Stephen Soldz has published a devastating critique of the work of the FBI and Criminal Investigative Task Force (CITF) on the controversial interrogation of Guantanamo prisoner 063, the supposed “20th hijacker,” Mohammed al-Qahtani. Entitled “Ethical Interrogation”: The Myth of Michael Gelles and the al-Qahtani Interrogation, the article seriously questions claims that Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) Chief Psychologist Michael Gelles, and other interrogators associated with FBI, CITF, and other agencies, had fought against the Rumsfeld/SERE-derived coercive interrogation of al-Qahtani, proposing instead a lawful and ethical approach based upon “rapport-building.”
Stephen Soldz is a psychologist, teacher and activist. He is currently the president-elect of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. Dr. Soldz has an excellent blog — Psyche, Science, and Society — which has been covering the torture story, and especially the role of psychologists and the American Psychological Association (APA), for quite some time now.
The current torture narrative, which was retailed in the Senate Armed Services Report on Detainee Abuse (big PDF) earlier this year, is not consistent with what investigators find in the actual alternative CITF/FBI al-Qahtani interrogation protocol, which surfaced last month as part of an ACLU FOIA release. As Soldz describes the situation (bold emphases added):
At the time the plan was written, on November 22, 2002, al-Qahtani had been in isolation for three months and was exhibiting signs of severe mental deterioration to the extent of psychosis. An FBI agent described this deterioration in a report to headquarters….
Gelles and the other authors on the CITF/FBI interrogation plan also noticed his psychological distress:
“#63’s behavior has changed significantly during his three months of isolation. He spends much of his day covered by a sheet, either crouched in the corner of his cell or hunched on his knees on top of his bed. These behaviors appear to be unrelated to his praying activities. His cell has no exterior windows, and because it is continuously lit, he is prevented from orientating himself as to time of day. Recently, he was observed by a hidden video camera having conversations with non-existent people. During his last interview on 11/17/02, he reported hearing unusual sounds which he believes are evil spirits, including Satan.”
After discussing whether al-Qahtani was faking his symptoms, without coming to a conclusion, the interrogation plan proposed exploiting al-Qahtani’s distress from his prolonged isolation….
In order to exploit this hunger for human contact, the CITF/FBI plan recommended that he be kept in continued isolation for up to an additional year…
Under the plan, al-Qahtani’s deprivation of human contact was something to be exploited. They wanted to make sure the only human being al-Qahtani would see for the next year was his interrogator. This sounds an awful lot like the production of a Stockholm Syndrome in the prisoner.
In the end, the FBI/CITF “rapport” plan was rejected in favor of a continuation of the Rumsfeld-approved SERE-style torture, which only pushed al-Qahtani even further over the edge, and which Guantanamo Convening Authority judge, and Bush-appointee, Susan Crawford in an interview with Bob Woodward clearly labeled as “torture.” But, as we now know, had the FBI and CITF gotten their way, al-Qahtani would still have been psychologically tortured, as the now fully extant “rapport” interrogation plan reveals.
The Compromised Career of Michael Gelles
Michael Gelles is, as Soldz points out in his article, a noted expert in so-called “ethical interrogation.” He was appointed to the APA’s 2005 task force on Psychological Ethics and National Security, and was also a member of the “Experts Committee” for the Intelligence Science Board’s 2006 Educing Information (large PDF) study on interrogation. The Obama administration has relied heavily upon the latter for constructing its own interrogation policy in the aftermath of the Bush/Cheney torture debacle.
Of course, Dr. Gelles is also implicated in the Daniel King scandal of about ten years ago, when he was involved as a NCIS psychologist-interrogator in the abusive treatment of a prisoner, such that the latter was driven to make a suicide attempt, according to one of the defense attorneys who worked with Petty Officer King. I wrote some articles on this not too long ago, and I should note that Dr. Soldz mentions these articles favorably in his piece, as well as indicating that he and I discussed other aspects of Gelles’s career.
In his new article, Dr. Soldz cites an essay by Gelles and a colleague. Written in 2003 — either after the controversy at Guantanamo over the Al-Qahtani interrogation, or contemporaneous with it — “Ethical Concern in Forensic Consultation Regarding National Safety and Security” is representative of the thinking of some mainstream interrogators (like Gelles). Citing the writings of psychologist and legal/ethics professor Thomas Grisso, Gelles and co-author Charles Ewing claim that when it comes to work in national security settings, psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals cannot be expected to follow the regular ethics of their professions, i.e., “in situations where the ethics of their conduct will be judged, post hoc, either by rules that have little if any relevance to their vital governmental functions or by professional organizations or licensing authorities.” This is convenient if you want to bend, stretch or break the rules — something to which Gelles, the FBI and CITF have been proven susceptible.
But when I contacted Dr. Grisso last summer, he indicated that Gelles and Ewing had not understood his position at all. As Dr. Grisso told me (for attribution):
In my personal view…. [b]arring mental health professionals from sensitive national security employment deprives society of the potential for their services to meet a vital societal need. And exempting them from their professions’ ethical codes when in these particular employment positions is illogical. Mental health professionals in all clinical roles face situations in everyday practice in which they must weigh competing ethical concerns—sometimes involving life or death—on a case-by-case, moment-to-moment basis in order to make principled decisions about their response. They all run the risk that a professional association’s ethics board might someday judge their decision as ethically wrong. If they want to minimize that risk, they can avoid employment in positions in which that risk is heightened. Or they can accept such employment knowing that they may sometimes have to refuse to do what their employers expect of them.
Gelles and Ewing’s misunderstanding of Grisso was not a mistake. Michael Gelles is a major ideologue for a certain kind of abusive interrogation, which while it falls short of the type of torture advocated by the Bush/Cheney administration, nevertheless propagates cruel, inhuman and degrading forms of interrogation, themselves banned by law and international treaty, and often rising to the level of full torture itself. When one of the interrogators gets caught in prisoner abuse — as Gelles was in the King case — the establishment ignores the offender or rallies around him or her to protect them.
Recent events have shown that the torture program has far more extensively corrupted the military, intelligence, and police agencies than was even understood previously. Dr. Soldz has done us a favor and labored mightily to put together all the pieces to show that the fairy tale of whistleblowers at Guantanamo is untenable. The longer we go without some measure of accountability, the more corrupt and desperate the situation becomes. Like an omnipresent toxin, the crime of torture is seeping through the pores of our society, and in the end, no one will be untouched, forced to live in a society with no real rule of law, no profession bound by ethics, the recreation of Hobbes’s bellum omnium contra omnes, the war of all against all.