False assumptions, professional ignorance led to bad decisions

The primary argument that officials in the Bush administration made in defense of their authorization for the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EIT) — otherwise recognized as torture — is that their use in interrogations of Al Qaeda suspects resulted in obtaining vital intelligence information that “saved American lives.”

That claim was disputed by by FBI experienced interrogation agents; and it was disputed by the Defense Department’s Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) which is responsible for the SERE training program. A JPRA document dated July 2002, referred to the application of extreme duress as “torture” and warned that it would produce “unreliable information.” The document pointed out that the key deficiency of physical or psychological duress is the unreliability and inaccuracy of the information gained: “A subject in pain may provide an answer, any answer, or many answers in order to get the pain to stop.” (Peter Finn and Joby Warrick. Document Referred to Extreme Duress as ‘Torture,’ Warned of Techniques’ Unreliability, The Washington Post, April 25, 2002)

The Administration’s claim was rejected by the long-suppressed CIA Inspector General Report that calls into question the efficacy, ethics and legality of harsh EITs. The IG report states: “The effectiveness of particular interrogation techniques …cannot be so easily measured… (p. 100) “it is impossible to say that any of the abusive tactics — authorized or unauthorized — elicited valuable information that could not have been obtained through lawful, nonviolent means.” The IG Report was issued in May 2004; highly redacted versions were released in 2008; 2009.

In his book, 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars (2012), former New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald, describes how little knowledge CIA operatives had about how to conduct effective interrogations:

“the experts on interrogation in military intelligence and at the CIA were old, retired, or dead. By the mid-1990s, intelligence and military interrogations were a subject more of academic study than of practical application… the emerging terror wars [ ] changed all that… Officers responsible for the SERE programs began selling themselves…as invaluable sources for training soldiers to question terrorists. All they had to do was reverse engineer SERE…By December [2001] the supposed benefit of transforming SERE experts into interrogation coaches was bouncing around the echo chamber of the Pentagon…” (p. 192)

He describes how “some of the most sweeping and controversial decisions” involving the use of torture were made on the basis of largely false assumptions and by disregarding the knowledgeable conclusion of experienced military and FBI officials.

Kurt Eichenwald made a discovery that completely undermines the rationale of those policy decisions; he discovered that the manual used to construct the psychological counter measures against al-Qaeda “resistance strategies” was not related to al-Qaeda.

“It was, instead, a booklet written by at least two men a decade before, at a time when [ ] bin Laden was living at home in Saudi Arabia. It espoused different goals, using different means, from al-Qaeda’s…much of the information was amateurish, particularly in the areas of training and weapons usage…The ‘resistance techniques’ laid out in the document were almost laughingly naïve… The idea that al-Qaeda members would buy their own weapons, and then learn how to use them by reading a manual would probably leave bin Laden laughing…” (p. 194, 544-552)

Eichenwald concludes that the Manchester Manual was written in the early 1990s by an Egyptian Islamist group whose members had been tortured by Egyptian security officers whose methods include tearing out fingernails, cigarette burns, and electro- shocking genitals. Eichenwald refutes the point most often repeated, that the manual advises Islamists who have been arrested to falsely proclaim in court that they have been tortured. He explains that the “resistance measures” cited in the manual were irrelevant to anything either the Pentagon or Mitchell was looking for – as they were local self-defense measures. Nowhere was there a mention of the U.S. or Western countries, or of Osama bin Laden.

Eichenwald notes that

“even a casual reading of the Manchester Manual makes it clear that this document was written not for al-Qaeda, but for another group entirely. Two members of a Middle Eastern intelligence service confirmed that that analysis…one calling the idea that the manual was intended for al-Qaeda ‘absurd.’” (p. 194)

He dismisses Mitchell and Jessen’s review of the al-Qaeda manual as “infused with psychological jargon;” they recommended SERE tactics to wring information from captured terrorists. He points out that if the manual’s “resistance techniques” helped a prisoner avoid confessing when being burned by fire, why would a tactic like waterboarding succeed?

He notes that all of the flaws escaped the attention of the two psychologists and officials at the highest government level who were taken-in by the patina of pseudo-science, which Michael Rolince, a former section chief of the FBI’s International Terrorism Team called “voodoo science.” The leadership at the CIA, the Pentagon and the White House “liked the tough, muscular techniques coated in the dispassionate lexicon of science…None of them realized that this aggressive – and unprecedented – American policy was being formulated by these unqualified psychologists based in part on an obscure, near-meaningless, and wildly misinterpreted document.” (p. 195)

Professor David Cole, a constitutional expert at the Georgetown University Law Center notes:

“In the first two years after 9-11, the government locked up by its own count over 5,000 foreign nationals in preventive detention anti-terrorism measures. These are people locked up, not to hold them responsible for things they have done in the past, not based on objective evidence of past wrongdoing, but out of a concern that they might commit a terrorist act in the future. So they are locked up to prevent that possibility from occurring. The preventive paradigm also includes what President Bush calls “alternative interrogation tactics,” but what the rest of the world knows as torture. The argument that has been made to justify coercive interrogation or torture is inevitably based on the fear of an imminent terrorist attack…How many of those 5,000 today stand convicted of a terrorist offense? Zero.”

“at Guantanamo, there have been 775 people locked up whom the government initially identified as the worst of the worst. We now know that more than 500 have been released suggesting perhaps they were not the worst of the worst. The military’s own tribunals have identified only eight percent of these people as fighters for either Al Qaeda or the Taliban.” (Less Safe, Less Free: A Progress Report on the War on TerrorJournal of the Institute of Justice & International Studies, 2008)