By William Fisher
Pentagon interrogators continuously ramped up their abusive techniques against prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and in Iraq and Afghanistan in a vain attempt to establish a link between the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the al-Queda attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001.
This is among the principal conclusions of a long-awaited report released yesterday by the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.
The report also concluded that health professionals played a key role in helping the U.S. Defense Department (DOD) to introduce waterboarding and other illegal interrogation techniques months before these practices were “justified” by Justice Department lawyers and approved by their superiors in the administration of former President George W. Bush.
The report says that the DOD was using harsh interrogation techniques long before they were “justified” by Justice Department lawyers and approved by their Bush Administration superiors.
The report quotes a former senior U.S. intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist as saying that the Bush administration put “relentless pressure” on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence an Al Queda-Saddam link.
This kind of information would have provided a foundation for one of former President George W. Bush's main arguments for invading Iraq in 2003, the report says. No evidence has ever been found of operational ties between Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and Saddam's regime.
The report says that senior Bush Administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, CIA Director George Tenet, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and Attorney General John Ashcroft, were all aware of the development and use of the abusive interrogation techniques.
Despite warnings from military personnel that the use of these techniques on Guantanamo detainees could backfire, 15 specific techniques were sanctioned by Rumsfeld on December 2, 2002, the report said.
What followed was "an erosion in standards dictating that detainees be treated humanely", it said.
The report said, “That these techniques had been endorsed became known by U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, setting the stage for the abuses that took place at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.”
The report also notes that the use of brutal interrogation techniques started in early 2002, up to eight months before Justice Department lawyers approved the use of waterboarding and nine other harsh methods, Senate investigators found.
Michigan Democratic Senator Carl Levin, the committee chairman, said, "The report represents a condemnation of both the Bush administration's interrogation policies and of senior administration officials who attempted to shift the blame for abuse -- such as that seen at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan -- to low-ranking soldiers,"
Claims that detainee abuses could be chalked up to the unauthorized acts of a "few bad apples", were simply false, he said. “A few bad apples” is how Rumsfeld described the low-level soldiers shown in photos around the world abusing detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. Several of these military personnel were convicted and sentenced to prison terms, but a series of Pentagon investigations found no evidence that prisoner abuse was a policy that came from the Pentagon’s civilian leadership.
“The paper trail on abuse leads to top civilian leaders, and our report connects the dots.” He said it shows a paper trail going from Rumsfeld’s authorization of abusive interrogation techniques “to Guantánamo to Afghanistan and to Iraq.”
Human rights advocates hailed the Levin report. Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the Washington Legislative Office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said, “Once again, we are presented with clear-cut evidence that the Bush administration’s highest ranking officials were not only complicit in the use of torture, but were actively engaged in its implementation. It is now time to act on this evidence.”
The report also documents how a secretive military training program called Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) became the foundation of the interrogations by both the Pentagon and the CIA.
SERE was developed many years ago as a way to give American military personnel some sense of the treatment they might face if they were captured by China, the Soviet Union or other Cold War adversaries.
The committee’s report notes that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) also drew on the SERE program for harsh methods it used in secret overseas jails for Qaeda suspects. The CIA has said it used waterboarding, a method of near-drowning used in the SERE program, on three captured terrorism suspects in 2002 and 2003.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney and others who advocated the use of sleep deprivation, isolation, stress positions, and waterboarding, insist they were legal. Yesterday Cheney asked the Justice Department to declassify and release documents he says will show that these techniques produced valuable intelligence.
Media accounts also report that a secretive government contractor played a key role in developing the Bush administration’s interrogation methods. The company, Mitchell Jessen & Associates, is named after the two military psychologists who founded it, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. Beginning in 2002, they trained interrogators in brutal techniques, including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and pain.
The psychologists, based near Spokane in the state of Washington, reportedly “reverse-engineered” the tactics taught in SERE training for use on prisoners held by the U.S.
The declassified torture memos released last week reportedly relied heavily on their advice. In one memo, Justice Department attorney Jay Bybee wrote, “Based on your research into the use of these methods at the SERE school and consultation with others with expertise in the field of psychology and interrogation, you do not anticipate that any prolonged harm would result from the use of the waterboard.”
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a not for profit advocacy group, is calling for the psychologists who justified, designed, and implemented torture for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Department of Defense (DoD), to” lose their professional licenses and to face criminal prosecution.”
“Long before Justice Department lawyers were tasked to justify torture, U.S. psychologists were busy actually perpetrating it,” said Steven Reisner, PhD, Advisor on Psychological Ethics at PHR. “These individuals must not only face prosecution for breaking the law, they must lose their licenses for shaming their profession’s ethics.”
He told IPS, “The conclusion that these interrogation techniques cause no lasting harm is the equivalent of psychological malpractice.” He said the proponents of these techniques “cherry-picked the research to reach a foregone conclusion. How can you compare U.S. soldiers who volunteered for SERE training, and could have stopped their interrogations at any time, with the effects on a prisoner who has been ‘disappeared’, is in fear for his life, and believes he will never see his family again?”
He added that the CIA’s own research into the effects of SERE training showed that it produced “extreme and lasting effects to the point of psychosis.”
In October 2008, the American Psychological Association approved a landmark measure banning members from taking part in interrogations of prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, Afghanistan and all of the secret CIA black sites. The American Medical Association has passed a similar measure.
The Armed Services Committee report was released amid growing calls for an independent inquiry into abusive interrogation techniques and the people responsible for them. Proposals range from a “truth commission” to the appointment of an independent prosecutor by the Obama Justice Department.
President Obama has consistently said he is more inclined to look forward rather than backward. Earlier this week, he visited CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and told agency employees there would be no prosecutions of operatives who carried out the abusive interrogation techniques because they believed they were acting in accordance with legal rulings from the Justice Department.
But a day later, he said he would not oppose either an independent commission investigation or appointment of a special prosecutor. He left these decisions to Congress and to the Attorney General, Eric Holder.