Thursday, September 20, 2007

CIA PR Campaign a Pack of Lies

In an unusual departure for the Central Intelligence Agency policy, the CIA has apparently decided to publicly attack its critics, and comment thereby on its clandestine programs. What precipitated this public relations foray was a July 2007 article by Katherine Eban at Vanity Fair, who wrote an important piece detailing how military psychologists who worked for the Pentagon's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape program (SERE) were hired by the CIA to conduct interrogations of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan. (You can read my review of this article here.)

Ms. Eban also was interviewed by Amy Goodman at Democracy Now!, and further described how the CIA worked with the American Psychological Association in organizing meetings to "debate" the efficacy of coercive interrogations, the use of "truth serums" and the like, in interrogations. (Again, this is something I have also written on.)

Other journalists have covered much the same ground, particularly as revelations emerged regarding the interrogation of Al Queda higher-up Abu Zubaydah some years ago now in Afghanistan. I'm thinking here especially of Jane Mayer's article in The New Yorker a few months ago, "The Black Sites", also about the evolution of the CIA's interrogation program and use of torture in the so-called "war on terror". Mark Benjamin's June 2007 article at, "The CIA's Torture Teachers" also covered much the same material as the Eban article, and Benjamin was the first to name two SERE psychologists who worked for the CIA in constructing coercive and abusive interrogations, reverse-engineering SERE methods -- meant to protect U.S. military personnel in POW situations -- and using them to torture foreign detainees.

All this coverage has apparently hit a nerve over at Langley, perhaps because Senate hearings on the SERE torture are due to start this fall at the Armed Services Committee, chaired by Senator Carl Levin. We can see this in an unusual public letter to the editor from the CIA's Deputy Director of Public Affairs published in Vanity Fair magazine.

CIA Writes to the Editor

The controversy addressed by the CIA spokesperson concerns the interrogation of Al-Qaeda lieutenant Abu Zubaydah, captured in Pakistan in April 2002. Katherine Eban described the situation in her VF article, "Rorschach and Awe" (July 17, 2007):

A C.I.A. interrogation team was expected but hadn't yet arrived. But the F.B.I. agents who had been nursing his wounds and cleaning him after he'd soiled himself asked Zubaydah what he knew. The detainee said something about a plot against an ally, then began slipping into sepsis. He was probably going to die.

The team cabled the morsel of intelligence to C.I.A. headquarters, where it was received with delight by Director George Tenet.... When someone explained that the F.B.I. had obtained the information, Tenet blew up and demanded that the C.I.A. get there immediately....

Zubaydah was stabilized at the nearest hospital, and the F.B.I. continued its questioning using its typical rapport-building techniques. An agent showed him photographs of suspected al-Qaeda members until Zubaydah finally spoke up, blurting out that "Moktar," or Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, had planned 9/11....

It was an extraordinary success story. But it was one that would evaporate with the arrival of the C.I.A's interrogation team. At the direction of an accompanying psychologist, the team 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....

While the methods were certainly unorthodox, there is little evidence they were necessary, given the success of the rapport-building approach until that point.

What follows is the CIA's response published in the October Vanity Fair, p. 152, and headlined, "American Torture". Unfortunately, VF chose not to post the letter, and the response from author Katherine Eban, on its website. The selections from the following letters were transcribed by a colleague of mine:

Katherine Eban’s recent article for on terrorist interrogations... is gravely flawed. For starters, the terrorist Abu Zubaydah provided virtually all of his valuable intelligence during C.I.A. questioning. That process was lawful and successful.

Initially, Abu Zubaydah was evasive. There may be people elsewhere who believe they built some sort of rapport with him in those early days, but neither Abu Zubaydah’s conduct nor, most important, the production of intelligence from him backs that up. It was, most of all, the efforts of the C.I.A. that led Abu Zubaydah to share concrete, actionable information that our government used to identify other terrorist figures and disrupt their activities.

"There may be people elsewhere who believe they built some sort of rapport with him in those early days..." People elsewhere? Let's be clear: the CIA is calling the FBI liars.

The letter, signed by Paul Gimigliano, Deputy Director of Public Affairs, CIA, goes on to decry the "myth" surrounding "the C.I.A.’s terrorist-detention program", and chalks it up to unfortunate but supposedly necessary secrecy around interrogation methodology, the better to keep potential Al Qaeda detainees ignorant of what fate awaits them. This will also supposedly make them more susceptible to interrogation. Gimigliano also maintains that CIA interrogations have been "small, legal, carefully run, and reviewed with the executive branch and by Congress."

He concludes:

It has also been highly productive, providing a unique window into al-Queda that has helped our country, and other, foil terrorist plots and save innocent lives. Had Eban asked me about Abu Zubaydah, I would have tried to correct the misimpressions that wound up shaping her story.

An Author Defends Her Work

VF followed with Katherine Eban's reply. She insisted that with a 10 month investigatory effort, and more than 70 sources on the story, she could only draw one conclusion:

...that coercive interrogation techniques of the kind employed at black sites by the C.I.A. do not work any better than traditional rapport building.

It was humane interrogation that got Abu Zubaydah to reveal the identity of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed as 9/11’s master planner. Many experts and insiders I interviewed say that American interrogators could have stayed within the Geneva Convention guidelines and achieved equal intelligence gains, with far less stain on our reputation abroad. Instead, the C.I.A. turned its interrogation training over to two psychologists who reportedly lacked real-world experience and advocated untested methods.

The two psychologists she mentions are Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, formerly of SERE, contracted to the CIA, and most recently proprietors of Mitchell, Jessen and Associates, an "executive consultancy" firm in Spokane. According to Mark Benjamin at, MJA has been a contractor for the CIA since 9/11. Techexpo, which bills itself as having "the leading career fairs for all professionals with security clearance" says:

Mitchell, Jessen, and Associates, LLC (MJA) is an executive consulting firm specializing in the area of understanding, predicting, and improving performance in high-risk and extreme situations. MJA develops specialized assessment and selection programs for high-risk occupations, devises and conducts tailored training for related, high-risk programs, and is additionally approved by the American Psychological Association to offer continuing professional education for psychologists.

What seemed to make the CIA/SERE link even more controversial was a broadside from the least expected party, a Pentagon Office of the Inspector General report on detainee abuse from August 2006 was declassified, leading Senator Carl Levin to announce he would hold hearings in the matter this fall.

Senate Hearings? or Another Cover-up?

While it is one thing for me to label the CIA's public relations response to recent allegations "a pack of lies", it's another thing for a Senate committee to find wrongdoing among government agencies.

So far, no word from Senator Levin's office as to when hearings might begin. Therefore, it's important that we keep the heat on and tell our representatives we want U.S. use of torture investigated by our elected Congress. The most effective strategy will be to contact members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, where the matter is still "being investigated". Here's a list of committee members:

Carl Levin (Michigan), Chairman
Edward M. Kennedy (Massachusetts)
Robert C. Byrd (West Virginia)
Joseph I. Lieberman (Connecticut)
Jack Reed (Rhode Island)
Daniel K. Akaka (Hawaii)
Bill Nelson (Florida)
E. Benjamin Nelson (Nebraska)
Evan Bayh (Indiana)
Hillary Rodham Clinton (New York)
Mark L. Pryor (Arkansas)
Jim Webb (Virginia)
Claire McCaskill (Missouri)

John McCain (Arizona), Ranking Member
John W. Warner (Virginia)
James M. Inhofe (Oklahoma)
Jeff Sessions (Alabama)
Susan M. Collins (Maine)
Saxby Chambliss (Georgia)
Lindsey O. Graham (South Carolina)
Elizabeth Dole (North Carolina)
John Cornyn (Texas)
John Thune (South Dakota)
Mel Martinez (Florida)
Bob Corker (Tennessee)

The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee can be reached at (202) 224-3871.


Anonymous said...

And you should see what the CIA does to the heads of the men who DO the torturing -- oi vey!!!!!

There is no legal basis for torture, period. The men who tortured will be hounded by the law, international and national, as well as civil, for the rest of their lives. Bush's fantasy laws will not be respected.

Such a shame, torture being such a cancer to the democratic ideal.

And it really doesn't make a man popular, you know?

Too bad for them.

Anonymous said...

Forgot to add, nothing sadder than a frustrated aged poet, is there?

Valtin said...

Anonymous: You are right, torture does things to men's psyches, including to those who torture. Some, however, are more affected than others. As far as a society goes, torture is like an acid eating through the institutions of a democratic society.

As for being a frustrated aged poet... is there any other kind? Even Yeats felt that way. If you read Milton (the intros to the Paradise Lost cantos), you get some of the same impression. Then there's Bukowski. I could go on and on. (And then there's you... and me.)

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