In Gitmo

New Yorker

In Gitmo   This week in New Yorker magazine, Jane Mayer writes about the United States military detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and raises new questions about the treatment of detainees. Here, with Amy Davidson, Mayer talks about interrogation and the war on terror.

AMY DAVIDSON: You visited the detention center at Guantánamo Bay. What was your impression of the place? What did, and didn’t, you get to see?

JANE MAYER: I was surprised by how much the Department of Defense let me see. They clearly are waging a tough public-relations battle to try to improve Guantánamo’s image in the world, and to do so they have apparently decided that they need to get better press coverage. The soldiers and officers I met there seemed very dedicated and committed to the mission, and they seemed at least publicly convinced that most of the detainees would present a serious threat to U.S. security if they had the chance to get out.

However, while military officials led me on a tour of Camp Delta, where most of the detainees are housed, they would not allow interviews with the detainees. Under these circumstances, only one side of the story was available: that of the U.S. military.

With this major caveat, they bent over backward to allow access to a number of fascinating scenes in Guantánamo, including allowing me to attend one of the Administrative Review Board hearings in which detainees can challenge their status as a danger to the U.S. In the one I attended, the detainee, whose name I had to agree not to release, demanded to see the evidence that the U.S. had against him, so that he could refute it. But much of the evidence, U.S. military authorities told him, was classified, and he would not be allowed to see it. The detainee, a Saudi, wore handcuffs, ankle cuffs, and a belly chain, and was shackled to a bolt in the floor. He spoke very little English, and became increasingly frustrated and angry. At one point, instead of relying on his translator, he started yelling at the three presiding military officers, “Shut up! Shut UP!”

I could not learn the disposition of his case, as the Review Board sends its recommendations in secret up the chain of command in the Department of Defense. What came through to me was the complete breakdown of communication and understanding between the U.S. officials and the detainee, and also the utter lack of due process. It looked like a court hearing, but there were no lawyers. And although the detainee had a military representative, he had no one to truly be an advocate for his interests. The refusal of the Review Board to share the evidence it had with the accused seemed radically out of synch with U.S. standards of justice.

On the surface, though, thanks to the presence of thousands of U.S. troops there, Guantánamo is becoming like a little American town. A Starbucks had recently opened, and a McDonald’s and several other restaurants did a brisk business. The area was unpleasantly wet and hot when I was there, but also surprisingly beautiful—lush and green, framed by hills of tropical jungle and blue mountain peaks. During their free hours, the soldiers swim at the coral beaches and dive. There’s even a golf course.

Your article this week is titled “The Experiment,” and you quote a lawyer for a detainee who, after describing alleged abuses, says, “The whole place appears to be one giant human experiment.” What kind of experiment does he mean?

The chief focus of the U.S. military detention center in Guantánamo Bay is to gain “actionable intelligence” by interrogating the detainees. Everything there is geared towards this end. The reason that some critics have called it a giant psychological experiment is that U.S. military officials have deployed Behavioral Science Consultation Teams, or bscts, to help devise and implement interrogation strategies—a melding of psychology and military intelligence. The psychologists and psychiatrists who work in these bscts apparently develop individually tailored psychological approaches aimed at creating rapport with—or, if necessary, breaking the resistance of—each detainee. The techniques they have employed, I was told, follow very closely the techniques studied and perfected by behavioral scientists working in a different capacity for the military since the Cold War.

You discuss the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape program, known by its acronym, sere. What is sere, and how is it related to the treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo?

Before 9/11, many of these behavioral scientists were affiliated with sere schools, where they used their knowledge to train U.S. soldiers how to resist coercive interrogations. But since 9/11, several sources told me, these same behavioral scientists began to “reverse engineer” the process. Instead of teaching resistance, they used their skills to help overcome resistance in U.S.-held detainees.

The sere program was designed to inoculate soldiers against the psychological coercion, abuse, and torture that they might be subjected to if they were captured. It was created after the Korean War, during which Americans were convinced that U.S. soldiers who were captured by the enemy would be “brainwashed” into giving up secrets. The school was expanded to include every branch of the service after the Vietnam War, when worries centered more on whether returning soldiers had been traumatized by their experiences. The curriculum was devised in part by behavioral scientists conversant in the sorts of nightmarish treatment that P.O.W.s have had to endure. The theory was that soldiers could be trained to resist such coercion if they had practice enduring it. So they went through a course of simulated abuse—all carefully calibrated and monitored to ensure that no U.S. soldier was actually hurt. Much of the curriculum is classified, but sources described some of the techniques to me. They include a number of methods aimed at increasing the soldiers’ stress levels to approximate acute anxiety. The Navy’s course actually has included a form of physical torture, waterboarding, while most of the courses mostly use less brutal psychological methods, such as sleep deprivation, hunger, hooding, exposure to temperature extremes, noxious noise, and gambits involving religion, flags, and sex.

What is a doctor’s obligation to a prisoner, a suspected terrorist, being held by his government?

A doctor’s first obligation is always, as the Hippocratic Oath puts it, to “do no harm.” But beyond that, there is a serious argument underway within the professional medical and psychological societies about whether medical personnel can and should participate in supporting interrogations. Doctors and psychologists, obviously, are citizens too, and when they’re in the military, they are often spoken of as having dual loyalties—to their patients and to their country. There seems to be a consensus, however, that while medical personnel may play non-treating roles in some circumstances, they should not take part in coercive, abusive, or torturous treatment of prisoners. This violates the World Medical Association’s 1975 protocol, and violates pretty much every other national and international standard. Nor can scientists participate in experimenting on human subjects without their informed consent, even for national-security reasons. It is this last bit that the Pentagon has reinterpreted. It has allowed non-treating medical personnel to assist in interrogations, and treating medical personnel to violate patient confidentiality if national security is at stake. The Pentagon argues that this is no different than policies inside U.S. prisons. But prisoners there, unlike those in Guantánamo, are covered by U.S. laws banning coercive interrogations.

You talk about a period in late 2002 and 2003 when there was a great deal of pressure on the interrogators at Guantánamo to get results. How high up does responsibility for what happens in an interrogation room go?

When the commanders in Guantánamo wanted permission to use more coercive interrogation methods than those allowed under the U.S. Military Code of Justice, their requests went up to the top of the Pentagon, to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. This is where responsibility resides.

The legal status of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay has been the subject of much dispute. Under international law, what would the United States’ obligations be? Has the Administration lived up to—or recognized—those obligations?

Under the Geneva Conventions, which the Bush Administration decided not to abide by in their treatment of the Guantánamo prisoners, they would have had to do things very differently. The 1949 Geneva Convention requires the establishment of a “competent tribunal” to determine, on a case-by-case basis, if there is any doubt, whether a detainee should be designated a P.O.W. But when U.S. forces captured Al Qaeda and Taliban soldiers in late 2001 and early 2002, in Afghanistan, they were never given individual status-review hearings. As a result, critics say, a number of non-combatants were swept up along with them. If Geneva was followed the U.S.-held prisoners would not have had to answer questions beyond their name, rank, and serial number. In most cases, Geneva disallows any harsher treatment for prisoners who are non-cooperative. So the whole system of rewards and punishments that has been devised at Guantánamo would be out of bounds. Geneva also specifically bars coercive interrogations. And it also bars medical personnel from conducting “experiments” on prisoners.

We’ve heard a lot of terrible accounts from former Guantánamo prisoners. The military often responds by pointing out that an Al Qaeda training manual instructs its members to lie about their experiences in detention. How good is our information about what goes on there?

It’s hard to evaluate. The only truly non-partisan experts who have been allowed inside Guantánamo, and given access to the detainees there, are inspectors with the International Committee of the Red Cross. Their findings are confidential, shared only with the government. But several of their reports have been leaked, and what they have shown has been disconcerting. The I.C.R.C. has termed the treatment of detainees in Guantánamo in the recent past as “tantamount to torture.”

A Supreme Court decision last year found that prisoners in Guantánamo had a right to challenge their detention and, at least in theory, gave them more access to lawyers. How has that changed the situation? How much have lawyers been able to do for the detainees?

Lawyers, whose presence inside Guantánamo was never anticipated by the Bush Administration—it argued that the detainees had no right to representation—have actually changed things quite a lot. Although only a few dozen lawyers have been allowed limited visits with their clients in the camp, they have brought unwanted outside pressure on the military to improve conditions. They have pushed hard to expose and reduce abuse, and to improve medical and psychological treatment. In response to the Supreme Court ruling, the military instituted a form of legal process in which the prisoners can challenge their detention, known as Combatant Status Review Tribunals, or C.S.R.T.s. Whether this process provides the detainees with adequate due process has yet to be decided by the higher courts. There are conflicting opinions at the lower levels, which have been appealed.

What kind of line can be drawn between the treatment of prisoners in Guantánamo and the abuses at Abu Ghraib?

One obvious line is the career trajectory of General Geoffrey D. Miller, who was commander first in Guantánamo, and then was sent to Iraq to oversee Abu Ghraib. It was General Miller who created the bscts to aid in interrogations. He imported the bsct idea with him when he went to Iraq. Some suggest the sere techniques migrated this way, as well.

There have been a number of internal military inquiries into the treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo. How good a job have they done?

Hard to tell, since the most recent report, by Vice-Admiral Albert T. Church III, is still almost entirely classified. His conclusion, that abuse of detainees was an aberration, rather than the result of any policy, I think is disputable given the systematic way in which the sere curriculum seems to have been adapted to interrogation uses in Cuba, Iraq, and elsewhere.

A surprising part of the story is the role of the F.B.I. in challenging the Pentagon. Can you talk about that a little? Specifically, it seems that there are two issues: on the one hand, some agents simply objected to the treatment they witnessed; on the other, they had a different approach to interrogation, based more on building rapport, and different goals.

The F.B.I. has had fierce fights with the Pentagon over the interrogation methods used in Guantánamo and elsewhere. The F.B.I., to begin with, is a law-enforcement agency, geared towards prosecuting cases in the U.S. courts. The Pentagon is more interested in gaining actionable intelligence than in bringing wrongdoers to justice. The F.B.I. requires its agents to read suspects their Miranda rights, and to question them in ways that are consonant with American law, so that when cases do get to trial they aren’t thrown out. U.S. courts, for instance, would never allow confessions from suspects who have been coerced into implicating themselves. But as your question points out, the divide goes beyond just what the U.S. courts allow. The F.B.I., which has had years of experience questioning suspects, has found that non-coercive interrogation methods yield more reliable results. F.B.I. officials acknowledge that force may get someone to talk, but it won’t necessarily get them to tell the truth. Force often yields false confessions. One agent told me, “I’d confess to being the third gunman on the grassy knoll if you tortured me. But what good would that be? Not only am I giving you misleading information, you also haven’t solved the crime.”

This raises the question of whether torture works. Is it a mistake to think that it does?

Many experts think so. The Israeli Supreme Court, for instance, banned the use of torture in interrogations in 1999, after finding that it resulted in too many false confessions and too much moral baggage. An interesting case study is discussed in this article, involving the alleged twentieth hijacker, Mohammed al-Qahtani. He was subjected to extremely harsh interrogation, which some would define as torture. In the end, we know he confessed that he was, as suspected, sent by Al Qaeda to assist in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But was this a triumph? Traditional non-coercive legal methods had already proven this to U.S. law-enforcement authorities. Qahtani was stopped in Orlando, Florida, by an alert immigration agent, who refused him entry based on doubts about his reason for entering the country. After he was later captured in Afghanistan, he was sent to Guantánamo, where he refused to give his name. A fingerprint check identified him, and a subsequent search of phone and parking records revealed that he was connected to Mohammed Atta. None of this required torture. It just required smart (and legal) police work. So, after months of extremely harsh treatment, Qahtani essentially confirmed what the government already knew about him. One of the sources I interviewed asked, given the international political outrage that Guantánamo has provoked, “Was it worth it?” It’s a question that Congress and the public have not yet really stepped up to answer.

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