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Experiment in Terror: The Psychological Evaluation of Abu Zubaydah and Its Role in Designing Torture

zubaydah.thumbnail.jpgIn part one of this article, we looked at why the psychological report on Abu Zubaydah was ever written, and concluded, "It is clear the evaluation was written specifically to get permission for waterboarding, and not to undertake a serious psychological evaluation of the prisoner." In this second part, we look at when the report was likely written, and why the timing of it was consistent with the claim that the "evaluation" was really a pro forma performance for the sake of the lawyers. In addition, we will examine how some of the bogus claims about Zubaydah are linked to the cover story that brought about the torture program itself.

When Was the Evaluation Written?

The report was almost certainly written in July 2002, not long before it was passed to the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). It likely was part of a packet of material used to present the "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques," including waterboarding, as potentially "safe" to use.

There are plenty of indications in the report that Zubaydah had been under observation and interrogated (tortured) for some time prior to the drafting of the report (emphasis added).

Of particular note has been subject’s ability to manage his mood and emotions during detention. [About four lines redacted] In addition, he showed strong signs of sympathetic nervous system arousal (possibly fear) when he experienced the initial "confrontational" dislocation of expectation during an interrogation session…. As has been observed during his recent detention, he was able to quickly bounce back from these most disconcerting moments and regain an air of calm confidence, and strong resolve in not parting with any other threat information.

By sympathetic nervous system arousal, the report’s author means rapid breathing and heartbeat, dilated pupils, raised blood pressure, a spike in adrenaline, muscle tension, increased sweating — noting "fear," possibly Zubaydah experienced a panic attack.

What could have brought about this "’confrontational’ dislocation"? Most likely it was the appearance of James Mitchell and his SERE-style torture methods, replacing the early "rapport"-based interrogation of Ali Soufan and the FBI interrogation team. What Mitchell or whomever is saying here is that when things got rough, Zubaydah was temporarily shaken and "talked" more, subsequently regaining his "calm" and not producing more of what the torturers wanted.

Mitchell arrived in Thailand sometime in April 2002, and FBI interrogator Ali Soufan left in mid-May, in protest over the implementation of Mitchell’s "learned helplessness" techniques. Already, Zubaydah had been subjected to forced nudity, sensory overload, shackling and sleep deprivation (and I’d guess, dietary manipulation, i.e., slow starvation), and perhaps other cruel treatment. (Soufan admitted that the FBI interrogation did not meet Geneva Common Article Three standards, either.) If my thesis is correct, the "dislocation" took place sometime before mid-May.

This appears to be corroborated by the fact that it was in mid-May, according to a narrative released by the Senate Intelligence Committee (H/T again to Marcy Wheeler) that the CIA first proposed ratcheting up the pressure on Zubaydah, including the use of the waterboard.

According to CIA records, because the CIA believed that Abu Zubaydah was withholding imminent threat information during the initial interrogation sessions, attorneys from the CIA’s Office of General Counsel met with the Attorney General, the National Security Adviser, the Deputy National Security Adviser, the Legal Adviser to the National Security Council, and the Counsel to the President in mid-May 2002 to discuss the possible use of alternative interrogation methods that differed from the traditional methods used by the U.S. military and intelligence community. At this meeting, the CIA proposed particular alternative interrogation methods, including waterboarding.

The frustration with Zubaydah — who by mid-May had recovered from his "dislocation" experience (or conversely, had simply nothing more to say, or was already beyond reasonable functioning) — places the portion of the psych evaluation narrative on this point a minimum of two months before the report was presumably written.

It also means the report could not have been written before mid-May. If the psychological evaluation was written to assess Abu Zubaydah’s ability to handle interrogation, or to assess what types of interrogation techniques might be most effective, then it would have been written much earlier. It looks as if they were interested in running an experiment, trying out certain (SERE) techniques, irregardless of the actual psychological characteristics of the individual involved. That’s why there was no earlier evaluation. The only purpose for this evaluation was CIA concern that they would not be caught doing something "illegal," i.e., to cover their asses.

Abu Zubaydah and the Al Qaeda Resistance Manual

The contradictions regarding the portrayal of Abu Zubaydah’s life, noted in part one of this article, are most pronounced around his relationship to the vaunted "resistance" techniques of Al Qaeda fighters. The report retails alleged claims that Zubaydah actually wrote the manual. At another point, it states he is "familiar and probably well versed" in Al Qaeda resistance techniques (emphasis added). It’s easy to forget today that Zubaydah was later proven to never have been an Al Qaeda or Taliban member, nor "privy to the information the government alleged he had provided" (H/T Gitcheegumee).

As Marcy Wheeler has pointed out, the claims regarding Abu Zubaydah and the Al Qaeda manual coincide with the early stages of the torture program, when a Mitchell and Jessen review of said manual was used as a cover for the experiment of reverse-engineering SERE techniques into a physical torture program to use on supposed Al Qaeda prisoners.

As a recent article of mine pointed out, the ostensible Al Qaeda manual likely was part of a cover story originating with CIA/Special Operations officers, operating on orders from Cheney’s office, and sent down through the JPRA command, who used Mitchell and Jessen, and possibly other outsourcing companies, for implementation of a new torture program. It didn’t hurt that they all planned to make a lot of money in the process.

Once the torture program was well under way, the Al Qaeda manual meme faded away, and JPRA insinuated itself as the new, go-to agency for "war on terror" interrogators. In the end, a turf war ensued, with JPRA, Special Operations command, DIA and super-secret covert action arm, the Strategic Support Branch, on one side, and FBI, other existing intelligence groups (like the Naval Criminal Investigative Service) and, to a certain extent CIA, on the other. None of these groups really opposed all abusive interrogations (even the FBI had dirty hands), but were quick to criticize the ineffectiveness of the other group’s protocols.

The conflict still continues today. The latest plan of the Obama administration, introduced by its Interrogation Task Force just last Monday, to create an omnibus group of interrogation professionals and place its center at the FBI, represents a partial defeat of sorts for those who placed their bets on the "learned helplessness" paradigm. But it does not represent the end of torture, only the return to the CIA-oriented program based on isolation, sensory deprivation/overload, sleep deprivation, and fear. The latter are enshrined in Appendix M of Army Field Manual 2-22.3, the new "golden standard" for U.S. interrogations.

Did Abu Zubaydah write the Al Qaeda resistance manual or not? Almost certainly not, but the report’s own contradictions on this point are telling, as it points to carelessness in writing the report, as the product itself was not important, only its conclusion: Zubaydah should be waterboarded. The purpose of the report was to provide a guarantee — because a psychological professional signed off on it! — that it is "safe".

This so-called “evaluation” is obscene, unprofessional, and I’m ashamed that my profession, which has helped so many people, has been dragged into the worst sort of crimes and unethical, illegal behavior. I support the call of Physicians for Human Rights for Congress and the White House to convene a non-partisan commission to investigate the role of medical and psychological professionals in "the design, justification, supervision, and use" of the torture program, and to prosecute those involved.

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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.