Bob Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars, is full of the same insider tales of government gossip as his previous books. One reads Woodward to pick out the various gems strewn along the way, cognizant that even those are the products of spin manufactured by the various principals involved. A particularly interesting nugget concerns the way the intelligence agencies passed on information about their torture program to the incoming Obama administration.
Woodward spends precious few pages on this subject, and the anecdotes involved can’t be relied upon to provide a real study of just what went on. But the couple of stories provided are juicy enough.
According to Woodward, on December 9, 2008, President-elect Barack Obama was shepherded into a tiny SCIF office to meet with CIA Director Michael Hayden and Director of National Intelligence Michael O’Connell. “Hayden sat directly across from Obama at a table so narrow that they were uncomfortably close to each other.” Obama had brought Joe Biden, Jim Jones, Greg Craig, and “several others.” Hayden and O’Connell reviewed various top secret clandestine and anti-terrorism programs, secret operations against North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, etc. Craig was apparently “shocked” when Hayden told Obama’s group that the U.S. “owned” the political structure and security forces of Iraq.
Be that as it may, Hayden, who apparently ran the briefing, got to their review of the CIA’s Rendition, Detention and Interrogation (RDI) program at the end of the meeting. While Obama apparently sat mostly impassively, Biden and the others were not convinced by CIA claims they got promises of “no torture” from the countries to which they sent kidnapped victims in the “war on terror.” Hayden also noted that the CIA “black sites” had been shut down and “all the prisoners transferred to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.” This timeline conflicts with the claim by Obama that he had closed the black sites himself in his early executive order on detentions.
Then the discussion wheeled around to the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EIT). At this point, Woodward’s narrative gets a bit confusing. Hayden tells Obama that, per a 2006 finding by President Bush, only six of the 13 original EITs remained in use. Woodward reminds us of the original 13 in an endnote. They are Dietary manipulation; Forced nudity; Attention grasp; Walling (slamming the prisoner into a wall multiple times); Facial hold; Facial or insult slap; Abdominal slap; Cramped Confinement; Wall standing (a kind of stress position); Stress positions proper; Water dousing; Sleep deprivation; and Waterboarding. (What happened to the insects in a box, Bob?) Woodward does describe the sleep deprivation in a way consistent with my contention in May 2009 that “sleep deprivation” was always combined with stress positions, shackling, partial nudity or humiliation, and dietary manipulation or partial starvation. This aspect of sleep deprivation, never totally emphasized by Woodward in the main text of the book, must be kept in mind when Woodward has Hayden tell Obama that the attenuated version of the EITs (which includes sleep deprivation) are more than enough to “break” “suspected terrorists” in “less than a week.”
Obama asked what the remaining six EITs were? And Hayden’s reported answer appears to veer off from the EITs.
Hayden said: Isolation of the detainee; noise or loud music; and lights in the cells 24 hours a day. There was limited use of shackles when moving a prisoner or when the prisoner was a danger. In addition, blindfolds were used when moving prisoners or when the prisoners might gain information that could compromise the security of the facility.
“David, stand up please,” Hayden said to David Shedd, the DNI’s deputy director for policy. Shedd rose. Hayden gently slapped his face, then shook the deputy DNI.
It was as rough as what might happen in “Little League football,” Hayden said. [pg. 54]
From reading this account, apart from the hilarious bit of play-acting with the ever-obliging David Shedd, it’s difficult to see what six of the EITs were retained, and what, besides waterboarding, was eliminated. For one thing, Hayden’s reply focuses on techniques that were not part of the EITs — isolation, sensory overload, and partial sensory deprivation — while demonstrating by a slap to O’Connell’s deputy that “Facial or insult slap” was still in use.
Hayden then makes his play to keep “these methods” under an Obama administration, because “the very existence of the interrogation program was more important than its content.” The CIA director told the President-elect, “Terrorists would know they faced a more severe interrogation if picked up by the CIA than by the military, which used the Army Field Manual.”
But how would the terrorists know this, when even I can’t figure out what exactly the U.S. intelligence agencies do? Woodward quotes Hayden in an unintentional moment of self-revelation. For the CIA, the form is more important that the content. The “terrorists” don’t really know, but they believe they know they can expect something terrible, something especially bad. The point of this is to engender fear. And fear is an essential component to psychological torture. It enhances the effects of sensory overload and sensory deprivation, and contributes to the psychological breakdown of the victim. This is not a theory, but was the conclusion of years of research by the U.S. government into interrogation and torture. The use of SERE trainees as experimental subjects for coercive interrogation and techniques did not begin in 2001 or 2002 — it began at least over 50 years ago.
In 1956, in the pages of an obscure academic journal, Sociometry, I.E. Farber, Harry F. Harlow, and psychiatrist Louis Jolyon West published a classic work on interrogation, Brainwashing, Conditioning, and DDD (Debility, Dependency, and Dread) (BCD). It was based on a report for the Study Group on Survival Training, paid for by the U.S. Air Force. (See West LJ., Medical and psychiatric considerations in survival training. In Report of the Special Study Group on Survival Training (AFR 190 16). Lackland Air Force Base, Tex: Air Force Personnel and Training Research Centers; 1956.) This research linked Air Force “Survival” training, later called SERE, with torture techniques, and as we will see, use of such techniques by the CIA, something we would see again decades later in the Mitchell-Jessen “exploitation” plan.
BCD examined the various types of stress undergone by prisoners, and narrowed them down to “three important elements: debility, dependency, and dread”.
Debility was a condition caused by “semi-starvation, fatigue, and disease”. It induced “a sense of terrible weariness”.
Dependency on the captors for some relief from their agony was something “produced by the prolonged deprivation of many of the factors, such as sleep and food… [and] was made more poignant by occasional unpredictable brief respites.” The use of prolonged isolation of the prisoner, depriving an individual of expected social intercourse and stimulation, “markedly strengthened the dependency”.
Dread probably needs no explanation, but BCD described it as “chronic fear…. Fear of death, fear of pain, fear of nonrepatriation, fear of deformity of permanent disability…. even fear of one’s own inability to satisfy the demands of insatiable interrogators.”
…. This form of carrot and stick torture may not seem that sophisticated, but it is the use of basic nervous system functioning and human instinctual need that makes it “scientific”. The need for sensory stimulation and social interaction, the need to eat, to sleep, to reduce fear, all of these are used to build dependencies upon the captor, using the fact that “the strengthening effects of rewards — in this instance the alleviation of an intensely unpleasant emotional state — are fundamentally automatic” [p. 278]. This impairment of higher cognitive states and disruption and disorganization of the prisoner’s self-concept, producing something like “a pathological organic state”, was subsequently modified and used by the CIA in its interrogations of countless individuals. If more brutal forms of torture sometimes were used, especially by over-eager foreign agents or governments, DDD remained the gold standard, the programmatic core of counterintelligence interrogation at the heart of the CIA’s own intelligence manuals.
Now Bob Woodward is not going to explain all that. Being a stenographer for spooks and politicians, he offers very little analysis at all. His fable of how Obama got briefed on the use of torture by the CIA, and Obama’s subsequent decision to ban all the EITs and utilize the Army Field Manual may bear some elements of truth. It seems certain Obama knows very little if any of the historical material I adverted to above. And Barack Obama, like much of America, may not know that the Army Field Manual contains the very techniques that Hayden said the CIA was using (isolation, sensory overload, sleep deprivation, driving up of fear). The operative word here is ignorance: ignorance about what has gone on and is going on.
This nation has not gotten the full truth about this country’s torture program, past, present, and plans for the future. As the commentators latch onto the upcoming election with ever-greater avidity, it appears certain that these issues will get shoved even farther onto the back burner. We can’t let that happen. The City of Berkeley has announced that October 10-16 will be “Say No to Torture Week.” I’ll be participating with a slew of other celebrities, bloggers, psychologists, and political activists to make it clear that “the community finds it unacceptable for an American torture apparatus to remain operational while those responsible remain unaccountable.” What is your community doing?
Jeffrey Kaye is a psychologist living in Northern California who writes regularly on torture and other subjects for The Public Record, Truthout and Firedoglake. He also maintains a personal blog, Invictus. His email address is sfpsych at gmail dot com.