Monday, July 16, 2007

Vanity Fair Article Links CIA/SERE Psychologists to Torture

An important new article by Katherine Eban, "Rorshach and Awe", has just been published at the VF website. According to the blurb at the head of the article:

America's coercive interrogation methods were reverse-engineered by two C.I.A. psychologists who had spent their careers training U.S. soldiers to endure Communist-style torture techniques. The spread of these tactics was fueled by a myth about a critical "black site" operation.

The "black site" operation was the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah in Spring 2002. Eban describes how the CIA stole the operation from the FBI, and "planned to conduct a psychic demolition in which they'd get Zubaydah to reveal everything by severing his sense of personality and scaring him almost to death."

The operation was headed by two SERE psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, hired for the purpose by the CIA. Eban explains they were rewarded well for their work:

Mitchell and Jessen reverse-engineered the tactics inflicted on sere trainees for use on detainees in the global war on terror, according to psychologists and others with direct knowledge of their activities. The C.I.A. put them in charge of training interrogators in the brutal techniques, including "waterboarding," at its network of "black sites." In a statement, Mitchell and Jessen said, "We are proud of the work we have done for our country."

There is much more to the article, which I and others will have to analyze and piece together with much that is already known. I've already written on psychologists involved in torture in Bush's "war on terror".

Other important articles on the use of psychologists and the military's SERE program (standing for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, and meant to train soldiers against the rigors of enemy capture) appeared recently in an important article, and an equally important New Yorker/Seymour Hersh piece. To complete one's understanding of current revelations, Stephen Soldz's article on the revelations in the recently declassified Department of Defense Inspector General Report is also must reading.

The VF article has quite a bit more in it than I have room or time to retail here. For instance, it was believed by some that the Pentagon won the support of the American Psychological Association's tacit support for the use of psychologists in the increasingly dangerous interrogations being conducted by way of a quid pro quo allowing psychologists to prescribe medications. The latter is a long sought-after desideratum by a coterie within APA. (Eban says she couldn't get enough evidence to make that link herself.)

I strongly encourage readers to go read Eban's well-researched article. She closes with what could open another promising direction in the effort to impeach Vice President Cheney. Explaining how the purported "success" of Mitchell and Jessen in breaking down prisoners became well-known throughout much of the government and military, Eban cites many experts, some from within SERE and CIA itself, to show how self-defeating and destructive the torture really was (or is). Then, she reports (emphasis mine):

In late 2005, as Senator John McCain was pressing the Bush administration to ban torture techniques, one of the nation's top researchers of stress in sere trainees claims to have received a call from Samantha Ravitch, the deputy assistant for national security in Vice President Dick Cheney's office. She wanted to know if the researcher had found any evidence that uncontrollable stress would make people more likely to talk.

Senator Levin (who is reportedly considering Senate hearings into this whole sinister mess), how about a subpoena for Ms. Ravitch?

Postscript: I think the article raises many questions, which I would like to take up more at another time.

But the primary question is simple: what the hell is going on inside the CIA? The CIA has a long-standing history of using coercive interrogations. Why did they go outside the agency to hire SERE interrogators? As I have speculated elsewhere, this raised a good deal of resistance among some older-fashioned CIA types (not to mention from the FBI, as the article states).

But it's not like there are guys with white hats anywhere here. The more traditional CIA types only have a more nuanced view of how to conduct interrogations, relying more on sensory deprivation and more psychological forms of torture, and less on beatings and waterboarding.

From afar, this all looks like a crazy trip through a double looking glass. The insanity of even discussing the "right" way to conduct illegal interrogations in the "war on terror" belies a moral and political bankruptcy so profound that it may take us an entire political and social epoch to extirpate it.

That is, if we survive it.

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