The Torture Trial

I’m mesmerized by this New York Times article which shows video footage of key people testifying under oath about the US post 9/11 torture program, also known as “enhanced interrogation”.  The most interesting bits are the testimony of military psychologists John Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell.

The two psychologists — whom C.I.A. officials have called architects of the interrogation program, a designation they dispute — are defendants in the only lawsuit that may hold participants accountable for causing harm.

The trial begins in September.  Here are a few thoughts.

First, the case is brought only against the two consulting psychologists.  No government official is named:

The two psychologists argue that the C.I.A., for which they were contractors, controlled the program. But it is difficult to successfully sue agency officials because of government immunity.

The apparent untouchability of government officials is frustrating.  Based on a recent National Security Law podcast I’m not sure that immunity is as absolute as the above quote suggests but I do gather that government workers have quite strong protection against law suits.

I wonder, then, why the CIA hired outside consultants since this move seems to have created a possibility for an embarrassing law suit which, otherwise, may not have been possible.  Maybe the  CIA just couldn’t imagine a court challenge?  Or maybe it is possible, although very difficult, to sue government officials directly so dangling more vulnerable consultants before hungry lawyers could be a good way to divert them away from the CIA itself?  I don’t know.

The price tag for the consulting psychologists is astonishing.

Under the agency’s direction, the two men said, they proposed the “enhanced interrogation” techniques — which were then authorized by the Justice Department — applied them and trained others to do so. Their business received $81 million from the agency.

I guess the CIA didn’t take competitive bids.  Surely somebody would have signed up for $80.5 million.  My understanding is that the enhanced interrogation techniques were, essentially, adaptations of North Korean torture interrogation methods from the 1950’s.  So it would appear that Jessen and Mitchell were overpaid.

Seriously, though, I’m really struggling to work out what Jessen and Mitchell could have provided that the CIA valued so much.  I suspect that their consulting fees exceeded the amount of money the US government spent on counterinsurgency research during a period when the US conducted counterinsurgencies in both Afghanistan and Iraq, making this sum seem gargantuan.  On the other hand these fees are a small fraction of the money spent on a single fighter plane, making them look like a rounding error.  So maybe the CIA was just shoveling counter terrorism money out the door indiscriminately. As a government contractor once explained to me; if you pile enough shit on top of a hill eventually some will start sliding down the hill.

The last main thing that jumps out at me is the claim that at least some of the enhanced interrogation methods do not inflict pain on their targets.  For example,

“Walling,” in which a prisoner is repeatedly slammed against a flexible plywood wall, was “one of the most effective,” Dr. Jessen said. “It’s discombobulating. It doesn’t hurt you, but it jostles the inner ear, it makes a really loud noise.”

Surely it hurts to get slammed into a wall even if it’s true that a flexible wall causes less pain than an inflexible one does.  I find it hard to trust someone who says otherwise.

Enhanced interrogation must be….well….enhanced relative to unenhanced interrogation.  Most people, myself included, have understood that enhancement means more pain.  The underlying idea needs no explanation; a prisoner may be willing to withstand some pain without giving up information but with enough pain he’ll crack.  Many experts dispute this simple idea (e.g., see this monumental book.) but, at a minimum, the more-pain-more-information theory is intuitive.  It seems, however, that the consultants will not invoke it in court.

Rather, the consultants seem poised to argue that their enhancements created non-painful psychological states, such as “discombobulation”, that softened prisoners up without hurting them.  That said, the prisoners in the videos clearly recall experiencing a lot of pain and these recollections seem credible.  My point is simply that the consultants’ case should go better if they acknowledge the pain but argue that inflicting it was worthwhile.  Denying that there was any pain and claiming that their enhancements went in non-painful directions seems like a losing argument to me.



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