coercive interrogation methods engineered by CIA psychologists

The War on Terror

Rorschach and Awe

by Katherine Eban VF.COM EXCLUSIVE July 17, 2007

Abu Zubaydah was a mess. It was early April 2002, and the al-Qaeda lieutenant had been shot in the groin during a firefight in Pakistan, then captured by the Special Forces and flown to a safe house in Thailand. Now he was experiencing life as America’s first high-value detainee in the wake of 9/11. A medical team and a cluster of F.B.I. and C.I.A. agents stood vigil, all fearing that the next attack on America could happen at any moment. It didn’t matter that Zubaydah was unable to eat, drink, sit up, or control his bowels. They wanted him to talk.

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. “I want to congratulate our officers on the ground,” he told a gathering of agents at Langley. 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, say those who were later told of the meeting. Tenet’s instructions were clear: Zubaydah was to be kept alive at all costs. (Through his publisher, George Tenet declined to be interviewed.)

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. He then proceeded to lay out the details of the plot. America learned the truth of how 9/11 was organized because a detainee had come to trust his captors after they treated him humanely.

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.

This is the approach President Bush appeared to have in mind when, in a lengthy public address last year, he cited the “tough” but successful interrogation of Zubaydah to defend the C.I.A.’s secret prisons, America’s use of coercive interrogation tactics, and the abolishment of habeas corpus for detainees. He said that Zubaydah had been questioned using an “alternative set” of tactics formulated by the C.I.A. This program, he said, was fully monitored by the C.I.A.’s inspector general and required extensive training for interrogators before they were allowed to question captured terrorists.

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

I did not set out to discover how America got into the business of torturing detainees. I wasn’t even trying to learn how America found out who was behind 9/11. I was attempting to explain why psychologists, alone among medical professionals, were participating in military interrogations at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere.

Both army leaders and military psychologists say that psychologists help to make interrogations “safe, legal and effective.” But last fall, a psychologist named Jean Maria Arrigo came to see me with a disturbing claim about the American Psychological Association, her profession’s 148,000-member trade group. Arrigo had sat on a specially convened A.P.A. task force that, in July 2005, had ruled that psychologists could assist in military interrogations, despite angry objections from many in the profession. The task force also determined that, in cases where international human-rights law conflicts with U.S. law, psychologists could defer to the much looser U.S. standards—what Arrigo called the “Rumsfeld definition” of humane treatment.

James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen played a key role in developing the Air Force’s sere program, which was administered in Spokane, Washington. Dr. Bryce Lefever, command psychologist on the U.S.S. Enterprise and a former sere trainer who worked with Mitchell and Jessen at the Fairchild Air Base, says he was waterboarded during his own training. “It was terrifying,” he remembers. “I said to myself, ‘They can’t kill me because it’s only an exercise.’ But you’re strapped to an inclined gurney and you’re in four-point restraint, your head is almost immobilized, and they pour water between your nose and your mouth, so if you’re likely to breathe, you’re going to get a lot of water. You go into an oxygen panic.”


Abu Zubaydah had been captured in Pakistan the day before–and one of the first on-the-ground tests for Mitchell’s theories was the interrogation of Zubaydah. When he and the other members of the C.I.A. team arrived in Thailand, they immediately put a stop to the efforts at rapport building (which would also yield the name of José Padilla, an American citizen and supposed al-Qaeda operative now on trial in Miami for conspiring to murder and maim people in a foreign country).

Mitchell had a tougher approach in mind. The C.I.A. interrogators explained that they were going to become Zubaydah’s “God.” If he refused to cooperate, he would lose his clothes and his comforts one by one. At the safe house, the interrogators isolated him. They would enter his room just once a day to say, “You know what I want,” then leave again.

While it was the F.B.I.’s rapport-building that had prompted Zubaydah to talk, the C.I.A. would go on to claim credit for breaking Zubaydah, and celebrate Mitchell as a psychological wizard who held the key to getting hardened terrorists to talk. Word soon spread that Mitchell and Jessen had been awarded a medal by the C.I.A. for their advanced interrogation techniques. While the claim is impossible to confirm, what matters is that others believed it. The reputed success of the tactics was “absolutely in the ether,” says one Pentagon civilian who worked on detainee policy.

At a Pentagon meeting where Mallow protested the methods, he says that a civilian official named Marshall Billingslea told him, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Billingslea insisted that the coercive approach worked.

Just months after Zubaydah’s interrogation, the myth of Mitchell and Jessen’s success in breaking him had made its way from Thailand to Guantánamo to Washington, and the reversed sere tactics had become associated with recognition and inside knowledge.

On December 2, 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld granted JTF-GTMO 170’s request to apply coercive tactics in interrogations. The only techniques he rejected were waterboarding and death threats. Within a week, the task force had drafted a five-page, typo-ridden document entitled “JTF GTMO ‘SERE’ Interrogation Standard Operating Procedure.”

The document is divided into four categories: “Degradation,” “Physical Debilitation,” “Isolation and Monopoliztion [sic] of Perception,” and “Demonstrated Omnipotence.” The tactics include “slaps,” “forceful removal of detainees’ clothing,” “stress positions,” “hooding,” “manhandling,” and “walling,” which entails grabbing the detainee by his shirt and hoisting him against a specially constructed wall.  ….psychologists were needed to help make these more dangerous interrogations safer.

Soon, the reverse-engineered sere tactics that had been designed by Mitchell and Jessen, road-tested in the C.I.A.’s black sites, and adopted in Guantánamo were being used in Iraq as well. One intelligence officer recalled witnessing a live demonstration of the tactics. The detainee was on his knees in a room painted black and forced to hold an iron bar in his extended hands while interrogators slapped him repeatedly. The man was then taken into a bunker, where he was stripped naked, blindfolded, and shackled.

Under Levin’s leadership, the Senate Armed Services Committee has been probing the military’s alleged mistreatment of detainees and intends to hold hearings. In a statement to Vanity Fair, Levin says that he finds the reported use of sere tactics in interrogations “very troubling,” and that his committee is looking specifically at “the accountability of officials for actions or failures to act.”

Meanwhile, business appears to be booming at Mitchell, Jessen & Associates. It has 120 employees and specializes in “understanding, predicting, and improving performance in high-risk and extreme situations,” according to a recruitment ad at a recent job fair for people with top security clearances.

“Taxpayers are paying at least half a million dollars a year for these two knuckleheads to do voodoo,” says one of the people familiar with their pay arrangements.

But it is one of the features of our war on terror that myths die hard. Just think of the al-Qaeda–Iraq connection, or Saddam Hussein’s W.M.D. 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.

Katherine Eban is a Brooklyn-based journalist and Alicia Patterson fellow who writes about issues of public health and homeland security.


One response to “coercive interrogation methods engineered by CIA psychologists

  1. *Sighs.

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