The radical future of interrogation

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Robert Kolker writes: The trouble with modern interrogation technique… is that, despite its scientific pose, it has almost no science to back it up. Reid and Inbau [authors of Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, which in 1962 set the mold for police interrogations in America] claimed, for instance, that a well-trained investigator could catch suspects lying with 85 percent accuracy; their manual instructs detectives to conduct an initial, nonaccusatory “behavioral analysis interview,” in which they should look for physical tells like fidgeting and broken eye contact. But when German forensic psychologist Günter Köhnken actually studied the matter in 1987, he found that trained police officers were no better than the average person at detecting lies. Several subsequent studies have cast doubt on the notion that there are any clear-cut behavioral tells. (Truth tellers often fidget more than liars.) In fact, the more confident police officers are about their judgments, the more likely they are to be wrong.

But the scientific case against police interrogations really began to mount in the early 1990s, when the first DNA-based exonerations started rolling in. According to the Innocence Project, a group dedicated to freeing the wrongfully imprisoned, about a third of the 337 people who’ve had their convictions overturned by DNA evidence confessed or incriminated themselves falsely. These and other exonera­tions furnished scientists with dozens of known false-confession cases to study, giving rise to a veritable subfield of social psychology and the behavioral sciences. (At least one confession elicited by John Reid himself — in a 1955 murder case — turned out to be inaccurate; the real killer confessed 23 years later.)

Researchers have even broken down these false confession cases into categories. There are “voluntary” false confessions, like the many presumably unstable people who claimed credit for the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in order to get attention. Then there are “compliant,” or “coerced,” false confessions, in which people are so ground down by an intense interrogation that, out of desperation and naïveté, they think that confessing will be better for them in the long run. The third category, “persuaded,” or “internalized,” false confessions, may be the most poignant. Here, the interrogator’s Reid-style theming is so relentless, the deployment of lies so persuasive, that suspects — often young and impressionable or mentally impaired — end up believing they did it, however fleetingly. [Continue reading…]

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Monitor: 60,000 dead in Syria government jails

Al Jazeera reports: More than 60,000 people have been killed through torture or died in dire humanitarian conditions inside Syrian government prisons throughout the country’s five-year uprising, according to a monitor.

The numbers were obtained from Syrian government sources, the United Kingdom-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Saturday.

“Since March 2011, at least 60,000 people lost their lives to torture or to horrible conditions, notably the lack of medication or food, in regime prisons,” said the Observatory’s Rami Abdel Rahman. [Continue reading…]

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CIA internal watchdog ‘accidentally’ destroyed its only copy of Senate torture report

Michael Isikoff reports: The CIA inspector general’s office — the spy agency’s internal watchdog — has acknowledged it “mistakenly” destroyed its only copy of a mammoth Senate torture report at the same time lawyers for the Justice Department were assuring a federal judge that copies of the document were being preserved, Yahoo News has learned.

While another copy of the report exists elsewhere at the CIA, the erasure of the controversial document by the office charged with policing agency conduct has alarmed the U.S. senator who oversaw the torture investigation and reignited a behind-the-scenes battle over whether the full unabridged report should ever be released, according to multiple intelligence community sources familiar with the incident.

The deletion of the document has been portrayed by agency officials to Senate investigators as an “inadvertent” foul-up by the inspector general. In what one intelligence community source described as a series of errors straight “out of the Keystone Cops,” CIA inspector general officials deleted an uploaded computer file with the report and then accidentally destroyed a disk that also contained the document, filled with thousands of secret files about the CIA’s use of “enhanced” interrogation methods. [Continue reading…]

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Solitary confinement is ‘no touch’ torture, and it must be abolished

Chelsea E Manning writes: Shortly after arriving at a makeshift military jail, at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, in May 2010, I was placed into the black hole of solitary confinement for the first time. Within two weeks, I was contemplating suicide.

After a month on suicide watch, I was transferred back to US, to a tiny 6 x 8ft (roughly 2 x 2.5 meter) cell in a place that will haunt me for the rest of my life: the US Marine Corps Brig in Quantico, Virginia. I was held there for roughly nine months as a “prevention of injury” prisoner, a designation the Marine Corps and the Navy used to place me in highly restrictive solitary conditions without a psychiatrist’s approval.

For 17 hours a day, I sat directly in front of at least two Marine Corps guards seated behind a one-way mirror. I was not allowed to lay down. I was not allowed to lean my back against the cell wall. I was not allowed to exercise. Sometimes, to keep from going crazy, I would stand up, walk around, or dance, as “dancing” was not considered exercise by the Marine Corps.

To pass the time, I counted the hundreds of holes between the steel bars in a grid pattern at the front of my empty cell. My eyes traced the gaps between the bricks on the wall. I looked at the rough patterns and stains on the concrete floor – including one that looked like a caricature grey alien, with large black eyes and no mouth, that was popular in the 1990s. I could hear the “drip drop drip” of a leaky pipe somewhere down the hall. I listened to the faint buzz of the fluorescent lights.

For brief periods, every other day or so, I was escorted by a team of at least three guards to an empty basketball court-sized area. There, I was shackled and walked around in circles or figure-eights for 20 minutes. I was not allowed to stand still, otherwise they would take me back to my cell. [Continue reading…]

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CIA torture architects’ day in court

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Rebecca Gordon: Exhibit one in any future American war crimes trial

Let’s take a moment to think about the ultimate strangeness of our American world.  In recent months, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have offered a range of hair-raising suggestions: as president, one or the other of them might order the U.S. military and the CIA to commit acts that would include the waterboarding of terror suspects (or “a hell of a lot worse”), the killing of the relatives of terrorists, and the carpet bombing of parts of Syria.  All of these would, legally speaking, be war crimes.  This has caused shock among many Americans in quite established quarters who have decried the possibility of such a president, suggesting that the two of them are calling for outright illegal acts, actual “war crimes,” and that the U.S. military and others would be justified in rejecting such orders.  In this context, for instance, CIA Director John Brennan recently made it clear that no Agency operative under his command would ever waterboard a suspect in response to orders of such a nature from a future president.  (“I will not agree to carry out some of these tactics and techniques I’ve heard bandied about because this institution needs to endure.”)

These acts, in other words, are considered beyond the pale when Donald Trump suggests them, but here’s the strangeness of it all: what The Donald is only mouthing off about, a perfectly real American president (and vice president and secretary of defense, and so on) actually did.  Among other things, under the euphemistic term “enhanced interrogation techniques,” they ordered the CIA to use classic torture practices including waterboarding (which, in blunter times, had been known as “the water torture”).  They also let the U.S. military loose to torture and abuse prisoners in their custody.  They green-lighted the CIA to kidnap terror suspects (who sometimes turned out to be perfectly innocent people) off the streets of cities around the world, as well as from the backlands of the planet, and transported them to the prisons of some of the worst torture regimes or to secret detention centers (“black sites”) the CIA was allowed to set up in compliant countries.  In other words, a perfectly real administration ordered and oversaw perfectly real crimes.  (Its top officials even reportedly had torture techniques demonstrated to them in the White House.)

At the time, the CIA fulfilled its orders to a T and without complaint. A lone CIA officer spoke out publicly in opposition to such a program and was jailed for disclosing classified information to a journalist.  (He would be the only CIA official to go to jail for the Agency’s acts of torture.)  At places like Abu Ghraib, the military similarly carried out its orders without significant complaint or resistance.  The mainstream media generally adopted the euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques” or “harsh techniques” in its reporting — no “torture” or “war crimes” for them then.  And back in the post-2001 years, John Brennan, then deputy executive director of the CIA, didn’t offer a peep of protest about what he surely knew was going on in his own agency. In 2014, in fact, as its director he actually defended such torture practices for producing “intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives.”  In addition, none of those who ordered or oversaw torture and other criminal behavior (a number of whom would sell their memoirs for millions of dollars) suffered in the slightest for the acts that were performed on their watch and at their behest.

To sum up: when Donald Trump says such things it’s a future nightmare to be called by its rightful name and denounced, as well as rejected and resisted by military and intelligence officials.  When an American president and his top officials actually did such things, however, it was another story entirely. Today, TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon catches the nightmarish quality of those years, now largely buried, in the grim case of a single mistreated human being. It should make Americans shudder. She has also just published a new book, American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes, that couldn’t be more relevant.  It’s a must-read for a country conveniently without a memory. Tom Engelhardt

The Al-Qaeda leader who wasn’t
The shameful ordeal of Abu Zubaydah
By Rebecca Gordon

The allegations against the man were serious indeed.

* Donald Rumsfeld said he was “if not the number two, very close to the number two person” in al-Qaeda.

* The Central Intelligence Agency informed Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee that he “served as Usama Bin Laden’s senior lieutenant. In that capacity, he has managed a network of training camps… He also acted as al-Qaeda’s coordinator of external contacts and foreign communications.”

* CIA Director Michael Hayden would tell the press in 2008 that 25% of all the information his agency had gathered about al-Qaeda from human sources “originated” with one other detainee and him.

* George W. Bush would use his case to justify the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation program,” claiming that “he had run a terrorist camp in Afghanistan where some of the 9/11 hijackers trained” and that “he helped smuggle al-Qaeda leaders out of Afghanistan” so they would not be captured by U.S. military forces.

None of it was true.

And even if it had been true, what the CIA did to Abu Zubaydah — with the knowledge and approval of the highest government officials — is a prime example of the kind of still-unpunished crimes that officials like Dick Cheney, George Bush, and Donald Rumsfeld committed in the so-called Global War on Terror.

[Read more…]

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Egyptian activist found ‘tortured’ amid wave of pre-protest arrests

Middle East Eye reports: An Egyptian activist was found by the side of a desert road with his body bearing evidence of torture, relatives said, as security forces continued a wave of mass arrests ahead of demonstrations planned for Monday.

Khaled Abdel Rahman, from Alexandria, is in intensive care undergoing surgery after passersby discovered him on the side of a desert road on the outskirts of the capital Cairo, his sister Reem Abdel Rahman said.

“His body is covered in marks of beating and torture – the electric shocks applied to his genitals were so severe that they caused atrophy,” she wrote on Facebook.

Abdel Rahman was found on Friday afternoon, less than a day after he was arrested during a raid on his home by security forces, relatives said.

The raid was part of a wave of arrests undertaken by police in cities across Egypt ahead of Monday’s protests. [Continue reading…]

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UK took weeks to act on Cairo student killing concerns

Middle East Eye reports: The British foreign secretary expressed serious concerns about allegations of Egyptian security service involvement in the killing of a Cambridge University student in Cairo weeks before the UK government called for a “full and transparent” investigation into the case, Middle East Eye can reveal.

In a 24 March letter obtained exclusively by MEE, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron warning that reports that Egyptian security forces were involved in the death of Giulio Regeni would be an “extremely concerning development” if proved correct.

Regeni’s battered body was found in a ditch nine days after he had gone missing on 25 January, the anniversary of the Tahrir Square revolution.

The 28-year-old was in Egypt researching labour movements – a contentious subject in the country – as part of his doctoral studies at Cambridge.

The government led by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has faced accusations that its security forces were responsible for Regeni’s torture and death. It has repeatedly denied the allegations.

Relations between Italy and Egypt have soured in recent days over the investigation. Officials from Cairo refused to hand over what Rome saw as vital evidence, including mobile phone records and CCTV footage from the night Regeni went missing.

On Friday, Italy recalled its ambassador to Egypt for consultations in protest of the lack of progress in the probe.

Two weeks earlier in his letter to the prime minister whom he addresses as “David”, Hammond writes, “My officials have followed the case of Mr Regeni closely since his disappearance”.

“The UK is aware of reports of the Egyptian security forces’ involvement in Mr Regeni’s death. If substantiated, this would be an extremely concerning development,” the Foreign Secretary added. [Continue reading…]

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The Assad files

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Ben Taub reports: The investigator in Syria had made the drive perhaps a hundred times, always in the same battered truck, never with any cargo. It was forty miles to the border, through eleven rebel checkpoints, where the soldiers had come to think of him as a local, a lawyer whose wartime misfortunes included a commute on their section of the road. Sometimes he brought them snacks or water, and he made sure to thank them for protecting civilians like himself. Now, on a summer afternoon, he loaded the truck with more than a hundred thousand captured Syrian government documents, which had been buried in pits and hidden in caves and abandoned homes.

He set out at sunset. To the fighters manning the checkpoints, it was as if he were invisible. Three reconnaissance vehicles had driven ahead, and one confirmed by radio what the investigator hoped to hear: no new checkpoints. Typically, the border was sealed, but soldiers from the neighboring country waved him through. He drove until he reached a Western embassy, where he dropped off the cargo for secure transfer to Chris Engels, an American lawyer. Engels expected the papers to include evidence linking high-level Syrian officials to mass atrocities. After a decade spent training international criminal-justice practitioners in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Cambodia, Engels now leads the regime-crimes unit of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, an independent investigative body founded in 2012, in response to the Syrian war.

In the past four years, people working for the organization have smuggled more than six hundred thousand government documents out of Syria, many of them from top-secret intelligence facilities. The documents are brought to the group’s headquarters, in a nondescript office building in Western Europe, sometimes under diplomatic cover. There, each page is scanned, assigned a bar code and a number, and stored underground. A dehumidifier hums inside the evidence room; just outside, a small box dispenses rat poison.

Upstairs, in a room secured by a metal door, detailed maps of Syrian villages cover the walls, and the roles of various suspects in the Syrian government are listed on a whiteboard. Witness statements and translated documents fill dozens of binders, which are locked in a fireproof safe at night. Engels, who is forty-one, bald and athletic, with a precise, discreet manner, oversees the operation; analysts and translators report directly to him.

The commission’s work recently culminated in a four-hundred-page legal brief that links the systematic torture and murder of tens of thousands of Syrians to a written policy approved by President Bashar al-Assad, coördinated among his security-intelligence agencies, and implemented by regime operatives, who reported the successes of their campaign to their superiors in Damascus. The brief narrates daily events in Syria through the eyes of Assad and his associates and their victims, and offers a record of state-sponsored torture that is almost unimaginable in its scope and its cruelty. Such acts had been reported by survivors in Syria before, but they had never been traced back to signed orders. [Continue reading…]

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An American interrogator’s memories of Abu Ghraib

In his newly released book, Consequence: A Memoir, Eric Fair writes: I take the time to ask the general about his life and learn what I can about Iraq. I do this with most prisoners, whether they have intelligence value or not. When I write the report, I’m supposed to call this the approach phase. I’m supposed to be building rapport. Some interrogators talk about how good they are at this, how they develop relationships with prisoners and come to some sort of understanding, opening lines of communication that will eventually produce good intelligence.

It’s all bullshit. This is Abu Ghraib prison. The Iraqis hate all of us.

As I talk to the general about the village where he grew up, his service in the Iran-Iraq War, and how much he loves his sons, I ignore the memories from the previous night, when I interrogated a young man in one of the uncomfortable interrogation booths. I made him stand with his arms in the air until he dropped them in exhaustion. He lied to me, said he didn’t know anything about the men he was captured with or the bomb that had been buried in the road. So I hurt him. Now I’m in a decent room serving decent tea and acting like a decent man. The comfortable interrogation booth is all I need to convince myself that the general and I are enjoying this conversation. I’ve fallen for my own stupid trick. When I pour the tea and turn up the heater, I complete the illusion.

As we drink our tea, the translator starts a conversation with the general about what it was like growing up as a Christian in Iraq and how her Muslim neighbors always took good care of her. I was an Arabic linguist in the Army, and while my language skills have faded,

I understand enough to allow the translator to steer the conversation for a bit. The general says he was never very religious, but as he gets older he attends Friday prayers more often. The translator seems to like him. I do, too. I pretend the general feels the same way about me.

I talk about growing up in Pennsylvania and attending a Presbyterian church as a boy and how hearing the call to prayer from the mosques of Baghdad reminds me that I should be praying to my god more often. “No, no,” the general says in English. “Not a different god. Same god. Same god.” He points at both the translator and me.

“We are same god.” [Continue reading…]

The Daily Beast interviewed Fair: Your upbringing as a devout Presbyterian plays a large role in the pages of Consequence, and you very openly explore the role that faith has had on your life, before, during and after Iraq. Why was that important to you?

It’s a foundational part of who I am and how I view my place in my world. And it has been my entire life, just how I was raised and how I’m raising my son now. It’s been a lifelong upbringing. I remember a youth pastor teaching me as child that faith was not this mystical experience, or not just it. Faith takes a lot of work and it takes a lot reading and care. Having that foundation helped me prepare for when things went totally wrong, which will happen one way or another to just about everybody.

Since Iraq, I will say that I’m far more cautious to suggest that my faith gives me any sort of right or privilege to tell anyone else what they’re doing is right or wrong. Approaching my faith with this type of humility is something I learned to do more of over time.

“I want him to be comfortable in the quiet.” This is my favorite line in a book full of beautiful writing. It’s about your son and his own developing faith, but what does Being Comfortable in the Quiet mean to you now, as a person, father and author?

Growing up in the Bethlehem community, the Presbyterian Church had this beautiful choir, a very well known choir, at least in our area. Bethlehem Steel had purchased this beautiful pipe organ for the church many years before … anyhow, every Sunday, they’d put on this incredible, incredible performance. Afterwards, though, there’d be nothing but silence. You were not to applaud or express outward admiration. And if you did, you were looked upon as someone who didn’t quite know what they were doing. The idea was that you modeled everything in your life after this approach—you don’t do things for show, or with expectations of affirmation. You simply just had to be comfortable in the quiet, and had to be willing to listen, and listen in a way that meant actually hearing what others were saying, rather than just waiting for your turn to speak.

The theological side of that quiet is when a person can experience God, or the Holy Spirit, or something spiritual, or what have you. Those moments of quiet are when we all chart our course of life, whatever it may be. And that’s what I want for my son.

“War stories aren’t for me.” We’ve talked before about hearing that from friends and readers alike. What’s your response to that sort of mindset, especially in regards to Consequence?

Well, certainly a reader can make their own decision, but I’m of the thought that war stories are, unfortunately, for everyone. That’s particularly the case in a country such as ours, a democracy, a republic. On some level there’s an obligation to be engaged with some war stories … that doesn’t mean that people have to read mine, but I think that if someone wants to self-identify as well informed, and well-read, and as a good citizen of the country, you need to interact and encounter this stuff. Literature is just one way to do that. [Continue reading…]

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Italian official warns Egypt over inquiry into Giulio Regeni’s death

The New York Times reports: The foreign minister of Italy said Tuesday that his government would take “immediate and proportional” measures against Egypt if it failed to help uncover the truth behind the death of an Italian graduate student in Cairo two months ago.

“We will stop only when we will find the truth, the real one,” Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni told Parliament, adding that he would not accept any “fabrication.”

The threat by Mr. Gentiloni came the day before a team of Egyptian investigators was scheduled to land in Rome for meetings on the case of the student, Giulio Regeni, 28, a doctoral candidate, whose brutalized body was discovered on a roadside in February in Cairo. [Continue reading…]

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Giulio Regeni murder: Egypt postpones Italy meeting as criticism mounts

GIULIO-REGENI

The Guardian reports: Egypt has postponed a meeting in Rome at which a Cairo delegation was due to hand over evidence relating to the torture and murder of the Italian researcher Giulio Regeni.

The highly anticipated meeting was scheduled for Tuesday but is now expected later this week. There is a growing perception in Italy that cracks are beginning to emerge in Egypt over how the government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has handled the murder investigation.

Italy’s foreign minister, Paolo Gentiloni, will outline the government’s position on the case in a parliamentary statement on Tuesday, his ministry said.

Regeni’s body was found in a ditch off a desert road on 3 February, more than a week after the 28-year-old – a Cambridge PhD student researching labour unions in Egypt – disappeared. [Continue reading…]

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Libya’s deep state is back and wants you to know it

Borzou Daragahi reports: A pudgy, graying middle-aged man in a brown sweater vest sat quietly sipping tea in the hotel lobby. If you noticed him at all, you might have thought he was a businessman, or an engineer, maybe a mid-ranking civil servant. He frowned occasionally as he contemplated the messages on his smartphone.

He allowed a smile as two men approached. They greeted each other as old friends, exchanging embraces, asking after relatives. One of the men complained a little about the state of business in the region, and warned he might have to head off at some point: “My daughter has a ballet recital.”

The entourage moved to a darkly lit corner of the hotel, their voices dropping, sometimes to a whisper. They looked up with paranoid glares each time a waiter or hotel guest walked by. The three men knew they could never be too careful.

The newcomers were retired colleagues; the first, a balding man in his sixties, works for a charity that helps African migrants in Libya; the second, in his late forties, is a real estate developer, dividing his time between the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and Europe.

But this was no workaday meeting of middle-aged businessmen. The three men are operatives from one of the most feared institutions in the Middle East: Libya’s mukhabarat, or intelligence agency. Formed shortly after the Second World War, the mukhabarat has worked behind the scenes to monitor and manipulate Libya for decades. And they have now joined the war against ISIS, as well as al-Qaeda and loyalists to the former regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi. They have made many, many enemies over the years.

“Extremists are extremists,” said the man in the sweater vest, a senior ranking official of the agency’s counter-terrorism division. “It doesn’t matter if they’re government militias, ISIS, or Qaddafi loyalists. In my focus, I target them all. Political extremists are all the same. And I want stability.” [Continue reading…]

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Ex-CIA director Michael Hayden on torture and drones

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Trump attack on Geneva Conventions denounced by ex-officers and advocates

The Guardian reports: Retired senior military officers and human rights advocates are reacting with disgust at Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s description of the Geneva Conventions as a “problem” for the conduct of US wars.

At an appearance in Wisconsin on Wednesday that was obscured by his suggestion that women who choose abortion should face punishment, Donald Trump was also quoted as saying: “The problem is we have the Geneva Conventions, all sorts of rules and regulations, so the soldiers are afraid to fight.”

Trump has previously advocated killing the families of terror suspects; torture “a hell of a lot worse” than waterboarding; and widespread bombing campaigns against Islamic State, which operates in civilian-packed areas. The Geneva Conventions provide the basis for protections against war crimes, privileging the status of civilians and detainees during wartime.

Several retired officers said the comments called into question Trump’s fitness to serve as commander-in-chief, saying that service members operating in line with his predilections would be tasked with behavior ranging from the disgraceful to the illegal.

“Donald Trump cannot possibly understand [Geneva] because he has neither the experience, the expertise or the moral compass to grasp it,” said Steve Kleinman, an air force reserve colonel and an interrogations expert. [Continue reading…]

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