US Government Classifies Term “America’s Battle Lab’ in War on Terror” in Pentagon Report
The Department of Defense, after consultation with the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Defense Intelligence Agency, has released via Mandatory Declassification Request an early Pentagon study of intelligence operations at Guantanamo (along with accompanying slide presentation). It is very heavily redacted, with whole pages blanked out.
But even more, DoD and its “consultants” have seen fit to classify material that was already made public during a much-reported Senate investigation, including the controversial assertion that interrogations at Guantanamo constituted an experimental “battle lab” for treatment of and interrogations on prisoners captured in the administration’s newly-minted “global war on terror.”
When the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) published their report, “Inquiry in the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody,” in November 2008, Section III was titled, “Guantanamo Bay as a “Battle Lab” for New Interrogation Techniques.” The quote was taken from a 2002 report commissioned by the Joint Chiefs of Staff on intelligence operations at Guantanamo’s new prison for “war on terror” prisoners.
The SASC report referred to the JSC study as the “Custer report,” named after Colonel John P. Custer, then-assistant commandant of the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School at Ft. Huachuca, who led the review team for the Joint Chiefs. The report stated, “In his report, COL Custer referred to GTMO as ‘America’s “Battle Lab”‘ in the global war on terror, observing that ‘our nation faces an entirely new threat framework,’ which must be met by an investment of both human capital and infrastructure.”
Despite the fact the portions of the Custer Report quoted above were not classified in the SASC report, there are no comparable quotations or remarks in the Custer Report or the slides released via MDR request. Because there are so many redactions in the report itself, it is impossible to know which agency did the classification, or what FOIA “exception” was used to justify this specific instance of censorship.
The Senate report also documented use of similar characteristic language from two Guantanamo commanders, Major General Mark Dunleavy and Major General Geoffrey Miller.
The Senate committee would conclude that psychologists at the military’s SERE schools, and possibly special forces, along with their commanding officers and some legal officials, had colluded in creating a new and untested form of interrogation that amounted to abuse and torture of prisoners. While they did not say so, this program ran concurrently with the CIA’s notorious “enhanced interrogation” program, and many of the techniques used overlapped between CIA and DoD, including use of isolation, sleep deprivation, stress positions, physical abuse, and sensory deprivation and overload.
The redactions in the Custer report are currently under appeal with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, who told me in an October 23, 2014 letter it is “coordinating this appeal with the Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, and Joint Staff.”
The “Battle Lab” term was viewed with alarm by military investigators from the Criminal Investigative Task Force (CITF), which DoD had assembled from investigators from the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. The SASC quoted CITF chief, Colonel Britt Mallow, who provided written testimony to the Senate committee:
MG Dunlavey and later MG Miller referred to GTMO as a “Battle Lab” meaning that interrogations and other procedures there were to some degree experimental, and their lessons would benefit DOD in other places. While this was logical in terms of learning lessons, I personally objected to the implied philosophy that interrogators should experiment with untested methods, particularly those in which they were not trained.
Mallow’s deputy, Mark Fallon, concurred, telling the SASC “CITF did not concur with the Battle Lab concept because the task force ‘did not advocate the application of unproven techniques on individuals who were awaiting trials…. there were many risks associated with this concept… and the perception that detainees were used for some ‘experimentation’ of new unproven techniques had negative connotations.”
Told that the FOIA release of the Custer report had censored use of the term “battle lab,” Fallon told this author he was “very disappointed” at the extent of the redactions in the FOIA version of the report.
“I was privy to the initial report when it was first published,” Fallon wrote in a March 6 email, “and in fact, one of the factors that contributed to the need for such a review were the complaints the CITF had made to the chain of command about the activities and actions associated with detainee operations and interrogations onboard Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“Just as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) found when they were staffing the release of the Torture Report, redactions are often to avoid embarrassment and not based on legitimate national security purpose…. In fact, the 2008 SASC hearings and report contained specific information about Col Custer’s report about interrogations at Guantanamo…
“Having spent more than 30 years working national security issues, including investigating unauthorized disclosure of classified information and espionage related matters; there are two resounding themes that spanned across those decades. One was the over classification of information that is not based on legitimate national security interests and the other is the lack of accountability for the over classification of material.
“In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, we did some things that are contrary to our values and we can neither hide from them nor redact them from the record. Our Nation has always grown stronger when we have confronted our failings and learned from them. It’s time to illuminate the darkness on this dark chapter and to once again be the beacon for human rights and American values.”
Intelligence Contingency Funds
The Custer report as released is not without some interesting value. For one thing, it describes the recommendation for the founding of a “Terrorism University” at Guantanamo, meant to “provide a common orientation curriculum for personnel assigned to the GTMO operation.” Personnel who have contact with detainees would be trained prior to their deployment. “Interrogators and debriefers who have worked at [redacted] detention center should be sent to “TU” as advisors/instructors,” the document states.
Even more interesting is the reports discussion of use of “Intelligence Contingency Funds.” Much of the section on this issue is, as is most of the document, censored. However, the intelligence officials who undertook the August 2002 review at Guantanamo were clearly unhappy about the facilities at the Cuba-based naval prison, citing them “too small for current and projected [nearly a line redacted] intelligence operations.”
Military intelligence officials recommended that the Joint Chiefs work with the House and Senate intelligence committees “for an emergency intelligence appropriation to fund construction…” of updated facilities.
It is not generally known that the Congressional intelligence committees, ostensibly formed to provide oversight on the actions of the CIA and other intelligence committees (while SASC is supposed to be responsible for military intelligence oversight), act dually to provide appropriations for intelligence operations. Indeed, I have never seen it reported on.
But on its web servers, the CIA has a history online, L. Britt Snider’s “The Agency and the Hill,” which discusses the development of this aspect of the intelligence committees. (See especially its Chapter 6, “Program and Budget.”)
The import of this information cannot be clearer. Whatever its oversight functions and actions, the House and Senate intelligence committees clearly were involved in funding “America’s ‘Battle lab'” of torture.
Intel Agencies’ Curiosity about “the limits of the human spirit”
In January 2015, the Seton Hall University School of Law, Center for Policy and Research, put out a report, “Guantanamo: America’s Battle Lab,” which amplified the points made above. The report (PDF) documented how an experimental program of torture had been implemented via a secret, unacknowledged Special Access Program (SAP), with no congressional oversight. (Strangely, the report failed to mention how the Custer report also used the “battle lab” language.)
The Seton Hall investigators summarized their findings:
The Center for Policy and Research has discovered the disturbing truth behind the purpose of GTMO. Instead of being used primarily as a detention facility, GTMO was designed and operated by Intel predominately as America’s Battle Lab—a facility where U.S. intelligence personnel could coordinate worldwide interrogation efforts and have unfettered control over persons in U.S. custody….
America’s most notorious detention facility was covertly transformed into a secret interrogation base designed to foster intelligence’s curiosity on the effects of torture and the limits of the human spirit….
… GTMO truly served as the think tank and center for experimentation in exploring interrogation techniques and training other military officials in facilities across the globe. In this sense, America’s Battle Lab served as the heart of worldwide interrogation testing and training.
“Murder at Camp Delta”
The discovery of the Gitmo SAP (or SAPs) was narrated in the first person, in the form of an odyssey though the maze of Guantanamo prison blocks and secret black sites taken by former Guantanamo prison guard Joseph Hickman, as described in his new book, Murder at Camp Delta: A Staff Sergeant’s Pursuit of the Truth About Guantanamo Bay. Hickman was also a senior researcher on the Seton Hall study.
In June 2006, Hickman was eyewitness to lies told by high military officials about what happened when three young men were supposedly discovered dead by suicide. While at first he found the idea that command authorities or the Naval Criminal Investigative Service could be covering up a crime too difficult to believe, when a fourth detainee allegedly was found hanged in his cell nearly a year later, he realized that the evidence of his eyes and of his heart could be ignored no longer. The remainder of his extraordinary book details Hickman’s own investigation into the deaths of the three 2006 “suicides.”
Hickman cites many of the details found in the Seton Hall study, but unlike the documentary approach of the latter, the former guard’s story puts you right in the middle of the investigation.
According to Hickman: “… by the time I’d gathered and sifted though all the relevant documents, I realized that all of us who arrived there, even Admiral Harris, had entered an intelligence operation in which no normal military rules or codes applied.
“Instead of order and discipline, the authorities behind it aimed to create ‘controlled chaos.’ The people we were guarding weren’t just suspected jihadists or enemy combatants, but men who’d been given drugs by our medical personnel intended to make them believe they were insane when they arrived.”
Mefloquine and beyond
Hickman, like his collaborators at Seton Hall, concentrate on the bizarre use of the antimalaria drug mefloquine at high treatment doses on all incoming detainees, as an example of the way drugs were used to disorient and disable incoming detainees. But evidence from this author shows that not only melfoquine, but the antimalaria drug chloroquine was used on at least some of the detainees at points well past their entry into Guantanamo.
Similarly, some detainees, including one who died in 2006 and another in 2007, were possibly given mefloquine at other points in their incarceration for reasons that could only be to disable and harm them.
There is much left to explore and discover about the US torture programs of the CIA and the Defense Department, and the mysterious Special Access Programs, unaccountable to no one, that have undertaken a lawless program of torture and mayhem and murder that no one can guarantee isn’t over yet. Indeed, a recent UN meeting of the Committee on Torture castigated the U.S. for the continued use of isolation, sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation, as allowed in Appendix M of the Army Field Manual.
There are two things lacking in moving forward on this issue: political will, and the lassitude of the press. Of these, political will must come first, as the torture issue is tied to two political parties, one of which has members who are strong proponents of torture, and the other which has a leader in the Oval Office who refuses to prosecute former government officials for war crimes, and lectures others not to dwell on these past crimes because they are in the past. (This did not stop Obama’s DoJ for prosecuting Rasmea Odeh for crimes purportedly committed 40 years ago, or holding former American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier in prison for trumped up charges for 38 years.)
But political will also rests ultimately in the hands of the people themselves, and unless citizens of the United States start to take these issues with the seriousness they deserve, then the torturers will continue to go free. They are free now – from Guantanamo to Chicago, Illinois — and they are getting ever more aggressive. Failure of will to prosecute and punish the torturers will result in the total loss of democratic rights and the descent into the kind of hell usually reserved for U.S. torture-client states, like Egypt.