Tuesday, January 29, 2013

New Document Details Arguments About Torture at a JSOC Prison

Journalist Michael Otterman, author of the excellent book, American Torture: From the Cold War to Abu Ghraib and Beyond, was kind enough to forward to me some months ago a document he obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. The document consists of the after-action reports made by Colonel Steven Kleinman and Terrence Russell, two of the three team members sent by the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) to a top-secret special operations facility in Iraq in September 2003.

The reports, written shortly after both JPRA officials finished their assignment, present two starkly different accounts of what took place that late summer in the depths of a JSOC torture chamber. Even more remarkable, Col. Kleinman, who famously intervened to stop torture interrogations at the facility, had his own report submitted to Russell for comment. Indeed, Kleinman's report as released contains interpolations by Russell, such that the documents become a kind of ersatz debate over torture by the JPRA team members, and at a distance, some of the Task Force members.

This extraordinary document is being posted here in full for the first time. Click here to download.

"Cleared Hot"

Kleinman told the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), which in 2008 was investigating detainee abuse in the military (large PDF), that he thought as Team Leader (and Intelligence Director at JPRA's Personnel Recovery Academy) he was being sent to the Special Mission Unit Task Force interrogation facility to identify problems with their interrogation program.

Much to his surprise, he and his JPRA team were being asked to provide training in the kind of techniques originally used only for demonstration and "classroom" experience purposes in the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, or SERE program. (JPRA has organizational supervisory control over SERE, though the constituent arms of the military services retain some independence in how they run their programs.)

But not far into his mission, JPRA's Commander, Colonel Randy Moulton, told Kleinman and his team they were "'cleared hot' to employ the full range of JPRA methods to include specifically the following: Walling - Sleep Deprivation - Isolation - Physical Pressures (to include stress positions, facial and stomach slaps, and finger pokes to chest) - Space/Time Disorientation - White Noise".

The story of the JPRA team visit and how it went bad, how Kleinman intervened when he saw a kneeling prisoner being repeatedly slapped, how he refused to write up a torture interrogation protocol for use at the TF facility -- widely believed to be Task Force 20 (as reported by Jane Mayer in her book The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals) -- has been told at this point a number of times.

But never has the degree of acrimony and conflict that went on between Kleinman and his other JPRA team members, and the back and forth with superiors and TF personnel been so carefully detailed.

Russell, who was a civilian manager for JPRA's Research and Development division, was in particular open about why the team had been sent, and who they were helping. Kleinman, on the other hand, explained in his report at the outset that a nondisclosure agreement put "significant limitations on the details of our actions that can be reported herein."

Russell was not so reticent. He's quite clear the purpose of the TDY (temporary assignment) was "To provide support to on-going interrogation efforts being conducted by JSOC/TF-20 elements at their Battlefield Interrogation Facility (BIF).... At the request of JSOC, a JPRA support team was formed to advice [sic] and assist in on-going interrogations against hostile elements operating against Coalition Forces in Iraq. The mission of the TF-20 interrogation element, J2-X, was to exploit captured enemy personnel and extract timely, actionable intelligence to support operations that would lead to the capture of 'Black List' and other high-value and terrorist personnel."

According to Russell, "TF-20's deputy commander and JPRA/CC [that is, Commander, who was Col. Randy Moulton] approved the support team to become fully engaged in interrogation operations and demonstrate our exploitation tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) to the J2-X staff."

"A lack of clear guidance"

Whatever the understanding of the team when it arrived, from the very beginning there was a debate over the "effectiveness" of the techniques being discussed. Kleinman noted "a lack of clear guidance on the legal status of the detainees and the absence of definitive directions pertaining to the treatment of those detainees."

According to the 2008 SASC report, TF-20 was operating under the same interrogation SOP that a similar special forces task force had used in Afghanistan. But this was also a time when there was a lot of turmoil with the Department of Defense over exactly what interrogation techniques were "legal." Indeed, only days before Kleinman and his team arrived at the BIF, Major General Geoffrey Miller had come to Iraq to assess detention and interrogation operations five months after the invasion of Iraq by U.S. forces. He counseled the military in Iraq to "get tougher with detainees."

The 2002 Special Forces TF interrogation SOP for Afghanistan is apparently still classified, but we know from other sources that it included use of sensory overload ("loud music"), sleep deprivation, 20-hour interrogations, stress positions, "controlled fear," and use of dogs, among other torture techniques.

Once at the BIF, Kleinman saw "clear violations" of the Geneva Conventions and "acted to terminate the activity," according to his own after-action report. It's amazing to then have the opportunity to see what the other senior JPRA-SERE official at the site had to say.

Russell commented on this portion of Kleinman's report: "I think the clear violation of the TF policy was of a minor nature -- that being a 10-minute extension of the kneeling policy. The use of insult slaps was, in the opinion of [one or two words redacted], serious enough to stop the interrogation -- an action I did not then or now feel warranted his [Kleinman's] direct intervention.... This direct intervention by JPRA staff, vs. having their own chain of command step in, resulted in irrevocable damage of our relationship with [TF] staff."

While Russell was given an opportunity to counter Kleinman's narrative, Kleinman received no such reciprocal courtesy. He told me in a voicemail message in January 2012 he had written his report assuming it was "eyes only for the commander."

He continued: "And oddly enough, I never saw Terry’s [i.e., Terrence Russell's report] until months and months later, I think when the investigation started. And what I didn’t know was Terry was given immediate access to mine and was able to try to respond point for point without me being able to respond to his responses. Also my copy, when I went to look for it on the official email, had disappeared for quite a while. And so anyway, there was a lot of weird things going on at the time, as you can imagine."

The "Effectiveness" Question

A full analysis of this remarkable document would take up too much space for a blog post, but it's important to point out one exchange between Kleinman and Russell in regards to differences over the "effectiveness" of the SERE and other interrogation and torture techniques, as the discussion strangely presages the debate about the efficacy of torture that has surrounded the controversial film Zero Dark Thirty.

Kleinman argued to his commander in his after-action report, "While JPRA simulates methods employed by nations not compliant with the GC [Geneva Convention] provisions, U.S. interrogators are bound by federal law to operate in strict accordance with those guidelines. [2 lines redacted] Intelligence interrogation involved, to a considerable degree, the recruitment of a detainee's willing cooperation through the skilled employment of psychological levers that do not include the presentation of threats either explicitly or implicitly."

Russell countered: "While some few of the tools employed, namely some physical pressures, are outside GC guidelines, [1-1/2 lines redacted] This is routinely done with little use of tactics prohibited by the GCs."

Kleinman then discussed his own experiences as an interrogator, concluding, "... the use of non-coercive methods have proven far more effective in obtaining reliable and actionable intelligence than coercive methods. Recent studies of interrogation in support of the global war on terrorism corroborate this finding; conversely, the use of coercive methods has consistently proven to be ineffective and counterproductive."

Russell took umbrage at this, and referencing studies on interrogation done at Guantanamo, made his case for the use of coercive techniques, unconsciously echoing the words of Bruce Jessen, made years before in notes for the construction of a SERE instruction class that he and James Mitchell (and possibly others) would reverse-engineer into the "enhanced interrogation program" of the Bush years.

"In regards to the recent study on effectiveness at GTMO," Russell wrote, "of which there is plenty of room to debate whether or not that have had [sic] much success, there are a number of major variables not here addressed. GTMO is a strategic interrogation/debriefing facility -- not a battlefield interrogation facility. In addition, a key component of the process of exploiting a source is to get them to a mental state of despair and recognition of the omnipotence of the interrogator. Once in that state, the exploiter can offer a way out -- namely cooperation via non-coercive methods. At GTMO they have the luxury of holding a person for 18-24 months in a facility cut off from family, country, and support systems, with seemingly no end in site [sic], that would cause most rationale [sic] persons to move into a state of despair. A battlefield/tactical interrogation facility does not have that time luxury -- the requirement to put a resistant detainee into a state of despair must and can be accelerated though the use of coercive exploitation applied IAW [in accordance with] directives, well-considered SOPs and ROEs [Rules of Engagement]. Once there, non-coercive methods are employed to gain the reliable information sought."

Russell's statement is remarkable enough, but I asked Kleinman some time ago what "effectiveness" studies he and Russell were referring to. Kleinman told me that he was referring to many different kinds of studies going back to the Cold War years. He didn't believe Russell had any "study on effectiveness at GTMO" that he could actually refer to.

But after checking around, I discovered there appears to be such a study done by Major General Miller himself. In early 2003, Miller, who was then Commander Joint Task Force-Guantanamo, had submitted a document to then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's Working Group on interrogations, looking into what extended set of coercive methods would be allowable for use by DoD interrogators. Miller titled his four page paper, Effectiveness of the Use of Certain Category II Counter-resistance Strategies. It was published later as Enclosure 66 of the Schmidt-Furlow Report, "Investigation into Federal Bureau of Investigation Allegations of Detainee Abuse at Guantánamo Bay Detention Center."

According to the ACLU, the memo "is a response to the Director's request for info concerning the effectiveness of interrogation techniques approved by the Secretary of Defense. 'Included with this memo is a timeline of interrogation techniques used, info obtained as a result and justifications for their use', but this info is either redacted or not present. 'Numerous detainees demonstrated counter-resistance techniques. Consequently, [redacted] Commander, JTF-170 requested authorization to employ specific techniques in addition to those in the Field Manual. These techniques were approved by the Secretary of Defense.'"

I can't know for sure if this was Russell's GTMO "effectiveness" document or not, but it would seem like a prime candidate (unless Kleinman was right and Russell never knew of any actual study). Since the document is nearly entirely censored, we can't know for sure, nor we do know how such "effectiveness" was studied.

I was unable to find a way to reach Russell to obtain his comment.

Today, Kleinman is Director for Strategic Research for The Soufan Group, according to a webpage at the company's website.

High-Value Interrogation Group and Current Research on Interrogation "Effectiveness"

The current official DoD directive on interrogation specifically disallows the use of SERE-derived interrogation techniques. However, it does task the Director, Defense Counterintelligence and Human Intelligence Center (DCHC), with "assessment of the effectiveness of intelligence interrogations."

According to a March 2011 report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (large PDF), the administration's High-Value Interrogation Group (HIG) is currently responsible for some of this research. The report states, "The HIG also has responsibilities concerning improving the training of interrogators and sponsoring research on interrogation." Presumably, that includes research on the "effectiveness" of interrogation methods.

How that research is conducted, and the ethics that inform such a project, are kept secret. Recently, however, one HIG researcher, psychologist Susan Brandon, who also works for DCHC, was known to be involved in research on the case of the supposed (and confessed) Iranian-American would-be assassin, Mansour Arbabsiar.

The HIG's tasking for interrogation research was echoed in remarks to the press by then Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair in February 2010, according to a story by AFP.
An elite US interrogation unit will conduct "scientific research" to find better ways of questioning top suspected terrorists, US intelligence director Dennis Blair said Wednesday.

"It is going to do scientific research on that long-neglected area," Blair told the House Intelligence Committee, without elaborating on the nature of the techniques being tested.

A spokesman for Blair, Ross Feinstein, also declined to detail "specific research projects" but stressed that any such projects would follow US law, which forbids torture, and abide by internal review safeguards.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Demand transparency on torture from the White House

Passing on this important online action by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee:
Demand transparency on torture from the White House

Earlier this month, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to approve a 6,000 page report on torture based on a three year investigation that reviewed over 6 million pages of documents from the CIA and other intelligence agencies. While the Senate report is sharply critical of torture, however, it remains secret.

Sign this petition to remind America what we once stood for.

The Obama administration and the Senate Intelligence Committee could help advance the debate. Simply allowing the press and the public to read the committee's report would expose the film’s potentially misleading narrative.

Sign this petition to tell the White House that you demand transparency on torture and the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report to the public.

For more information and further analysis, visit The People's Blog for the Constitution, and download flyers to take action locally.
President Barack H. Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

We, the undersigned, write to remind you that torture is wrong, immoral, unconstitutional, universally illegal, and has proven harmful to US national security, and also to urge you to promote transparency, as you have repeatedly promised.

The extensive report approved in December 2012 by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence could inform the public about an area of persisting secrecy and escalating controversy. We urge you to immediately declassify the report and enable its unredacted release to the public and the press.

Your pledge to promote transparency requires no less. So do domestic and international law, which impose an affirmative obligation to investigate all credible reports of torture and pursue prosecution of all culprits, whatever their position or rank. So far, your administration has dramatically failed that responsibility, choosing political expediency over the rule of law.

In your second term, your administration could address this failure by supporting efforts to promote transparency and accountability, starting by declassifying the Senate Intelligence Committee's report in order to enable its vital release to the public.

With mass incarceration subjecting millions of Americans to a "new Jim Crow" racial caste system, the impunity with which architects of torture flaunt their (in many cases, public, and even judicial) positions makes a mockery of our criminal justice system. Prosecution of only the powerless, and impunity for the powerful, represents a flagrant double standard that ultimately encourages disrespect and disdain for the law.

We eagerly look forward to reading the Senate's findings, and to thanking your administration for helping make your rhetoric a reality.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: A Nihilist View of the War on Terror

It is almost superfluous to add yet one more voice to the cacophony that is the response to the Kathryn Bigelow movie, Zero Dark Thirty... yet here I go.

I held off writing anything until I had watched the movie, as commenting on something I had not seen would certainly have been unfair, and I must still admit that my take is subjective, rooted in a particular time and historical period, not to mention a set of personal experiences that have sensitized me to the subject of torture.

While the movie has already been honored by many in the film world, with awards and nominations, including a nomination for best picture of the year by the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences (the Oscar), it has also been heavily criticized by U.S. senators, by liberal or leftist columnists and various human rights groups.

Having seen the criticisms, the negative responses are certainly justified. Screenwriter Mark Boal reportedly worked with CIA contacts and others in the administration to craft the story, as at the very beginning of the movie a screen title informs us the picture is based on "first-hand accounts."

Indeed, the story is told from the viewpoint of CIA officers, particularly one young female agent: "Maya" was recruited out of high school to the CIA, for reasons that are pointedly kept obscure. Her entire life revolves around the CIA and the hunt for terrorists, centering on Osama bin Laden.

At first, she is pictured as someone who is squeamish around torture. As the film proceeds, she becomes harder, until she is becomes an unflinching interrogator, directing beefy strongmen to slap and punch bound "terrorist" suspects. This is portrayed as something heroic, something in her character's development that is laudatory, and leading ultimately to her key role in finding Bin Laden.

As the movie progresses, casual comments are pointedly thrown out to let us know that the CIA is having its hands tied by liberals, who criticize torture, and want to let terrorist suspects have attorneys, who then can go to Al Qaeda and inform them what is revealed to their clients at Guantanamo. This is not a movie that merely wants to "objectively" portray the war on terror: it has a point of view, and even a mission. And that point of view is decidedly similar to that of former Vice President Dick "Dark Side" Cheney.

The movie is also racist in outlook, portraying Muslims, and in particular dark-skinned Afghans and Pakistanis as inscrutable, if exotic, orientals. The CIA heroes move among this mysterious and treacherous environment trying to save lives, only to be inexplicably attacked with bombs and suicide-vest wearing terrorists.

The movie portrays attacks made on the Marriott hotel in Pakistan and the suicide bombing by a Jordanian doctor that killed a number of CIA agents in Khost, Afghanistan. There is no reason given for these attacks. They occur, it would seem, as a manifestation of pure evil, or of inexplicable chaos, almost as if the terrorist attacks were as random and insistent as those the rich bourgeois suffered in Luis Brunuel's Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Not for even a minute is there any consideration as to why people may be attacking U.S. targets. While there are a few mentions of Iraq, there is no reference to the costs of war in either Iraq or Afghanistan... almost as if they never existed!

There is also a reference to a supposed greater than 50% likelihood that Iraq was harboring WMD and the CIA was merely mistaken in believing Hussein was harboring a WMD program. It's never even imagined in Bigelow-Boal's jingoistic telling that the CIA in fact was helping the US government manufacture a casus belli for invasion, something high officials in the United Kingdom certainly noticed, and cabled as much to their government.

The movie's only moment of ironic detachment comes at the very end. When a soldier asks Maya where she would like to go now that Bin Laden is dead (and by the way, it's never shown what the US does with Bin Laden's body after it's taken from Abbottabad), she has nothing to say. A single tear falls down our heroine's cheek.

Are we supposed to feel sympathy for the sacrifice of this woman's personal life to the hunt for Bin Laden? For the sacrifice of billions of dollars and thousands of lives to sustain this hunt? For the meaninglessness of it all, the nihilistic recognition that after the wars and torture and mindless killing on all sides, and the deaths of children, families, even CIA officers and Al Qaeda true believers, there was no meaning at all but the aching emptiness of the enterprise, its subordination to careerism on one hand, and eye-for-an-eye vengeance on the other?

For indeed, this movie is primarily a coming-of-age story. More than once the movie refers to the need of the up-and-coming generation to make their mark in the world, to take up the reins of leadership within the Company. Thus the war on terror, even the hunt for Bin Laden, becomes in the end the latest iteration of the "good cause," and there's room to make your mark and find glory in such an enterprise. In years to come, Maya and her peers can talk about the Bin Laden campaign as the "good old days," much as modern spooks may reminisce over single malts about the humidity in Saigon in the summer, or how they helped agents escape the fall of Teheran (in fact, there is a movie like that already, and it's up for an Oscar, too).

By the end of the movie, the memory of the horror of 9/11, which the audience hears via audio clips at the beginning of the movie, is forgotten. What's left is the empty triumph of a young woman, who climbs to recognition and heroism within the CIA over the bodies of numerous tortured individuals (all of whom, of course, are guilty and must be hiding something, as innocence is an impossibility in the  spook world), martyred agents, and outfoxed bureaucratic bosses, to get to... well to get where?

In the end, the movie has no vision of where it means to gets to. Stung by recent criticisms over her portrayal of torture, on January 16 Bigelow penned an op-ed in Los Angeles Times (emphasis in original):
Bin Laden wasn't defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.
Despite her statement that she "support[s] all protests against the use of torture," her qualification of torturers as people that "sometimes crossed moral lines" shows where her real alliances lie. The movie's nihilism lies in the fact that it exists only to be a propaganda piece for the CIA. It has nothing to say about history, about current events, about politics, about torture, or about what it means to be caught up in all this, except what the CIA has to say about any of it. The last bit of humanity -- that tear at the end -- is both cynical and possibly also real. It represented perhaps the last sign of humanity in a filmmaker who has sold out moral integrity for a deal with amoral types whose actual crimes she barely begins to comprehend, if she even ever cared.

After I walked out of this movie I felt sick, sick for myself, and sick for this country whose ability to ascertain what is right and what is wrong has fallen so far off the tracks that I have lost much hope I will see anything but disaster in this nation's future.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

"Don't tell anyone what happened here"

"Japan's Dirty Secret"
Documentary, May 2003

Produced by ABC Australia
Distributed by Journeyman Pictures
Uploaded to YouTube, March 10, 2008
Memories of Japanese war crimes continue to poison Japan's relations with its neighbours. Many Chinese are still suffering the effects of a vicious campaign of germ warfare.

"Our unit did things no human being should ever do," confesses Unit 731 member Yoshio Shinozuka. His unit developed the deadly pathogens which were used to infect 250,000 Chinese. Japan's refusal to apologise for its actions, or to acknowledge Unit 731's existence, has further upset its victims.
The story of how the United States gave amnesty to the war criminals who ran the Japanese Emperor's biological and chemical warfare program in the 1930s and 1940s has been told a number of times now, but after over 40 years of U.S. denials and censorship, it's not surprising the story is still barely known by the average American.

Few books in print still examine the issue, but they are good ones. See Sheldon Harris, Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-45 and the American Cover-Up; also Hal Gold, Unit 731 Testimonies; and Daniel Barenblatt, A Plague upon Humanity: The Hidden History of Japan's Biological Warfare Program.

The entire history of modern Asia is mostly unknown by U.S. citizens, and that's especially true when it comes to the post-War period in Japan, China and Korea. And yet, bizarrely, the U.S. itself has fought two major wars in Asia (Korea and Vietnam), and lost many tens of thousands of its own citizens, with very little idea of what U.S. policy even was or is in that part of the world.

One's education can begin with the biggest cover-up of a war crime in U.S. history: the U.S. amnesty of the germ warfare researchers in Japan, their brutal murder, sometimes via vivisection, of thousands of human "guinea pigs", including, it seems likely, U.S. POWs. When the Soviet Union tried some of these military researchers as war criminals in the late 1940s, the US derided it as fake propaganda.

Such was the evil of the time that the US lied about this. The lies were not formally withdrawn for 50 years, and even then with a minimum of fanfare.

The ABC documentary is short but powerful. I offer it here with the hope that greater education of these issues will make people more politically aware and better able to intervene in the political process.

For further viewing, see this History International five part video on Unit 731, and also my reposting of Japanese professor Shingo Shibata's essay, "The Atomic Victims as Human Guinea Pigs."

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