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Torture Teachers
July 31, 2007 1:05 PM   Subscribe

Rorschach and Awe. "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."
posted by homunculus (57 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Here's an interview from yesterday with the author and with a founding member of the Coalition for an Ethical APA.

Another recent article on this from Salon: The CIA's Torture Teachers.

Wikipedia on SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape).
posted by homunculus at 1:07 PM on July 31, 2007


The fact that a psychologist can figure out how to break down and destroy a personality in a two week time frame as opposed to taking ten plus years to help someone go in the other direction is telling of something. Not sure what.
posted by spicynuts at 1:21 PM on July 31, 2007 [2 favorites]


Second law of thermodynamics.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 1:41 PM on July 31, 2007


Wait, so Tom Cruise is right?
posted by rbs at 1:41 PM on July 31, 2007


Holy. Fucking. Crap. Way to 'do no harm,' guys.
posted by localroger at 1:43 PM on July 31, 2007


One theory was that the A.P.A. had given its stamp of approval to military interrogations as part of a quid pro quo.

I've never heard of this "one theory" fellow, but I'm sure he or she speaks with absolute authority.
posted by MarshallPoe at 1:43 PM on July 31, 2007


Have you met his Native American cousin, "some people say?"
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 1:46 PM on July 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


America's coercive interrogation methods ...

I love these made up phrases, like collateral damage and extraordinary rendition. Why not just call it torture, if that's what it is. (In fact he does later in the article.)
posted by chunking express at 1:48 PM on July 31, 2007


Not sure what.

Entropy. It's easier to destroy than to build. Philip K. Dick writes about this in VALIS:

I've always told people that for each person there is a sentence—a series of words—which has the power to destroy him. When Fat told me about Leon Stone I realized (this came years after the first realization) that another sentence exists, another series of words, which will heal the person. If you're lucky you will get the second; but you can be certain of getting the first: that is the way it works. On their own, without training, individuals know how to deal out the lethal sentence, but training is required to deal out the second.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:48 PM on July 31, 2007 [3 favorites]


I've been slowly replacing the Nazi officers in my sexual fantasies with Americans, I've finally found my Mengele!
posted by Esoquo at 1:58 PM on July 31, 2007 [4 favorites]


Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia recently made his case for heavy-handed interrogation tactics via a surprisingly current pop-culture reference. "Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles," he told a panel of judges, referring to the torturer protagonist of the Fox series 24. "Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?"

A Supreme Court justice is using a TV show to defend this? What next, citing Bugs Bunny versus Marvin the Martian in Supreme Court decisions? Holy crap, we are fucked.
posted by Eekacat at 2:01 PM on July 31, 2007 [3 favorites]


Thanks for this post, homunculus.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 2:03 PM on July 31, 2007


Scalia on Bauer on MeFi previously.
posted by djgh at 2:04 PM on July 31, 2007


What next, citing Bugs Bunny versus Marvin the Martian in Supreme Court decisions?

To be perfectly honest, you could do a lot worse. Potentially a strong anti-nuclear message there. And let's not forget Billy Madison.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:05 PM on July 31, 2007


The sere tactics aren't just morally and legally wrong, critics say; they're tactically wrong. They produce false leads and hazy memories. "
posted by caddis at 2:13 PM on July 31, 2007


Great article. But what exactly is the deal with Vanity Fair? Half the time you look at it and think it's some kind of softball fashion mag and then every so often an article like this comes out of it. And why hasn't this been picked up by any of the other biggies? The only other place I saw the names mentioned is in this full-length article by Spokesman Review in which they manage to do a news story on...a magazine article. Great job, guys. Really, next time just link to the article for pete's sake. How do we benefit by hearing you quote directly from the article?
posted by Deathalicious at 2:14 PM on July 31, 2007


To develop on caddis's post a bit: the original intent of the SERE program was to help American soldiers resist communist torture/"interrogation" techniques.

Reverse engineering an interrogation regimen from the SERE program would logically (and it sounds as though it has approximately) reproduce those communist tactics.

The thing is, the communist "interrogations" were not made to produce actionable intelligence; they were torture tactics meant to induce obedience to the Party and, every now and then, to get some patsy to cop to a trumped up charge so they could execute him without any further cover up.

Aaaaand, there we have it. I can't see how anyone at this point actually believes that American strategy in our "War on Terror" is still based on anything other than a burning desire to wreak vengeance on some Arabs. It's so manifestly useless, even detrimental, to any other purpose.
posted by rkent at 2:21 PM on July 31, 2007 [4 favorites]


The sere tactics aren't just morally and legally wrong, critics say; they're tactically wrong. They produce false leads and hazy memories.

Quoted for great truth.

This insistence on using torture is, essentially, the CIA's desire to inflict pain and use what is essentially "dark magic" against imagined enemies - not magic in the sense of actual supernatural wizardry or what-have-you, but in the sense that this stuff is both secret and in no way effective. Believing it is so is essentially resorting to magical thinking, and invoking Jack Bauer is like thinking Puck the Fairy is going to come to your rescue.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:24 PM on July 31, 2007


Salon.com, June 21, 2007:

"According to congressional sources and mental healthcare professionals knowledgeable about the secret program who spoke with Salon, two CIA-employed psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, were at the center of the program, which likely violated the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners. The two are currently under investigation: Salon has learned that Daniel Dell'Orto, the principal deputy general counsel at the Department of Defense, sent a "document preservation" order on May 15 to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other top Pentagon officials forbidding the destruction of any document mentioning Mitchell and Jessen or their psychological consulting firm, Mitchell, Jessen and Associates, based in Spokane, Wash. Dell'Orto's order was in response to a May 1 request from Sen. Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who is investigating the abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody. (...)

Until last month, the Army had denied any use of SERE training for prisoner interrogations. "We do not teach interrogation techniques," Carol Darby, chief spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, said last June when Salon asked about a document that appeared to indicate that instructors from the SERE school taught their methods to interrogators at Guantánamo.

But the declassified DoD inspector general's report described initiatives by high-level military officials to incorporate SERE concepts into interrogations. And it said that psychologists affiliated with SERE training -- people like Mitchell and Jessen -- played a critical role."
posted by iviken at 2:29 PM on July 31, 2007


On their own, without training, individuals know how to deal out the lethal sentence, but training is required to deal out the second.

Well, these psychologists have training. If PKD was right, they could just bring any old schmoe off the street to do the interrogation.
posted by spicynuts at 2:35 PM on July 31, 2007


I am continually amazed at how utterly incompetent the CIA is. -- Remember, those are the guys who got the US into the Iraq mess in the first place (faulty intelligence "proving" that there are WMD).

How can anyone believe intelligence gathered by the CIA anymore?
posted by sour cream at 2:38 PM on July 31, 2007


I'm with rkent and Stitcherbeast. This administration has shown, over and over again, its willingness to disregard empirical evidence that does not support their methods. It's not a question of willful ignorance, but rather the positioning of their priorities above the general well-being of humanity.

In the case of their denial of global warming, the priority is obviously profit. If this situation is analogous, the priority is obviously not intelligence.
posted by invitapriore at 2:57 PM on July 31, 2007


This administration has shown, over and over again, its willingness to disregard empirical evidence that does not support their methods.

"Faith-based science" is not exactly new:

Trofim Denisovich Lysenko:
"In 1940 he became director of the Institute of Genetics within the USSR's Academy of Sciences, and Lysenko's anti-Mendelian doctrines were further secured in Soviet science and education by the exercise of political influence and power. Scientific dissent from Lysenko's theories of environmentally acquired inheritance was formally outlawed in 1948, and for the next several years opponents were purged from held positions, and many imprisoned. Lysenko's work was officially discredited in the Soviet Union in 1964, leading to a renewed emphasis there to re-institute Mendelian genetics and orthodox science.
Though Lysenko remained at his post in the Institute of Genetics until 1965, his influence on Soviet agricultural practice declined by the 1950s. The Soviet Union quietly abandoned Lysenko's agricultural practices in favor of modern American agricultural practices after the crop yields he promised failed to materialize. Today much of Lysenko's agricultural experimentation and research is largely viewed as fraudulent."

"Under Lysenko's guidance, science was guided not by the most likely theories, backed by appropriately controlled experiments, but by the desired ideology. Science was practiced in the service of the State, or more precisely, in the service of ideology. The results were predictable: the steady deterioration of Soviet biology. Lysenko's methods were not condemned by the Soviet scientific community until 1965, more than a decade after Stalin's death."
posted by iviken at 3:20 PM on July 31, 2007 [3 favorites]


Communist-style torture techniques

"So, you haven't had enough, you filthy American? Very well. Bring out... the Marx-quoting pothead college students!"
"OH GOD NO, I'LL TALK I'LL TALK I'LL TALK!"
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:29 PM on July 31, 2007


You know, people keep pointing out that torture is bad tactics, and I just don't care. It doesn't matter. Torture is a moral and ethical abomination. Even if it worked, it could not be excused, and should always be treated as a crime. Even if torture would have prevented 911, it would still have been wrong. Even if it could have prevented the Holocaust, or the asteroid that killed all the dinosaurs. Even in war, there are abominations, and is we cross the line and commit abominations, we are the enemy, every time. Genocide, rape, torture; only monsters discuss these things as tactics.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:40 PM on July 31, 2007 [9 favorites]


Oh, also, have you noticed how torture has worked its way into popular culture to such an extent that the moment anyone on film is taken by the military, they are instantly tortured. For the love of pete, they tortured a Camaro in Transformers. A Camero! A bitchin' Camero!
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:42 PM on July 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


And they didn't get in trouble, because their Dad Bush Megatron was the mayor.
posted by namespan at 3:49 PM on July 31, 2007 [1 favorite]


You know, people keep pointing out that torture is bad tactics, and I just don't care. It doesn't matter. Torture is a moral and ethical abomination. Even if it worked, it could not be excused, and should always be treated as a crime. Even if torture would have prevented 911, it would still have been wrong. Even if it could have prevented the Holocaust, or the asteroid that killed all the dinosaurs. Even in war, there are abominations, and is we cross the line and commit abominations, we are the enemy, every time. Genocide, rape, torture; only monsters discuss these things as tactics.

I think a lot of people who pull out the "it doesn't work" line (myself included) agree with you. But the people who are in power right now are selling it on the grounds that it does work. Since they obviously don't agree (or don't care) that it is morally and ethically wrong, convincing them that it is tactically wrong is another step.
posted by spaceman_spiff at 3:50 PM on July 31, 2007


only monsters discuss these things as tactics.

That's true but you can't stop monsters by appealing to morality. I suspect the people who argue against torture are using the utility argument as part of a multi-faceted argument against torture.

Much like I tend to make a utilitarian appeal for universal health care since it will make even the wealthy thoroughly cared for people safer by reducing the likelihood of pools of treatable infectious disease evolving new strains because I think it could persuade amoral assholes who don't give a fuck about others.
posted by srboisvert at 3:51 PM on July 31, 2007


Astro Zombie: I guess that when making an appeal to morality does not work, it becomes obvious that the people you are dealing with operate without morals and you must shift your strategy. The next reasonable course of action is to make an appeal to logic.

When that doesn't work, you are now obviously dealing with a group of people who operate without sanity. What now?
posted by invitapriore at 3:53 PM on July 31, 2007


On preview, I am redundant.
posted by invitapriore at 3:54 PM on July 31, 2007


sour cream, before the Bush dismantled it, the CIA was fairly effective at what it did. They got the rap for Iraq, but they were extremely loud and clear that their analysis showed little to no chance of WMDs. The administration disliked this so much that they more or less short-circuited the CIA, got access to the raw intelligence (that is, rumors off the street, random gossip, that sort of thing), and then used that, without any vetting or cross-checking, as the excuse to go to war. Their basis was pretty much, "Abdul at the corner store says his cousin knows a guy who's a butler for a research scientist for Saddam's WMD programs!"

The CIA knew better, and tried to deal with Bush as they had all other Presidents, as professional intelligence analysts. They were trying to help him sort out the truth from the haze. But Bush wasn't interested in the truth. All he cared about was politics. When they dared to tell him his preconceptions were wrong, he destroyed our best tool in the fight against terrorism for being disloyal.
posted by Malor at 4:02 PM on July 31, 2007


sigh. strike that first 'the'. grr.
posted by Malor at 4:02 PM on July 31, 2007




I like this new, angry Astro Zombie.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 4:08 PM on July 31, 2007


I'd always been led to believe that the US picked up a lot of these techniques from British practice in Kenya, Malaya, Cyprus and then Northern Ireland.
posted by Abiezer at 4:10 PM on July 31, 2007


Also, here is an old joke, slightly readapted. There is a yearly competition between US intelligence forces, featuring the FBI, the National Security Agency, and the CIA. The first task is that each agency pick its best agent. They will each be given a pen knife and sent into the woods of Colorado, to kill a bear.

After an our, the FBI agent returns with the paws of a bear, to prove he has done it. After three hours, the NSA agent returns with the ears of a bear, to prove his accomplishment. But it is seventeen hours before the CIA agent returns, and, when he does, he is wearing the skin of a squirrel around his neck like a scarf.

The officials go to discover what has happened. "That's not the skin of a bear you have," they tell him. "It's a squirrel you've killed."

"Trust me," The CIA agent says. "After 17 hours, he admitted he was a bear."
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:21 PM on July 31, 2007 [8 favorites]


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,

1.) Tenet is an ass.

2.) Once again, the FBI's use of rapport-building techniques had already succeeded when they decided to try torture.

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.

3.) Interestingly, I just sat on a specially convened task force that ruled that, despite angry objections from many in their profession, I am free to hunt psychologists like big game animals.
posted by quin at 4:52 PM on July 31, 2007


Astro Zombie wins the thread.

I hear the prize is a free waterboarding though...
posted by localroger at 5:11 PM on July 31, 2007


"When that doesn't work, you are now obviously dealing with a group of people who operate without sanity. What now?"

Open fire.
posted by Smedleyman at 6:01 PM on July 31, 2007 [2 favorites]



The same techniques are repeatedly converged on by torturers: there are only a limited number of ways to break people's minds while leaving few marks. This is why it doesn't matter if they got it from the British in Northern Ireland, the North Koreans or wherever.

Sleep deprivation, food deprivation (or use of disgusting or repeatedly same food), total sensory and social isolation, stress positions, death threats and threats of harm to loved ones, constant confession, public humiliation (especially sexual), extremes of temperature, sensory isolation, inability to tell time, loud noises, deprivation of privacy and "escapes" (music, reading, etc), forced meaningless labor and exercise.

Read anything about 'coercive persuasion' 'cults' 'military training' 'brainwashing' and 'mind control' and these same themes recur. Robert Jay Lifton probably categorized the whole thing best in his Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism way back in the 50's.
posted by Maias at 6:02 PM on July 31, 2007


Repeated issuance of parking tickets. Fucking savage, last resort stuff...
posted by From Bklyn at 8:17 PM on July 31, 2007


A choice quote from the article:
In truth, many did not consider Mitchell and Jessen to be scientists. They possessed no data about the impact of sere training on the human psyche, say former associates. Nor were they "operational psychologists," like the profilers who work for law enforcement. (Think of Jodie Foster's character in The Silence of the Lambs.) But they wanted to be, according to several former colleagues.
posted by Anything at 9:01 PM on July 31, 2007


before the Bush dismantled it, the CIA was fairly effective at what it did

*cough*bayofpigsmkultraguatemalacongogoldentrianglechileirancontragulfwarone*cough*
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 9:06 PM on July 31, 2007


"Note that all tactics are strictly non-lethal," the memo states, adding, "it is critical that interrogators do 'cross the line' when utilizing the tactics." The word "not" was presumably omitted by accident.

Could someone please pick up my jaw? I seem to have dropped it.
posted by mek at 10:14 PM on July 31, 2007


One theory was that the A.P.A. had given its stamp of approval to military interrogations as part of a quid pro quo.

I've never heard of this "one theory" fellow, but I'm sure he or she speaks with absolute authority.
posted by MarshallPoe at 1:43 PM on July 31 [+] [!]


Within the article this "quid pro quo" is discussed as being the potential for the government to allow psychologists to prescribe drugs (a significant boost in income, not to mention all the free vacations they'd get from Pfizer etc), in exchange for the APA's support of the military.

It's less conspiracy-theoryish than it sounds: From 1995 to 1997, the American military set up a pilot program for psychologist prescribing at Walter Reed hospital. (http://www.apa.org/monitor/feb03/prescribers.html) The lauded success of this military program is what drove several states to legislate postdoctoral certification programs to enable psychologists to prescribe medication.

While it may not be an outright backroom deal, it's pretty clear there is an element of quid pro quo here.
posted by mek at 12:27 AM on August 1, 2007


TheWhiteSkull, you forgot the overthrow of Mossadegh.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 12:30 AM on August 1, 2007


Oh, and training and arming al Qaeda, that too.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 12:31 AM on August 1, 2007


Hey now, the CIA did a great job training and arming al Qaeda!
posted by mek at 1:18 AM on August 1, 2007


That the torture methods used by the American government were based on Soviet ones came as no surprise to me when I heard about it. I think I've linked it here before, but here's a passage from The Gulag Archipelago on Soviet interrogation techniques.

I read that quite a while before this came out, and I was amazed by how perfectly what was described there matched up with all the things that were being revealed about American torture methods- forced standing, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, etc. And now it turns out that they did, in fact, pretty much borrow them straight from the Soviet Union, and suddenly this piece doesn't really seem like that much of an exaggeration any more.
posted by a louis wain cat at 1:20 AM on August 1, 2007


Take a look at this building. In a just world, that’s where Mitchell and Jessen would testify about their work, and following that, it’s where Bush and Cheney would defend their actions. It’s the International Criminal Court where currently The Special Court for Sierra Leone is scheduling a case against Charles Taylor for the exact same thing: crimes against humanity and war crimes.
posted by DreamerFi at 2:20 AM on August 1, 2007


It really beggars belief how obtuse these people are. They profess to espouse certain values such as the rule of law, freedom of expression, self determination etc, then proceed to abandon them in a supposed effort to defend them. Every time they do, it ends in tears. There's just a never-ending supply of these fanatics, all the way back through history.

Iraq
Afghanistan
Israel
Nicaragua
Colombia
.
.
.
.
The Spanish Inquisition

Never mind the lessons of history, these fuckwits can't even learn the lessons of Groundhog Day. Still, it's all good for the military-industrial complex, eh?
posted by Jakey at 3:09 AM on August 1, 2007


I liked it better when we were the good guys... or at least tried to be.
posted by Enron Hubbard at 5:17 AM on August 1, 2007


The sere methods it teaches are based on Communist interrogation techniques that were never designed to get good information. Their goal, says Kleinman, was to generate propaganda by getting beaten-down American hostages to make statements against U.S. interests.

Extremely ironic.

It gives one pause to consider the point of these interrogations. Does something called "Al-Qaeda" even exist? Are there 100s? 1000s? Ask the average American. Propaganda is king.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:09 AM on August 1, 2007


Sorry localroger, my victory vote is with iviken, because his story has applications far beyond this current debacle. This is the kind of science the Bush administration sponsors all over the place. There is no reason to think it'll help us any more than it did the Soviets.
posted by JHarris at 12:52 PM on August 1, 2007






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