Merican Mengele

Answers to leading questions under torture naturally tell us nothing about the beliefs of the accused; but they are good evidence for the beliefs of the accusers. -C.S. Lewis (1964)

[A] dramatic rise in witchcraft cases after the 1560s [during the French civil wars] provided more proof the Apocalypse was coming. As fast as they were detected, the courts burned them, but the Devil replaced them even faster. Contemporary demonologist Jean Bodin argued that, in crisis conditions such as these, standards of evidence must be lowered. Witchcraft was so serious, and so hard to detect using normal methods of proof, that society could not afford to adhere too much to “legal tidiness and normal procedures.” –Sarah Bakewell (2010)

Days before the Senate Intelligence Committee released its report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ program, VICE News, above, posted an interview with the program’s architect, psychologist James Mitchell.

It’s a chilling conversation. Mitchell plays the retired Kurtz, kayaking among alligators back from the heart of darkness in the easygoing manner of the unpunishable. Nothing on land or water threatens him now save, it seems, his reputation.

His flaccid self-justifications here of following orders and a terrible enemy have long been refuted by international law from Nuremberg on and by name by his colleagues at the American Psychological Association, who four years ago began calling for stripping Mitchell his license to practice.

There are too Mitchell’s creepy yuck-yucks over the “tool” of waterboarding, as if a rite of frat initiation.

But a one-two delusional projection comprises the core of Mitchell’s defense (closely related to those of many other scientists conducting research in the service of empire).

First, despite perfunctory regret, he blames blowback–ISIS waterboarded American captives it later killed–on the media reporting on his program.

Second, Mitchell treats the latter murders, which his program inspired in form and content, as additional data rationalizing utilitarian torture.

Indeed, the logistics are his sweet spot (while President Obama appropriates the climate denialist’s line he himself is no scientist). Mitchell practically lights up describing the workaday,

“The whole point of the waterboard was to induce fear and panic,” Mitchell said. “We didn’t think [detainees were] going to provide actionable intelligence in a state of fear and panic. You have to start the session with the waterboarding, but the questioning happens the next time you come in the room. It’s like any sort of thing you fear: The closer you get to it the next time, the more you struggle to get out of it and find an escape. So the moment [a detainee] was most susceptible to beginning to provide information was just before the next waterboarding session. Not in the original one.”

Such consideration, Mitchell rationalizes, places his program to the left of dastardly ISIS,

“The [Justice Department legal] memo says that in a waterboarding session, you can pour an application of water for 20 to 40 seconds to give that person a chance to breathe, then another 20 to 40 seconds, and you can do that for 20 minutes,” Mitchell said, referring to the waterboarding of Abu Zubadyah. “It became clear to me early in the first session that this was too large a quantity of water…. During that first session when we started pouring water, we decided we would do two 20-second sessions and one 40-second session, and the rest would be from 1 to 10 seconds. The CIA [Inspector General] sent a lawyer out with a stopwatch and a counter to measure the average amount of time water was poured in a single waterboarding sessions. The average amount of time was 10 seconds.”

Getting torture ‘right,’ however, only lands Mitchell in Mengele territory. According to the Senate report,

At least five CIA detainees were subjected to “rectal rehydration” or rectal feeding without documented medical necessity. The CIA placed detainees in ice water “baths.” The CIA led several detainees to believe they would never be allowed to leave CIA custody alive, suggesting to one detainee that he would only leave in a coffin-shaped box. One interrogator told another detainee that he would never go to court, because “we can never let the world know what I have done to you.” CIA officers also threatened at least three detainees with harm to their families–to include threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to “cut [a detainee’s] mother’s throat.”

On Mitchell’s science of drowning, the Senate reports,

The waterboarding technique was physically harmful, inducing convulsions and vomiting. Abu Zubaydah, for example, became “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.” Internal CIA records describe the waterboarding of Khalid Shaykh Mohammand as evolving into a “series of near drownings.”

And on the mock executions and “staged burial”–now standard ISIS fare–that former National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice helped supervise from the White House,

Specifically, the interrogation techniques that went unreported in CIA cables included standing sleep deprivation in which a detainee’s arms were shackled above his head, nudity, dietary manipulation, exposure to cold temperatures, cold showers, “rough takedowns,” and, in at least two instances, the use of mock executions.

But it isn’t just the matter of monetizing torture on a series of single-source contracts totaling $81 million. As the Nation‘s Lisa Hajjar explains,

The road from abstract hypotheticals (can SERE be reverse-engineered?) to the authorized use of waterboarding and confinement boxes runs straight into the terrain of human experimentation. On April 15, 2002, Mitchell and [fellow psychologist Bruce] Jessen arrived at a black site in Thailand to supervise the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, the first “high-value detainee” captured by the CIA. By July, Mitchell proposed more coercive techniques to CIA headquarters, and many of these were approved in late July. From then until the program was dry-docked in 2008, at least thirty-eight people were subjected to psychological and physical torments, and the results were methodically documented and analyzed. That is the textbook definition of human experimentation.

Even as it’s clear, we should hope, someone should take the blame, shared responsibility makes punishment entirely another matter.

Certainly Mitchell knows a thing or two about bagholding and the prisoner’s dilemma. As the political infrastructure undergirding his program rots with history, among his remaining protections is the threat of turning on his handlers.

Mitchell credibly calls out the hypocrisy of the highest officers of the U.S. government, Congressional Democrats among them, who after years of supporting his program suddenly feign horror–while continuing to launch drone strikes upon civilians–or lie they never knew.

There is presently little about which Mitchell need worry, however.

President Obama, Glenn Greenwald explains, has refused criminal prosecutions of American torture, derailed civil liability on national security grounds, and even blocked international investigation, browbeating U.S. allies into the same. After all, as the president explained, as we are a nation that opposes torture as a matter of principle, we needn’t punish anyone for its practice.

Indeed, even a detainee’s documented innocence is spun as no grounds for culpability,

“The fact that the intelligence case for detaining an individual is later shown to be less powerful than originally thought does not, in itself, render the original reasonably well-founded decision to detain ‘wrongful,'” the C.I.A. response says.

There are, of course, those in Washington DC who didn’t know the details. Ignorance is a built-in feature. Greenwald explains the ritual bait-and-switch of plausible deniability that continues today, Bagram, Iraq, Guantanamo and beyond,

Yes, the CIA goes off on its own and does things that political officials don’t know about; and yes, they mislead and lie to the committees that oversee them; and they do all these horrible things, the details of which are sometimes unknown to the political branches — but that’s how Washington wants it…The CIA does the dirty work of the political branches of Washington and when they get caught, publicly, the ritual is that official Washington pretends that it was just these rogue CIA officers doing this without anyone’s knowledge or approval.

We might dismiss the gamesmanship as no surprise. But one of the dangers of cynical expectation, of which I have long been a practitioner myself, is that we let the larger system off the hook allowing villainy to flatter our savoir faire.

Indeed, Obama, as much of Washington, has never lied that he wasn’t a liar, repeatedly broadcasting the Straussian cud–‘I’ll play the villain you need’–that has kept both the left and the right preoccupied for six years.

In other words, the republic’s spiraling poll numbers serve as a whack-a-mole for abiding anger, letting the kleptocratic game play on relatively quietly underneath. Could short-circuiting our own surprise in this way serve as a self-defeating defense mechanism, precluding taking matters into our own hands?

Darker still are the ostensible failures of torturing detainees, droning villagers, and spying on the world. None have accomplished their stated aims. If the point isn’t to stop terrorism, around what objectives are such efforts organized in a society in which the 1% now scores 95% of national income during expansionary periods?  Revolutions elsewhere, after all, have started for less.

Don’t get me wrong. Dr. Mitchell, who earlier this year described himself as a big supporter of Amnesty International, remains among the more gothic of state-sponsored sociopaths. Just one no longer angling for PAC bundles or a grant renewal.

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