Seven Questions

Seven Questions: Michael Gelles

A psychologist who helped design an interrogation model for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo says that legal, morally sound interrogations would have worked.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama’s executive order to close the Guantnamo Bay detention camp and all the CIA’s prisons was one of the most anticipated moves of few-days-old administration. For months, human rights groups, political advisors, and international editorials urged the move. But few talked about the logistics — where the prisoners would go, who would look after them, and how they could or would be tried.

No one knows those complications better than Michael Gelles, a clinical psychologist and, for 16 years, part of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. When Guantnamo opened in 2002, it was Gelless advice that military investigators sought in training prison interrogators. Several years later, Gelles became one of the first whistle-blowers after learning that torture — rather than rapport-based tactics — were being used on prominent detainees such as Mohammed al-Qahtani, the alleged 20th hijacker of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Since then, Gelles has been an unsilenceable advocate for ensuring that psychologists with proper training and background are a part of any future war-on-terror interrogations. He spoke with FP‘s Elizabeth Dickinson and Blake Hounshell about what Gitmo was like, and how to close it properly.

Foreign Policy: This week, President Barack Obama issued an executive order to begin closing Guantnamo Bay and to freeze all ongoing military tribunals. Was that the right move?

Michael Gelles: With all that went on at Guantnamo, and all that Guantnamo represents, do you keep it open? What President Obama is trying to do is to be in a position to say, there are certain things that have occurred during the Bush administration that have really put us in quite a negative position in the world. One can say in the midst of having just been attacked there was probably a knee-jerk reaction and we went overboard. Were going to right ourselves now… [but] while we have made mistakes, if in fact the end goal was to prevent an attack, one could argue that those mistakes — as egregious as they may have been perceived by some — may in fact have worked, but at what cost.

So [as a] way ahead, [we must] take corrective action, get back on a course that is both consistent with our values, our moral compass, but more importantly — get us back on course to what we believe is the right way to approach the adversary to get accurate and reliable information. And that means a rapport-based approach which would infer, immediately, respecting human rights and being aligned with those issues that have been outlined by the U.N. and others around human rights, the Geneva Conventions, and the like.

FP: You helped develop the biscuit teams of behavioral psychologists used for interrogations at Guantnamo Bay, correct?

MG: In February of 2002, [the government?] put together the Criminal Investigation Task Force, [meant to] integrate the Army, Navy, Air Force, FBI, and other law enforcements agencies to conduct investigations on specific terrorists who were detained. Mark Fallon, [the then deputy commander and special agent in charge of the Criminal Investigation Task Force], came to me and said, Listen, weve got quite a task ahead of us in that we have to train quickly hundreds of agents to be able to conduct interviews and interrogations of Middle Easterners and Southwest Asians. We quickly developed a team that was comprised of psychologists and behavioral experts to begin to think through how we could do this training.

[Later that spring,] I met Maj. Gen. Michael Dunleavy at Gitmo [and learned that] the military intelligence folks were interested in our approaches because [their staff] were young folks or reservists who were supposed to elicit information for intelligence purposes. They were looking for information; that was their performance measure. General Dunleavy said to me, in a meeting, I need your people, your team in Guantnamo, and I need them here now. Get them down here, and I want them training and consulting on these interrogations.

The bottom line is that I told Dunleavy: You cant have it; my people are deployed all over the world. Dunleavy said to me, Well, if you cant give it to me, Ill create my own. He then went to the military, and had clinicians from hospitals assigned to support his effort, psychologists and psychiatrists who did not have forensic background, who did have the training and experience of folks who work directly in support of operations. He also called [the team] a biscuit.

FP: How did his biscuit teams differ from how you would have imagined them?

MG: Theyre different, biscuits. We advocated the rapport-based approach, which was consistent with interrogation methods and tactics that would be acceptable in a U.S. court. One, because [that testimony could be used] somewhere else. Second, we didnt believe the aggressive tactics worked.

They rejected some of our approaches, as you saw, especially [Donald] Rumsfeld and folks in the intelligence arena, because our techniques required the development of a relationship. They were looking for information that they could get immediately. [The interrogators were] getting information from [alleged 20th hijacker] Mohammed al-Qahtani long before they decided to put him into a more aggressive phase of interrogation. It just wasnt coming fast enough.

FP: Do you believe that Qahtani had real information about terrorist operations?

MG: I believe that Qahtani had information. At that point in time, nobody was really sure [what kind of information he had]. Was he the 20th hijacker? Nobody knew.

But Qahtani became the focus because here was the example where you really believed that you had someone with substantive information that could in fact give you insight into the next potential attack against the United States. Thats what it was all about: We will not be attacked again; we will get the information.

[Prisoners like Qahtani] knew they were going to die. So your best bet to get them to provide you with information was to put them in some type of conflict [that was] consistent with their culture and their commitment to Islam, and that would be a rapport-based approach. I never believed you [could] torture them to get the information, especially someone who is a jihadist. If someone is willing to die in jihad and anticipates very rough treatment from you, these aggressive techniques would only validate their perception and enhance their resistance. If you develop a rapport with a member of a socially reflected shame-based society, they will talk and communicate. And it more likely that what they tell you will be accurate and reliable.

FP: Judge Susan Crawford, who is presiding over the military tribunals, said this week that Qahtani was tortured. What was your reaction to this?

MG: Give me a definition of whats torture. Theres a log of things that happened to Qahtani that people could interpret as torture. I think what [Judge Crawford] had referenced is that [Qahtani] experienced some bradycardia and was brought to the hospital and was then brought back from the hospital. I think, though I do not know, that shes probably using the clause around physical pain and bodily degradation that would have qualified as torture under many peoples definition.

I would assume then that where waterboarding was used, that was torture. I think [Attorney General-nominee] Eric Holder has come out and said waterboarding is torture. I dont know Qahtani to have been waterboarded; in fact Im pretty sure he wasnt.

FP: Is there any value in holding the remaining prisoners at Guantnamo Bay, at this point, as interrogation subjects?

MG: The question is, do they possess any information that would be valuable to the United States in terms of preventing a terrorist attack? Based on my understanding [a few years ago] as an expert, the adversary evolved very quickly, and there was no value after a period of time. If held for years, no. So I would suspect that those people who have been held for extended periods of time dont have any value as it relates to any imminent attack.

The second piece, however, is that they do present with valuable information in terms of their ability [to help] us understand the radicalization process. More importantly, [the current prisoners may] have been radicalized further based on their experience at Guantnamo. [For example,] I could have been swept up, in error, into Guantnamo, and held in a situation for no reason. I am a Muslim and I am from a collectivist culture where I seek affiliation with the group as part of my identity, I share religious views. I become increasingly frustrated and angry and disenfranchised because Im not given any rights, Im held from my family. I never had any intention to do anything; [but] I can be influenced by my fellow prisoners who share my anger. Im hanging out with these [other detainees], that begin to make a lot of sense. In essence, theres a radicalization process that takes place within Guantnamo. There was, like in any prison, a communications network that is in place, despite all the best efforts of the security.

FP: There has been some discussion about members of the Bush administration potentially being brought to trial for some of the stuff that went on. Do you believe that is possible and, if it happened, would you testify as a witness?

MG: No, I would not. Obviously, I recognize that there had been some pretty significant violations as it relates to human rights that have been alleged. But you have to go back and put yourself back in time, after just having been attacked and now committed to some extent at all costs to prevent another attack. We were still reeling from 9/11, and so these policies and procedures were put in place to protect the United States and to get information expeditiously for the intention of public safety. As I said, perhaps it was not well thought out, more emotionally driven by anger and fear, and history will remember our actions. However, we did recognize our mistakes and begin in some areas to take corrective action, while [remaining] committed to public safety and preventing a terrorist attack. President Obamas actions to close Gitmo and prohibit aggressive interrogations that violate human rights set us back on course.

My position was at the time, and it still is, that [this kind of interrogation] was faulty thinkinga result of fear and anger and desperation to prevent the next attack at all costs, even if it meant violating some of the tenets and principles that we held dear as a nation. [The administration] had not really considered and understood who the adversary was. They looked more at their own concerns as it related to their own safety, and [asked], What can I do to prevent this from happening to me?

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