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The “Ethical Interrogation”: The Myth of Michael Gelles and the al-Qahtani Interrogation

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Several public accounts of abusive interrogations at Guantanamo have praised psychologist Dr. Michael Gelles for his opposition to these abuses. Similarly, the American Psychological Association (APA) has repeatedly pointed to actions of Dr. Gelles to instantiate their claim that psychologists played a crucial role in opposing abuses and protecting detainees. Gelles also has been a regular public presence, discussing the errors at Guantanamo while advocating for the APA's "policy of participation" in interrogations. The APA policy encourages psychologists to aid interrogations to keep them "safe, legal, ethical, and effective." But a recently released Defense Department document challenges Dr. Gelles's role as an exemplar of psychological ethics in interrogations.

As reported by Bill Dedman, Phillipe Sands, and Jane Mayer, Gelles objected to the "harsh" interrogation tactics being used at Guantanamo. In particular, he strenuously objected to the plans to "reverse engineer" the tactics used by the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program to inculcate strategies for resistance to torture in US service members at high risk for capture.

In November 2002, the military planned to use these SERE-based techniques on prisoner 063, Mohammed al Qahtani, one of several US captives dubbed the "20th hijacker." Gelles and colleagues from the Criminal Investigative Task Force (CITF), the FBI, and other agencies proposed an alternative interrogation plan for al Qahtani, one that did not involve use of SERE techniques. This plan was rejected. Instead, al-Qahtani was subjected to an interrogation that met the legal definition of "torture," according to Bush Administration appointee Susan Crawford, convener of the Guantanamo Military Commissions. [Phillipe Sands detailed the development of the al-Qahtani torture plan in his book, The Torture Team, an extract from which was published in Vanity Fair. Sands also describes the alternate CITF/FBI plan as written by "Gelles' team" (p. 130).] Gelles reported his concerns regarding use of SERE techniques and the al-Qahtani interrogation up the chain of command, leading Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora to protest and force at least temporary change in official interrogation policy in early 2003.

A few weeks ago, in response to an ACLU's years-long Freedom of Information Act Request, the alternative interrogation plan for al-Qahtani was quietly released, apparently unnoticed between other documents on FBI and CITF concerns about Guantanamo practices. According to the alternative plan document, it was drafted:

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"by representatives of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), and behavioral specialists, psychiatrists and psychologists with the Criminal Investigation Task Force (ClTF)."

Given the prominent roles of mental health professionals in its drafting, the alternative "rapport-based" plan should be examined for consistency with Gelles' and the other authors' ethical responsibilities as psychologists and psychiatrists.

At the time the plan was written, on November 22, 2002, al-Qahtani had been in isolation for three months and was exhibiting signs of severe mental deterioration to the extent of psychosis. An FBI agent described this deterioration in a report to headquarters:

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"In September or October of 2002 FBI agents observed that a canine was used in an aggressive manner to intimidate detainee __ after he had been subjected to intense isolation for over three months. During that time period, __ was totally isolated (with the exception of occasional interrogations) in a cell that was always flooded with light. By late November, the detainee was evidencing behavior consistent with extreme psychological trauma (talking to non-existent people, reporting hearing voices, crouching in the corner of a cell covered with a sheet for hours on end)."

Gelles and the other authors on the CITF/FBI interrogation plan also noticed his psychological distress:

"#63's behavior has changed significantly during his three months of isolation. He spends much of his day covered by a sheet, either crouched in the corner of his cell or hunched on his knees on top of his bed. These behaviors appear to be unrelated to his praying activities. His cell has no exterior windows, and because it is continuously lit, he is prevented from orientating himself as to time of day. Recently, he was observed by a hidden video camera having conversations with non-existent people. During his last interview on 11/17/02, he reported hearing unusual sounds which he believes are evil spirits, including Satan."

After discussing whether al-Qahtani was faking his symptoms, without coming to a conclusion, the interrogation plan proposed exploiting al-Qahtani's distress from his prolonged isolation:

"Although we are uncertain as to his mental status and recommend a mental evaluation be conducted, there is little doubt that #63 is hungry for human interaction. Our plan is designed to exploit this need and to create an environment in which it [is] easier for #63 to please the interviewer with whom he has come to have complete trust and dependence thus developing a motivation to be forthright and cooperative in providing reliable information."

In order to exploit this hunger for human contact, the CITF/FBI plan recommended that he be kept in continued isolation for up to an additional year:

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"The long-term strategy would be to create an environment in which total dependence and trust between #63 and the interviewer is established at its own pace. Such a plan should be given up to a year to complete although the actual time may be considerably shorter depending on how events unfold."

Al-Qahtani's hunger for human contact would be exploited by making his interrogator the only person he saw over this year:

"To help foster an environment conducive to the establishment of dependence and trust, we propose that the interviewer initially meet with #63 every other day. This should be his only contact with other people, and we believe he will anxiously look forward to these meetings."

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Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. He was a psychological consultant on two of (more...)

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