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Tortured Logic

How the CIA stumbled into torture after 9-11.

By Richard Warnica 10 Aug 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Richard Warnica is a senior editor at The Tyee.

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Anyone with the slightest interest in how torture became a systematized, regulated and endemic part of the CIA's response to 9-11 needs to read Jane Mayer's devastating report in this week's New Yorker.

At over 8,000 words, it's no short read. But trust me, you won't regret it. So if it's too long to get through on the screen, print it out. Or if you're a high roller, you can even buy the actual magazine.

What emerges from Mayer's report is a portrait of an agency in a panicked scramble after the attacks six years ago. With little expertise in interrogation and less in detention, the CIA was unprepared for the new responsibilities thrown at it in the rush to take down terrorists.

Lacking in-house specialists ... the agency hired a group of outside contractors, who implemented a regime of techniques that one well-informed former adviser to the American intelligence community described as "a 'Clockwork Orange' kind of approach." The experts were retired military psychologists, and their backgrounds were in training Special Forces soldiers how to survive torture, should they ever be captured by enemy states. The program, known as SERE -- an acronym for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape -- was created at the end of the Korean War. It subjected trainees to simulated torture, including waterboarding (simulated drowning), sleep deprivation, isolation, exposure to temperature extremes, enclosure in tiny spaces, bombardment with agonizing sounds, and religious and sexual humiliation. The SERE program was designed strictly for defense against torture regimes, but the C.I.A.'s new team used its expertise to help interrogators inflict abuse. "They were very arrogant, and pro-torture," a European official knowledgeable about the program said. "They sought to render the detainees vulnerable -- to break down all of their senses. It takes a psychologist trained in this to understand these rupturing experiences."

The explicit purpose of the program was to utterly shatter the psyches of those being interrogated, to reduce them to what one architect of the program calls "learned helplessness." And unlike the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, which Bush officials claim were unauthorized, the CIA methods were "directly and repeatedly approved by [the] president."

The program is monitored closely by C.I.A. lawyers, and supervised by the agency's director and his subordinates at the Counterterrorism Center. ...according to a former agency official, "Every single plan is drawn up by interrogators, and then submitted for approval to the highest possible level -- meaning the director of the C.I.A. Any change in the plan -- even if an extra day of a certain treatment was added -- was signed off by the C.I.A. director."

Once you've finished Mayer's story, go buy Lawrence Weschler's A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers. Weschler, himself a New Yorker writer for 20 years, chronicled the torturous legacies of the military governments in Uruguay and Brazil in the 1970s and '80s in his book, originally published in 1990.

The parallels, especially with the Uruguayan story, to the system described in Mayer's article are plenty and plenty painful. What Weschler establishes beyond any reasonable doubt is that so called "soft" interrogation methods, those designed to mentally if not physically break the prisoner, are themselves indisputably forms of torture.

The regime at Libertad and Punta de Rieles [home to political prisoners under the Uruguayan junta] was more subtle. Major A. Maciel, who was a director of Libertad, observed at one point, regarding the prisoners under his charge, "We didn't get rid of them when we had the chance, and one day we'll have to let them go, so we'll have to take advantage of the time we have left to drive them mad."

The system was designed and monitored by behavioral psychologists to inflict maximum lasting psychic damage. Prisoners were utterly dehumanized. Long stints in solitary cells were handed out for violations of ever shifting regulations. Everything, from meal times, to cell mates and "entertainment" was calibrated to disrupt and banish any sense of control of self, a goal shared by the CIA program described in Mayer's article.

The most common justification for torture is the ticking time-bomb scenario. But Weschler and Mayer make clear that once justified for national security, torture is never restricted to those uses. Once the decision is made to abandon standards of humane treatment -- officially and explicitly -- torture always spreads, even as those who torture scramble to spread and deny blame, to redefine torturous practices as "coercive but legal" and, when that fails, to claim that even if it was torture you can't judge.  [Tyee]

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