Sunday, July 6, 2008

NYT Limited Hangout on SERE Torture & U.S. Biological Warfare

Ex-CIA high official Victor Marchetti wrote:
"A 'limited hangout' is spy jargon for a favorite and frequently used gimmick of the clandestine professionals. When their veil of secrecy is shredded and they can no longer rely on a phony cover story to misinform the public, they resort to admitting - sometimes even volunteering - some of the truth while still managing to withhold the key and damaging facts in the case. The public, however, is usually so intrigued by the new information that it never thinks to pursue the matter further."
Scott Shane's New York Times article, China Inspired Interrogations at Guantánamo (7/2/08), details the use of Albert Biderman's "Chart of Coercion" by members of the the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape program, or SERE, program to teach torture techniques to interrogators. The article is a fine example of how to conduct a limited hangout, or selected revelation, of intelligence-related material. Its headline and story is disingenuous or betrays ignorance. The aim of the article is to demonstrate the nefariousness or deviance of those who taught SERE techniques to U.S. interrogators, and to hide the truth about the derivation of those techniques, and to the history of the their use by U.S. government agencies.

One only has to read my June 25 article on the same subject, Nuts & Bolts: How U.S. Organized Torture Program, and then compare it with Shane's article to understand the difference between an artfully constructed faux-expose and an in-depth study of an important story. (One commenter at Mathew Yglesias's blog over at The Atlantic suggested I had scooped The New York Times. I'll note for the record that some of the points in Shane's article first appeared in my essay; for instance, the linking of the Biderman chart to deprogrammers websites. I'll let the fact that the diary was the first to fully expose the Biderman charts techniques speak for itself.)

The only new information the Times article reported was the identification of the source material for Biderman's "Principles", adumbrated in a "Chart of Coercion" used as a didactic device by SERE instructors, described as first appearing in an article by Albert Biderman in a September 1957 issue of the Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. The article was entitled Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions from Air Force Prisoners of War. (In my own article, I had noted -- erroneously, as it turns out -- that the chart had first appeared in a 1970s... but then I don't have the Times anonymous sources. As we shall see, Mr. Shane only discovered a part of the story.)

Mr. Shane's article writes:
The recycled chart is the latest and most vivid evidence of the way Communist interrogation methods that the United States long described as torture became the basis for interrogations both by the military at the base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and by the Central Intelligence Agency.
What the author fails to mention:

1) The study of Communist interrogation methods was part of a decades-long research program in the effects of coercive interrogation techniques, including use of sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, drugs, semi-starvation, isolation, and other techniques, conducted by the CIA and various military intelligence agencies to the tune of millions of dollars, and included the use of fake academic groups, university researchers, hospitals, and secret experimentation upon U.S. and other countries' civilian population (Mr. Shane could have referenced the New York Times in-house library, where he would have found the NYT August 2, 1977 article, "Private Institutions Used in CIA Effort to Control Behavior," by Nicholas M. Horrock). The findings of this ongoing research project into mind control and torture were implemented by the CIA, and possibly other military intelligence and/or police agencies, as even a cursory glance at the declassified version of the CIA's own 1963 counterintelligence interrogation manual demonstrates.

2) The Times article also is incorrect in its conclusion that particularly "Chinese methods [of interrogation and torture] had been recycled and taught at Guantánamo." Mr. Shane mistakes the fact that the Biderman-SERE chart originated in an article on POW reactions from the Chinese/Korean War with the U.S. for the full history of how U.S. torture was derived. In the Biderman article itself, Mr. Biderman made clear that there was nothing especially novel about Chinese methods of coercive interrogation (although it is true that the Chinese relied more heavily on group pressures and thought reform than other countries did). Biderman concluded (bold emphasis added):
It is that the finding of our studies which should be greeted as most new and spectacular is the finding that essentially there was nothing new or spectacular about the events we studied. We found, as did other studies such as those of Hinkle and Wolff, that human behavior could be manipulated within a certain range by controlled environments. We found that the Chinese Communists used methods of coercing behavior from our men in their hands which Communists of other countries had employed for decades and which police and inquisitors had employed for centuries.
Furthermore, the chart in question, labelled "Communist Coercive Methods for Eliciting Individual Compliance," was itself not the original version of this chart. Biderman himself, in the article cited by the Times notes that the chart of techniques is but a "condensed version" of an "outline" produced by the author before a U.S. Senate subcommittee investigating "Communist Interrogation, Indoctrination and Exploitation of American Military and Civilian Prisoners" in June 1956. As for Chinese use of these techniques, towards the end of his article, Biderman states:
It should be understood that only a few of the Air Force personnel who encountered efforts to elicit false confessions in Korea were subjected to really full dress, all-out attempts to make them behave in the manner I have sketched. The time between capture and repatriation for many was too short, and, presumably, the trained interrogators available to the Communists too few, to permit this.
Over and over, Mr. Shane's article tries to portray the torture of detainees at Guantanamo by U.S. interrogators and jailers as something derived from Chinese forms of torture, and he uses the Biderman chart to punctuate his argument. But the evidence from Biderman's own article, and the preponderance of evidence from both primary and secondary historically sources points to a more complex and nuanced view of the origins of U.S. torture. The emphasis upon so-called Chinese origins serves two purposes: it uses the scandal of U.S. torture to make propaganda points against the Chinese, and furthermore, it perpetuates a cover story regarding U.S. use of bacteriological warfare during the Korean War that ascribes its blown cover to the fiction that North Korean and Chinese interrogation were meant to produce "false confessions," as I explain below.

False confessions and the elicitation of information via torture

Published along with Biderman's essay in the September 1957 Bulletin is another article by government researchers, Lawrence Hinkle and Harold Wolff, who are referenced in the Biderman article mentioned above. This article -- The Methods of Interrogation and Indoctrination Used by the Communist State Police -- has as much, or more interest, to those who wish to study the development of governmental torture by the United States, has, for instance, its own very interesting charts, and examines the history of Russian state security procedures, going back to Czarist times. Wolff and Hinkle also describe key differences between Russian-Soviet and Chinese forms of interrogation. The latter's emphasis on re-education of political belief and the role of group pressures to produce the same is cited by both Biderman and Hinkle and Wolff as a chief difference between the two forms of communist-derived interrogation.

Wolff and Hinkle's article, based on studies they had conducted for the military and CIA -- their initial report had remained classified for a number of years -- also produced a number of charts. Two of them are as remarkable as the now more publicized version describing Biderman's so-called "principles." Entitled "A Typical Time Table - Easter European Secret Police Systems (Communist)", the table outlines a period of detention lasting up to 250 weeks. The outline describes an initial period of isolation, followed by the beginning of interrogation, all to be undertaken under a regimen of "progressive disorganization" of the prisoner's psyche. A second table, "The Detention Regimen" describes the procedures to be used, including "Total Isolation... No View Outside, Light in Ceiling Burns Constantly", sitting and sleeping in "fixed position", noting, "Pain May Result from Fixed Positions During Sleep and When Awake." Additionally, food is to be "Distasteful -- just Sufficient to Sustain Nutrition."

The point of all this is to produce a state within the prisoner that includes fear, uncertainty, fatigue, pain, humiliation, and therefore "Great Need to Talk" and "Great Need for Approval of Interrogator." Again, all of this is duplicated in the CIA's own 1963 manual, and subsequently in manuals produced by the CIA for training of foreign interrogators, armed forces and police in the mid-1980s.

Did all this torture, whether by Soviet, Chinese, Korean, or U.S. interrogators produce actionable intelligence? Did it produce "false confessions?

In order to answer these questions, we must be clear about what these techniques were meant to produce, and that was, as the Hinkle/Wolff essay makes clear, "progressive disorganization" of the prisoner. Under this weakened state of existence, and in a state of near-total dependency, the interrogator works the art of establishing rapport. The results themselves are related to what is meant to be produced.

When the Soviet Stalinist government of the 1930s meant to discredit old elements of the regime, labelling former cadre of the Communist Party "enemies of the state", the intended result was the "false confession." At that time, the Dewey Commission in the United States (named after the respected U.S. academic who chaired the investigation, John Dewey) investigated and cleared Leon Trotsky and other "old Bolsheviks" from the wild prosecutorial claims of the Russian prosecutors. It was the "confessions" of some of these former leaders of the Soviet Union that seemed so inexplicable at the time. The drama of the situation was captured by novelist Arthur Koestler in his famous novel, Darkness at Noon.

Much later, the supposed confessions of Hungarian Cardinal Josef Mindszenty after his 1948 arrest by the Stalinist police greatly puzzled Western observers. It was supposed that he was tortured, but even then, how had he been made to "confess" in such a relatively brief period of time?

The issue of false confessions elicited under torture had its largest airing when, in 1952-53, captured U.S. airmen told their captors that they had engaged in dropping biological weapons on North Korea and China as part of the U.S. air campaign against those countries. The accusation was vigorously denied by the United States, and a propaganda campaign was begun in the guise of investigating the "brainwashing" of U.S. prisoners. Wild stories of mind control drugs and secret interrogation techniques that could gain unique influence over the personalities of its victims were circulated. It was in this environment that Albert Biderman, Lawrence Hinkle, Harold Wolff, Robert Jay Lifton and others were enlisted to study how the Chinese had produced the "false confessions" of U.S. POWs.

Except, were the confessions false?

Publicly, that was the story. But when researchers met behind closed doors, or at professional meetings, a different story emerges. At a 1957 symposium organized by the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry (GAP) on "Methods of Forceful Indoctrination: Observations and Interviews", Dr. Louis West noted that "the enemy had a considerable degree of success in obtaining intelligence information and in forcing prisoners to engage in propaganda activities" (emphasis added; the quote is from GAP Symposium No. 4, July 1957, published by GAP Publications Office).

(Robert Jay Lifton, quoted in Mr. Shane's New York Times argument as saddened that Chinese interrogation methods were used by the U.S., a "180-degree turn" by U.S. interrogators, was a prominent presenter at this same conference, along with Dr. Edgar Schein of MIT, and the aforementioned Dr. Lawrence Hinkle. When I asked Dr. Lifton some time ago, and in another context, if he had any "personal memories or thoughts" about the work of Drs. Biderman, Hinkle and others, he replied by e-mail that he had no personal memories of these individuals.)

After the airmen were repatriated back to the United States, they all recanted their "confessions", although they had to do so under threat of court martial, a remarkable threat to issue, if the confessions were on the surface of them false.

U.S. Biological Warfare in Korea?

The U.S. chemical and biological warfare program after World War II was one of the most expensive and secretive campaigns ever undertaken by the U.S. government, comparable to the Manhattan Project. The NYT article makes much over the production of "false confessions" to the use of biological weapons by the U.S. during the Korean War. But there is an alternate, studied case demonstrating that the execrable and illegal use of such weapons occurred. (Both chemical and biological warfare were banned by the 1925 Geneva Convention.)

While there is no smoking gun document, there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence, much of it detailed by Canadian academics Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman in their 1998 book, The United States and Biological Warfare (Indiana University Press). More recently, respected bioethicist Jonathan Moreno, Senior Policy and Research Analyst for the President Clinton's Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments, has called Endicott and Hagerman's claims "compelling, if not conclusive", and the U.S. research program in biological warfare worthy of further investigation.

I cannot do justice to the full extent of information unearthed by Endicott and Hagerman, but the following is a brief summary of the data.

*** At the close of World War II, the United States, under the authority of General Douglas MacArthur granted immunity to members of Japanese Unit 731 "in exchange for data of research on biological warfare". Led by the infamous General Shiro Ishii, this covert branch of the Japanese Imperial Army, based in Manchuria, a conquered portion of China, engaged in the worst sort of experimentation, including live vivisection of POWs, deliberate infection of disease, and study of disease "vectors" of infection, as by fleas, to study the suitability of large-scale bacteriological warfare. According to Jonathan Moreno, in his book Undue Risk, according to recent research Unit 731 may have been responsible for the deaths of over 270,000 civilians.

*** In 1950, U.S. spending on biological warfare research was $5.3 million. In 1951-1953, the high-water mark of the Korean War, money spent on such development was $345 million -- a lot of cash in 2008 dollars. Truman's Secretary of Defense George Marshall approved the recommendation of the Stevenson Committee two weeks after the Chinese entry into the Korean conflict. Chaired by Earl Stevenson, and including representatives from U.S. Rubber, AT&T Co., Harvard Medical School, and a secretariat "drawn from the Defense Department, the Research and Development Board, the Chemical Warfare Service, and the Air Force" (Endicott & Hagerman, p. 45), the Committee recommended "an increase in funding and for research and development to bring biological weapons to operational readiness as soon as possible" (p. 47).

*** U.S. government documents, such as the memo, "Mechanism of Entry and Action of Insecticidal Compounds and Insect Repellents" (Oct. 26, 1952), attached to the 1953 Fiscal Year Budget, which included the following (p. 77):
Application to BW [Biological Warfare]: $25,000 (35% of $72,000).

Information on the mechanism of action of insecticides is applicable directly to problems involved in both the offensive application of and protection against insect dissemination of biological agents. Under project 465-20-001, insect strains resistant to insecticides are being developed. These represent a potentially more effective vehicle for the offensive use of BW of insect borne pathogens....
Another memo -- reproduced as an appendix to Endicott and Hagerman's book (p. 202) -- dated March 17, 1953, from the Air Force Chief of Plans to the Chiefs of War Plans and of Psychological Warfare, notes:
The Psychological Warfare Division will direct and supervise covert operations in the scope of unconventional BW and CW [Chemical Warfare] operations and programs and the psychological aspects of BW and CW....

The War Plans Division will... Integrate capabilities and requirements for BW and CW into war plans... Participate in the determination of munitions requirements for BW and CW to implement improved plans.
Why this document doesn't serve as a "smoking gun" in the eyes of most is beyond me. But extraordinary claims, as such are allegations of serious war crimes, demands a great deal of evidence. There is much more such evidence in Endicott and Hagerman's book, but I cannot reproduce it all here. One important discussion of the evidence occurred in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in May/June 1999. Another discussion, concerning the relevance of newly "discovered" Soviet documents and their effect upon the controversy, occurred in the Cold War International History Project Bulletin in Winter 1998.

*** Chinese documents, and the U.S. airmen confessions are another, if controversial, source of information. Altogether, 36 U.S. officers gave statements to the Chinese of involvement in U.S. operational use of biological weapons, including two colonels and two captains. Endicott and Hagerman's book lists a number of manuscript and Chinese government document sources. Also of significance is the Report of the International Scientific Commission for the Investigation of the Facts Concerning Bacteriological Warfare in Korea and China, published by the Chinese, which offered over 600 pages of documentary evidence. Needless to say, this report, which found plausible the charges of bacteriological warfare, examining spent bomb casings and medical documents, among other evidence, was not widely distributed in the U.S., though Time Magazine pilloried it when it appeared. The Commission was headed by Dr. Joseph Needham, a very respected British author and researcher.


The New York Times article, China Inspired Interrogations at Guantánamo, is a sophisticated use of journalism in the service of propaganda. While it attaches the recent use of torture and coercive methods of interrogation by the United States to some of its origins in the study of communist methods of interrogation, it does so in a one-sided way. It attributes methods of detention and treatment of prisoners that was not unique to China. If anything, the U.S. model of psychological torture is probably closer to that used by the Soviet secret police. In any case, this type of torture was not developed by the communists, but had its origins in the police procedures of autocratic governments, not least that of Czarist Russia.

The article also fails to mention the long interest of military and U.S. intelligence agencies in the use of these methods, nor their implementation by the U.S. government, long before the "war on terror" and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were twinkles in the eye of the current administration. One wonders how SERE officers and personnel like being the scapegoats for a U.S. policy that goes back decades.

Finally, the article perpetuates a mythology as to the use of "false confessions" during the Korean War to mask the origins of U.S. research into mind control and coercive interrogation that go back at least to the U.S. Navy's Project Chatter in the late 1940s, and the CIA's Operation Bluebird in 1950, both well before the Korean War. The purpose of this form of propaganda is to cover-up very serious questions about the use of biological warfare approved by the highest levels of the U.S. government, a serious war crime if it in fact, as appears very probable, occurred. In any case, the destruction of documents by the United States over the years makes a reconstruction of our own history extraordinarily difficult. CIA director Richard Helms ordered all MKULTRA documents destroyed in 1973; luckily, one cache of these documents had been copied, and became available later, but much remains unknown, because destroyed.

Many of the Korean War documents were also destroyed, or remain classified or hidden. Endicott and Hagerman note that they were told that archivists at the U.S. National Archives say that some files of the Chemical Warfare Service were recalled by the Army and destroyed in the period 1956 to 1969 (p. 256).

We cannot know the entire story of U.S. covert operations, including the research into torture interrogations, and the use of chemical and biological weapons. The fact that decades after the fact it is difficult to access information on these subjects speaks for itself, as does the destruction of much of the documentation.

The New York Times prides itself as the paper of record in the United States, that publishes "all the news that's fit to print." But as in the run-up to the Iraq War, the NYT, like much of U.S. mainstream media, has acted as a conduit for the official "line" of the U.S. government, much as Pravda and Izvestia once did for the sclerotic Kremlin bureaucracy. The widespread disbelief in the Warren Commission explanation of the Kennedy assassination, and the popularity of conspiracy television shows like The X-Files reflects a nascent consciousness among the mass of the American population that the truth is too often hidden from them.

It is a shame to see with what alacrity the Chinese torture model has been taken as gospel by both bloggers and conventional media sources. Most seem to have never even purused the actual documents that are quoted. Others speak and write passionately about subjects they have barely even studied. In George W. Bush's America, there is nothing needed more than the ability to think clearly and analytically, with an independent and curious mind, and a willingness to take the truth, whatever it may be, wherever it will take us. If that means entering a dark territory where what one believed to be true and honorable turns out to be otherwise, then the sooner we travel such a journey the better.


Trudy Bond said...

Just reread this. Tremendous amount of historical information you've given in this piece. I think we all agree NYT article was simply a cover story.


snowwhite said...

I am just curious. Why do people link torture with communist? Before there is communist, there is torture in China. The earliest one as I know happened in Shang dynasty (1766-1055).

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