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In a series of gripping articles, Jane Mayer has chronicled the Bush Administration’s grim and furtive dealings with torture and has exposed both the individuals within the administration who “made it happen” (a group that starts with Vice President Cheney and his chief of staff, David Addington), the team of psychologists who put together the palette of techniques, and the Fox television program “24,” which was developed to help sell it to the American public. In a new book, The Dark Side, Mayer puts together the major conclusions from her articles and fills in a number of important gaps. Most significantly, we learn the details on the torture techniques and the drama behind the fierce and lingering struggle within the administration over torture, and we learn that many within the administration recognized the potential criminal accountability they faced over these torture tactics and moved frantically to protect themselves from possible future prosecution. I put six questions to Jane Mayer on the subject of her book, The Dark Side.
1. Reports have circulated for some time that the Red Cross examination of the CIA’s highly coercive interrogation regime—what President Bush likes to call “The Program”—concluded that it was “tantamount to torture.” But you write that the Red Cross categorically described the program as “torture.” The Red Cross is notoriously tight-lipped about its reports, and you do not cite your source or even note that you examined the report. Do you believe that the threat of criminal prosecution drove the Bush Administration’s crafting of the Military Commissions Act?
Whether anyone involved in the Bush Administration’s interrogation and detention program will be prosecuted is as much a political question as a legal one. Right now in Italy the CIA agents involved in the rendition of Abu Omar are facing criminal charges, which is obviously an unmitigated nightmare for the Bush Administration.But to get that far it took an extraordinarily independent and politically fearless local prosecutor, Armando Spataro. I may be wrong, but I personally doubt there will be large-scale legal repercussions inside America for those who devised and implemented “The Program.” Activists will be angry at me for saying this, but as someone who has covered politics in Washington, D.C., for two decades, I would be surprised if there is the political appetite for going after public servants who convinced themselves that they were acting in the best interests of the country, and had legal authority to do so. An additional complicating factor is that key members of Congress sanctioned this program, so many of those who might ordinarily be counted on to lead the charge are themselves compromised.
Much will depend on who the next president and attorney general are, and how much pressure they feel. At the very least, as a journalist, I hope that the records are opened, and all the legal memos released (several crucial ones remain secret) so that the country can learn its own history here. My guess is that the real accountability for President Bush will be in the history books, not the court room.
As for the damning Red Cross report, as I make clear to readers in the book, I have not personally read it, because as you say, it is very closely held. I have instead relied upon multiple sources who are knowledgeable about it. Adding to the confidence I have concerning it is the specificity, and consistency of the details, as well as confirmation I was able to get from additional independent sources familiar with the treatment of the detainees. For instance, Abu Zubayda claimed to have been locked in a tiny cage, in which he had to remain doubled up for long periods of time, prior to the period when he was waterboarded. This account—which he gave to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)—was confirmed to me independently by a former CIA officer familiar with his interrogation. It also is consistent with the chronology of legal actions taken inside the Justice Department. Incidentally, being caged only made him angry, according to the former CIA source. The sadistic treatment of Abu Zubayda also seems to have affected him psychologically in bizarre ways. Two sources said that he became sexually obsessive, masturbating so much his captors feared he would injure himself. One described him as acting “like a monkey at the zoo.” A physician was called in for consultation—one of many instances in which health professionals have played truly disturbing roles in this program. (I personally feel that the medical and psychological professionals who have used their skills to further a program designed to cause pain and suffering should be a high priority in terms of accountability. It has long been a ghastly aspect of torture, worldwide, that doctors and other medical professionals often assist. The licensing boards and professional societies are worthless, in my view, if they don’t demand serious investigations of such unethical uses of science.)
The reaction of top Bush Administration officials to the ICRC report, from what I can gather, has been defensive and dismissive. They reject the ICRC’s legal analysis as incorrect. Yet my reporting shows that inside the White House there has been growing fear of criminal prosecution, particularly after the Supreme Court ruled in the Hamdan case that the Geneva Conventions applied to the treatment of the detainees. This nervousness resulted in the successful effort to add retroactive immunity to the Military Commission Act. Cheney personally spearheaded this effort. Fear of the consequences of exposure also weighed heavily in discussions about whether to shut the CIA program down. In White House meetings, Cheney warned that if they transferred the CIA’s prisoners to Guantanamo, “people will want to know where they have been—and what we’ve been doing with them.” Alberto Gonzales, a source said, “scared” everyone about the possibility of war crimes prosecutions. It was on their minds.
2. You have patiently traced the torture techniques used by the CIA back to two psychologists, James Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen—you describe them as ”good looking, clean-cut, polite Mormons”—who reverse-engineered their techniques out of the SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, escape) program used to train U.S. pilots in self-defense. In Dark Side, you identify an approach called “Learned Helplessness” as the model they used, and you note that its author, Prof. Martin Seligman, made a visit to the SERE school and spoke with Mitchell and Jessen as the program was being formed. Seligman is a former president of the American Psychological Association (APA), which is the sole association of health care professionals to buck condemnation of “The Program” and to resist calls that its members not be involved in it. Do you believe that Seligman’s proximity to the torture program helps explain the difficulty that APA has in rejecting it?
It was completely fascinating to me to learn that Martin Seligman, one of the most esteemed psychologists in the country, a former head of the APA, was connected to the CIA after 9/11. Seligman is known for work he did back in the 1960’s at the University of Pennsylvania in a theory he called “Learned Helplessness.” He and colleagues conducted experiments on caged dogs, in which they used electric charges to shock them randomly. He discovered that the random mistreatment destroyed the dogs emotionally to the point where they no longer had the will to escape, even when offered a way out. Seligman confirmed for me, by email, that in the spring of 2002, as the CIA was trying to figure out how to interrogate its first major high-value detainee, Abu Zubayda, he was brought in to speak about his theories to a high-level confab apparently organized by CIA officials, at the Navy’s SERE School in San Diego. He said his talk lasted some three hours. Seligman said his talk was focused on how to help U.S. soldiers resist torture—not on how to breakdown resistance in detainees.
But, according to numerous sources (who are quoted on the record in The Dark Side), Seligman’s theories were cited admiringly soon after by James Mitchell, the psychologist whom the CIA put on contract to advise on its secret interrogation protocol. Eyewitnesses describe Mitchell as quoting Seligman’s theories of “Learned Helplessness” as useful in showing how to break the resistance of detainees’ to interrogation. One source recounts Mitchell specifically touting the experiments done on dogs in the context of how to treat detainees.
Through a lawyer, Mitchell has denied that these theories guided his and the CIA’s use of such coercive measures as close confinement, psychological manipulation, and calibrated pain. But Mitchell confirmed, when I spoke to him, that he admired Seligman’s work.
Among the U.S. Government’s interrogation techniques that seem to echo these experiments are the uses of random maltreatment—taking away any predictable schedule from detainees so that they have no idea what time it is, no sense of when meals are delivered, no idea if it is day or night, as well as manipulating temperature, sound, sleep, and using isolation, all of which are meant to cause psychic stress that would erode a prisoner’s resistance to being interrogated and foster total dependency upon an interrogator. Perhaps just coincidentally, the detainees have described other ways in which they were treated like dogs—the use of dog cages and of a collar and leash.
3. This week Scott McClellan, Bush’s press secretary, so famous for pronouncing that “we do not torture,” issued a retraction in an interview with ABC’s Jake Tapper, admitting that he could not “honestly deny” the Administration’s acceptance and use of torture techniques. President Bush has specifically defended the program with a series of claims concerning Abu Zubaydah. Do his claims stand up to scrutiny?
President Bush has repeatedly defended the need to use “enhanced interrogations” in order to get life-saving intelligence, and has pointed to Abu Zubayda’s case as an example. I went over the claims in this case carefully, and found them highly dubious. Bush claimed three breakthroughs from coercive tactics used on Abu Zubayda.
First, he said, Abu Zubayda told the CIA that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the terrorist behind the 9/11 plot. But, if one reads the 9/11 Commission’s detailed report on what information had reached the CIA prior to the 9/11 attacks, it is clear that the CIA already had this information.
Second, President Bush said that Abu Zubayda revealed that an American-born Al Qaeda figure was on his way to attack America. This is widely understood to be a reference to Jose Padilla. But numerous published accounts indicate that Abu Zubayda gave this information to interrogators prior to being physically coerced. So it’s not accurate to describe it as an argument for coercion.
Third, the President said Abu Zubayda gave up information leading to the capture of another top Al Qaeda terrorist, Ramsi Bin Al Shibh. But circumstantial evidence, as well as previously published accounts, suggest that Bin Al Shibh was more likely located by the United States as the result of an interview he gave to Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, although President Bush has argued that “enhanced” interrogation had led to numerous breakthroughs he has never publicly acknowledged the false and fabricated intelligence it has yielded, too. One former top CIA official told me, “Ninety percent of what we got was crap.”
4. You spend more time showing how the torture process compromised lawyers than how it compromised health care professionals. One of the more revealing cases involves Jessica Radack, a young career attorney in the Justice Department’s Honors Program, who dispensed ethics advice concerning plans for the interrogation of John Walker Lindh. It seems that her advice was contrary to the ethical views of senior Bush Administration lawyers, and you note that when a federal judge demanded to see the internal Department of Justice records relating to the matter, all of Radack’s emails, including the advice actually dispensed, had been deleted and the hard copies removed, and none of this was furnished to the court. Did the Justice Department ever undertake an internal probe into the obstruction?
Radack was in some ways an early guinea pig showing how high the costs were for anyone—including administration lawyers—who dissented from the Bush Administration’s determination to rewrite the rules for the treatment of terrorists. Her job in the department was to give ethical advice. She was asked whether an FBI officer in Afghanistan could interrogate John Walker Lindh and use his statements against him in any future trial. By the time she was asked this, however, as she knew, Lindh’s father had already hired a lawyer to represent him. So she concluded that it would not be proper for the FBI to question him outside the presence of his counsel.
To her amazement, the FBI agent went ahead and did so anyway, and then the prosecutors in the Justice Department proceeded to use Lindh’s statements against him in their criminal prosecution. She told me, “It was like ethics were out the window. After 9/11, it was, like, ‘anything goes’ in the name of terrorism. It felt like they’d made up their minds to get him, regardless of the process.” Radack believed that the role of the ethics office was to “rein in the cowboys” whose zeal to stop criminals sometimes led them to overstep legal boundaries. “But after 9/11 we were bending ethics to fit our needs,” she said. “Something wrong was going on. It wasn’t just fishy—it stank.”
What happened next was truly scary. She tried to ensure that a judge overseeing the case, who asked for all information regarding the Department’s handling of Lindh, was given the full record, including her own contrary advice. But instead, she said she found that her superiors at Justice sent the judge only selective portions of the record, excluding her contrary opinion. Her case files, she said, were tampered with, and documents missing. Among the senior Justice Department officials who were sent her files, she said was Alice Fisher, a deputy to Michael Chertoff who followed him as head of the Department’s Criminal Division.
Radack complained about what she thought were serious omissions of the record being withheld from the judge. Within weeks of disagreeing with the top Justice Department officials, Radack went from having been singled out for praise, to being hounded out of the department. Radack got a job in private practice, but after her story appeared in Newsweek, with copies of some of her emails, the Justice Department opened a leak investigation. The U.S. Attorney then opened a criminal investigation. Radack has since become an advocate for whistle-blowers’ rights. But the episode served as a warning to anyone in the government who stood in the way of the so-called, “New Paradigm.” It is unclear to me what sort of investigation, if any, there has been of this case, including of the potential obstruction.
5. In a recent speech in Boston, Attorney General Mukasey tried to excuse John Yoo, David Addington, and other key players in the Bush Administration torture team by arguing they were operating under intense pressure and were motivated only by a desire to protect the country. But isn’t it obvious that the “War Council” seized upon 9/11 and the war mood that prevailed in its wake as an opportunity to test-pilot their constitutionally-untenable views of presidential power and authority and the irrelevance of international law?
After interviewing hundreds of sources in and around the Bush White House, I think it is clear that many of the legal steps taken by the so-called “War Council” were less a “New Paradigm,” as Alberto Gonzales dubbed it, than an old political wish list, consisting of grievances that Cheney and his legal adviser, David Addington, had been compiling for decades. Cheney in particular had been chafing at the post-Watergate reforms, and had longed to restore the executive branch powers Nixon had assumed, constituting what historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called “the Imperial Presidency.”
Before September 11, 2001, these extreme political positions would not have stood a change of being instituted—they would never have survived democratic scrutiny. But by September 12, 2001, President Bush and Vice President Cheney were extraordinarily empowered. Political opposition evaporated as critics feared being labeled anti-patriotic or worse. It’s a familiar dynamic in American history—not unlike the shameful abridgement of civil liberties represented by FDR’s internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry. One of the strongest quotes in the book, I think, comes from Philip Zelikow, the former executive director of the 9/11 Commission, former counselor to Secretary of State Condi Rice, and a historian who teaches at the University of Virginia. He suggests in time that America’s descent into torture will be viewed like the internment of the Japanese, because they happened for similar reasons. As he puts it, “Fear and anxiety were exploited by zealots and fools.”
6. One of the lingering mysteries in Washington has been what happened to the CIA internal probe into homicides involving the program. You note that CIA Inspector General (IG) John Helgerson undertook a study and initially concluded, just as the Red Cross and most legal authorities in the United States and around the world, that the program was illegal and raised serious war crimes issues. Helgerson was summoned repeatedly to meet privately with Vice President Cheney, the man who provided the impetus for the program, and it appears as a result of these meetings the IG’s report was simply shut down. Would those probes have brought into question the Justice Department’s specific approval of torture techniques used by the CIA–approval that involved not just John Yoo, but much more specifically Michael Chertoff and Alice Fisher, the two figures who ran the criminal division?
The fact that John Helgerson—the inspector general at the CIA who is supposed to act as an independent watchdog—was called in by Cheney to discuss his tough report in 2004 is definitely surprising news. Asked for comment, Helgerson through the CIA spokesman denied he felt pressured in any way by Cheney. But others I interviewed have described the IG’s office to me as extremely politicized. They have also suggested it was very unusual that the Vice President interjected himself into the work of the IG. Fred Hitz, who had the same post in previous administrations, told me that no vice president had ever met with him. He thought it highly unusual.
Helgerson’s 2004 report had been described to me as very disturbing, the size of two Manhattan phone books, and full of terrible descriptions of mistreatment. The confirmation that Helgerson was called in to talk with Cheney about it proves that–as early as then–the Vice President’s office was fully aware that there were allegations of serious wrongdoing in The Program.
We know that in addition, the IG investigated several alleged homicides involving CIA detainees, and that Helgerson’s office forwarded several to the Justice Department for further consideration and potential prosecution. The only case so far that has been prosecuted in the criminal courts is that involving David Passaro—a low-level CIA contractor, not a full official in the Agency. Why have there been no charges filed? It’s a question to which one would expect that Congress and the public would like some answers. Sources suggested to me that, as you imply, it is highly uncomfortable for top Bush Justice officials to prosecute these cases because, inevitably, it means shining a light on what those same officials sanctioned. Chertoff’s role in particular seems ripe for investigation. Alice Fisher’s role also seems of interest. Much remains to be uncovered.
More from Scott Horton:
Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp
From the June 2014 issue
No Comment — March 28, 2014, 12:32 pm
On CIA secrecy, torture, and war-making powers
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