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Expose: Former Top Navy Psychologist Involved in Pre-9/11 Prisoner Abuse Case

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A well-known spokesman for ethical interrogations by psychologists in national security settings was himself accused in 2001 of unethical behavior for his part in the interrogation of a suspect in an espionage case. Dr. Michael Gelles was at the time the Chief Forensic Psychologist for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). His work on the investigation of Petty Officer Daniel King was referred for ethical violations by King's civilian attorney, Jonathan Turley, to the Ethics Office of the American Psychological Association, who declined to follow up the charges.

Lieutenant Robert A. Bailey of the Judge Advocate's Corps, and one of two military attorneys for Mr. King, described the interrogation techniques used on his client as "abusive" and "unconstitutional." The conditions of King's custody were "intrusive, threatening, and illegal... coercive and inescapable."

Daniel King was a Petty Officer and Navy cryptanalyst who was arrested for espionage in October 1999. The cause was an inconclusive, or "no opinion" polygraph examination made after he finished his assignment in Guam and was returning to the United States. The administration of such polygraphs is routine when exiting a high-security clearance assignment. King was subsequently incarcerated for 520 days without formal charges.

According to a CBS 60 Minutes story in March 2001, King recalled what happened after his arrest:

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"That's when I started getting interrogated for 17 to 19 hour [sic] at a time," he says. "When we'd get done, I'd go back to the safe house and go into a room. I'd have to leave the door open, the lights would be on, they'd blare the TV, the phone would keep ringing all the time. Even when I went to the bathroom, I had to leave the door open."

After 29 days of long interrogations (some sources say it was 26 days), in which every waking hour was spent with NCIS agents, and with periods of sleep deprivation imposed upon him, King made a false confession, which he later recanted. His requests for an attorney were ignored. NCIS tried to get family members to incriminate him.

When on October 6, 1999 he made his "confession" - admitting he had turned a computer disk over to the Russian Embassy - Petty Officer King had been interrogated for 30 out of the previous 39 hours. The confession was quickly retracted at his next interrogation session, and, according to Lt. Bailey, at almost all subsequent sessions King "denied the veracity of the October 6 statement."

For many months after his return to the United States, King was held incommunicado in a six by nine foot cell for 19-20 hours per day. The lights were kept on at all times. He was subjected to multiple polygraphs, none of which obtained more than inconclusive results. These polygraphs were administered despite the fact Mr. King was not of sound mind, having trouble distinguishing fact from reality, and having suicidal thoughts. Sometimes they were administered after hours of onerous interrogation, breaking Department of Defense guidelines on the administration of polygraphs. Additionally, interrogators lied to King about the results of his polygraph examinations, which were never anything but inconclusive.

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According to Jonathan Turley's account, Mr. King was encouraged to write down his dreams and prior fantasies about espionage and then sign them as statements. Audio tapes made by the government "show King weeping and sobbing" during interrogation.

At times, King is shouting "I don't know what I'm supposed to give you" over and over at the agents as they press him for a signed confession.

In the end, Petty Officer King was released from custody without charges on March 9, 2001. The Investigating Officer in the case, Commander James P. Winthrop, wrote in dismissing the charges (emphasis added):

Although the espionage charge is a very serious one, the government's evidence does not appear to be significantly stronger. It is based exclusively on a confession that the accused subsequently contradicted on several occasions. Additionally, the defense clearly intends to attack the voluntariness of that confession and it appears that such a claim is colorable. The defense contention is bolstered by considerations of the accused's mental state both before and during the weeks-long period where conditions were placed on his liberty. Furthermore, and most importantly, the confession lacks strong corroborating evidence.

By the end of his incarceration, according to Turley, Daniel King had exhausted his finances. His mother had died and he had missed the funeral. The Navy released him with a statement that he was a "traitor." The case made headlines in early 2001, including reports by CNN, the Washington Post, and NPR (with audio, and includes an interview with Daniel King and a clip from the Gelles interrogation).

Michael Gelles's Role

According to a prepared statement for a Senate Intelligence Subcommittee hearing by Lieutenant Matthew Freedus, the second of two defense counsels for Daniel King from the Judge Advocate General's Corps, Mr. King continued to be interrogated by NCIS agents after his "confession," and after repeated requests for access to counsel.

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.

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Lieutenant Freedus 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):

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I am a psychologist living in Northern California, who also blogs primarily on torture issues. I have taught History of Psychology, and also have worked clinically with torture refugees. I have most recently been active in the fight to change the (more...)

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