For those who wonder why it’s taken the United States so long to get justice at Guantánamo’s war court, Mark Fallon, the former NCIS special agent entrusted to help build cases, offers an explanation in his frustratingly censored memoir, “Unjustifiable Means.”
In short, the book subtitled “The Inside Story of How the CIA, Pentagon and U.S. Government Conspired to Torture” makes the case that the U.S. military and spy agency contaminated some cases with interrogations that were untrustworthy and unprofessional, if not unlawful.
The book will be available for purchase Oct. 24.
Fallon was the Naval Criminal Investigative Service’s special agent in charge of the Defense Department’s Criminal Investigation Task Force from 2002 to 2004. In his book, he focuses on efforts by law enforcement agents like himself who pushed — unsuccessfully — to interrogate suspected terrorists through rapport-building rather than abuse. An agent experienced in “investigating Islamic terrorist networks,” he contended that abuse produced false and fiendish confessions but also was “illegal, immoral, ineffective and unconstitutional.”
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Indeed, the book that the Pentagon slow rolled through the censorship process takes readers back to the early years of the detention center to describe — between black-marked redactions — the bizarre, cruel and ham-handed efforts to interrogate captives to collect intelligence and assess whether they were targets for prosecution.
It describes an era when military commanders untutored in the art of interrogation consulted psychologists, both civilian and military, to design a hidden detention camp culture of what the CIA would call “learned helplessness.” At Guantánamo, it was called “demonstrated omnipotence.” Military leaders named their experiment America’s Battle Lab.
As Fallon tells it, intervention by former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora prevented the waterboarding of detainees at Guantánamo out of sight of the International Red Cross. He protested abusive treatment of certain detainees inside the Bush administration, and got some techniques withdrawn.
And we learned that the first Camp X-Ray prison was “a horrible place for conducting interrogations.” Captives brought there four months after the Sept. 11 attacks were questioned in wood huts built in plain sight of the “high-security, low-rent zoo”; detainees could see the huts, could see other detainees being taken to and from their interrogations.
The huts were built as an afterthought, Fallon said, by Navy base engineers “bribed” with two cases of beer.
Fallon’s account also describes how interrogators used X-Ray long after prison commanders claimed that it was closed in April 2002: Late that year, Saudi captive Mohammed al Qahtani would undergo sleep deprivation, sexual abuse, forced nudity, short shackling and beatings, have underwear put over his head and be threatened with dogs.
And this was done not by the CIA but by the U.S. military, based on techniques approved by then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and leaked to the public so that the behavior at Guantánamo could not be ignored.
Qahtani’s torture ultimately caused a senior Bush administration official at the Pentagon to dismiss charges alleging he was the missing 20th hijacker in the Sept. 11 conspiracy.
In Fallon’s retelling, this occurred during a period of infighting and resistance by federal agents not only fearful of the harm the experimentation would do to their cases but offended by techniques that send the U.S. “tumbling into the filth where our sworn enemies live.”
The book alternately describes some captives as wrong-time, wrong-place men rounded up for bounties and others as potential candidates for prosecution handled by military men with no real interrogation experience improvising their techniques, after consulting mental health experts. He described some interrogators as having no moral compass — running “sweaty cells in which exhausted, haunted brown-skinned men lived like animals, some for more than a decade.”
A case in point: Rather than cool, professional thinking, he said, “The reality was interrogators throwing Mohammed al Qahtani a mock birthday party and then forcing him to watch a puppet show depicting him having sex with Osama bin Laden.”
By then, the captives had been moved to the steel cells of Camp Delta, where the military invented another improvisation: The U.S. military had guards run a sleep deprivation program by constantly moving captives from cell to cell the night before interrogation, calling it the Frequent Flyer Program. From Fallon we learn that one psychiatrist consulted by the prison dubbed it “controlled chaos.”
During Fallon’s time working on Guantánamo cases he had unique access to the detainees’ files, their interrogations and other classified material regarding the so-called “worst of the worst.” But as he saw them in the files, Camp X-Ray’s cages contained Afghans and Pakistanis rather than “part of the al-Qaida network — the Egyptians, Saudis and other Arabs we’d be tracking for years.”
Fallon called the Guantánamo he worked at “a grotesque human scrap yard” made of CIA castoffs, men who “had already been subjected to CIA and CIA-rendered interrogation before arriving.”
People more suited to the label “worst of the worst” would come later, after Fallon left the job, when the CIA captives were brought to Guantánamo in 2006 from three and four years of secret detention.
The book comes to the public by way of a protracted Pentagon review. Fallon says the Pentagon took 233 days to review and redact the manuscript.
In a fit of frustration, or perhaps a calculated campaign to draw attention, Fallon said in August that his book named commanders and others he clashed with over right and wrong. And that is true, although some names are haphazardly hidden beneath a redactor’s black marker.
“The cancer that began at Guantánamo Bay and later metastasized to Abu Ghraib didn’t stop there, or in Afghanistan, either. Evidence mounts every day that the CIA’s black sites were a near-global phenomenon that compromised officials all around the world, or forced them to look away from horrendous acts,” he writes. The next five paragraphs are covered in black by a redactor’s marker.
Fallon doesn’t limit his criticism to the era when he served in government. He also declares his disappointment with the Obama administration’s unwillingness to expose that chapter of history to sunlight. “The war criminals who fostered and practiced torture there have yet to be held accountable for their actions,” he said, referring to some early Guantánamo decision makers.
“Yes, ‘we tortured some folks,’ as President Obama said so colloquially back in 2014, but it wasn’t just ‘we.’ The ‘American way of torture’ dragged way too many people all around the world down into the pit with us, and it continues to do so to this day.”
He warns that, despite Barack Obama’s efforts to reform the practice of interrogation, abuses are still possible through the Army Field Manual, a document meant to rein in abuses. The manual’s Appendix M authorizes “interrogators to place detainees in pitch-black goggles and earmuffs for periods of up to 12 hours” or more with permission of a general or admiral — a technique represented by the iconic image of the first detainees on their knees at Guantánamo on Jan. 11, 2002, and which the military claims is no longer used there.