of human rights organizations, who have fought long and valiantly to bring attention and law to bear on these issues, strongly reject any proposal that includes widespread grants of immunity. They urge investigations and prosecutions of Bush administration officials. The choices are complicated and painful. From what we know, officials acted with the legal sanction of the US government and under orders from the highest political authority, the elected president of the United States. Political decisions, made by elected officials, led to these crimes. But political opinion, within the government and increasingly, as time passed, without, to some extent allowed those crimes to persist. If there is a need for prosecution there is also a vital need for education. Only a credible investigation into what was done and what information was gained can begin to alter the political calculus around torture by replacing the public's attachment to the ticking bomb with an understanding of what torture is and what is gained, and lost, when the United States reverts to it.
I am one of those voices who speak loudly for prosecutions. But the more I read and understand, I see that the issue goes much farther than simply torture qua torture, or whether there should be a Truth Commission or prosecutions.

The corruption of government and the inability of the governmental ruling classes to interrupt or terminate the program of state-sanctioned torture, or stop the black propaganda fed, and well-plotted campaign to go to war in Iraq, or take command of an economic bubble and unregulated set of bogus financial schemes until they ballooned out of control and sought to bankrupt the entire country, this corruption and moral-political bankruptcy implicates immensely wide swaths of the government and ruling classes.

We are in a very tight spot, historically speaking. It is true that a significant section of civil society, located primarily among some human rights and civil liberties organizations, but with some links as well even into layers of the military (particularly military attorneys), are seeking some kind of change, some way in which a system of accountability can be secured. But they are laboring under the collective weight of a political system that cannot even look at itself in the mirror. Danner notes Obama and Holder's play to keep some of this information secure under "state secrets privilege" by the Executive Branch. The very leaking of the ICRC document shows what he thinks of that.

I don't have any simple answers. I know that we must only try and move towards the light. Our compass must be the dictates of justice and mercy, and also truth. We wish to build a better world. We know there are those who have... well, different ideas. We must be able to combat ignorance, and be smart ourselves. Learn from the past, prepare for the future. We must not flinch from what we need to do. We cannot go backwards. The world is already slipping backwards at an alarming rate. The ICRC report itself is documentary proof of that.

Let us move forward.

Update, roughly 11 pm, PDT:

The Washington Post has just put up their article covering the story. It has a nice tidbit for those who like to track down thing or speculate about who leaked the ICRC report, and why? (H/T http://www.dailykos.com/comments/2009/3/15/212138/793/254#c254ericlwis0)
At least five copies of the report were shared with the CIA and top White House officials in 2007 but barred from public release by ICRC guidelines intended to preserve the humanitarian group's strict policy of neutrality in conflicts. A copy of the report was obtained by Mark Danner, a journalism professor and author who published extensive excerpts in the April 9 edition of the New York Review of Books, released yesterday. He did not say how he obtained the report.
The New York Times has posted a shortened version of the Mark Danner article on their Op-Ed page. (Double H/T to out of left field and to Stephen Soldz)

Speaking of Stephen Soldz, his remarks about the actions of military and CIA psychologists in the torture, made at a listserv for anti-torture psychologists, are worth repeating here (I've added the link within):
We must remember that the techniques detailed in these documents were designed by psychologists. These psychologists were present at the APA-CIA-Rand conference on the Science of Deception. APA [American Psychological Association] has never explained why these torturers were invited or what they said or what was said to them. Nor have the APA leaders who invited and participated with these torturers expressed any remorse that they may have aided their torture. Rather, they tried to hide the attendance at this conference, even claimed to have "misplaced" it. And they have tried to change the subject to whether or not these torturers were "APA members", as if its fine to aid torturers if they aren't members.

Accountability for US torture MUST include accountability for those who aided the torturers, including those in the APA leadership who contributed. Continued silence is not acceptable. The truth must come out. We must pressure any Truth Commission or other accountability process to explore the role of the APA, other psychologists, and other health professionals, in the US torture program.
Well put, Stephen. And many thanks to all those for helping push the Daily Kos version of this blog posting, with its important anti-torture news and commentary to the top of the recommended list there. I won't be happy, though, until the issue is pushed to the top of the nation's agenda, and a history-making review and prosecution of these crimes begins.

Also posted at Invictus

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Physicians, Psychologists & the Problem of "The Dark Side"

Posted by Valtin at 10:10 PM |

"Any of us could be the man who encounters his double." -- Friedrich Durrenmat (1)
Jane Mayer's new book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals (not due out in the bookstores until tomorrow), is already creating headlines and generating controversy. This article will examine the issues around U.S. torture practice, in light of new allegations in the book, and review an email conversation between myself and a prominent nationally-known psychologist whom Mayer says assisted in the planning of U.S. government torture.

Scott Shane at The New York Times wrote an article last Friday describing how Mayer reveals that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told the CIA last year in a report that the interrogation of "high-level" detainees, such as Abu Zubaydah, "categorically" constituted torture, were illegal, and amounted to prosecutable war crimes. Zubaydah, famously, was one of three prisoners the government has admitted were waterboarded. A videotape of his interrogation was destroyed by the CIA.

In an July 14 interview with Scott Horton at Harper's, Jane Mayer discussed the reaction to the ICRC charges:
... Abu Zubayda claimed to have been locked in a tiny cage, in which he had to remain doubled up for long periods of time, prior to the period when he was waterboarded. This account — which he gave to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) — was confirmed to me independently by a former CIA officer familiar with his interrogation....

The reaction of top Bush Administration officials to the ICRC report, from what I can gather, has been defensive and dismissive. They reject the ICRC’s legal analysis as incorrect. Yet my reporting shows that inside the White House there has been growing fear of criminal prosecution...
Ms. Mayer concludes that the addition of an immunity provision in the Military Commissions Act passed by Congress in 2007 was an attempt to address such fears among administration figures. She further opines that it seems unlikely to her that anyone in the Bush administration will actually face domestic prosecution for war crimes, as the "political appetite" seems lacking. And then she adds the following (emphasis added):
An additional complicating factor is that key members of Congress sanctioned this program, so many of those who might ordinarily be counted on to lead the charge are themselves compromised.
A Prominent Psychologist Comes Under Fire

While medical personnel associated with the ICRC have played a heroic role in documenting and advocating for prisoners' rights, doctors and psychologists associated with U.S. detention and interrogation of so-called "enemy combatants" in the "war on terror" have not acquitted themselves with the same ethical probity. In fact, they may be guilty of war crimes themselves.

Jane Mayer's new book also looks more closely at the utilization of SERE techniques as a template for U.S. torture of detainees. (SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, & Escape, and is a military program aimed at training U.S. soldiers for torture at the hands of vicious captors, those who would not honor Geneva Convention protocols. Ironically, the U.S. itself announced that "enemy combatants" are not bound by those same Geneva agreements.)

It's been a year since SERE military psychologists James Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen were accused, in an article by Katherine Eban in Vanity Fair, of teaching SERE techniques to interrogators at Guantanamo and elsewhere. (I covered the "nuts and bolts" of how SERE procedures were taught at Guantanamo in a recent essay.) According to a different article by Jane Mayer last year, Mitchell utilized the theories of "learned helplessness" in implementing his interrogation lessons. (Mr. Mitchell denied this assertion.) Mayer wrote:
Steve Kleinman, a reserve Air Force colonel and an experienced interrogator who has known Mitchell professionally for years, said that “learned helplessness was his whole paradigm.” Mitchell, he said, “draws a diagram showing what he says is the whole cycle. It starts with isolation. Then they eliminate the prisoners’ ability to forecast the future—when their next meal is, when they can go to the bathroom. It creates dread and dependency. It was the K.G.B. model. But the K.G.B. used it to get people who had turned against the state to confess falsely. The K.G.B. wasn’t after intelligence.”
This torture model of dread, debility through isolation, and dependency may have been the model of the K.G.B., but it was intellectually codified by U.S. psychologists and psychiatrists in the 1950s, most notably in a 1956 article in the journal Sociometry, Brainwashing, Conditioning, and DDD (Debility, Dependency, and Dread). One of the authors of this article, Harry Harlow, went on to become a president of the American Psychological Association (APA).

In Mayer's new book, she implicates another former APA president in the development of torture, Martin Seligman, the creator of the theory of "learned helplessness". I have not seen Mayer's book, which hasn't been released yet, so my accounts come from statements online by Scott Horton, as well as the latter's interview with Mayer previously cited. Horton wrote (emphasis added):
[Mayer] traces the development of the torture techniques to the work of two contractors, Mitchell and Jessen, and disclosed the specific techniques they developed. She notes that the techniques rely heavily on a theory called "Learned Helplessness" developed by a Penn psychologist Martin Seligman, who assisted them in the process.
Seligman is no obscure academic, or bureaucrat. He is one of the best known psychologists in the country, a prominent professor, and leader of the Positive Psychology movement, often quoted in the nation's psychology textbooks. Mayer's allegations about Seligman were picked up anti-torture activist and psychologist Stephen Soldz at his blog. This brought a rejoinder from Seligman himself, denying he assisted in torture in any way. He continued:
I gave a three hour lecture sponsored by SERE (the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape branch of the American armed forces) at the San Diego Naval Base in May 2002. My topic was how American troops and American personnel could use what is known about learned helplessness and related findings to resist torture and evade successful interrogation by their captors.

I was told then that since I was (and am) a civilian with no security clearance that they could not discuss American methods of interrogation with me. I have not had contact with SERE since that meeting. I have not worked under government contract (or any other contract) on any aspect of interrogation or any aspect of torture. Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Jessen were present in the audience of about 50 others at my speech, and that was, to the best of my knowledge, the sum total of my “assisting them in the process."
What Seligman Told Me

In December 2006, following suspicions (at that time uncorroborated by government documents) that SERE had been used to reverse-engineer torture, as reported by Jane Mayer in a July 2005 New Yorker article, which mentioned Seligman by name, and by Mark Benjamin at Salon.com, I wrote to Seligman and asked him about reports he had taught at the SERE school. I was then researching an article on psychological research into sensory deprivation and torture. (The article turned into a presentation at the APA convention in 2007, and was subsequently published as "Psychology and Research into Coercive Interrogation".) Dr. Seligman's answer to me then (December 2006) was much the same as that made to Soldz above.

I tried to push Seligman a little harder on the issue:
I really have only one outstanding question that remains from my original questions: Were you aware -- or do you even believe -- that your work on learned helplessness has been used not only to help our soldiers withstand coercive interrogation, but to conduct such types of interrogation by U.S. interrogators themselves?
Martin Seligman replied tersely:
I am not available for further comment. (2)
About seven months later, as further revelations about SERE and torture surfaced, including admissions by the Pentagon Office of Inspector General (in a report publicly released in May 2007) that SERE reverse-engineering had taken place, and that Mitchell and Jessen were involved, I revisited the issue with Dr. Seligman in August 2007:
When I wrote to you before, you declined to comment on my question. But I think it is incumbent upon you now to say more about what you know, as well as what you think, about the use of your work by military and CIA psychologists to instigate torture. I ask you this as a colleague in the field, and as a psychologist interested in stopping torture, and ashamed of the actions of some in our field in perpetuating abusive behavior. I would think you would like to clear your name, which otherwise remains linked (even if in obscure ways) to some of the worst episodes in our nation's and our profession's history.
Dr. Seligman replied (emphasis added):
I am entirely out of this loop, having had zero contact with SERE since my talk in April 2002. I know nothing at all about how they have applied LH concepts to either help our own people or to the interrogation of prisoners. When I asked about the latter at my talk, they told me that they could not give me any information at all, since I had no "classification."

My talk was about how to teach our people to resist LH [Learned Helplessness] and my life work has been devoted to the issues of undoing LH, not about inducing it in other human beings.
Once again, I persevered, intrigued that Seligman appeared to be admitting that he had asked about application of "learned helplessness" techniques to the interrogation of prisoners. Why, in December 2002, had he bothered to ask? Was he suspicious? Did he know more than he was saying, or even worse, had he done more than he was admitting? I wrote (emphasis in original):
I appreciate your quick reply, and I understand that you had nothing to do with how LH concepts were used by others. But, given the controversy over psychologist participation in interrogations (a vote on competing resolutions is due at the next [APA] Council meeting), and the fact that your ideas and research were obviously used (you even asked them about it), what is your position on the use of your research by others, and on psychologists involved in military/CIA interrogations under the current administration?
Dr. Seligman replied:
The only "position" I am comfortable staking out is "Good science always runs the risk of immoral application. It goes with the territory of discovery."
Doubling and Collaboration with Torture

Dr. Seligman's "position" was startling. Even if one accepts his denial of further association with the torture program initiated by the Bush administration, utilizing SERE coercive techniques, Seligman seems to believe it's okay to settle for a "see no evil" approach. In his point of view, he is a scientist, a discoverer of new knowledge. If his work might be abused, that is not a concern of his.

This is an immoral position, of course, even if not necessarily criminal, in a forensic sense. If I could question him further, I would ask why he was asked to give this particular "lecture" at a SERE school at this time, and who asked him to do so. (Mayer says Seligman was connected with the CIA, but no further details are given.) I would further ask what led him to inquire about the possible use of SERE techniques on interrogations of prisoners, and why, when he was waved off, he acquiesced so meekly.

For years now, Dr. Seligman has been quiet about the use of his own theories in the application of horrifying torture techniques. Why this silence?

The situation with Seligman, like those of other psychologists and psychiatrists who worked for the CIA's MKULTRA and like programs over forty years ago, reminds me of the analysis Robert Jay Lifton made of the behavior of doctors in Nazi Germany, who were implicated in anti-semitic purges of Jews from the medicine field, and in programs of forced sterilization, euthanasia of mental patients, and later, in the operations of the concentration camps. (The Germans, I should note, were not the only people to engage in forced sterilizations. The United States, too, engaged in eugenics policies such as forced sterilization earlier in the twentieth century, and many doctors participated in that.)

In his book, The Nazi Doctors, Lifton describes the phenomenon of "doubling", or "socialization to evil."

Doubling arises in the context where a professional must "function psychologically in an environment... antithetical to his previous ethical standards..." The person must be able to connect with both the prior, ethical self and the new, unethical environment or institution. The splitting of the professional self allows for an adaptation to evil and an escape from subsequent feelings of guilt or wrong-doing, as "the second self tends to be the one performing the 'dirty work'." What makes the entire process so insidious is that it usually takes place outside of individual consciousness, even as it involves "a significant change in moral consciousness." Thus, doubling can be understood as an adaptation to an extremely immoral culture or institution, allowing for disavowal of guilt. (See The Nazi Doctors, Lifton, pp. 421-423).

We can see this in Seligman's disavowal of any wrong-doing, and even his strong protestations of being against torture. Now, it's notoriously difficult to psychoanalyze someone from afar, but how else are we to explain the monumental and repeated violations of basic ethical practice by physicians and psychologists over the years, whether it has to do with secret study done on unknowing African-American subjects as part of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis patients experiments that lasted for forty years, until 1972; the human plutonium radiation experiments of the last century; the CIA mind control programs noted above; or the development and implementation of current psychological torture programs, which continues to date?

Are We Morally Doomed?

I think Jane Mayer is wrong on one point. As pointed out earlier, she is pessimistic that this nation has the "political appetite" to bring the perpetrators of torture to the bar of justice in his country. I hear that from many. But where there is a will, there is, proverbially, a way. It is not about "appetite" anymore. It is about what we must do, if we are not to take that final step into the dark side, a place Vice President Cheney so-famously told us we would have to go. We know now what awaits us there.

Worse even than the doubling of an individual like Martin Seligman is the behavior of the professional organizations for doctors and psychologists. The American Medical Association, while officially having a policy of not participating in interrogations at Bush's war on terror prisons, has taken no steps I know of to investigate or police violations of this policy. For years, the American Psychological Association has maintained that, while against torture, it supports psychologists working at prisons like Guantanamo, even if they do not allow basic human rights, because supposedly they lessen the possibility of abuse. The logic is grotesque, at best, and grossly misleading when you realize it's psychologists who have been implicated in organizing the abuse. But on this, the APA remains silent, rendering that organization, in Mayer's own characterization, "worthless."

In the famous legend, Faust bargains away his soul to the devil for the privilege of obtaining knowledge. In Goethe's rendering of the story, Faust is redeemed in the end, and the spirits who help him remind us, "He who persists in striving ever upwards, him we can save."


(1) Quote taken from Robert Jay Lifton's The Nazi Doctors, Basic Books, 1986/2000, p. 418.

(2) The quotes from my email correspondence with Dr. Seligman were the source of some quandary for me, as I was unsure whether to utilize them. I sought consultation for this issue with a long-time, highly respected journalist who thought it appropriate. I do want to make clear that all who communicate with me by voice or by writing (including email) and ask for confidentiality or non-attribution will have their request respected. My quotations from the Seligman correspondence with me are drawn from a professional exchange and not, in my opinion, privileged.

Also posted at Invictus and The Public Record

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