Monday, July 20, 2009

Spinning Torture: More Details on Mitchell-Jessen-CIA-FBI Torture Imbroglio

Joby Warrick and Peter Finn have a new article in Sunday's Washington Post. The story summarizes some of the competing narratives offered by different participants in the interrogation of alleged Al Qaeda terrorist, Abu Zubaida. (AZ was later admitted to not be an Al Qaeda member by various intelligence agency spokesmen.)

The entire article deserves close reading, the kind reserved for tea leaves, for through the varying narrative threads one can discern attempts by the differing agencies and actors involved to present their actions in the best possible light. In the end, no one comes out looking very good. The article reads like a summary of an internal dispute among gangsters.

In April 2002, as the terrorism suspect known as Abu Zubaida lay in a Bangkok hospital bed, top U.S. counterterrorism officials gathered at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., for a series of meetings on an urgent problem: how to get him to talk.

Put him in a cell filled with cadavers, was one suggestion, according to a former U.S. official with knowledge of the brainstorming sessions....

One man's certitude lanced through the debate, according to a participant in one of the meetings. James E. Mitchell, a retired clinical psychologist for the Air Force, had studied al-Qaeda resistance techniques.

"The thing that will make him talk," the participant recalled Mitchell saying, "is fear."

FBI & CTC (& JPRA): A Tale of Two (or Three) Agencies

One of a number of new revelations concerns the actions of R. Scott Schumate, a CIA psychologist, as the WashPo article calls him. According to his bio for the American Psychological Association's Psychological Ethics and National Security 2005 Task Force, he was in fact "chief operational psychologist for the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center (CTC)."

When it came to pushing increased levels of coercion on Zubaida, CTC played a central role, apparently with the backing of the White House. (Unreported here, but playing in the background were the machinations of the military's Joint Personnel Recovery Agency [JPRA], the parent organization for Mitchell and the SERE psychologists. How thrilled such JPRA agency central figures must be to be so removed from the spotlight.)

According to Warrick/Finn, "Permission had to be obtained before every technique was used, and the dialogue was very heavy.... All Mitchell's communications were with the Counterterrorist Center." Furthermore, it was believed the torture tactics had been approved "downtown," that is, at the White House. (Emptywheel has a posting up about the possible legal implications of the recent revelations for any prosecution of Mitchell or other interrogators involved in Zuabaida's torture.)

The FBI, having made it their purpose of late to remind everyone they opposed CIA harsh tactics, stayed around the Zubaida interrogation long enough to play ostensible "good cop" to Mitchell/CIA's "bad cop."

Or maybe they weren't such soft cops after all. Apparently, they agreed to continue on under conditions of use of nudity and sleep deprivation on Zubaida. While the FBI reportedly would "clash" over the temperature level in Zubaida's cell, their style of interrogation meshed more with the CIA's than has been presumed."The cables will not show that the FBI just asked friendly questions and got information about Padilla," one "U.S. official" said. This may put a different light on FBI interrogator Ali Soufan's derision of Mitchell's "experiment" with interrogation technique.

Now, a lot of this must be spin by the various sides. The FBI was good. No, the FBI weren't choir boys, etc. But notably, the FBI agents involved wouldn't comment to the Post. R. Scott Schumate -- who also is reported as protesting harsh techniques by Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape [SERE] military psychologist Mitchell, and leaving Zubaida's interrogation in Thailand in protest -- also refused to speak to the Post reporters. Bruce Jessen, Mitchell's SERE comrade, who joined the interrogation in July, and with Mitchell was involved in the interrogation during the waterboarding phase, kept mum, too.

James Mitchell broke his silence, however:

Yesterday, Mitchell issued a brief statement: "It may be easy for people who were not there and didn't feel the pressure of the threats to say how much better they could have done it. But they weren't there. We were and we did the best that we could."

If this is the "best," I'd hate to see the worst.

The Keystone of the Narrative

Two crucial points from the article deserve emphasis.

One, Mitchell makes clear that it is the use of fear that is central to the style of breaking down individuals. This is not a casual or even empirical statement by the SERE psychologist, but draws upon decades of study by U.S. government behavioral researchers (as I reported recently).

Two, and probably the aspect of the article that will receive the most coverage in coming days, is the way the White House and CIA leadership pushed hard for the use of torture techniques, especially waterboarding, to gain information on a possible new terrorist attack. Or at least that's the story the sources for the story are pushing. It's one narrative, but not necessarily the true one.

The article leaves us with a number of questions. Not least, why did the CIA turn to Mitchell to begin with? Here is the key portion of the proffered narrative, and one that has holes large enough to drive the proverbial truck through:

Agency officials had no firm notion of what a post-Sept. 11 interrogation of a terrorism suspect should look like.

"It was not a job we sought out," said one former senior intelligence official involved in early decisions on interrogation. "The generals didn't want to do it. The FBI said no. It fell to the agency because we had the [legal] authorities and could operate overseas."

In Mitchell, the CIA found an authoritative professional who had answers, despite an absence of practical experience in interrogating terrorism suspects or data showing that harsh tactics work.

Previously, I showed that the use of SERE torture techniques was born out of sponsorship by Special Forces and Joint Forces leadership, in conjunction with certain military contractors. It seems likely the CIA knew of or even sponsored this activity. The Warrick/Finn article makes clear the crucial role of CTC.

As with any good narrative, there is a presumed ending, in that the "enhanced interrogation techniques" were supposedly discontinued. In my next article, I will challenge this last aspect of the narrative, and show that the conclusion of this CIA fairy tale, i.e., that SERE techniques were ultimately rejected, that Mitchell "retired", and this is all in the past, is a fiction.


Michael Tuck said...

This is an excellent article. Of course, it means that I'm going to have to revise a half-dozen entries I've written for the History Commons Prisoner Abuse project, but it's worth it to bring this information to the public.

Valtin, thanks for your always-cogent commentary.

Valtin said...

Always glad to be of assistance.

You'll have more to update very, very soon, I'm afraid.

Michael Tuck said...

>>You'll have more to update very, very soon, I'm afraid.

Better to keep updating than to keep wondering what the hell they're hiding. I spent four hours today writing nothing but torture-related material and got through links from April 21 to April 27. It's an intensive, and slow, process.

Valtin said...

Michael, the work you and others do at History Commons is amazingly remarkable. For readers who haven't gone to that site, you are missing one of the web's truly unique and valuable resources.

Michael didn't leave a link to the HC Prisoner Abuse project, but I'll give it:

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