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Military Interrogations: Torture, Hyprocrisy Pre-Date 9/11

Some stories are more revelatory than others. They expose the truth hidden behind hollow rhetoric and spin, and shine a light into some very dark places.

Such is the nature of a story I stumbled upon some weeks ago, and which I have written up in an investigatory piece at The Public Record. It concerns the arrest of Navy Petty Officer Daniel King by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). King was held without charges for approximately 18 months, and forced, after four weeks of 12-19 hour-a-day interrogation, and sensory overload and sleep deprivation, to cough up a false confession. Subsequently, he spent months in isolation in a six by nine foot cell. . . and all this happened in the two years before 9/11.

The investigating judge ultimately halted the investigation, because King’s confession had been coerced.

The psychologist who interviewed King — all caught on a videotape that is supposedly unclassified, but I haven’t yet been able to obtain — was the former Chief Forensic Psychologist for the NCIS, Michael Gelles. For those who have followed the controversy over psychologists, the American Psychological Association (APA), and torture interrogations, Mike Gelles will be a familiar name.

Both NCIS and Gelles were portrayed in the Senate Armed Service Committee report on prisoner abuse, released a few months ago, as opponents of coercive interrogation, and advocates of establishing "long-term rapport" with prisoners under interrogation. Gelles is a well-known public advocate of psychologist participation in "ethical" interrogations. He publishes articles and gives talks about it around the country, promoting the idea that psychologists can ethically participate in national security interrogations.

Of course, Gelles never mentions that he had ethics charges filed against him in the King case by Jonathan Turley, Daniel King’s civilian attorney. Nor that the APA dismissed these charges out of hand, and without any investigation. Later, APA honchos put Gelles on their blue-ribbon PENS Task Force, drawing up policy for psychologists in national security settings. Of course, this august TF ended up endorsing the use of psychologists in interrogations, and had the gall to claim that "a central role for psychologists working in the area of national security-related investigations is to assist in ensuring that processes are safe, legal, and ethical for all participants.”

Here’s a sample of how one of APA’s star psychologists kept processes "safe, legal, and ethical," from my Public Record article:

On October 19, 1999, three weeks into the interrogation, King was taken by his own request to see psychologist Michael Gelles. While this indicates probable earlier contact with Dr. Gelles, nothing is currently known about any earlier contact. Gelles met with King for 45 minutes. The session was videotaped, although this was done without the legal requirement to read King his rights, or inform him the tape could be used against him in court. Two other NCIS agents were also present during the meeting, which took place after days of prolonged interrogation, sleep deprivation, and ever-present monitoring.

Lieutenant Freedus [a defense JAG] stated that King made “highly exculpatory statements” during this meeting, as indeed he did in all other taped sessions with him.

The actions of Dr. Gelles were documented by a videotape, which with other audio tapes, were discovered by accident by the defense, as they had illegally been withheld from discovery. The videotape reportedly shows Dr. Gelles referring to himself as “the doc” and “not an agent.” King told Gelles he had “no memory” of any of the espionage activities to which he’d confessed. He was concerned he had “repressed memories, or something like that,” because he was falsely told the polygraphs had come out positive, and he wondered if perhaps hypnotism or “truth serum” could jog his memory.

According to Turley’s statement to the Senate Intelligence subcommittee (emphasis added):

[King] told Gelles that he had no memory of the espionage facts but says that the polygraph examinations prove that he must have done something – a clear misconception that neither Gelles nor the agents correct. King asked for hypnosis and truth serum to determine if this is merely a dream. Gelles told him that he might give King hypnosis if King goes back and gives the agents “corroborating” evidence. Gelles told King that he could trust the agents and says that the agents are clearly his friends, he had a “special relationship” with the agents and the agents “will be with you forever.” Gelles virtually ignored the statement of King that he had suicidal thoughts when he left Guam – two days before the interview. Instead, Gelles told King to give corroborating evidence as a precondition for the hypnosis that King sought to clear his doubts as to any espionage.

After King was released, Turley made known his intent to file ethics charges against Michael Gelles with the American Psychological Association (APA). According to Mr. Turley, Dr. Gelles “refused to give licensing information to the defense or to respond to allegations of violation of basic canons of professional conduct as a licensed psychologist.” In a private communication, Mr. Turley subsequently indicated the ethics charges were filed, and dismissed without any investigation by APA.

As I researched, I found the NCIS also had a far more checkered history than I thought. This is from a statement to a Senate Intelligence subcommittee by JAG officer Lt. Robert Bailey, one of Petty Officer King’s military attorneys.

The conduct of NCIS agents in this case was nothing short of shocking. Independent reviewers have stated that their techniques were barbaric and hearken back to the unconstitutional abuses of the 1920s and 1930s. That such conduct occurred at the hands of NCIS is not surprising to one regularly involved in military justice practice within the Navy. Indeed, such conduct is predictable based on the training and guidance manual published by the NCIS. According to the NCIS Manual, Chapter 14 – Interrogations, any person who adamantly denies any wrongdoing and points to his clean record is "subconsciously confessing"….

This pattern of abusive interrogation techniques combined with a blatant disregard for national security regulations reveals a rogue agency that considers itself above the legal and constitutional standards it was created to enforce and protect.

Clearly, we have a scandal here that indicts what we used to quaintly call "The Establishment." Whether it’s military entities like NCIS, professional organizations like APA, or the press, who covered this story when it came out in early 2001, but then dropped it like a hot potato after 9/11, we have enough material stored up for a dozen investigations.

Yet here we are, nearly seven months into a Democratic presidential term, with a Democratic Congress, and more revelations than one can shake a stick at, and there are almost no investigations. There is, of course, the closed-door investigation of the Senate Intelligence Committee, whose every utterance and leak are gratefully read like mystic tea leaves for where the government might go when it comes to accountability. There is also the investigation by John Durham into the destruction of the CIA’s torture videotapes, but it’s not clear where this highly secret investigation is ultimately headed.

Speaking of accountability, the APA has got to clean up their house. A huge fraud was perpetuated upon their membership, and the public at large, when they created a bogus "task force" on interrogations, one which the military would utilize to justify use of psychologists to staff their torture interrogations (to keep things "safe"), and stacked it largely with ethical malefactors and CIA/Special Operations officers.

Nor can APA claim not to have known about Gelles’s role in the King interrogation abuse. In early 2001, the case was covered by the Washington Post, CNN, 60 Minutes, NPR, and host of other press. How can APA Ethics director Steven Behnke, or then president-elect Philip Zimbardo not have known what was going on? Why is Behnke still Ethics Director? What was the role of Gerry Koocher, APA president-elect at the time of the PENS meetings, and a major contributor to the PENS deliberations?

We have a very sad, yet critical, situation in this country. The Gelles/King/NCIS case goes back to the Clinton years. Things didn’t get better after 2001, they got worse. What can we point to as progress in basic human rights, or in the actions of the military? Very little, I’m afraid.

Correction, 7/26/09: The article incorrectly states that Petty Officer King’s false confession was rendered after approximately four weeks of interrogation. The "confession" occurred on October 6, seven days after interrogation began. King subsequently recanted this confession, while the interrogation continued, ending 29 days after it initially began. 

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Jeff Kaye

Jeff Kaye

Jeffrey Kaye is a retired psychologist who has worked professionally with torture victims and asylum applicants. Active in the anti-torture movement since 2006, he has his own blog, Invictus, previously wrote regularly for Firedoglake’s The Dissenter, as well as at The Guardian, Truthout, Alternet, and The Public Record. He is the author of Cover-Up at Guantanamo, a new book examining declassified files on treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo detention camp.