The martial art of interview

Last month it was announced that a lawsuit brought against two psychologists who helped the CIA develop its ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques was settled. The suit was filed in 2015 and since then it has brought to light significant new revelations about CIA’s program of torture. Crucially, documents have been declassified that make public details left out of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 2014 report which remains heavily redacted. An ongoing political battle surrounds the future of the full 6,700 page report, though at least one copy appears safe from destruction for now, interred in the Obama presidential papers. We will have to wait at least twelve years before archivists are allowed to make it accessible.

The New York Times managed to obtain deposition videos of the case’s proceedings and they represent an important resource for understanding not just what went on inside the interrogation rooms, but how the experts involved conceived of their CIA contract work. Dr Bruce Jessen, a former military psychologists, said that ‘we were soldiers doing what were instructed to do’. Later he describes being pressured by senior CIA officials who told them ‘everyday that a nuclear bomb was going to be exploded in the United States and that, because I told them to stop, I’d lost my nerve and it was going to be my fault if I didn’t continue’. His partner, Dr James Mitchell, also recalls being told that if he didn’t continue his participation in the program there would be the ‘blood of dead civilians on [the psychologists’] hands.’ Ultimately, however, the two psychologists’ company was paid $81 million to run much of the CIA’s interrogation program.

Mitchell also reflects on the operational value of his non-military, or perhaps extra-military, expertise: ‘any expertise in the art of interview?… My god I’m a clinical psychologist. Interviews are what we do’. The twinning of these two urges – to serve national security and to wield scientific expertise goes to the heart not only of the CIA’s most recent interrogation programs but the longer history of the behavioural sciences and human intelligence collection.

The videos at times reveal extraordinarily acrobatic efforts in self-exculpation. One of the discursive battlegrounds they marked out is the long-running distinction, or elision, surrounding the notion of ‘distress’ and ‘pain’ caused by ‘enhanced techniques’. Those subjected to the CIA’s torture methods have previously described their experience. Abu Zubaydah described being subjected to the ‘walling’ technique’ in a Thailand black site prison in 2008:

He kept banging me against the wall … Given the intensity of the banging that was strongly hitting my head I fell down on the floor with each banging. I felt for few instants that I was unable to see anything, let alone the short chains that prevented me from standing tall. And every time I fell he would drag me with the towel which caused bleeding in my neck.

He also recalled what it was like to be waterboarded when he felt ‘as if he was dying’:

They kept pouring water and concentrating on my nose and my mouth until I really felt I was drowning and my chest was just about to explode from the lack of oxygen.

And his experience of being kept in a coffin sized box in which he couldn’t change positions or sit up:

I felt I was going to explode from bending my legs and my back and from being unable to spread them not even for short instants … The very strong pain made me scream unconsciously.

In now-disclosed CIA cables, described by Sheri Fink, James Risen, and Charlie Savage as marked by ‘bloodless bureacratese’, interrogators at the site told headquarters that their confined subject was showing ‘signs of distress’. It is precisely this word that led the lawsuit down strange rhetorical paths earlier this year.

It is not incidental that Zubaydah’s interrogators in Thailand reiterated in cables that they were following procedures to prevent injury to their subject’s body including placing a towel behind his neck during the walling technique. One of the plaintiffs in the case this year, Suleiman Salim, recalls also having a cloth tied around his neck, held against a wall, and then being subjected to a barrage of (presumably calculated) punches. Alfred McCoy has traced the history of modern torture as in some respects the sharpening of tools that inflict maximum ‘distress’ to bodies without showing obvious signs such as bruises, cuts, or other marking.

But the distinction between distress and pain is one that tells us about more than just the efforts to preserve unblemished the outer flesh of the interrogated. It also speaks to the discursive apparatuses that effect a sense that psychological and behavioural expertise can coercively extract truths from those human subjects through sophisticated, distressing, but ‘painless’ physical and psychological manipulation. In videoed deposition earlier this year, James Mitchell described the walling technique in starkly different language to Zubaydah and Salim:

I’m a pretty good judge of what it’s like to be walled. … It’s discombobulating, it’s not painful … it stirs up your inner ears and it’s like being in one of those whirligigs or something … you move around a bit and … you know… and in fact if it’s painful you’re doing it wrong.

At the early high-point of the War on Terror in 2002, a correspondingly disorienting moment, Mitchell had included walling on the list of recommended ‘enhanced’ interrogation methods to the CIA. He also included waterboarding. One of the most instructive moments in the videos must be Mitchell’s defense of it. He maintains that it is not a ‘painful thing’: ‘I thought it could be done safely, I thought he would be uncomfortable. It sucks … I don’t know that it’s painful. It’s distressing’.

A plaintiff’s lawyer, however, reminded Mitchell that he had previously said in a interview: that ‘they probably would prefer you break their legs because it’s less distressing, oddly enough.’

Mitchell made this crucial rejoinder: ‘OK, you’re using the word painful, I’m using the word distressing. The two things are not synonymous in my opinion.’

Similarly, Jessen claimed that the pressure of techniques such as waterboarding are ‘designed to be used in a way that it doesn’t harm but it makes someone uncomfortable … they’re more irritating than painful.’ This description contrasts sharply with Suleiman Salim’s recollection of being forced to adopt standing ‘stress positions’ while tethered and cuffed: ‘I can’t describe how painful it was’. He affirmed, before breaking down, that he ‘presently experienced the pain’ induced by that technique. Mohamed Ben Soud, another plaintiff who was kept in the notorious COBALT site (otherwise known as the ‘Salt Pit’) in Afghanistan describes long-lasting psychological injuries including nightmares and anxiety.

Such are the effects of the ‘art of the interview’. These sordid debates are a reminder to concurrently attend to the physical effects on tortured bodies and the politico-legal effects of the unbridling of national security agencies’ powers to secretively detain and coercively interrogate subjects, as well as rewrite judicial codes in their interests. But we should also be mindful that what is commonly understood as modern interrogation is an effect itself – an idea that emerges from the tumult of technical registers selectively and tactically deployed, of commonsense medico-ethical interpretations and expert opinion. I write this as a prelude to further discussion of the way the idea of interrogation constantly mutates around two seemingly concrete poles – science and art. Recent debate sometimes centres on how to define its techniques – are they arrived at and advanced ‘scientifically’, through ‘experimentation’? Or are they, as Mitchell part of the ‘art of the interview’?

This a question with critical implications. If the CIA’s programs were managed as a program of ‘human experimentation’ they may have fallen foul of more laws, in this case transnational covenants against non-consensual medical and scientific experimentation. Recent commentary claims that it would be a ‘stretch’ to consider the programs Mitchell and Jessen developed as ‘scientific’, precisely because they were largely ad hoc and the psychologists resisted the CIA’s demands for the program to be rigorously assessed. For M. Gregg Bloche, a psychiatrist who teaches law at Georgetown, any collection of data on or about the program’s victims was ‘morally incidental’. In fact, if anything we would know more about interrogation and its tendency to be a craft of victimization if more data was collected, not prohibited. From this perspective, better national security practices would flow from more science and more data. Yet, it is precisely the mutability of interrogation technique – the tactical shuttling from science to art that shores up its power. Indeed, the CIA’s ‘chief of medical services chided Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen for treating the torture program as an ‘art form’ that that ‘could not be objectively analyzed’. And yet, in his deposition Mitchell told plaintiff lawyers that he couldn’t say if his torture techniques had lasting harmful effects but that if they did then ‘show me the data’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *