A Washington Post article by Peter Finn and Joby Warrick has made a big splash, reporting that the Department of Defense had been warned in July 2002 that “torture” would produce “unreliable information” by the Joint Personal Recovery Agency.
Can we conclude from this that JPRA was against the use of coercive interrogation? In a word — no.
JPRA was an enthusiastic proponent of spreading SERE techniques into the operational realm. Even the caveats about the use of torture are supplemented by recommendations of interrogation techniques that amount at least to cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment (outlawed by treaty and domestic law, as much as torture), if not torture itself.
One comes away from the Washington Post article with the impression it was the consequence of a planned leak, probably by JPRA or someone close to the Pentagon, seeking to cover up the JPRA’s complicity in the torture program. For one thing, the revelations from the memo are not new; they were already revealed in the text of the recently released Senate Armed Service Committee report on detainee abuse. And then, consider the portion of the leaked memo, “Operational Issues Pertaining to the Use of Physical/Psychological Coercion in Interrogation,” that the Washington Post did not bother to report.
CONCLUSION: The application of extreme physical and or psychological duress (torture) has some serious operational deficits, most notably, the potential to result in unreliable information. This is not to say that the manipulation of the subject’s environment in an effort to dislocate their expectations and induce emotional responses is not effective. On the contrary, systematic manipulation of the subject’s environment is likely to result in a subject that can be exploited for intelligence information and other national strategic concerns.
“Exploited” for not just “intelligence information,” but “other national strategic concerns”? Hmmm… Perhaps this refers to the attempt to use torture to produce false confessions about supposed links between the perpetrators of 9/11 and Saddam Hussein.
In any case, JPRA, an organization whose supposed purpose is to be “the Department of Defense’s (DoD) executive agent for personnel recovery… responsible for coordinating and advancing joint personnel recovery capabilities,” was deeply implicated as a primary actor in the implementation of the torture program. You wouldn’t know this by reading the Washington Post article, which quotes former JPRA chief of staff, Daniel Baumgartner as saying “the agency ‘sent a lot of cautionary notes’ [to DoD] regarding harsh techniques.
“There is a difference between what we do in training and what the administration wanted the information for,” he said a telephone interview yesterday. “What the administration decided to do or not to do was up to the guys dealing with offensive prisoner operations. . . . We train our own people for the worst possible outcome . . . and obviously the United States government does not torture its own people.”
One could contrast this sanguine picture of a passive government bureaucracy meaning to do well with Lt. Col. Baumgartner’s attachment of the JPRA document, Physical Pressures Used In Resistance Training and Against American Prisoners and Detainees (undated), attached to the same memorandum Baumgartner sent to the Office of the Secretary of Defense General Counsel on July 26, 2002, which included the supposed warning memo published by the Washington Post.
In other JPRA materials, techniques designed to achieve these goals [i.e., “establish absolute control, induce dependence to meet needs, elicit compliance, shape cooperation”] include isolation or solitary confinement, induced physical weakness and exhaustion, degradation, conditioning, sensory deprivation, sensory overload, disruption of sleep and biorhythms, and manipulation of diet. Physical Pressures Used In Resistance Training and Against American Prisoners and Detainees. [p. 9, footnote 56]
The Washington Post article failed to note that there were three attachments to the July 26 memo from JPRA to DoD General Counsel. One was the attachment posted by the Washington Post (“Operational Issues”), one was the Physical Pressures document just quoted. The third attachment was a memorandum written by SERE psychologist Jerald Ogrisseg, “Psychological Effects of Resistance Training.”
I’ve written elsewhere on the Ogrisseg memo. In this work, he describes the statistics he gathered that demonstrated that SERE training was almost never harmful to its participants. That is not an accurate conclusion by Ogrisseg, and the published research using experiments on SERE trainees shows dramatic disruption of physiological processes by a majority of recruits undergoing SERE training. A study published in the June 2000 edition of Special Warfare [PDF] noted:
In some cases, the changes noted among the trainees were greater than the changes noted in patients undergoing heart surgery….
Changes in testosterone levels were similarly remarkable: In some cases, testosterone dropped from normal levels to castration levels within eight hours.
The most salient aspect of the Ogrisseg paper lies in the fact that it ostensibly reported that waterboarding under SERE training conditions caused minimal long-term psychological effects. But the SASC report notes that Ogrisseg’s report attributed that fact to “efforts the Air Force SERE program undertook to minimize the risk of temporary psychological effects of resistance training becoming long-term effects…. [mitigating] the risk of turning a “dramatic” experience into a “traumatic” experience.'”
It was Lt. Col. Baumgartner, so favorably quoted by the Washington Post, who forwarded all these memos to DoD, telling DoD’s General Counsel:
“While there is not much empirical data on the long term effects of physical pressures used in SERE schools (which fall well short of causing ‘grave psychological damage’), the psychological staff at the Air Force SERE school makes some interesting observations  that suggest training techniques can be very effective in producing compliance while not causing any long term damage.” Memo from Lt Col Baumgartner to Office of the Secretary of Defense General Counsel… July 26, 2002
So much for all the warnings Baumgartner says JPRA made!
JPRA Creates Experimental Torture Lab at Guantanamo
Whatever caveats some at JPRA had about SERE methods, and belying the betrayal by Baumgarter in the Washington Post article, by late summer 2002, JPRA was actively soliciting its services again to DoD. For instance, there was this this September 9, 2003 email from Col. Randy Moulton, Commander of JPRA to Col. Mike Okita and a redacted addressee (possibly “Admiral Bird,” whom the text of the email addresses). Note, this was sent approximately two months after the so-called warning by JPRA:
There is a strong synergy between the fundamentals of both missions (resistance training and interrogation). Both rely heavily on environmental conditions, captivity psychology, and situation dominance and control. While I think this probably lies within DHS [Defense Human Intelligence Service, part of DIA] responsibility lines, recent history (to include discussions with DHS, USSOCOM, CIA) shows that no DoD entity has a firm grasp on any comprehensive approach to strategic debriefing/interrogation. Our subject matter experts (and certain Service SERE psychologist) have the most knowledge and depth within DoD on the captivity environment and exploitation. I think that JPRA/JFCOM needs to keep involved for reasons of TTP [Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures]/development and information sharing.
While Moulton said JPRA was not interested in active participation in the interrogations themselves, he apparently saw JPRA’s new mission as one of “advice, assistance and observation” to the interrogation program, i.e., JPRA would brain-trust the operation. Apparently, Lieutenant General Robert Wagner at USFJCOM thought JPRA was overstepping their charter, and Moulton emailed him back, noting that formally Wagner was correct. JPRA was aware of the dangers of “crossing the Rubicon into intel collection.” Moulton continued:
However there will be a need to be engaged in a symbiotic relationship with whatever entity is identified to manage the debriefing/interrogation program…. There may be a compromise position (my gut choice) whereby we could provide/assist in oversight, training, analysis, research, and TTP/development, while leaving actual debriefing/interrogation to those already assigned the responsibility.”
In other words, in many ways and from the very first contact between JPRA and the General Counsel of DoD in December 2001, JPRA tried to position itself as indispensable experts for the torture project being initiated by higher-ups in the Bush Administration. Attempts to paint JPRA as some kind of bureaucratic opponent of the drive towards harsher and harsher interrogation techniques simply does not fit the facts. The appearance of occasional warnings about the effects of torture reflect either a minority opinion within JPRA (a possibility), or a bureaucratic reflex of covering for oneself that is apparent throughout the discussions about implementing the JPRA/SERE program in an operational fashion.
At Guantanamo itself, JPRA/SERE techniques were integral in establishing an experimental regime of harsh interrogation, i.e., torture. JPRA and other Special Operations officers wanted to teach SERE methods to interrogators and the members of the Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs), which included psychologists and psychiatrists attached to the intelligence task force.
According to the Levin report, in August 2002, “COL John P. Custer, then-assistant commandant of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona” conducted a review of interrogations operations at Guantanamo. Custer called Guantanamo “America’s ‘Battle Lab'” in the war on terror, and recommended combining FBI and military techniques to extract “information by exploiting the detainee’s vulnerabilities.” The “Battle Lab” label stuck, though some, like Colonel Britt Mallow, of the Criminal Investigative Task Force, objected.
MG Dunlavey and later MG Miller referred to GTMO as a “Battle Lab” meaning that interrogations and other procedures there were to some degree experimental, and their lessons would benefit DOD in other places. While this was logical in terms of learning lessons, I personally objected to the implied philosophy that interrogators should experiment with untested methods, particularly those in which they were not trained.
Later, Dunlavey denied using the term, and Miller testified he couldn’t remember. Even so, within a week of Custer’s report, BSCT members and Gitmo interrogators were flying off to Fort Bragg to attend a training in the use of SERE techniques, run by JPRA and Lt. Col. Louie “Morgan” Banks, then Chief Psychologist for U.S. Special Forces Command. SERE psychologist Gary Percival and two other JPRA instructors, Joseph Witsch and Terrence Russell, taught the course. This training included instruction in disruption of sleep cycles and daily schedules, invasion of male prisoners space by female interrogators, placing prisoners in solitary confinement, use of phobias (“fear of spiders, of the dark or whatever”), hooding, hitting, use of military dogs, etc.
Approximately a week after the end of training, in the latter part of September, one of the JPRA instructors, Joseph Witsch, was having second thoughts, which he expressed in a memo to Col. Moulton and Lt. Col. Baumgartner, as well as leadership at Special Operations Command:
I believe the techniques and tactics that we use in training have applicability. What I am wrestling with is the implications of using these tactics as it relates to current legal constraints, the totally different motivations of the detainees, and the lack of direction of senior leadership within the [U.S. Government] on how to uniformly treat detainees. We are now attempting to educate lower level personnel in DoD and OGAs [other governmental agencies] with concepts and principles that are somewhat foreign to them and while it all sounds good they are not in a position nor do they have the depth of knowledge in these matters to effect change and do it in reasonable safety….
The handling of [Designated Unlawful Combatants] is a screwed up mess and everyone is scrambling to unscrew the mess … If we want a more profound role in this effort we need to sell our capabilities to the top level people in the USG and not spend our time trying to motivate the operators at the lower levels to sway their bosses. This is running the train backwards and that is a slow method to get somewhere. There are a lot of people in the USG intelligence community that still believe in the old paradigm and wonder just what we’re doing in their business.
Implementing the Torture Program
Whether or not anyone heard Witsch’s concerns, or those of others (Banks says that he, too, protested the use of SERE reverse-engineering, but his protest seems questionable, given his organizational role in the Gitmo training), on September 26, a high-level group of administration visitors arrived at Guantanamo, including Alberto Gonzales, David Addington, DoD General Counsel Jim Haynes, CIA General Counsel John Rizzo, and Assistant Attorney General, Criminal Division, Michael Chertoff. One record of their meetings has been handed down in the form of minutes, including presentation by BSCT personnel, and a discussion of “harsh techniques”, sleep deprivation, hiding prisoners from the International Red Cross, including videotaping prisoners and possible use of “truth serum.” The experiment was well under way.
After the administration officials left, the decision was made to get approval for harsher interrogation methods similar to those taught by SERE.
According to MAJ Burney, the BSCT psychiatrist, “by early October there was increasing pressure to get ‘tougher’ with detainee interrogations but nobody was quite willing to define what ‘tougher’ meant…. MAJ Burney added that there was “a lot of pressure to use more coercive techniques” and that if the interrogation policy memo that LTC Phifer had asked him to write did not contain coercive techniques, then it “wasn’t going to go very far.”
On October 25, 2002, General James T. Hill, Commander at SOUTHCOM, forwarded the request to get “tougher” and use the proposed SERE techniques to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While he worried about the legality of some of the techniques, particularly death threats, he urged the Chiefs to consider that he wanted “to have as many options as possible at my disposal.”
The Joint Chiefs hesitated. They asked for official comment from the different services. The Air Force reported back: “some of these techniques could be construed as ‘torture,’ as that crime is defined by 18 U.S.C. 2340.” The Navy responded more favorably, citing the need for better “counter-resistance techniques,” but asked for “more detailed interagency legal and policy review.” The Marine Corps balked. Some of the techniques (e.g., sensory deprivation, use of dogs, nudity, exposure to cold, 20 hour interrogations) “arguably violate federal law, and would expose our service members to possible prosecution.” The Army also cited “significant legal, policy and practical concerns,” noting the techniques probably violated Bush’s presidential order regarding “humane treatment” of detainees, and wanted more legal review.
Captain Jane Dalton, the Legal Counsel to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified to the SASC that she informed General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of the legal objections by the services. Myers would later say he didn’t remember any objections. Dalton then informed DoD General Counsel William Haynes of the military’s objections. He, too, would later testify that he was unaware of any objections, saw no memos to that effect.
Ultimately, General Myers, apparently at the behest of Haynes (who presumably was acting on behalf of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld) “quashed” Dalton’s review. Asked about dismissing JCS Legal Counsel review of the request for use of SERE/JPRA interrogation techniques at Guantanamo, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stonewalled.
GEN Myers said that he had “no specific recollection” of discussing with CAPT Dalton her efforts to conduct an analysis of the October 11, 2002 GTMO request…. He said that while he “did not dispute” asking her to stop working on her analysis and acknowledged that Joint Staff records indicated that she did stop work on her analysis, he had “no recollection or doing so” and did “not recall anyone suggesting” to him that she stop her review.
Meanwhile, JPRA was already planning their next training exercise for Guantanamo interrogators. Guantanamo got a new commander, Major General Geoffrey Miller, and the battle over the use of interrogation methods shifted to the construction of an interrogation plan for Mohammed al Khatani, with the government obsessed with the need to “break the detainee and establish his role in the attacks of Sept[ember] 11,2001.” Approval for the plan came from the White House (emphasis in original):
A November 14, 2002 email from the GTMO Staff Judge Advocate LTC Diane Beaver to CITF lawyer stated, “[c]oncerning 63 [Khatani] my understanding is that NSC has weighed in and stated that intel on this guy is utmost matter of national security… We are driving forward with support of SOUTHCOM. Not sure anything else needs to be said.”
A great deal more needs to be said, but we will settle with this denouement for the present.
Rumsfeld, upset that action had not been taken on the October GTMO request for harsher techniques thundered, “I need a recommendation.” On November 27, 2002, Haynes notified Rumsfeld that he had received the concurrence of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Doug Feith, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) General Richard Myers for most of the JPRA/SERE techniques. It’s not clear to what degree the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Council’s August 1, 2002 (Bybee) memo played a role in the approval process. In any case, on December 2, 2002, Rumsfeld signed off on the GTMO interrogation plan. He couldn’t restrain himself from adding one final flourish:
In approving the techniques, the Secretary added a handwritten note at the bottom ofthe memo that questioned one ofthe limitations in the JTF-GTMO request… In reference to “the use of stress positions (like standing) for a maximum of four hours,” the Secretary wrote: “However, I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to 4 hours?”
At last, the SERE reverse-engineered interrogation program, a hybrid of old CIA KUBARK interrogation strategies, especially the use of sensory deprivation, isolation, and debility, were joined to a haphazard group of SERE-originated techniques of varying levels of brutality, themselves gathered from a wide variety of historically derived torture techniques, from Nazi Germany, to the Soviet GPU, and the interrogation of American airmen by Chinese and North Koreans during the Korean War.
And behind it all was the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency. What motivated them? Were the primary actors really Special Forces or CIA, operating through JPRA? Or was it simply a case of a military bureaucracy run amuck, and a White House eager to use any tool at its command to justify policies of aggressive war and perpetuity of power? Hopefully, both investigations and criminal prosecutions of those who planned and implemented the torture program at high levels will bring us some answers.
The greatest obstacle to that lies in the fact that the responsibility for the crimes is spread throughout the Pentagon, intelligence agencies, and the Executive Branch, as high as the President and Vice President of the United States, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a myriad of Cabinet officials and top government attorneys. The powers attached to these offices are formidable, and will seek to protect their own. Only exposure and wide protest over a lack of accountability will bring about the change this country needs, and the justice.