Dec 18 11:29 AM

Torture program linked to discredited, illegal CIA techniques

Detainees stand with hoods on their heads and their hands bound in the al-Qadisiyah neighborhood after house-to-house searches in September 2005 in Tall Afar, Iraq. Suspects held by the US or by other countries working with the US were subjected to brutal torture based on discredited interrogation programs of the past, according to the SSCI report.
Akram Saleh / Getty Images

Torture methods employed by the CIA under the guise of its “enhanced interrogation techniques” program can be traced back — through personnel and decades of research — to human experiments designed to induce the subjugation of prisoners through use of isolation, sleep and sensory deprivation, psychoactive drugs and other means, according to details contained in the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report, a summary of which was released last week.  

While many have focused on the brutal physical distress inflicted on detainees — beatings, extreme cold and heat, painful rectal force-feedings, waterboarding, and more — a close reading of the 500-page summary also suggests other disturbing aspects of the CIA’s means of breaking down prisoners.

The CIA chief of interrogations under the Bush administration, whose name was redacted in the Senate report, previously used a discredited training manual, Human Resource Exploitation (HRE), which was identified as using torture on political opponents of 1980s Latin America regimes — he was even admonished by the agency over the matter. That handbook, according to the Senate Select Intelligence Committee report, drew “significant portions” from an even earlier 1960s CIA interrogation handbook that advocated rapport-style interrogations and, when CIA found it was needed, the torture of suspects. Both manuals were heavily influenced by the work of the CIA’s MKULTRA program.

And MKULTRA is the stuff of nightmares — a multimillion-dollar program that endorsed the use of LSD, hypnotism, sensory deprivation, and sleep deprivation, among other physiological, psychological and behavioral techniques. The goal was to gain total psychological control over people and, in particular, prisoners held by the CIA or military intelligence agencies in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Any suggestion of the drugging of prisoners in the post-9/11 era could be explosive. The application of “mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality” is a serious violation of federal law, with convictions bringing sentences up to 20 years in prison.

Still, details and language in the SSIC report could be seen to be pointing in that direction.

Allegations of the use of pharmacological agents against detainees exist in the summary. Authors of the SSCI report cite repeated statements by “high-value” prisoner Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri that his CIA captors drugged him. The report does not comment further on this issue, though at least one other prisoner is described as being “sedated” at one point.

The interrogators tasked with working al-Nashiri over would have been operating under instructions given to them in “approximately 65 hours” of training in a course called “High Value Target Interrogation and Exploitation,” according to the SSCI report.

The course taught a program that CIA psychologists had developed through the adoption of techniques from the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) handbook, meant to help U.S. servicemen withstand torture if captured by a government that did not abide by the rules of the Geneva Convention.  

The chief architects of these enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) were James Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen — two former Air Force psychologists who left SERE to work for the CIA.

Their roles have been well documented. But until the release of the Senate’s report, there had been no indication that the CIA already employed Mitchell at the time he was hired to work on “war on terror” interrogations.

According to new information in the summary, when Mitchell joined up with CIA black site interrogators in Thailand in April 2002, he had already been working as a contractor for a division within the agency that has a long and storied — some would say, infamous — history, the Office of Technical Services (OTS).

The role of the OTS in the origin of the current torture scandal has not been highlighted until now. But it is not the first time the office and its predecessors have been involved with torture.

The OTS has gone by other names in its history, including Technical Services Staff (TSS), and Technical Services Division (TSD). Its purpose was to create the technologies used by the covert operations wing of the CIA, including spy satellites, secret writing ink, audio and optical surveillance, concealment devices, and novel methods of assassination.

According to one declassified CIA document, OTS receives its orders "through higher echelons (Office of the Director or Deputy Director for Operations).”

And it was through OTS’s predecessors — both TSS and TSD — that MKULTRA operated.

With well over 100 subprograms, MKULTRA cost millions of dollars in its over two decades of operation, ending in the early 1970s. It researched the possible use of many different kinds of drugs, including hallucinogens like LSD.

Its controversial techniques were the subject of more than one Congressional investigation (see this example [PDF] of one such investigation).

The lessons from the MKULTRA program were incorporated into a manual in the early 1960s. The handbook, known by its CIA acronym KUBARK, includes descriptions of drugging of prisoners — a process it called “narcosis.” A number of the KUBARK techniques migrated to the later, 1980s HRE manual.

Links to earlier torture

The link from MKULTRA to KUBARK to HRE to the post-9/11 EIT torture program was not just ideational, but organizational, even involving personnel from earlier torture programs.

According to the Senate report, the person chosen in late 2002 to be the “CIA's chief of interrogations in the CIA's Renditions Group, the officer in charge of CIA interrogations" had been elevated to the post despite having earlier been accused of “inappropriate use” of HRE techniques.

Mitchell and Jessen — who are widely acknowledged to be the men referred to in the SSCI report as SWIGERT and DUNBAR, psychologists whose contracting company was paid $81 million by the government — were “commissioned” by OTS in late December 2001 or early January 2002 to write a study of Al Qaeda techniques for resistance to interrogation.

By April 1, 2002, according to the Senate report, OTS cabled a new “proposed interrogation strategy” to the CIA interrogation group at the black site holding Zubaydah in Thailand. The new strategy was “coordinated” with Mitchell, and included manipulation of the environment “intended to cause psychological disorientation” for the prisoner.

According to the OTS cable, the plan was meant to instill in a prisoner "the deliberate establishment of psychological dependence upon the interrogator," and "an increased sense of learned helplessness." The emphasis on “psychological dependence” mirrors the language of the KUBARK manual, and the theories behind control of human behavior that were explored in the MKULTRA program.

Human experimentation

Later questions about assessing the “effectiveness” of the new “enhanced interrogation techniques” introduced by Mitchell and OTS raised fears within CIA’s Office of Medical Services that studying the EITs would violate federal policy on human experimentation.

Addressing such concerns, the CIA’s Inspector General said a review of the EIT program would not need “additional, guinea pig research on human beings” — “additional” implying that such experimentation may have already taken place.

But he added that there were “subtleties to this matter,” noting the need to study variables in how the techniques were affecting prisoners, including individual differences, and how prisoners reacted over different time periods, intensities of administration, and to different combinations of techniques.

By this time, OTS and its Operational Assessment Division had vetted the supposed safety of the program and reported to Justice Department attorneys, who were themselves trying hard to find a reason to allow the torture.

The Senate report also cited conflicts of interest where both Mitchell and Jessen administered the brutal interrogations, evaluated their supposed effectiveness, and also determined whether a detainee was resilient or healthy enough to continue applying the EIT.

The new evidence about the role of the OTS in the implementation of the CIA torture program demonstrates the conflict of interest was not limited to Mitchell and Jessen, but included other CIA personnel and divisions. It also suggests that the EIT was not a sole aberration by two psychologists looking to make money off the “war on terror,” but that the torture program they established was rooted in the CIA’s institutional history.

It also suggests that the full extent of the CIA’s program is still not yet known, but may lie in the approximately 6,000 pages of the report that have not yet been declassified by the Senate committee.

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