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Context of 'March 31, 2005: NCIS Psychologist: Torture and Coercion Do More Harm than Good'

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David Brant, the head of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), learns disturbing information about detainees in US custody being abused at the Guantanamo detention facility. Brant is in charge of a team of NCIS agents working with the FBI at Guantanamo, called the Criminal Investigative Task Force. The task force’s job is to obtain incriminating information from the detainees for use in future trials or tribunals. Brant, an experienced law enforcement officer, finds what his task force agents tell him about interrogations at Guantanamo troubling. According to his agents, who have examined the interrogation logs, the military intelligence interrogators seem poorly trained and frustrated by their lack of success. Brant learns that the interrogators are engaging in ever-escalating levels of physical and psychological abuse, using tactics that Brant will later describe as “repugnant.” Much of his information comes from NCIS psychologist Michael Gelles, who has access to the Army’s top-secret interrogation logs at Guantanamo. [New Yorker, 2/27/2006; Vanity Fair, 5/2008] Gelles learned of the torture techniques being used at Guantanamo while reading through those logs for an internal study. He is taken aback at what author and reporter Charlie Savage will later call “a meticulously bureaucratic, minute-by-minute account of physical torments and degradation being inflicted on prisoners by American servicemen and women.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 178] Brant will later recall that Gelles “is phenomenal at unlocking the minds of everyone from child abusers to terrorists.” Therefore, when Gelles tells Brant that he finds the logs “shocking,” Brant takes it seriously. One of the most horrific cases is that of Mohamed al-Khatani (see December 17, 2002). [New Yorker, 2/27/2006; Vanity Fair, 5/2008] Brant says that NCIS will pull its interrogators out of Guantanamo if the abuses continue, and goes to the Navy’s general counsel, Alberto Mora, for help (see December 17-18, 2002). [Savage, 2007, pp. 178]

Entity Tags: Michael Gelles, David Brant, Mohamed al-Khatani, Alberto Mora, Charlie Savage, Naval Criminal Investigative Service

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Naval General Counsel Alberto Mora, concerned about information he has learned about detainee abuse at Guantanamo (see December 17-18, 2002), calls his friend Steven Morello, the Army’s general counsel, and asks if he knows anything about the subject. Morello replies: “I know a lot about it. Come on down.”
'The Package' - In Morello’s office, Mora views what he calls “the package”—a collection of secret military documents that outline the origins of the coercive interrogation policies at Guantanamo. It begins with a request to use more aggressive interrogation tactics at Guantanamo (see October 11, 2002). Weeks later, the new head of the detention facility, Major General Geoffrey Miller, pushes senior Pentagon officials for more leeway in interrogations. On December 2, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gave his approval for the use of several more intensive interrogation tactics, including the use of “hooding,” “exploitation of phobias,” “stress positions,” “deprivation of light and auditory stimuli,” and other coercive methods forbidden from use by the Army Field Manual (see December 2, 2002). Rumsfeld does withhold his approval on the use of some methods such as waterboarding.
'Ashen-faced' - Morello tells Mora, “we tried to stop it,” but was told not to ask questions. A participant in the meeting recalls that Mora was “ashen-faced” when he read the package. According to Mora’s memo, Morello, “with a furtive air,” says: “Look at this. Don’t tell anyone where you got it.” Mora later says, “I was astounded that the secretary of defense would get within 100 miles of this issue.” (Morello will later deny showing Mora a copy of the memo.) Mora is similarly unimpressed by another document in the package, a legal analysis by Army lawyer Diane Beaver (see October 11, 2002), which he says will lead to the use of illegal torture by interrogators.
'Force Drift' - Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) psychologist Michael Gelles (see Early December, 2002) joins the meeting, and tells Mora that the Guantanamo interrogators are under intense pressure to achieve results. He tells Mora about the phenomenon of “force drift,” where interrogators using coercion begin to believe that if some force achieves results, then more force achieves better results. Mora determines to take action to bring the abuse to a close (see December 20, 2002). [New Yorker, 2/27/2006; Vanity Fair, 5/2008]

Entity Tags: Steven Morello, Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Alberto Mora, US Department of the Army, Donald Rumsfeld, Michael Gelles, Geoffrey D. Miller, US Department of Defense

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Dr. Michael Gelles, the head psychologist for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), says that torture and coercion do not produce reliable information from prisoners. Gelles adds that many military and intelligence specialists share his view. Gelles warned of problems with torture and abuse at Guantanamo nearly three years ago (see Early December, 2002 and December 18, 2002). And he is frustrated that Bush administration officials have “dismissed” critics of coercive techniques as weaklings and “doves” who are too squeamish to do what is necessary to obtain information from terror suspects. In reality, Gelles says, many experienced interrogators are convinced that torture and coercion do more harm than good. Gelles has extensive experience with interrogations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo, and notes that NCIS had interrogated Muslim terror suspects well before 9/11, including investigations into the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole (see October 12, 2000) and the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks in Lebanon (see April 18-October 23, 1983).
'Rapport-Building' - The best way to extract reliable intelligence from a Muslim extremist, Gelles says, is through “rapport-building”—by engaging the suspect in conversations that play on his cultural sensitivities. Similar techniques worked on Japanese soldiers during the height of battles during World War II (see July 17, 1943). Gelles says he and others have identified patterns of questioning that can elicit accurate information from Islamist radicals, but refuses to discuss them specifically. “We do not believe—not just myself, but others who have to remain unnamed—that coercive methods with this adversary are… effective,” he says. “If the goal is to get ‘information,’ then using coercive techniques may be effective. But if the goal is to get reliable and accurate information, looking at this adversary, rapport-building is the best approach.”
Conflict between Experts, Pentagon Civilians - Gelles describes a sharp division between interrogation specialists such as himself, and civilian policymakers at the Pentagon. Many government specialists, including fellow psychologists, intelligence analysts, linguists, and interrogators who have experience extracting information from captured Islamist militants, agree with Gelles that coercion is not effective, but top civilians in the Office of the Secretary of Defense disagree. Coercive interrogations try to “vacuum up all the information you can and figure out later” what is true and what is not, he says. This method jams the system with false and misleading data. Gelles compares it to “coercive tactics leading to false confessions” by suspects in police custody. Many at the Pentagon and elsewhere mistake “rapport-building” techniques for softness or weakness. Just because those interrogations are not humiliating or physically painful, Gelles says, the techniques are not necessarily “soft.” Telling a detainee that he is a reprehensible murderer of innocents is perfectly acceptable, Gelles says: “Being respectful doesn’t mean you don’t confront, clarify, and challenge the detainee when he gives the appearance of being deceptive.” On the other hand, coercive techniques induce detainees to say anything to make the pain and discomfort stop. “Why would you terrify them with a dog?” Gelles asks, referring to one technique of threatening detainees with police dogs. “So they’ll tell you anything to get the dog out of the room?” Referring to shackling prisoners in “stress positions” for hours on end, Gelles adds: “I know there is a school of thought that believes [stress positions] are effective. In my experience, I’ve never seen it be of any value.” Innocent suspects will confess to imagined crimes just to stop the abuse, Gelles says.
Other Harmful Consequences - Gelles also notes that coercive techniques undermine the possibility of building rapport with the prisoner to possibly gain information from him. And, he says, unless the prisoner is either killed in custody or detained for life, eventually he will be released to tell the world of his captivity, damaging America’s credibility and moral authority. [Boston Globe, 3/31/2005; Savage, 2007, pp. 217-218]

Entity Tags: Michael Gelles, Bush administration (43), US Department of Defense, Naval Criminal Investigative Service

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives

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