- - Thursday, December 18, 2014

The CIA exhibited alarming incompetence in developing and implementing post-9/11 enhanced interrogation protocols of suspected al Qaeda detainees, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee report.

It had no pre-existing plan for “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Torture had been employed for centuries. It had not worked. Subjects would routinely dissemble to stop the physical or mental pain and suffering. Time and resources would be wasted in tracking down false leads, and innocents would be wrongly imprisoned based on untruthful answers. The CIA’s own interrogation manual frowned on coercive methods. Galileo revealed that the Earth was the center of the universe under the threat of torture.

But 9/11 generated a psychology of fear that demanded something be done — anything — to show an eagerness to retaliate against Al Qaeda and make the country safe at any cost. Appearances counted more than reality. (Pearl Harbor created a similar psychology that provoked President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s concentration camps for 120,000 innocent citizens or permanent resident aliens of Japanese ancestry.)

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The CIA could have refused to succumb to the national clamor by adducing expert evidence that torture or related coercive measures would enhance rather than diminish the al Qaeda threat. The intelligence elicited would be wrong or useless, and the torture would be exploited by every radical Islamic terrorist organization to justify jihad and attract new recruits. The FBI took that level-headed courageous stance.

The CIA did not. It bent to the White House, congressional and public clamor for something new and more muscular. Skepticism bowed to rashness.

The agency’s first important al Qaeda capture was Abu Zubaydah, imprisoned in Thailand. He was not interrogated for 47 days, leaving the CIA with ample time to reflect on any novel interrogation protocols and who would execute them. As reported in The New York Times, at an April 1, 2002 meeting, a CIA  lawyer raised the name of psychologist James Mitchell. He had been on contract with the agency for several months analyzing al Qaeda for the Office of Technical Services.

Due diligence would have disclosed that had no experience as an interrogator, no unique knowledge of al Qaeda, no background in counterterrorism, and no relevant cultural or linguistic experience. Sober second thoughts should have been raised about Mr. Mitchell’s competence to devise effective coercive interrogation protocols for Zubaydah or other al Qaeda prisoners.

But the CIA hurriedly contacted him and immediately embraced his recommendations for protracted sleeplessness with constant lighting and loud music to diminish psychological resistance. The recommendations were not subject to outside, independent scrutiny. That omission might have been excusable if there were no downside risks. But there were: eliciting and relying on false intelligence and generating an al Qaeda recruitment tool.

In the ensuing months, Mitchell partnered with Bruce Jensen, another psychologist and former Air Force officer, to design, lead and direct the use of enhanced interrogation techniques under contracts which yielded them more than $80 million. Their template was the Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape program (SERE) to train American airman to resist the type of interrogation they might confront if captured. The SERE program was modeled after Chinese Communist interrogation tactics during the Korean War to elicit false confessions from American POWs. Mr. Mitchell’s proposed enhanced interrogation techniques included locking detainees in cramped boxes, shackling them in painful positions, sleep deprivation for weeks at a time, and waterboarding or simulated drowning.

The CIA trusted Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Jensen, and made no serious effort to verify the utility of their work. The two had an obvious financial conflict of interest. If they concluded that their enhanced interrogation techniques were useless or worse, their lucrative contract would be in jeopardy. In addition, the C.I.A. contracted out the majority of the enhanced interrogations as the program spread to black sites in Afghanistan, Romania, Poland and Lithuania. By 2006, 73 percent of the CIA’s Renditions and Detention Group were contractors, the majority from Mitchell and Jensen Associates. Their livelihoods would be at risk if they reported the uselessness of the techniques they were trained to employ.

The CIA was gullible when it should have been skeptical. Circumstances did not force a rash embrace of enhanced interrogation techniques. Red flags were ignored. During the five years that have elapsed since the program terminated, there have been no international terrorist attacks in the United States.
The intelligence community is lavished funded at more than $80 billion annually. There is no excuse for the incompetence displayed in hiring and retaining Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Jensen with no quality controls.

For more information about Bruce Fein, visit brucefeinlaw.

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