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CIA/SERE Experiments Evidence of Attempt to Mislead on OLC Torture Memos

Professor Shane O’Mara at Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience in Dublin has written an article which has caught the attention of the mainstream media. Pamela Hess at Associated Press described Prof. O’Mara’s article,”Torturing the Brain: On the folk psychology and folk neurobiology motivating ‘enhanced and coercive interrogation techniques’” (PDF), as showing that the CIA’s “severe interrogation techniques appear based on… a layman’s idea of how the brain works as opposed to science-based understanding of memory and cognitive function.” (Bmaz also reported on this.)

What neither Ms. Hess nor Professor O’Mara apparently realized is that in conducting his research for his review on how the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” caused debilitating damage to the brain and nervous system — producing confabulation more readily than information — one of the scientific papers O’Mara relied upon was itself produced by a CIA researcher. Such close participation between CIA and military researchers and the world of stress research adds a sinister dimension to the production of the OLC memos, which Professor O’Mara otherwise believes were based on naive “folk” beliefs and a faulty neuropsychobiological model.

But this is not the case. The CIA was well-aware of the type of research he cites — because it was a major contributor to such research!

In an article posted at The Public Record last week, CIA Experiments on US Soldiers Linked to Torture Program (later picked up by Truthout), I showed how a Yale psychiatrist, and researcher for the National Center for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, had received hundreds of thousands of dollars to do research on the psychological and physiological effects of stress produced by SERE techniques. The researcher, Charles A. Morgan, III, has identified himself, in certain settings, as a CIA behavioral scientist.

(SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, and is the name for the military survival schools that provide select members of the armed forces with “stress inoculation” training by subjecting them to a reduced amount of torture and captivity. The CIA’s EITs were famously reverse-engineered by SERE psychologists from the techniques utilized during SERE training.)

In the AP article, Hess writes, “A 2006 Intelligence Science Board report on interrogation also noted possible negative effects of certain methods.” But Hess doesn’t mention, nor does she likely know, that one of the primary members on the ISB board that produced the report was the same Dr. Morgan.

… in the Information Science Board (ISB) document, Educing Information [PDF] — which was heavily drawn upon by President Obama’s task force on interrogations, for recommendations on the interrogations issue — Dr. Morgan is identified as a member of the 11-person “Government Experts Committee,” and listed as affiliated with the Intelligence Technology Innovation Center (ITIC). According to Intelligence Online, ITIC is “a research organization under the CIA’s authority,” which “answers directly to the CIA’s Science and Technology directorate.”

Research on SERE Techniques and the OLC Memos

The “CIA Experiments” article described some of the research Dr. Morgan and his associates have conducted using SERE trainees, many of them Special Forces personnel. (Professor O’Hara cites one of Morgan’s articles himself — see footnote 9 to his paper.) In a June 2000 article, “Assessment of Humans Experiencing Uncontrollable Stress: The SERE Course,” in Special Warfare (PDF), Morgan and his Special Operations psychologist co-author cite “recorded changes in cortisol levels” among individuals subjected to SERE techniques as “some of the greatest ever documented in humans.” As Professor O’Mara notes in his own essay, a “substantial increase in cortisol levels has a deleterious effect on memory.” The same article described testosterone levels falling in male subjects to below castration levels.

Another article by Morgan and his team looked at dissociative psychological effects of SERE techniques upon human subjects. (Dissociation produces symptoms such as depersonalization, derealization, psychic or emotional numbing, and general cognitive confusion.)

RESULTS: In study 1, 96% of subjects reported dissociative symptoms in response to acute stress. Total scores, as well as individual item scores, on the dissociation scale were significantly lower in Special Forces soldiers compared to general infantry troops. In study 2, 42% of subjects reported dissociative symptoms before stress and 96% reported them after acute stress.

Professor O’Mara’s essay is an excellent brief review of the relevant literature on stress, as it pertains to the kinds of torture conducted by the CIA, and its effects upon memory, and the presumed ability to produce accurate information. It easily deserves wide dissemination. But evidence of CIA participation in the very research that was suppressed in the OLC memos shows that the conclusions drawn in the torture memos were not simply due to “bad faith” lawyering. As I wrote in my original article:

The frenzied search for data on waterboarding, sleep deprivation, isolation, confinement in a small box, etc., to submit to OLC attorneys making legal determinations on whether proposed interrogation techniques constituted torture, was a kabuki organized by the CIA. The OLC attorneys involved — John Yoo, Stephen Bradbury, Jay Bybee, and others — were witting or unwitting partners in suppression of CIA research on torture (as future investigations will disclose). Given the participation of members of the Office of the Vice President, particularly David Addington and Vice President Cheney himself, in the promulgation of the torture program, and the composition of the memos, it seems likely they were also involved in the suppression of this material. As a result, the memos produced authorizing the “enhanced interrogation techniques” were composed as the result of fraud and bad faith, the result of a criminal conspiracy to implement illegal torture techniques.

In this earlier article, I had taken Dr. Morgan at his word, as reported in a 2007 New York Times article, that he was incredulous at how SERE techniques could have migrated over to the torture program. But, as I recently discovered (H/T to fellow psychologist Brad Olson), the CIA scientist had a different take on the uses of SERE research in an essay in the 2006 book, Military Psychology, Clinical and Operational Applications (p. 252):

The SERE platform offers a unique opportunity to evaluate old and new assessment techniques under conditions that are more realistic than traditional laboratories….

The SERE training environment affords the military services the opportunity to collaborate with various other government agencies in exploring old and new techniques in gathering human intelligence.

The O’Mara essay and AP article appear only a few weeks after Physicians for Human Rights released a “white paper” highlighting evidence of illegal human experimentation on U.S.-held “terrorism” prisoners undergoing torture. The allegations of torture experimentation are consistent with reports of CIA experimentation upon Abu Zubaydah, and of the Pentagon running an interrogation “Battle Lab” at Guantanamo. In his book, Oath Betrayed: America’s Torture Doctors, bioethicist Steven Miles calls Mohammed al-Khatani’s interrogation an experiment: “The peculiar content and structure of this document makes sense if it is the log of research on coercive interrogation….” (p. 176).

Experimentation upon subjects to further “scientific” understanding of the effects of torture is also not new. In the 1950s, the CIA and Pentagon funded top psychologists and psychiatrists in research upon the effects of SERE training. These researchers established a protocol for psychological torture, based on torture tactics that induced “debility, dependency, and dread.” (See West LJ., Medical and psychiatric considerations in survival training. In: Report of the Special Study Group on Survival Training (AFR 190 16). Lackland Air Force Base, Tex: Air Force Personnel and Training Research Centers; 1956.) This protocol was later incorporated into an early 1960s CIA (KUBARK) interrogation manual.

It is not enough to understand what research the Office of Legal Counsel attorneys failed to include in their infamous torture memos. One must understand why this research was not included, and who was involved in that. The evidence points to a deliberate attempt to implement and then hide a torture program, whose very basis for existence may have been, in part, to study the effects of torture upon involuntary subjects, in order to implement (or hide) an updated protocol for coercive interrogation. Only a full, wide-ranging, and open investigation — including not only politicians, academics, lawyers, and blue-ribbon, distinguished experts, but representatives of human rights organizations, church and labor leaders, and other important societal participants — will, given full subpoena power, be able to get to the bottom of this sinister program that seized hold of the governmental apparatus, and steered it towards brutality and a catastrophic breakdown of law.

“For the Record”

Dr. Morgan has left a comment about the original article at The Public Record. In it, he criticizes the story as “inaccurate and misleading.” He offers no examples of the purported inaccuracies, but does state:

The research conducted by our research team at the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not, and never has been, conducted for any other purpose than to help us understand the pathophysiology of stress disorders and we might better help in the treatment of veterans. Our research on PTSD and our studies of stress in healthy soldiers began in the 1990s – long before 2001 and the Bush Administration’s policies. We will continue to investigate how we might better help individuals who suffer from trauma related disorders.

I will answer Dr. Morgan’s comment at greater length in the very near future, but suffice it to say that nothing said in my articles, including this one, was untrue or misrepresented the facts. I take Dr. Morgan’s statement as a denial that his research for the National Center for PTSD was meant for purposes of conducting torture.

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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.