Sadism in, Garbage Out

You owe itself to read Jane Meyer’s brilliant expos© of the systematic use of torture and detention without trial by the US government in full, but here’s some key excerpts:

Gonzales informed Pearl that the Justice Department was about to announce some good news: a terrorist in U.S. custody€”Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the Al Qaeda leader who was the primary architect of the September 11th attacks€”had confessed to killing her husband. […] There were no named witnesses to his initial confession, and no solid information about what form of interrogation might have prodded him to talk, although reports had been published, in the Times and elsewhere, suggesting that C.I.A. officers had tortured him. At a hearing held at Guant¡namo, Mohammed said that his testimony was freely given, but he also indicated that he had been abused by the C.I.A. (The Pentagon had classified as €œtop secret€ a statement he had written detailing the alleged mistreatment.) And although Mohammed said that there were photographs confirming his guilt, U.S. authorities had found none.A surprising number of people close to the case are dubious of Mohammed€™s confession. […] Asra Nomani [,] Special Agent Randall Bennett, the head of security for the U.S. consulate in Karachi when Pearl was killed [,] And Judea Pearl, Daniel€™s father[.]€œK.S.M. is the poster boy for using tough but legal tactics. He€™s the reason these techniques exist. You can save lives with the kind of information he could give up.€ Yet Mohammed€™s confessions may also have muddled some key investigations. […] Colonel Dwight Sullivan, the top defense lawyer at the Pentagon€™s Office of Military Commissions, which is expected eventually to try Mohammed for war crimes, called his serial confessions €œa textbook example of why we shouldn€™t allow coercive methods.€The Phoenix Program, from the Vietnam War. Critics, including military historians, have described it as a program of state-sanctioned torture and murder. A Pentagon-contract study found that, between 1970 and 1971, ninety-seven per cent of the Vietcong targeted by the Phoenix Program were of negligible importance. But, after September 11th, some C.I.A. officials viewed the program as a useful model.One psychologist advising on the treatment of Zubaydah, James Mitchell […] Steve Kleinman, a reserve Air Force colonel and an experienced interrogator who has known Mitchell professionally for years, said that €œlearned helplessness was his whole paradigm.€ Mitchell, he said, €œdraws a diagram showing what he says is the whole cycle. It starts with isolation. Then they eliminate the prisoners€™ ability to forecast the future€”when their next meal is, when they can go to the bathroom. It creates dread and dependency. It was the K.G.B. model. But the K.G.B. used it to get people who had turned against the state to confess falsely. The K.G.B. wasn€™t after intelligence.€€œAt every stage, there was a rigid attention to detail. Procedure was adhered to almost to the letter. There was top-down quality control, and such a set routine that you get to the point where you know what each detainee is going to say, because you€™ve heard it before. It was almost automated. People were utterly dehumanized. People fell apart. It was the intentional and systematic infliction of great suffering masquerading as a legal process. It is just chilling.€According to sources familiar with interrogation techniques, the hanging position is designed, in part, to prevent detainees from being able to sleep. […] An American Bar Association report, published in 1930, which was cited in a later U.S. Supreme Court decision, said, €œIt has been known since 1500 at least that deprivation of sleep is the most effective torture and certain to produce any confession desired.€€œWaterboarding works,€ the former officer said. €œDrowning is a baseline fear. So is falling. People dream about it. It€™s human nature. Suffocation is a very scary thing. When you€™re waterboarded, you€™re inverted, so it exacerbates the fear. It€™s not painful, but it scares the shit out of you.€ (The former officer was waterboarded himself in a training course.) Mohammed, he claimed, €œdidn€™t resist. He sang right away. He cracked real quick.€ He said, €œA lot of them want to talk. Their egos are unimaginable. K.S.M. was just a little doughboy. He couldn€™t stand toe to toe and fight it out.€Ultimately, however, Mohammed claimed responsibility for so many crimes that his testimony became to seem inherently dubious. In addition to confessing to the Pearl murder, he said that he had hatched plans to assassinate President Clinton, President Carter, and Pope John Paul II. […] [E]ven supporters, such as John Brennan, acknowledge that much of the information that coercion produces is unreliable. As he put it, €œAll these methods produced useful information, but there was also a lot that was bogus.€ When pressed, one former top agency official estimated that €œninety per cent of the information was unreliable.

So in summary, what they’ve hit upon is a protocol based on the best practices developed by Soviet and medieval torturers alike to accomplish torture’s traditional goal — the extraction of false confessions — and seem to have wound up with a bunch of false confessions. Which, of course, is precisely what you’d expect to wind up with if you thought for a minute about why governments have, historically, resorted to the systemic deployment of torture.