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November 16 2019
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An Iraqi detainee in a “human-restraint chair” at Abu Ghraib prison, in Iraq.

In 2014, I came across an old Vanity Fair article called “Rorschach and Awe,” by Katherine Eban. It told the story of two psychologists who, as private contractors, designed and implemented the C.I.A. interrogation program that operated in the wake of 9/11 and on behalf of our country. The article suggested that two men in particular—Dr. James Mitchell and Dr. Bruce Jessen—had somehow come up with a “special sauce” that they claimed would allow them to extract information from captured terrorists, particularly al-Qaeda prisoners, who had somehow been trained to withstand all other forms of interrogation. According to the contractors, the recipe for the special sauce simply required “reverse engineer[ing]” training techniques used to prepare U.S. Special Forces for what might befall them should they find themselves in the hands of the vilest regimes on the face of the earth.

The notion that this could actually work begins by torturing logic and science before moving on to cause the most unrecognizable contortions of the law—but, hey, it was the aftermath of a massive intelligence failure and C.I.A. seemed to stand for “Confused, Ineffective, and Angry.” The techniques the agency was able to persuade the Office of Legal Counsel to approve included such innovations in intel collection as “the insult slap,” “walling,” and a medieval device called “the waterboard”—as well as nine other measures that most people with a command of the English language and a shred of empathy would just call torture.

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