The CIA's Interrogation "Menu"
The CIA may have pushed the envelope with interrogation techniques, but even it thought some techniques were too far. Except when they weren’t. Robert Windrem explains how the Agency assembled its interrogation “menu.”
On July 25, 2002, in the days before the Bush administration approved “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the Pentagon provided the CIA with a rush list of 25 techniques that had been used to train U.S. servicemen to resist potential interrogations at enemy hands. (The list can be seen on pages six through nine of the PDF file here.)The Pentagon suggested these techniques could be “reverse engineered” for use on al Qaeda detainees. Only five days later, on August 1, a menu of 10 of the techniques, including waterboarding, were approved for the CIA in the now-infamous “ Bybee memo.” According to a former senior intelligence officer, at least two were rejected as too “extreme.”
A big factor in people’s thinking was that these techniques were used in the training of U.S. Special Operations Forces,” the former intelligence official told me about SERE training. “If it was something that had been done to U.S. forces… although admittedly very tough… then it couldn’t be considered torture.”
The rush list was provided to the agency by the Pentagon’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) program, which trains U.S. servicemen to resist harsh treatment that might be carried out by an enemy that does not abide by the Geneva Conventions. At the center of the rush job were two retired Air Force psychologists turned CIA contractors: Dr. James Mitchell and Dr. John “Bruce” Jessen, who went from training U.S. servicemen to resist torture to training CIA officers to carry out the same techniques.
“Not everything [Mitchell and Jessen] proposed was part of the final menu,” said a former senior intelligence official. “They came up with some stuff people didn’t like and were not approved. A certain range of things were approved.”
Approved techniques included waterboarding and “insects placed in a confinement box.” Among the proposed techniques that did not make the Bybee memo were those referred to as “smoke,” “immersion”, and “grounding.” In “smoke,” detainees would have been bombarded for up to five minutes with “an extraordinary amount of thick, sickening smoke” created by a mechanism that used dry tobacco as fuel. “Immersion” called for detainees to be placed in a makeshift cold-water bath where, “depending on wind and temperature, the subject may be either fully clothed or stripped.” In “grounding” detainees were “forcefully guided… to the ground, never letting go”. (The CIA did approve a similar technique in which detainees were thrown up against a wall, known as “walling.” Like “walling,” the detainees would have been fitted with a collar to prevent whiplash in “grounding.” The contractor that manufactured the special collar still remains classified.)
While no evidence exists to suggest that “smoke” or “grounding” were ever used against the al-Qaeda detainees, the International Red Cross Committee has reported that at least three detainees claim they were subjected to “immersion” and, in fact, their description of the technique precisely matches that laid out in the original menu the Pentagon provided the CIA.
According to Walid Bin Attash, who was captured in Pakistan in April 2003, “On a daily basis during the first two weeks I was made to lie on a plastic sheet placed on the floor which would then be lifted at the edges. Cold water was then poured onto my body with buckets.” One U.S. intelligence official, however, said that men like Bin Attash could not be trusted: “The ICRC document is based in large part on the recollections of the terrorists themselves. There were certainly cases in which they either stretched the truth or made things up.”
Agency officials made first contact with the SERE trainers during April 2002, not long after Abu Zubaydah was captured. “Interrogation wasn’t a big deal until we got a big deal guy,” said the former intelligence official. Some techniques were demonstrated to CIA officials in a two-day tutorial beginning on July 1 with SERE instructors playing the roles of “beater” and “beatee,” as one of them told congressional investigators. Following the tutorial, a CIA lawyer decided that "[t]he CIA makes the call internally on most of the types of techniques," but that "[s]ignificantly harsh techniques are approved through the DOJ.” That set in motion the process that led to the infamous Justice Department memos that led to approving the menu of techniques.
Senior CIA officials were comforted by the fact that the proposed techniques had been used by the U.S. against its own servicemen, said the former official. “A big factor in people’s thinking was that these techniques were used in the training of U.S. Special Operations Forces,” the former intelligence official told me about SERE training. “If it was something that had been done to U.S. forces… although admittedly very tough… then it couldn’t be considered torture.”
But the CIA dismissed several of those proposed, he added. “There were legal tests…does it shock the conscience? Does it lead to deep long-lasting injuries?” The official said he is unaware of which techniques had been rejected or why.
Calls to Mitchell and Jessen were not returned. Their phone has been disconnected and ProPublica reports they have moved out of the building they occupied in Spokane and closed their office. The CIA declined to comment on any of the specifics of their interrogations. A spokesman said, “The agency’s past interrogation practices were guided by legal opinions from the Department of Justice.” These opinions that were ultimately rejected by the Bush administration.
Robert Windrem is a senior research fellow at the NYU Center on Law and Security. For three decades, he worked as a producer for NBC News. He is the winner of more than 40 national journalism awards for his work in print, television, and online journalism, including a Columbia-duPont Award, mostly for his work on international security issues.