We learned a lot from that big Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA interrogation tactics after 9/11. It was what may be the first time in U.S. history that the term “rectal hydration” appeared in family newspapers throughout the land.
One of the most unnerving parts involves the fact that the waterboarding, ice baths and wall-slamming were conducted under the direction of an outside contractor. It isn’t the first time the government turned to private enterprise and wound up with a human rights disaster — think Abu Ghraib. Or Blackwater. But this seems like an excellent place to demand a cease-and-desist.
The specialists’ names are James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. Like many contractors doing work for the government, they’re former government workers themselves — in this case, military psychologists. And like virtually all contractors doing work for the government, they were making a heck of a lot more than they’d have gotten as federal employees. In this case, about $80 million.
Mitchell and Jessen had acquired their expertise by teaching Air Force officers how to resist brutal Cold War-style interrogations. Think pilots who get shot down behind enemy lines and get tortured by Communists. And for all we know, they may have done a great job showing their pupils how to withstand pressure to record a statement denouncing the United States when they crash land in North Korea.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
But it’s not precisely the same thing as trying to get a suspected al-Qaida operative to tell you where Osama bin Laden is hiding. Plus, Mitchell and Jessen had no experience as actual interrogators, did not speak any of the detainees’ languages and had no particular knowledge about Islam or al-Qaida.
They did have some theories about other psychologists’ work subjecting dogs to random electric shocks until their will to resist was completely broken. Maybe, the two men thought, you could torment human beings into the same state of “learned helplessness.” Worth a try, right? Mitchell and Jessen set about applying the theory to prisoners the CIA had collected. Some of them had already been cooperating with interrogators. Others turned out later to have had no involvement with al-Qaida whatsoever.
Others, undoubtedly, were bad people with information the CIA needed, who had resisted talking under nonviolent interrogation. The question then becomes whether they cooperated better under “learned helplessness” or simply made up stories to placate their torturers and send the CIA off in the wrong direction.
There’s a lot of precedent for the making-up approach. During World War II, a U.S. pilot was shot down over Japan just after the Hiroshima attack and was tortured repeatedly for information about the atomic bomb, of which he knew nothing. Threatened with beheading, the pilot told his captors that the United States had 100 atomic bombs and that Tokyo was next on the target list. The bogus information was immediately shared with the war minister and the Japanese Cabinet.
The Intelligence Committee report concludes that all the torturing produced very little information that was useful and possibly quite a bit that was made up. While we would love to believe that the human rights angle would be most effective in shocking the American people, polls show that when it comes to suspects with possible terror involvement, the public attitude toward torture is kind of meh. So, wisely, the committee’s big point was useless/counterproductive.
“It’s wrong enough that one shouldn’t do it period. But wrong and useless is a tough combination,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.
He was on the Intelligence Committee when the report was being prepared and now leads a Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism.
And why the private contractors? Maybe because the actual government interrogators didn’t believe torture worked either. Some complained that, after Mitchell and Jessen arrived, reasonably cooperative prisoners were suddenly brutalized under the theory that the original approach had been too “sissified.”
What made the CIA decide that these guys were a good plan? Have they not watched Homeland this season? (Ever since Saul left the CIA to become a private consultant, he’s been a disaster.)
“I do think there’s something about the culture of purchase: ‘We don’t have the answer, but we can buy it,’” said Baher Azmy, the legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights
Tim Shorrock, the author of Spies for Hire, believes it’s just a way to hide things: “The activities of contractors are so easy to conceal in budgets.”
Naturally, defenders of the CIA are rising up to challenge the report’s findings. The Associated Press got hold of James Mitchell himself, who said the report was “just factually, demonstrably incorrect,” then declined to say exactly what the inaccuracies were.
Citing a secrecy agreement with the CIA, Mitchell didn’t share much else, except that being waterboarded was still better than being killed by a drone.