Guantanamo Detainee Files Hint at Psychological Research

The release by WikiLeaks of the secret assessments of hundreds of detainees by the Joint Interrogation Force at Guantanamo, spanning the period 2002 to 2009, provide little in the way of evidence of the torture and abuse suffered by the supposed “enemy combatants.” While retelling the many pieces of gossip, informant's tales and evidence of torture that are mixed in with any hard evidence of terrorist ties, the reports indicate in a number of instances “areas of potential exploitation” that go beyond that of mere intelligence gathering.

The listing of such “areas” appears to be limited to reports originating in 2006 and later.

Even when the aim of the “exploitation” areas are ostensibly related to intelligence gathering, they often seek further information on al-Qaeda-related matters or individuals even after detainees have denied any connections to al-Qaeda or other extremist groups, or have recanted such ties as were announced originally under tortured duress. It often appears the government is continuing to hold prisoners, if not torture them, until the prisoner gives them the story they want to hear.

Indeed, that was the case with British resident Binyam Mohamed and supposed al-Qaeda “mastermind” Abu Zubaydah, both of whom were tortured by the CIA or allied forces in early 2002 to produce confessions of supposed plots that were later discredited, such as the “dirty bomb” plot purportedly cooked up by Mohamed and US citizen Jose Padilla.

As an example, the report on torture victim Mohamed al-Qahtani, called Maad al-Qahtani in his October 2008 report, still lists the “dirty bomb” and “attempts to acquire WMD” among its “areas of potential exploitation.” Al-Qahtani was famously tortured in an early instance of the implementation of a new harsh interrogation regime approved by then-Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld in the late summer of 2002. Logs recording his torture appeared in Time Magazine in June 2005.

While the “areas of potential exploitation” often included presumed areas of further intelligence seeking, based upon supposed links of the detainee to the area under consideration, others areas of proposed “exploitation” are vaguer, or seem to imply research into prisoner psychology, or even possible status as an informant or intelligence asset after release.

For instance, the March 2008 JTF-GTMO Detainee Assessment for Mahmud al-Mujahid (Internment Serial Number [ISN] US9YM-000031DP) lists as an area of possible exploitation “Details of other bodyguards, fighters and al-Qaeda members, including those currently detained at JTF-GTMO.” It also lists “Terrorist biographical and psychological information.”

The report on Sharqawi Abdu Ali al-Hajj (ISN PK9YM-0001457DP) is of extra interest, since, as Andy Worthington reported in April 2010, al-Hajj, along with detainee Sanad Yislam Ali al-Kazimi, were named by Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. in his decision granting the habeas corpus petition of Uthman Abdul Rahim Mohammed Uthman. According to Worthington, Kennedy noted, “The Court will not rely on the statements of Hajj or Kazimi because there is unrebutted evidence in the record that, at the time of the interrogations at which they made the statements, both men had recently been tortured.”

Worthington also quoted a Human Rights Watch report in which al-Hajj, rendered to Jordan in 2002 and then later transferred to the CIA's “Dark Prison” near Kabul, before being sent to Guantanamo, described his torture:

“I was being interrogated all the time, in the evening and in the day. I was shown thousands of photos and I really mean thousands, I am not exaggerating … And in between all this you have the torture, the abuse, the cursing, humiliation. They had threatened me with being sexually abused and electrocuted. I was told that if I wanted to leave with permanent disability both mental and physical, that that could be arranged. They said they had all the facilities of Jordan to achieve that. I was told that I had to talk, I had to tell them everything.”

None of this is mentioned in al-Hajj's 2008 assessment. Instead, without further elaboration, he is mentioned as a possible subject of “exploitation” regarding “Terrorist biographical and psychological information,” “Radicalization factors,” “Other JTF-GTMO detainees” and “Detainee's intentions after released from US custody.”

Some of the detainees have listed as desirable the “exploitation” of knowledge of other detainees, which appears to be something close to acting as an informant, or at least snitching on other prisoners. In addition to the examples above, the report for Syrian prisoner Abd Al Rahim Abd Al Razzaq Janko (ISN US9SY-000489DP), states that besides further exploitation “of his own background information,” another goal is “Other extremists [sic] associates to include detainees in custody at JTF-GTMO.”

Of further interest are the reports describing detainees known to be cooperating with US officials. According to a March 2010 article by Peter Finn at The Washington Post, Tariq al-Sawah was one of “two of the most significant informants ever to be held at Guantanamo.” Indeed his JTF-GTMO assessment records that he is “a highly prolific source” who “has provided invaluable intelligence.” Al-Sawah and another detainee, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, are said in the Post article to “live a life of relative privilege – gardening, writing and painting – separated from other detainees in a cocoon designed to reward and protect. “

While approved for release, al-Sawah is still held at Guantanamo, while his assessment notes he is unlikely to “reestablish extremist associations … as his cooperation with the US government may serve to identify detainee as a target for revenge by those associates.”

Yet, Al-Sawah's assessment report, dated September 30, 2008, has a long list of possible “exploitation” possibilities, despite the supposed recommendation for his release, including “knowledge of extremist chemical and biological weapons, as well as their research and development by al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations worldwide,” “Terrorist biographical and psychological information” and “Radicalization factors of terrorism.”

In addition, while al-Sawah has been held in US custody since early 2002, one possible source of “exploitation” mentioned in his 2008 assessment is “Possible ongoing terrorist operations in the U.S.”

In a March 22 story at Truthout, Jason Leopold and Jeffrey Kaye revealed that the torture program used at Guantanamo and by the CIA was developed from a course at the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) school meant to protect US personnel against “exploitation” by foreign captors, including torture in captivity to produce false confessions, propaganda activity and recruitment of informers. This course, known as SV-91, or “Special Survival for Special Mission Units,” provided the material for reverse engineering an offensive “exploitation” torture program for the United States.

According to the Truthout article, “Jessen wrote that cooperation is the 'end goal' of the detainer, who wants the detainee 'to see that [the detainer] has “total” control of you because you are completely dependent on him and thus you must comply with his wishes. Therefore, it is absolutely inevitable that you must cooperate with him in some way (propaganda, special favors, confession, etc.).'”

Air Force psychologist Bruce Jessen and Air Force survival school personnel Michael Kearns and Roger Aldrich developed the original course. Jessen went on to become a CIA contract interrogator after 9/11 and is largely credited with transforming the use of the former SERE material into a torture program. Aldrich later became a “governing member” of Jessen's contracting company, Mitchell-Jessen and Associates. Captain (ret.) Kearns was never involved in interrogations and turned the Jessen materials over to Truthout.

In 2002, the US military instituted Behavioral Science Consultation Groups at Guantanamo and later in Iraq and Afghanistan, which utilized psychologists and psychiatrists in the construction of detention policies as well as collaborating on interrogation plans with intelligence officials. Reports of behavioral and other kinds of experiments upon detainees have been discussed over the years, but no hard evidence of such experiments has come to light.

Nevertheless, Department of Defense (DoD) regulations concerning human subjects' protections were significantly changed in early 2002, allowing for suspension of human subjects protections on DoD subjects, unless study subjects were prisoners of war. The US declared the Guantanamo prisoners as “unlawful enemy combatants,” and denied them prisoner of war status almost as soon as Guantanamo was opened.

It is difficult to conceive how “terrorist biographical and psychological information” and “radicalization factors” come under traditional intelligence operations. Instead, they hint at study of individual detainees for psychological purposes, for possible uses in later interrogations, profiling, or constructing plausible though false narratives for prisoners, who then would be coerced into confession.

What accounts for radicalization was a matter of dispute in the recent military commissions trial of Omar Khadr, with a prosecution forensic psychiatrist, Michael Welner, drawing upon the work of a controversial Danish psychologist, Nicolai Sennels, to paint a picture of the former child prisoner Khadr as someone who was too dangerous to release. The study of such “radicalization factors” has been a favorite topic of racist opponents to immigration from countries that have Islamic populations.

No matter what kind of psychological information is being sought, the construction of psychological knowledge from supposed terrorist prisoners at Guantanamo, based upon what most news reports admit are large numbers of innocent individuals, will fail to construct a psychology of terrorism or “radicalization.”

Instead, what we have is circumstantial evidence of ongoing illegal experimentation on prisoners, even in these sanitized and largely unreliable DoD reports on the Guantanamo detainees.