Getting to the Whole Truth About America’s Torture of Suspected Terrorists

It’s too bad the trial of two CIA contract psychologists who created the “torture” interrogation program in the wake of 9/11 was canceled and the case settled out of court.

The trial, scheduled for September 5, might have provided publicity that could help prevent future abuses in the name of national security.

Such publicity could also call attention to the need for creating a stronger institutional memory in order to remember similar cases from the past before making the same mistakes in the present.

This isn’t the first time the CIA has been censured publicly and by Congress for outlandish, unethical and illegal interrogation programs.

The CIA’s “mind control” program of the 1950s and 1960s was the most egregious interrogation program in the CIA’s history. The episode became public in the 1970s as part of a broader investigation into intelligence abuses that culminated in the so-called Church Committee reports.

One of the most dramatic events in the CIA’s Cold War mind control interrogation program was the suicide of Frank Olsen, a government scientist who jumped to his death from a hotel room window a few weeks after he was surreptitiously given LSD by the CIA. It was not until the Church Committee hearings in 1975 that Olsen’s 1953 death made headline news.

Although there was a public report of the earlier instance of CIA abuse, the accounting did not help prevent the recent episode using contract psychologists even though the rationale was precisely to “prevent the recurrence of such abuses in the future,” according to the Senate Committee Report.

Curiously, the so-called “Torture Report” penned by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and published as an executive summary in 2014, also stated that they produced the report for history not to be forgotten and as an effort to prevent abuses in the future by a public accounting of past abuses.

GettyImages-698877 U.S. Marines transport a detainee on a gurney in Camp X-Ray February 6, 2002 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Many of the Al Qaeda or Taliban detainees are transported through the base on a stretchers "for security reasons." Chris Hondros/Getty

The parallels between the two episodes are striking both in content and in context.

Just as the fear of communism in the 1950s led to extraordinary measures in times of peace so too did the fear of terrorism in the wake of 9/11/2001 lead to an interrogation program using torture that would have been censured in calmer times. Lesson one in a code of institutional memory: don’t react emotionally to a national security threat.

Both interrogation programs sought to control recalcitrant interrogations subjects. While the CIA tried to control individuals like defectors, refugees, prisoners and secret agents to do their bidding during the 1950s and 60s using drugs, electro-shock and personality assessments, the CIA wanted to force captured terrorist prisoners to confess their secrets devising so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the wake of 9/11.

In order to devise methods to influence human behavior, the CIA enlisted contract scientists to run the programs. Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, a chemist, headed the CIA’s mind control program in the 1950s but he contracted most of his work to external behavioral scientists, especially psychologists, at universities and research centers.

Similarly, the CIA hired two contract psychologists, Dr. James Mitchell, an Air Force psychologist and Dr. Bruce Jessen. And like Gottlieb neither had the necessary expertise. Their Ph.D topics were on high blood pressure and family therapy. They had both taught in the Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) School but had never taken part in real interrogations.

The faith in the behavioral sciences to solve problems was just a subset of the CIA’s great faith in the power of science and technology to solve pesky intelligence problems.

Finally, following a dictum mouthed by a John Le Carré character, both episodes motto seems to have been, “You can’t be less ruthless than the opposition.”

Just as the CIA justified its earlier ruthless methods as a countermeasure to communist interrogation methods, so, too, did contemporary psychologists advocate torture because it would be the only way terrorists would bend – by giving them a taste of their own medicine.

Even though the CIA’s post-9/11 enhanced interrogation techniques did not use drugs (except when medically required) as a method to elicit information, there are striking similarities between it and the mind control experiments in broader ways as well.

First, both programs sought to create and use novel interrogation methods that promised full control over a human being that would elicit valuable intelligence information. And they both drew on the behavioral sciences to find this magic bullet.

Secondly, both programs failed in their quest for total control over a human being through unusual methods and as a result received public censure. Both reports found such techniques were not useful in eliciting intelligence information.

Third, in both programs deaths triggered internal, and eventually external critical reviews that led to their downfall. In 2002, Gul Rahmen, a suspected terrorist and detainee was found dead in his cell in one of the black detention sites in Kabul, Afghanistan – allegedly of hypothermia.

Even though the Senate Select Committees on Intelligence condemned both episodes after the fact with the rationale that history should not be forgotten, it was forgotten.

In order to cure the CIA’s historical amnesia a committee should be set up that vets current programs before they are implemented by researching past episodes that might provide lessons and guides on how to act.

While the congressional committees are supposed to be our watchdogs, they too apparently suffer from historical amnesia and are often not told about controversial operations.

Kristie Macrakis, the author or editor of five books is currently writing a book about Techno-spies and the Decline of the Secret Agent, which includes a chapter about the CIA’s mind control experiments and torture program.

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