Thursday, September 25, 2008

SASC Hits Paydirt: Full Story on SERE Torture Timeline Emerges

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.

3 comments:

Annie said...

Thanks so much for your in-depth reporting and thoughtful analysis. I'm reading this as I'm digesting the content from several bioethcis and humans rights/health law conferences I attended at Boston University and Harvard Law School.

I posted a primary sources reading list about human rights, ethics (international, military and bioethics) and the US Constitution built from those conferences if anyone is interested.(link at my name)

I still am not finding answers to questions about nurses' involvement in torturing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Graib and Bagram. But I'm still looking....

Valtin said...

Annie,

When you find more on the nurses, please don't forget to email me. If you write up something on it, I'll consider posting here as well.

Annie said...

I asked Assistant Dean Glantz of the Health law, bioethics and human rights department at Boston University about which agency has authority over nurses practice when they are defederalized. Without hesitation, he responded that the state issuing the license to the nurse (physician, psychologist, etc) has statutory authority over practice. Ergo, the DIHS IS accountable to state boards of nursing, etc.

Now I need to investigate next steps. Do you think that the PHR or some other body might be interested? The American Nurses Association is decidedly NOT interested and will not respond to my questions. I don't know that anyone else has asked them, either or tried to hold them to account for their notable silence on the issue.

At the moment, I'm coming up empty on ideas for how to proceed and whom to contact. I did stumble upon a nurse authored chapter in the 2003 Military Medical Ethics text about Military Nursing Ethics, but torture isn't referenced. The author's note stated that she was retired from the Army and was in Washington at an academic teaching post. I'll try to contact her.

I'm pessimistic at the moment - nursing looks very much like a failed profession in a number of ways, not the least in its unwillingness to hold itself and its members accountable for patient advocacy.

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