Notes From the Margins…

Money for Torture: the endless gravy train of the ‘war on terror’

  • December 13, 2014
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One of the most striking revelations in the Senate Select Committee’s scathing condemnation of the CIA’s torture program has been the role of the two psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen in the Agency’s interrogations.

Both men had worked for the US military for many years before they retired shortly after 9/11 and set up their own company Mitchell Jessen & Associates, which won an eyewatering contract worth $181 million to run 80 percent of the interrogation program in 2005.     The two psychologists were paid $1,800 per day and received $81 million by the time Obama shut the program down four years later.

According to the report ‘Neither of the psychologists had any experience as an interrogator nor did either have specialized knowledge of al Qaeda, a background in counterterrorism, or any relevant cultural or linguistic experience.’   Their experience was limited to their work in the US Air Force’s survival training program that began during the Korean War, and the CIA gave them the task of ‘reverse engineering’ these techniques in order to induce a ‘desired level of helplessness’ in al Qaeda detainees.

Even though some of the CIA’s own operatives questioned the value of their work and the quality of the intelligence they achieved through it, Mitchell and Jessen were allowed to evaluate their own work.   Not surprisingly, they awarded themselves consistently high marks.

Even before the Senate Committee hearings, their activities had already been publicly called into question.   In 2009 the New York Times described Mitchell as a canny entrepreneur who recognized after his retirement that ‘ the campaign against Al Qaeda would produce opportunities’ and ‘began networking in military and intelligence circles where he had a career”s worth of connections’ in order to find them.

These efforts found a willing audience in the post 9/11 era, when a great deal of snake oil was being sold in order to oil the wheels of the ‘war on terror.’     According to the NYT, the two men  devised a program intended to ‘turn the enemy’s brutal techniques – slaps, stress positions, sleep deprivation, wall-slamming and waterboarding – into an American interrogation program.’

Mitchell has since described himself as a ‘guy who got asked to do something for his country by people at the highest level of government, and I did the best I could.’     But his patriotic embrace of torture was also extremely profitable.

In 2007, he built himself a house with a swimming pool in Florida, now worth more than $800,000.     He and Jessen   gave corporate seminars to highpaying execs on   how to behave when kidnapped.   They   established a number of other companies, including one called Knowledge Works that was certified by the American Psychological Association in 2004 as a sponsor of continuing professional education.

The Senate Committee report – and much of the media attention that has accompanied it –   has focused on the incompetence in allowing two psychologists with dubious or inadequate qualifications to run a program of such critical importance to American national security, as though it were something unusual.

Yet this combination of gross incompetence and profiteering has been a recurring feature of the ‘Global War on Terror’ (GWOT) ever since its inception.   When the historians of the future try to understand the discrepancy between the high moral rhetoric of our new era of endless war and the often shambolic brutality with which it has so often been conducted they will find many different and often overlapping motivations.

Some may describe the GWOT as a catastrophic overreaction to the atrocity of 9/11 and a well-meaning but misguided attempt to prevent an even more catastrophic repetition.   Others may regard it as an opportunistic grab for global military dominance by the US foreign policy establishment, and there may even be those who take seriously the elevated moral rhetoric of a war against   ‘evil’ that accompanied the Bush crusade.

But underpinning this global violence there has always been a much more straightforward pursuit of profit,  by the corporations, politicians and individuals in a position to take advantage of it.

That includes not just psychologists-on-the-make, but private military companies, arms manufacturers, corporations providing supply and logistics services to the military, politicians and intelligence officials who have left public office to take up jobs with security companies on government contracts, and entrepreneurial start ups and outright scams like Custer Battles.

Such profiteering is nothing new in itself; war has always been a business after all.     But what is striking about the war on terror is the extent to which governments – and the US government in particular – have been prepared to throw vast sums of money at companies and individuals with little or no expertise or only the most dubious qualifications, often without even questioning where the money has gone or what it has been used for.

As the journalist James Risen observes in his book Pay Any Price: Power, Greed, and Endless War

A decade of fear-mongering has brought power and wealth to those who have been most skilful at hyping the terrorist threat.   Fear has convinced the White House and Congress to pour hundreds of billions of dollars – more money than anyone knows what to do with – into counterterrorism and homeland security programs, often with little management or oversight, and often to the detriment of the Americans they are supposed to protect.

This outcome isn’t  only due to the paranoia of naive but well-meaning governments desperate to prevent terrorist atrocities.    It also stems from the same ideological and political commitment to the private sector that has underpinned the dysfunctional and corrupt financial system which came so close to collapse in 2008-09.

As Solomon Hughes argues in his essential War on Terror, Inc, both the American and British governments relied heavily on private enterprise to deliver their military and security initiatives after September 11.   Such efforts

 went beyond a few insiders trying to capitalize on politics; the whole direction of transatlantic responses to the terrorist attacks relied on profit-making companies.     This shaped the nature of the new political, military and security strategies gathered under the umbrella of the “war on terror”.

On one level this reliance on private enterprise could be seen as an attempt by governments to wage war on the cheap, except that on numerous occasions – most notably in Iraq – private companies won military contracts even when cheaper alternatives were available.

In other words,  it wasn’t so much that private enterprise was intended to facilitate the war on terror; the dynamic worked the other way round, and the war on terror became an machine for channeling money towards the private sector, by governments that believe that war, like everything else, is best conducted when it is outsourced and privatised.

No one should be surprised therefore,  that two psychologists should have been able to make $81 million from extracting useless information by torturing terrorist suspects into gibbering acquiesence.   Because on one level the gravy train of the war on terror is simply a reflection of the corruption, malfeasance and reckless greed and profiteering that has driven a deregulated global economy to the point of breakdown.

Look at the banks and financial institutions, the hedge fund managers, speculators and mortgage lenders that helped bring about that disaster.

No one bothered to watch them either.     And in a global economy that runs on snake oil, there is no reason to assume that the conduct of neoliberal war should be any different from neoliberal peace.


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1 Comment

  1. Nigel Hunt

    13th Dec 2014 - 2:17 pm

    This had huge repercussions for the ethical code of the American Psychological Association. In 2002 the code was weakened in respect of psychologists ‘should do no harm’, allowing psychologists who have a conflict between ethical behaviour and a higher authority to follow the orders of the higher authority should they choose to do so. This caused a massive outcry and eventually the code was changed back so that psychologists should not under any circumstances act against international standards on human rights, even when orders indicate the opposite.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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