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Methods Developed by U.S. Military for Withstanding Torture Being Used Against Detainees at Guantanamo Bay

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We play the second part of our interview with journalist Jane Mayer. Her article in last week’s New Yorker reveals how methods developed by the U.S. military for withstanding torture are being used against detainees at Guantanamo Bay. [includes rush transcript]

Over the weekend, the commanding officer of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba was relieved of his duties. The officer, Captain Leslie McCoy, was accused of inappropriate management practices, officials said. A spokesman for the Navy said, “His release and reassignment are in no way related to the detainee operations taking place in Guantanamo.” But the Navy did not elaborate on the allegations against McCoy.

Last week, we spoke with reporter Jane Mayer about her article in the July 11th issue of The New Yorker titled, “The Gitmo Experiment.”

In it, Mayer reveals how methods developed by the US military for withstanding torture are being used against detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

The story revolves around a Pentagon-funded program called “Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape”–or SERE. SERE was created to teach US forces considered at high risk of being captured by enemy forces how to withstand and resist extreme forms of abuse.

Mayer writes that after September 11th several psychologists versed in SERE techniques began advising interrogators at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.

Today we bring the second part of our interview with Jane Mayer.

  • Jane Mayer, writes for The New Yorker. Her latest piece is called “The Gitmo Experiment.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we bring you part two of our interview with Jane Mayer. She begins by talking about how medical doctors are being used at Guantanamo Bay.

JANE MAYER: Well, it’s an area that is very fraught. I think we really don’t know all of the details yet, either, but basically, there are allegations that medical personnel have been assisting in interrogations that are abusive. Ethically, I think pretty much every code of ethics for doctors suggests that they should not be in an interrogation room, particularly if there’s anything coercive or abusive going on. And the same holds, at least according to many people, for psychologists, and so this area is very fraught, very much discussed within the medical community right now, because it is becoming clearer that a number of psychologists and possibly, it seems, probably doctors, have been assisting in the interrogation process in Guantanamo and that it has been an abusive process.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the loophole that involves whether or not they are caregivers?

JANE MAYER: Well, what the Pentagon has done is put out a policy statement that says that no medical personnel will be involved in handing over medical records to interrogators or will be involved in interrogations, so long as they are doctors who are treating the detainees. But that’s the loophole. They have a whole separate category of doctors and psychologists that we’re learning about, which are non-treating medical personnel. And those are very explicitly involved in the interrogation process. And I think that what is of concern is that they seem to be bringing skills from the scientific world into the interrogation room in a way that begs a lot of questions about whether it’s ethical.

AMY GOODMAN: The survival, evasion, resistance, escape program, talk more about it, known as SERE.

JANE MAYER: Well, it was fascinating to me to discover that there is such as program. It was put into place after the Korean War when — during that war, when our prisoners of war were taken captive. There was a lot of concern that they might have been brainwashed into giving up secrets, and so afterwards, there was an effort made by the military to try to create a program that would inoculate soldiers and strengthen their resistance in case they were ever taken captive so that they wouldn’t give up secrets during interrogation.

And the program was developed in large part by behavioral scientists who were working with the military, who do everything they possibly can to measure a soldier’s stress levels to see how they’re doing physically and emotionally, as they go through this program. And they measure their saliva and they take their blood and they look at their cortisol levels to see what kind of stress they’re undergoing in order to create a program that would really maximize acute anxiety in a way that they would have to go through if they were ever taken captive. The hope is that by going through this, they will be able to deal better with any kind of horrible nightmarish situation that might befall them if they were taken captive.

But these methods, this program was never designed as something that the United States believed was ethical to inflict on other people. It was our view of the worst that could befall our people if they were taken captive. So, what was fascinating to me was that somehow it appears the techniques that we have feared most in the world would be used on our people, we are using on people in our custody.

AMY GOODMAN: Jane Mayer, can you talk about the person who went through the SERE program who you interviewed? In this case, they used the Bible and desecrated it.

JANE MAYER: Yes. He was interesting. He had been through the program in the Navy’s version of the program, and when he read about Korans being desecrated, he said, a light went off in his head, and he said, 'Oh, my God! You know, this is just like what I went through in my training, only it was Bibles they were trashing.' The other thing, of course, that anybody who has been through the Navy’s version of the SERE training recognizes as having popped up again here in our war on terror is the use of water-boarding, which is actually a pretty widely viewed around the world as a form of torture. And it is something that in the Navy’s program they subject the trainees to in a very carefully monitored way, with limited amounts of water, and they, you know, pretty much make sure to get their heartbeats up first by doing jumping jacks so that they can hold their breath for a long amount of time. But there have been many news reports that water-boarding has been used on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is one of the major al Qaeda figures that we have in U.S. custody. And it was certainly also — there’s a paper trail that shows that it was discussed for use in Guantanamo but not used there.

So, this trainee read these things and said, you know — he certainly jumped to the conclusion himself that somehow there was a connection between the SERE Program and what we were doing with our detainees. And what I found in my reporting was there was indeed a connection, which is that a number of the psychologists who are the people who are major figures in the SERE program and have worked in it for a number of years are actually working and have been working for some time with the behavioral science consultation teams that helped the interrogators that the U.S. has both in the Department of Defense and in the C.I.A.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, we’re talking to Jane Mayer of The New Yorker magazine. Her piece is called “The Gitmo Experiment.” And the level of monitoring, how close it is, how every move, down to the use of toilet paper?

JANE MAYER: Well, that — an interrogator, whose opinions and basically his recollections I was able to go over with very carefully, said that all of the interrogations there are bureaucratized, very, very carefully monitored. There are voluminous notes taken on every detainee. And each interrogation plan is kind of individually devised by the behavioral scientists who are working on it in order to kind of create something that would get at the detainee, particularly the resistant ones, break down their resistance in a very individualized way. So, yes, there was one plan, in particular, that a detainee’s lawyer described to me in which the detainee was told that a psychiatrist had monitored the amount of toilet paper he was allowed. He was only allowed seven squares a day. And that was actually an improvement over earlier when the psychiatrist, according to these sources, had taken away all of his toilet paper.

I mean, The New York Times actually had an interesting case recently where they described a detainee who was afraid of the dark, and so he was purposely kept very much in the dark. There’s another detainee there, I know who has not been able to see sunlight for a number of years, they only take him out at nighttime. And I don’t know what the situation — what the reason is for that. That is David Hicks. But his lawyer has described that. So each person, each detainee has had kind of a psychological assessment and a plan kind of created for interrogating him, depending on his weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

AMY GOODMAN: You also interview a spokesperson for Physicians for Human Rights. I mean, this is an organization that has been involved in looking at the use in this country of doctors in the death penalty, in being involved in putting people to death. What about how they’re dealing with the use of medical personnel at Guantanamo?

JANE MAYER: Well, they are critics of the Bush administration generally on the human rights record of the administration, and in particular, they are very, very critical of this use of science. They think that doctors and psychologists should not cross this line and be involved in any kind of coercion or abuse. I mean, basically, the ancient code for the medical profession is the Hippocratic Oath and it begins with, first, do no harm, and that the society’s basic feeling about what doctors are supposed to do is for every patient put their welfare first. And I think there have been a number of codes of ethics and legal codes that have developed since the awful experience with the Nazi doctors in World War II since then that have codified the notion that doctors should not do anything to a patient that harms them, should not turn them into experimental subjects without their informed consent and, even if national security is an issue, that the patient’s needs are supposed to come first.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, of course, Physicians for Human Rights is outside of the government, a critic. One of the interesting aspects of your piece is the number of people within the government who are opposed to this. You write about a former F.B.I. official, who opposes coercion and what is going on there, about officials at the Washington headquarters for Naval Criminal Investigative Service being incensed. Talk about the resistance within.

JANE MAYER: Yeah. It was interesting to me, because the public has been relatively quiet on these subjects, but truthfully, the law enforcement community has been outraged by some of the allegations of coercion and abuse in interrogations, because the F.B.I., in particular, it’s not just a moral or ethical issue with them, they feel that you get bad information from suspects when you coerce it or you, you know, abuse them or even torture them. You can get information out of people under those circumstances but not necessarily reliable information, and so they feel that this kind of method is just not worth it, and moreover, they also say that if you use these sort of methods, you will never be able to prosecute these cases in any U.S. court and probably not in some of the military commissions because, you know, it violates basic U.S. codes that prohibit forcing someone to testify against themselves. So, they see this as something that might nullify our ability to eventually hold these people, these very dangerous people in some cases, up for trial and convict them. And they worry that eventually it’s going to wind up letting some of these people go.

The same with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which uses, like the F.B.I., a rapport-based way of interrogating people. They try to get people to talk by, you know, they use trickery. They try to, you know, feign friendliness, and they get stuff out of people that way. But they do it in a way that they can use those confessions in court. They won’t be thrown out later. And so, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service truly threw a fit over the way some of the detainees in Guantanamo were being interrogated. And it went straight up the line of command inside the Navy to the General Counsel, who basically told Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that the Navy might have to withdraw from the Joint Task Force in Guantanamo if they kept doing these sort of things. And it did manage to back Rumsfeld down a bit.

AMY GOODMAN: And the report of Vice Admiral Church that’s unclassified, but has yet to be released to the public?

JANE MAYER: Yes, that’s right. Well, it — most of the report is classified, but within the classified report that’s 360 pages, there are sections that are unclassified but not released to the public still. And I was able to get access to some of that material. And in it is just an incredible story that’s laid out about the General Counsel to the Navy, Alberto Mora, who basically just threw his body in front of the Pentagon on these issues and said, 'You just can't do this.’ And it did make a big difference, and it stopped some of the more abusive techniques, I believe.

AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of forced drift? Can you explain that concept?

JANE MAYER: Well, there is a top psychologist who works with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service named Michael Gelles. And in the Church report there is material from him in which he talks about this strange dynamic that takes place sometimes in interrogations, where people who are interrogating someone who is resistant become more and more frustrated, and they begin to lose touch with what’s legal and what’s ethical, because they basically become emotionally invested in getting the information out of someone. And this is called force drift. And Michael Gelles warns in this report that he fears this is what was happening with the SERE techniques that were being used in Guantanamo. People were losing their basic common sense about where to draw the line.

AMY GOODMAN: You write, since you have referred to Rumsfeld, that Rumsfeld suspended his earlier authorization of harsh interrogation methods at Guantanamo, put together a working group on the subject of interrogation, then right before the invasion, March 6, 2003, drafted a memo stating that to continue using such aggressive techniques would require presidential authorization. Was that —

JANE MAYER: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

JANE MAYER: Well, you know, I mean, it’s just sort of — a mystery is there is a document that no reporter has seen and very few senators, if any, have seen, which is the authorization that finally was written up by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, explaining what our policy is about where to draw the line on torture. And it is a classified document, and it’s never been released. I think there’s probably not a reporter in Washington who wouldn’t like to get their hands on it, but nobody has been able to see it yet. So, when allegations of abuse come out, the White House spokesman will say, 'Well, we have our authorization for everything we're doing,’ but the American public’s never been able to see exactly what the authorization is.

AMY GOODMAN: You also talk about an interrogator who refused to be involved in more, as he put it, assertive methods of interrogation on detainees and what happened to him. How did you learn about this case?

JANE MAYER: Well, there’s some things I can’t really discuss, but I can tell you that there are a number of emails that have come out from — describing — they were letters written by F.B.I. agents who were in Guantanamo. And I think they hint at what did take place, which was a number of F.B.I. agents who were down in Guantanamo were appalled at the methods that were being used by the Department of Defense in 2002 and 2003. And they had big fights really, very fierce fights about what would be constitutional, what’s legal, and some of the F.B.I. people who were unhappy with what the Department of Defense was doing were eventually told just to walk away, get out of there, don’t be in the room, because the F.B.I. was afraid that what was going on was not legal.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Jane Mayer, I wanted to ask you about the Bush administration’s policy of what’s been called extraordinary rendition, what others call kidnapping. And your response to the latest news out of Italy. Earlier this year, we interviewed you about your piece “Outsourcing Torture: The Secret History of America’s Extraordinary Rendition Program,” and now an Italian judge has called for the arrest of 13 U.S. C.I.A. agents for kidnapping an Egyptian cleric off the streets of Milan.

JANE MAYER: Well, I think it’s completely fascinating. I mean, it’s the first chance that we may get to sort of look inside and see inside into what is a very well-sealed black box, because perhaps the legal procedures will force people to have to give up some information on this. I mean, some of the information has already come out. I’m not terribly optimistic, though, that this case will keep moving forward. I think somehow it will be — there will be an entente between the Italian government and U.S. government, and it may not be able to go forward. But it certainly gives us a fascinating glimpse.

AMY GOODMAN: Jane Mayer, reporter for The New Yorker magazine, her piece called “The Gitmo Experiment” appears in the July 11th issue of The New Yorker.

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