Saturday :: Apr 25, 2009

Contractors v. Government Experts

by eriposte

Last week a former FBI supervisory agent and interrogator - Ali Soufan - wrote an op-ed in the New York Times discussing the false underpinnings of the torture memos. Soufan's article has been widely discussed and I'm not going to rehash the arguments here. There is one part of his piece, though, that wasn't discussed as much (emphasis mine, throughout this post):

My C.I.A. colleagues who balked at the techniques, on the other hand, were instructed to continue. (It’s worth noting that when reading between the lines of the newly released memos, it seems clear that it was contractors, not C.I.A. officers, who requested the use of these techniques.)

Certainly, there had to have been some involvement of the CIA leadership, but Soufan mentions the use of contractors who provided outside support for the Bush administration's desire to setup a torture regime. Yesterday, Peter Finn and Joby Warrick published a piece in the Washington Post titled "In 2002, Military Agency Warned Against 'Torture'" with the subtext that "Extreme Duress Could Yield Unreliable Information, It Said" (h/t Marcy). The source of this article - which is worth reading in its entirety - was a previously classified memo from the Department of Defense's Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA). Nothing particularly surprising in the WaPo piece, but note this:

But the JPRA's two-page attachment, titled "Operational Issues Pertaining to the Use of Physical/Psychological Coercion in Interrogation," questioned the effectiveness of employing extreme duress to gain intelligence.

"The requirement to obtain information from an uncooperative source as quickly as possible -- in time to prevent, for example, an impending terrorist attack that could result in loss of life -- has been forwarded as a compelling argument for the use of torture," the document said. "In essence, physical and/or psychological duress are viewed as an alternative to the more time-consuming conventional interrogation process. The error inherent in this line of thinking is the assumption that, through torture, the interrogator can extract reliable and accurate information. History and a consideration of human behavior would appear to refute this assumption."

There was no consideration within the National Security Council that the planned techniques stemmed from Chinese communist practices and had been deemed torture when employed against American personnel, the former administration official said. The U.S. military prosecuted its own troops for using waterboarding in the Philippines and tried Japanese officers on war crimes charges for its use against Americans and other allied nationals during World War II.

The reasoning in the JPRA document contrasted sharply with arguments being pressed at the time by current and former military psychologists in the SERE program, including James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who later formed a company that became a CIA contractor advising on interrogations. Both men declined to comment on their role in formulating interrogation policy.

Again, there is the mention of contractors who evidently were supportive of the policy that the Bush administration wanted to put in place - in this case, the policy was the commission of war crimes. As it turns out, the story of Mitchell Jessen & Associates has been reported before. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now has an interview with journalists - Mark Benjamin of, Katherine Eban of Vanity Fair and Karen Dorn-Steele of The Spokesman-Review - who have written previously about this firm and how they were used to build the torture program (also see Jane Mayer in the New Yorker).

What is most intriguing to me about this whole sordid, anti-American torture program, is that this is not the first time that a contractor was used specifically to override internal dissent or expertise within the government and propagate the policy goals of the Bush administration. I've written at length about another matter where a contractor played a key role - the whole saga of Iraq's purchase of aluminum tubes and the false claim that the tubes were purchased for nuclear centrifuges. Specifically, let us recall this incident:

...What I am referring to is this paragraph in the Senate (SSCI) Report discussion on the tubes (emphasis mine):

Contributing to the CIA's analysis for the extensive September intelligence assessment was an analysis performed by an individual from [DELETED] who were working under contract with the CIA at the time to provide broad-based technical advice [DELETED]. The CIA WINPAC analyst, [DELETED], requested in September 2002 that they perform an analysis of the tubes. [SENTENCE DELETED]

[DELETED] The contractors told Committee staff that the CIA provided them with a stack of intelligence data and analysis on the Iraqi aluminum tube procurements on September 16, 2002. All of the information was provided by the CIA and the contractors told Committee staff that they did not discuss the data with any agencies other than the CIA. They were provided with NGIC's analysis of the tubes, but said they were not briefed by nor did they ask to speak to NGIC or DOE analysts. One contractor said, "This was internal to the agency." One of the contractors said before joining [DELETED] he had been given a tutorial on 81-mm rockets by a DOE analyst, but said that the conversation was "pretty meaningless to me because the rest of the issue had not bubbled up at that point." A DOE analyst told Committee staff that he also discussed the issue with the contractor in May of 2001. The contractor produced a paper on September 17, 2002, one day after receiving the information, that said the team concluded, "that the tubes are consistent with design requirements of gas centrifuge rotors, but due to the high-strength material and excessively tight tolerances, the tubes seem inconsistent with design requirements of rocket motor casings."

So, there was a contractor (a "red team" as the Robb-Silberman report called them), whose name the SSCI Report thought important to block out, who produced in exactly 1 day a detailed report that magically agreed with the CIA WINPAC analyst's (Joe's) fabrications conclusions on the aluminum tubes. This incident is one of the most interesting in the context of the tubes and the identity of the contractor is certainly of great interest to me.

There is another common thread to these two stories.

The story of the aluminum tubes - analyzed at length in one of my earlier series - was simple. There were experts within the U.S. Government, both within the CIA and INR who did not find compelling evidence that the tubes were for nuclear centrifuges and in fact believed they were for use in rockets. These experts were over-ridden by the work of a junior "analyst" (er, fraud) within the CIA's WINPAC division, who was not an expert on the matter, and an external contractor was hired to quickly validate his claim that the tubes could only be used for nuclear centrifuges. To this day, I haven't been able to identify who this contractor was. In the case of the torture program, one or more CIA officials basically decided not to consult internal experts on interrogation who knew that torture was largely ineffective. Instead, they picked a bunch of people, including contractors, who lacked interrogation experience and were only too pleased to institute a torture regime. As Mark Benjamin says in the interview with Amy Goodman:

And when you look at the memos, there are even some hints there that show what interrogators have long believed, which is that these are not effective ways to gather intelligence, what Mitchell and Jessen were doing is just—it’s just not an effective way of running an intelligence operation. And I would just add, you know, my reporting suggests that when the CIA put together this interrogation program, this torture program, they didn’t involve any experienced interrogators. There were no interrogators involved. Nobody who knows how to question—effectively question a suspect set this thing up. The CIA didn’t have anybody on board that knew how to do this stuff. I mean, it was people who just frankly didn’t know what they were doing. I mean, you know, they knew how to train soldiers how to resist torture, but not how to get effective intelligence. And, in fact, if you look at the memos that came out last week, there is a reference in one of the memos to a CIA inspector general report. And according to the reference, the CIA inspector general criticized the CIA’s own interrogation program, saying essentially they didn’t know when somebody was being recalcitrant and wouldn’t talk and when they just didn’t know anything. That’s the problem with torture. And so, they ended up torturing people even though they had already said everything they know.

Most of the discussion around the use of contractors by the Bush administration has revolved around greed, corruption, cronyism and unchecked bad behavior by some contractors. The aspect that I don't think has been studied more in depth is how often inexperienced contractors were used specifically to override recommendations of experts within the government in order to push truly evil or bad policies. Are there other occasions where contractors served this purpose for the Bush administration? Who are these contractors? What other firms do business with them? It seems this might be a worthwhile avenue of investigation not just for journalists but also Congress.

eriposte :: 8:28 AM :: Comments (9) :: Digg It!