Broken Faith: How a Navy Psychologist Drove A U.S. Prisoner to Attempt Suicide

Daniel M. King, a former U.S. Navy cryptanalyst.

Daniel M. King

Los Angeles attorney Robert A. Bailey, formerly a military JAG officer, and one of the lawyers in the Daniel King case, spoke to me a few weeks ago in some detail about the controversial King interrogation. Bailey, now on the board of the Program for Torture Victims, described to me how the abusive interrogation King endured, and the betrayal of the military psychologist he thought would help him, led King to a suicidal breakdown.

In articles last month, both at FireDogLake and at The Public Record, I reported on the role of Naval Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS) Chief Forensic Psychologist Michael Gelles in the abusive treatment of Chief Petty Officer King, who was forced into giving a false confession of espionage. The story made waves in psychology circles, and was picked up by Truthout and Naomi Wolf, among others.

The story had resonance for anti-torture activists, as Dr. Gelles is a primary spokesperson for the presumed ethical use of psychologists in national security interrogations, and was a prominent member of a 2005 American Psychological Association (APA) task force on the issue. That task force was widely seen as rubber-stamping the military’s position, and backing the use of psychologists in interrogations at Guantanamo and elsewhere, interrogations later labeled as torture.

King was a cryptanalyst and chief petty officer with twenty years in the Navy when he was held on suspicion of espionage after producing an inconclusive, or “no opinion” polygraph result in September 1999. He was held without charges and interrogated for 29 straight days. He produced a “confession” after seven days of 12 to 19 hour interrogation, sleep deprivation, threats, and 24-hour a day constant surveillance. He quickly recanted this confession, and the interrogation continued, ending after 29 days. King was moved to the brig at Quantico Marine Corps base in Virginia, where he remained in a six by nine foot cell for another 500 days.

Until now, it wasn’t clear why NCIS finally abandoned the interrogation. The interview with Robert Bailey clears up what happened, and the revelation is shocking.

The Gelles Interview and Its Aftermath

During the 29 days of interrogation, NCIS agents had ignored King’s pleas for an attorney. When he broke down crying, and voiced suicidal thoughts, complaining that he was losing contact with reality, agents apparently relented when King asked to see a mental health therapist. It was about three weeks into the interrogation, and King was taken to see Dr. Gelles.

As previously reported, the interview with Gelles was videotaped without the approval of King. Two NCIS agents sat in the room. One was a woman agent who Bailey believed had often been utilized to play “good cop” and provide feminine attention to the divorced and lonely Daniel King. The sleep-deprived King told Gelles he couldn’t tell what was real anymore. Agents had told King he had been found lying on his polygraph tests, which itself was a lie that Gelles did nothing to dispel. King asked Gelles to hypnotize him or give him truth serum, so he could figure out what was real.

According to Bailey, Gelles told King that he would feel better if he confessed. King’s civilian attorney, Jonathan Turley, told a congressional committee how Gelles represented himself as “the doc,” ignored King’s suicidal statements, and “told King to give corroborating evidence as a precondition for the hypnosis that King sought to clear his doubts as to any espionage.”

(In full agreement with King’s JAG attorneys, Turley later filed an ethics complaint against Gelles with the APA, which declined to accept it. At the APA convention in Toronto last week, Turley told an audience that Gelles’s behavior was the most egregious case of medical ethics violation he had ever experienced.)

Bailey first met Dan King in the brig at Quantico, only a few weeks after the Gelles interview. Bailey described how King told him that after the Gelles meeting he became more despondent. King had gone to Gelles for help and therapy, and was only met with another demand to confess. He subsequently became “less certain what was real.” His mental condition deteriorated. He had lost faith in people.

Chief Petty Officer King was a man in his 40s, a career Navy man, falsely accused of espionage, the penalty for which could be death, kept from sleeping more than an hour or two at a time for days on end, holed up in various hotel rooms for weeks, and subjected to near constant interrogation. According to Bailey, King could not stand the pressure anymore.

Approximately a week after his attempt to get psychological help, and — as Bailey explained King told him — “distraught” with the duplicity of “doc” Gelles, King grabbed a knife found in the residence hotel where they were holding him and tried to stab himself in the stomach. Agents quickly grabbed him and prevented King from harming himself. But the NCIS agents worried they could no longer monitor their prisoner under the current circumstances, and he was removed from their custody and placed in the brig.

Once King was put in the brig, he was finally allowed to see a lawyer. When Robert A. Bailey, a young JAG attorney with only six months experience, was the first person assigned to King’s defense, he found his client to be “a wreck, just incomprehensible.” The defense team spent weeks just trying to piece together the story of what had happened to him.

The young military attorneys struggled to defend their client against an overbearing and obstructionist prosecution and Navy bureaucracy. The fears the attorneys had for themselves and their careers were aired in May 2000 court hearing at the time before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and can still be viewed via C-SPAN video (warning: the Flash video has garbled sound for the first 14 minutes). Coincidentally, the  Chief Judge on the Appeals panel was Susan Crawford, who later was appointed Convening Authority for the military commissions at Guantanamo.

According to Bailey, the two military attorneys in the case realized early on that they would have to decide if they “were going to stick around for a career in the Navy,” or work diligently for their client. Luckily for Daniel King, they made the right choice.

Today, King works at an agency helping veterans access their benefits. He stays in contact with his former attorneys, and reminds them each year how grateful he was that they stood up for him and restored his faith in people. Meanwhile, the APA Ethics Director at the time of the referral of charges against Gelles, Dr. Stephen Behnke, whose office refused to investigate the serious charges noted above, retains his position.

Correction: This story incorrectly stated that Robert Bailey was a board member of the Center for Victims of Torture. Mr. Bailey is actually a board member of the Program of Torture Victims. We apologize for the error.

Jeffrey Kaye, a psychologist living in Northern California and a regular contributor The Public Record, has been blogging at Daily Kos since May 2005, and maintains a personal blog, Invictus. E-mail Mr. Kaye at sfpsych at gmail dot com.

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3 Responses for “Broken Faith: How a Navy Psychologist Drove A U.S. Prisoner to Attempt Suicide”

  1. Trudy Bond says:

    An investigation into the actions of Gelles and the lack of action by the APA Ethics Director is required. Statute of limitations begins at the time one first learns of the actions.

    I’m grateful to see this story gaining some momentum.

  2. It seems as though one of the early mistakes here was acting as though an Inconclusive outcome on a polygraph test was evidence that Daniel King was lying. An inconclusive result simply means that there was not enough information in the polygraph charts to reach a conclusion of truth or deception. Only a fool would look at that outcome as indicating that Mr. King was being deceptive.

  3. PJBurke says:

    Was King a “guinea pig” for a nascent torture regime in the preliminary stages of development?

    Seems too strangely similar to what was soon to follow.

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