THE EXPERIMENT -- THE MILITARY TRAINS PEOPLE TO WITHSTAND INTERROGATION. ARE THOSE METHODS BEING MISUSED AT GUANTANAMO?
by Jane Mayer
July 11, 2005
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On a steamy morning last month, as Congress was debating the treatment of the approximately five hundred terrorist suspects being held inside the United States-run military detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a small delegation of American officials led a tour through one of the prison camp’s empty cellblocks. The International Committee of the Red Cross has made inspections of the site, the results of which it keeps confidential, and a few dozen American lawyers have had limited visits with detainees. Yet most of the prisoners, who come from some forty countries, have been held virtually incommunicado, without legal charges, for three and a half years.
The cellblock, which had been fashioned from steel shipping crates, resembled a horse barn. Six-foot-by-eight-foot cells, with walls and doors of metal mesh, stood in two facing rows. The cells were protected by a low metal roof but were open to the tropical air. Each door featured a narrow slot, at waist height, through which meals and other items could be handed to detainees, and handcuffs and belly chains could be secured. The first cell on the right was laid out like a display model, with neatly folded prison garb and an array of what the officials called “comfort items”—awarded to detainees for good behavior, or confiscated as punishment. Among these luxuries was a roll of toilet paper. The cell was furnished with a thin plastic-covered mattress on a metal slab; a metal sink; a metal toilet; and a surgical mask, which could be hung from the wall, allowing a detainee to store a small Koran inside it.
“I’d be proud to let the media see anything in this camp,” Colonel Mike Bumgarner, the commander of the Joint Detention Operations Group, the military unit that oversees the daily handling of detainees, said. “I’d gladly invite the world in to see our guards in action. I’m very proud of what they do. They treat the detainees humanely.” Meals, he said, were excellent. “They get honey-glazed chicken and rice pilaf. They get lemon-baked fish.” He noted that some detainees don’t like to have their vegetables touching their meat: “So we serve them separately, in little Styrofoam clamshells, like the ones you get at a fast-food restaurant.” He went on, “We have to be like the parents here. In loco parentis. That’s how we look at it. It’s like a big family.”
As we reached the end of the cellblock, hysterical shouts, in broken English, erupted from a caged exercise area nearby. “Come here!” a man screamed. “See here! They are liars!” He was middle-aged, with a full beard and skinny bow legs, and wore an orange shirt and shorts. (“Privileged”—that is, coöperative—detainees wear white or beige uniforms.) “No sleep!” he yelled. “No food! No medicine! No doctor! Everybody sick here!” A soldier near the detainee began ferociously signalling to the officials leading the tour to usher me out. As I was leaving, the detainee pointed to his own cellblock, which was off limits to journalists, and screamed, “They are liars! Liars! Liars!”
“His English is pretty good,” one official joked wanly.
The military officials who run the Guantánamo prison maintain that almost all of the detainees’ charges are untrue. A training manual written by Al Qaeda leaders, which is known as the Manchester Manual, because a copy of it was confiscated during a 2000 raid in England, counsels Islamists to “complain of mistreatment while in prison” and say that “torture was inflicted on them.” Bumgarner said, “They are trained to make false accusations. It’s part of their P.R.”
Brigadier General Jay W. Hood, the top commander of the camp, has worked to improve administrative control since taking over, in March, 2004. He has implemented random inspections of the cellblocks, to insure that “standard operating procedures” are being followed, and he has banished regular “cavity searches” for detainees. Lawyers and human-rights workers say that detainees are being treated less harshly, although their mental state continues to deteriorate. In an interview, Hood said that there have been “no demonstrated or consistent trends of abuse” inside Guantánamo, and “certainly nothing rising to the level of torture.” From the beginning, however, the Guantánamo Bay prison camp was conceived by the Bush Administration as a place that could operate outside the system of national and international laws that normally govern the treatment of prisoners in U.S. custody. Soon after September 11th, the Administration argued that the Guantánamo site, which America had been leasing from the Cuban government since 1903, was not bound by the Geneva Conventions. Moreover, the Administration claimed that terrorist suspects detained at the site were not ordinary criminals or prisoners of war; rather, they would be classified under a new rubric, “unlawful combatants.” This new class of suspects would be tried not in U.S. courts but in military tribunals, the Administration announced. In February, 2002, President Bush issued a broad directive that required American troops to treat detainees “humanely,” in a manner consistent with the Geneva Conventions, within the limits of “military necessity.” A year later, he explicitly denounced the use of torture.
A series of internal Department of Defense investigations found what General Hood described as “isolated cases where individuals hadn’t followed standard operating procedures.” Many of the incidents addressed by the Pentagon had been widely reported in the media, making the camp a focus of international outrage. In one case, a female interrogator, attempting to unsettle a Muslim detainee, smeared fake menstrual blood on him. And on five separate occasions Korans were defiled; one soldier urinated through a ventilation shaft, splashing the text—accidentally, according to the Pentagon. (This spring, Newsweek reported that military investigators had evidence that guards at Guantánamo had flushed a Koran down a toilet. The Bush Administration adamantly denied the charge, and, ultimately, the magazine admitted that it did not have sufficient sourcing to stand by the story.) In each acknowledged case of impropriety at Guantánamo, Hood stressed, the transgressors had been reprimanded, but he doubted that their actions could be said to “rise to the level of abuse.”
Last year, Vice-Admiral Albert T. Church III was appointed by the Pentagon to investigate the problem of detainee abuse. This spring, he released a three-hundred-and-sixty-eight-page report, most of which remains classified. In an unclassified section, Church concluded that there was “no link between approved interrogation techniques and detainee abuse.” When cruelties did occur, the report claimed, they were rare mishaps, the result of combat stress, insufficient oversight, or a “breakdown of good order and discipline.”
Yet a number of critics, including human-rights officials, detainees’ lawyers, and others with knowledge of the inner workings of the detention center, believe that the problems at Guantánamo are the result of a more systematic effort. The strange accounts of torment that have steadily emerged, these critics say, are connected to decades of research by American scientists into the psychological nature of warfare and captivity. The research, which began during the Cold War, developed new currency after September 11th, when the Bush Administration declared a global war on terror and began trying to extract intelligence from radical Islamists, many of whom have been trained not to reveal anything about their activities. Since 2001, the critics say, medical and scientific personnel have played a role, largely hidden, in helping to design and monitor interrogations that are intended to exploit the physical and mental vulnerabilities of detainees. According to a former interrogator at Guantánamo who was interviewed at length by a lawyer, behavioral scientists control the most minute details of interrogations, to the point of decreeing, in the case of one detainee, that he would be given seven squares of toilet paper per day.
“It is both illegal and deeply unethical to use techniques that profoundly disrupt someone’s personality,” Leonard S. Rubenstein, the executive director of Physicians for Human Rights, an advocacy group that has been critical of the Bush Administration, says. “But that’s precisely what interrogators are doing, in order to try to get people to talk.”
Baher Azmy, a professor at Seton Hall Law School, in Newark, New Jersey, represents a Guantánamo detainee named Murat Kurnaz, a twenty-three-year-old Turkish citizen who was born in Germany. Kurnaz, who was apprehended while on a trip to Pakistan, has been detained in Guantánamo since 2002. Azmy told me that Kurnaz has complained of being sexually taunted by female interrogators who, he said, offered to have sex with him in exchange for giving information. When one woman began embracing him from behind, Kurnaz said, he turned and head-butted her. According to Kurnaz, he was then beaten by members of the Initial Reaction Forces, a military-police squad that patrols the cellblocks. Kurnaz claimed that he was made to lie on the floor, with his hands cuffed behind his back, for nearly a day. He also told Azmy that he was threatened with starvation and forcibly injected with unknown and debilitating drugs. (All of Kurnaz’s charges have been denied by U.S. authorities.) Azmy told me, “These psychological gambits are obviously not isolated events. They’re prevalent and systematic. They’re tried, measured, and charted. These are ways to humiliate and disorient the detainees. The whole place appears to be one giant human experiment.”
Concrete evidence of the medical and psychological mistreatment of detainees is all but impossible to obtain, in part because the Justice Department, in contravention of all national and international norms, has repeatedly blocked attempts by lawyers to get copies of detainees’ medical records. “Prisoners, even terrorists, have the right to their medical records, according to federal laws, common laws, the American Medical Association, and court trials,” Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, says. In an interview at Guantánamo Bay, Dr. John S. Edmondson, a Navy captain who oversees the facility’s medical command, denied that he had refused to turn over medical records. “I believe we’ve complied with the requests that have reached me,” he said. A respect for confidentiality, he said, prevented him from specifying the names of detainees whose medical records he had released. Yet Rob Kirsch, a partner at the law firm Wilmer Hale, who represents six Guantánamo detainees, provided me with a file of letters from the Justice Department denying him access to his clients’ medical records, even though he had obtained waivers from the clients authorizing their records to be released to him. “They still wouldn’t let us see the records,” he said. Kirsch contends that at Guantánamo medical care is sometimes withheld or dispensed depending on a detainee’s willingness to talk to interrogators. All his clients, he said, have made this complaint, despite having had no opportunity to talk to one another. One of his clients, Mustafa Ait Idir, was deemed resistant by guards, and they allegedly broke two of his fingers; Idir was not allowed to see a doctor after the incident, Kirsch said, and his hand is now severely misshapen. (Kirsch visited Idir at Guantánamo several times after the hand was damaged.) All six of Kirsch’s clients have requested dental care to no avail. One client’s teeth were so damaged that he was unable to eat regular food; after dental treatment was withheld, the prisoner requested a soft-food diet, which tasted so bad that he lost forty pounds. Edmondson denied that care had been deliberately withheld from any detainee. He also denied that medical professionals under his command had colluded with interrogators.
Scott Sullivan, a lawyer at Allen & Overy, a firm that represents eleven detainees from Yemen, alleged that medics under Edmondson’s command routinely violated codes of medical ethics. For example, medics supervised the beating of one of his clients, Saeed Abdullah Sarim, he said. After Sarim was hit repeatedly in the face, an English-speaking detainee nearby allegedly told him that a medic had tried to calibrate the abuse, saying, “Hit him around the eye, not in the eye.” After the beating, according to a report compiled by Sullivan’s firm, Sarim asked a nurse for stitches. The nurse, Sarim said in the report, “did not answer me and did not treat the wound.”
Another client of Sullivan’s, Abdul Aziz al-Swidi, claimed to have been interrogated by a psychiatrist, who allegedly showed him a picture of a telephone and asked him what it was. When Swidi answered that it was a telephone, the psychiatrist angrily responded, “It’s not a telephone—it’s a bomb!” Swidi was shown other images and asked to identify them, and each time he was told that his answer was wrong. The goal of the exercise, Sullivan believes, was to make Swidi think that he was going crazy. (“We have no records or reports of this allegation,” a Guantánamo spokesman said.)
Last month, a report in the Times said that doctors at Guantánamo had provided interrogators with information from some detainees’ medical records. In one case, interrogators were told that a detainee had a profound fear of the dark, and ways were suggested to exploit this phobia, in order to break down the detainee’s resistance to questioning. Also last month, an article in The New England Journal of Medicine revealed that a military policy statement instructed caregivers at Guantánamo to offer clinical information to interrogation teams on request. And last year a confidential report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, parts of which were leaked to the Washington Post, charged that doctors consulted detainee medical records to help interrogators, in a “flagrant violation of medical ethics.” Edmondson said that the Red Cross’s charges were wrong, but he added that national-security concerns might sometimes justify the breaching of a detainee’s medical confidentiality.
The role of physicians, who take the Hippocratic oath to “do no harm,” is ethically complicated in wartime. Doctors are often described as having “dual loyalties,” to patients and to country. But at the Nuremberg trials, after the Second World War, revulsion at Nazi atrocities led to the establishment of rules barring medical mistreatment, even for reasons of national security. A section of the 1950 Geneva Convention, for example, states that “no prisoner of war may be subjected to physical mutilation or to medical or scientific experiments of any kind which are not justified by the medical, dental or hospital treatment of the prisoner concerned.” In 1962, the U.S. passed the first law requiring doctors to obtain “informed consent” from patients. And in 1975 the World Medical Association, or W.M.A., issued the Declaration of Tokyo, which barred medical personnel from participation in either torture or abuse, even as monitors. The American Medical Association is a member of the W.M.A., which means that U.S. doctors must follow its ethical standards.
In June, the Pentagon released a new set of formal ethical guidelines, titled “Medical Program Principles and Procedures for the Protection and Treatment of Detainees in the Custody of the Armed Forces of the United States.” The document, which was issued by Dr. William Winkenwerder, Jr., the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, stresses the importance of upholding “the humane treatment of detainees.” It states that “health-care personnel charged with the medical care of detainees” cannot participate in interrogations. In this phrase is embedded a troubling loophole, however: scientific and medical personnel who are not directly responsible for a patient’s care may take part in interrogations. Leonard Rubenstein, of Physicians for Human Rights, argues that “the Administration has basically given a green light for medical personnel to participate in abuse.”
Winkenwerder, who formerly worked in the insurance industry, argues that most of the detainees have never received better care than they have been getting at Guantánamo. The Pentagon, he told me, took extraordinary pains to insure that detainees were treated in compliance with medical ethics and American values, and he presented statistics showing that last year Guantánamo detainees got more frequent medical treatment than most Americans. A state-of-the-art field hospital had been set up on the periphery of the prison camp, he said, and trained Navy medical corpsmen checked on the detainees’ health and welfare three times a week. “A lot of good people are being besmirched by these stories,” he said, referring to media reports that have described abuses of detainees at Guantánamo.
Winkenwerder did acknowledge, however, that a number of medical and scientific personnel working at Guantánamo—including psychologists and psychiatrists—are not providing care for detainees. Rather, these “non-treating” professionals have been using their skills to “assist the interrogators,” as he put it.
People working in this advisory capacity are members of what are called Behavioral Science Consultation Teams, or bscts. (In military jargon, the teams are known as “Biscuits.”) In past wars, the U.S. military has used health-care consultants for therapeutic purposes, to evaluate the combat readiness of soldiers with psychological or physiological problems, and to provide soldiers with counselling and psychotropic drugs. But Major General Geoffrey D. Miller—who commanded the Guantánamo Bay detention center between November, 2002, and March, 2004, and who was then sent by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to manage Abu Ghraib prison, in Iraq—established a new role for health-care advisers. “These teams, comprised of operational behavioral psychologists and psychiatrists, are essential in developing integrated interrogation strategies and assessing interrogation intelligence production,” Miller explained in an internal report in September, 2003.
Winkenwerder told me that bsct members are not under his command; rather, they fall under military intelligence. He said that he knew little about the program’s daily operations but had heard that a number of bsct psychologists and psychiatrists had received specialized training. “It’s connected to some military acronym,” he said. “Something to do with Survival and Evasion.”
Winkenwerder was referring to a Pentagon-funded program known as sere, which stands for “Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape.” sere was created by the Air Force, at the end of the Korean War, to teach pilots and other personnel considered at high risk of being captured by enemy forces how to withstand and resist extreme forms of abuse. After the Vietnam War, the program was expanded to the Army and the Navy. Most details of the program’s curriculum are classified.
Each branch of the military now has its own version of sere training. The flagship program is conducted by the Army’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where Green Berets train. There are several levels of sere courses; one, Level C, includes a gruelling exercise in which trainees endure days of physical and psychological hardship inside a mock prisoner-of-war camp.
This spring, I spoke at length with several people familiar with the sere programs, including a longtime affiliate. According to these sources, a small number of psychologists and other clinicians oversee the sere program at Fort Bragg. The supervisors discreetly check on trainees’ progress at frequent intervals, keeping extensive charts and records of their behavior and medical status. Numerous experiments aimed at documenting trainees’ stress levels have been conducted by sere-affiliated scientists. By analyzing blood and saliva, they have charted fluctuations in trainees’ level of cortisol, a stress hormone, and these data have been used to understand what inspires maximum anxiety in the trainees.
The theory behind the sere program is that soldiers who are exposed to nightmarish treatment during training will be better equipped to deal with such terrors should they face them in the real world. Accordingly, the program is a storehouse of knowledge about coercive methods of interrogation. One way to stimulate acute anxiety, sere scientists have learned, is to create an environment of radical uncertainty: trainees are hooded; their sleep patterns are disrupted; they are starved for extended periods; they are stripped of their clothes; they are exposed to extreme temperatures; and they are subjected to harsh interrogations by officials impersonating enemy captors. (Colonel Hans Bush, a spokesman at Fort Bragg, declined to “disclose the details of the specific challenges our students face.”) Research in social psychology has shown that a person’s capacity for “self-regulation”—the ability to moderate or control his own behavior—can be substantially undermined in situations of high anxiety. If, for instance, a prisoner of war is trying to avoid revealing secrets to enemy interrogators, he is much less likely to succeed if he has been deprived of sleep or is struggling to ignore intense pain.
According to the sere affiliate and two other sources familiar with the program, after September 11th several psychologists versed in sere techniques began advising interrogators at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere. Some of these psychologists essentially “tried to reverse-engineer” the sere program, as the affiliate put it. “They took good knowledge and used it in a bad way,” another of the sources said. Interrogators and bsct members at Guantánamo adopted coercive techniques similar to those employed in the sere program. Ideas intended to help Americans resist abuse spread to Americans who used them to perpetrate abuse. Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Virginia, is a scholar of state-sponsored experiments on humans. He says, “If you know how to help people who are stressed, then you also know how to stress people, in order to get them to talk.”
Carol Darby, a spokeswoman at Fort Bragg, said that the sere program has not deviated from its original purpose. In an e-mail, she wrote, “sere training is not designed and it does not teach anyone how to interrogate individuals. Students who go through sere are taught methods to resist interrogation techniques that may be used against them; they are taught how to respond when they are on the receiving end of interrogation.”
Yet many of the interrogation methods used in sere training seem to have been applied at Guantánamo. One component of the training program, called the “religious dilemma,” parallels Guantánamo detainees’ chronic complaints about Koran abuse. At sere, trainees in the Level C course are given the choice of seeing a Bible desecrated or revealing secrets to interrogators. “They are challenging your faith,” the sere affiliate explained. “The Holy Book is torn up. They say they’ll stop if you talk. Sometimes they rip the Bible and throw it in the air.” The goal is to make detainees react emotionally to the desecration. Some trainees who are devout Christians become profoundly disturbed during the exercise.
In May, an e-mail written by a graduate of the sere program was posted on Informed Comment, the blog of Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan, who is critical of the Bush Administration. The e-mail, which was anonymous, asserted, “Gitmo must be being used as a ‘laboratory’ for all these psychological manipulation techniques.” Cole provided me with contact information for the sere graduate, and I spoke on the phone with him. He confirmed his identity, but said that he wished to remain anonymous, fearing that his comments about the program might have legal repercussions.
The sere graduate explained that he had attended Army Ranger school, and had served on active duty in the Marines for eleven years, part of the time as an intelligence officer. In 1999, he attended the Navy’s sere training program in Coronado, California. He told me that the program had been “very professionally run.” But, he said, when he read about the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo he was reminded of his experiences during sere training simulations.
On the blog, the graduate offered a detailed account of a sere training exercise. (He confirmed the account’s details with me.) He wrote, “One of the most memorable parts of the camp experience was when one of the camp leaders trashed a Bible on the ground, kicking it around, etc. It was a crushing blow, even though this was just a school.”
The graduate wrote that his experience with the “Bible trashing” took place “towards the end of the camp experience, which was 2-3 days of captivity.” He continued:
We were penned in concrete cell blocks about 4' x 4' x 4'—told to kneel, but allowed to squat or sit. There was no door, just a flap that could be let down if it was too cold outside (which it was). Each trainee was interrogated to some extent, all experienced some physical interrogation such as pushing, shoving, getting slammed against a wall (usually a large metal sheet set up so that it would not seriously injure trainees), with some actually water-boarded (not me).
The Bible trashing was done by one of the top-ranked leaders of the camp, who was always giving us speeches—sort of “making it real” so to speak, because it is a pretty contrived environment. But by the end it almost seemed real. Guards spoke English with a Russian accent, wore Russian-looking uniforms. So the Bible trashing happened when this guy had us all in the courtyard sitting for one of his speeches. They were tempting us with a big pot of soup that was boiling—we were all starving from a few days of chow deprivation. He brought out the Bible and started going off on it verbally—how it was worthless, we were forsaken by this God, etc. Then he threw it on the ground and kicked it around. It was definitely the climax of his speech. Then he kicked over the soup pot, and threw us back in the cells. Big climax. And psychologically it was crushing and heartbreaking, and then we were left isolated to contemplate this.
The sere graduate, who is religious, said that the repeated mistreatment of the Koran at Guantánamo was “sickening” and “immoral.” Referring to the interrogators there, he said, “They have turned the whole world against us.”
The graduate’s claim that waterboarding took place at the Navy’s sere school was confirmed by the sere affiliate. Waterboarding is intended to simulate drowning and asphyxiation. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a top Al Qaeda operative who was apprehended in Pakistan in 2003, has reportedly been subjected to it. (It is unknown if the technique yielded useful intelligence.) In the version used in the Navy’s sere training program, the affiliate said, the student is bound to an inclined board, his feet higher than his head. A stream of water is then slowly poured up his nose. In sere training, the technique is highly controlled to prevent serious physical harm (although the trainees don’t sense this). There is a strict limit of only a few cups of water per student. As an extra precaution, the trainees do jumping jacks first, to elevate their heart rate, which enables them to hold their breath for long periods during the ordeal.
Another sere technique that has apparently surfaced at Guantánamo is the use of “noise stress.” The sere affiliate told me that trainees often think that the interrogation portion of the program will be the most gruelling, but in fact for many trainees the worst moment is when they are made to listen to taped loops of cacophonous sounds. One of the most stress-inducing tapes is a recording of babies crying inconsolably. Another is a Yoko Ono album. Detainees at Guantánamo have reportedly been subjected to blaring audiotapes of loud music, cats meowing, and human infants wailing.
Critics also allege that the sere program has become a testing ground for interrogation techniques involving sexual embarrassment and humiliation. (Detainees at Guantánamo have complained of such methods, and the scandal at Abu Ghraib last year revealed that guards there photographed prisoners naked and in sexually humiliating poses.) A former military-intelligence officer who was familiar with practices at Guantánamo told me that a friend who had gone through Level C sere training, which lasts three weeks, said that he had been sexually ridiculed by females during the program. “They strip you naked and make you do work while women laugh at the size of your ‘junk,’ ” the intelligence officer told me. “Apparently, it’s very humiliating.” The sere affiliate described another disturbing training technique: the “mock rape.” In this exercise, a female officer stands behind a screen and screams as if she were being violated. A trainee is told that he can stop the rape if he coöperates with his captors.
Erik Saar is a former Army intelligence analyst at Guantánamo and the author of “Inside the Wire,” published in May, which first disclosed the interrogation incident involving fake menstrual blood. He told me that the perpetrator of this particular form of abuse might have come up with the idea herself. But he said that the notion of using sexual gambits to unnerve detainees was promoted by “the bscts, who were these psychiatrists and psychologists from Fort Bragg.” He went on, “The bscts would help interrogators strategize about what techniques to use, and where someone would be vulnerable, and what the best ways to manipulate them would be. Sex, I believe, came from the bscts. I have a hard time thinking it was a couple of rogue interrogators, if that’s what the Army says, because it was very systematic. It wasn’t hidden.”