Former Top Navy Psychologist Involved in Prisoner Abuse Case

Wednesday, 05 August 2009 16:57 By Jeffrey Kaye, t r u t h o u t | Perspective | name.

Former Top Navy Psychologist Involved in Prisoner Abuse Case
Dr. Michael Gelles. (Photo: George Washington University)

    A well-known spokesman for ethical interrogations by psychologists in national security settings was himself accused in 2001 of unethical behavior for his part in the interrogation of a suspect in an espionage case. Dr. Michael Gelles was at the time the chief forensic psychologist for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS). His work on the investigation of Petty Officer Daniel King was referred for ethical violations by King's civilian attorney, Jonathan Turley, to the Ethics Office of the American Psychological Association, which declined to follow up on the charges.

    Lt. Robert A. Bailey of the Judge Advocate General's Corps, and one of two military attorneys for Mr. King, described the interrogation techniques used on his client as "abusive" and "unconstitutional." The conditions of King's custody were "intrusive, threatening, and illegal ... coercive and inescapable."

    Daniel King was a petty officer and Navy cryptanalyst who was arrested for espionage in October 1999. The cause was an inconclusive or "no opinion" polygraph examination made after he finished his assignment in Guam and was returning to the United States. The administration of such polygraphs is routine when exiting a high-security clearance assignment. King was subsequently incarcerated for 520 days without formal charges.

    According to a CBS 60 Minutes story in March 2001, King recalled what happened after his arrest:

    "That's when I started getting interrogated for 17 to 19 hour [sic] at a time," he says. "When we'd get done, I'd go back to the safe house and go into a room. I'd have to leave the door open, the lights would be on, they'd blare the TV, the phone would keep ringing all the time. Even when I went to the bathroom, I had to leave the door open."

    After 29 days of long interrogations (some sources say it was 26 days), in which every waking hour was spent with NCIS agents, and with periods of sleep deprivation imposed upon him, King made a false confession, which he later recanted. His requests for an attorney were ignored. NCIS tried to get family members to incriminate him.

    When on October 6, 1999, he made his "confession" - admitting he had turned a computer disk over to the Russian Embassy - Petty Officer King had been interrogated for 30 out of the previous 39 hours. The confession was quickly retracted at his next interrogation session, and, according to Lieutenant Bailey, at almost all subsequent sessions King "denied the veracity of the October 6 statement."

    For many months after his return to the United States, King was held incommunicado in a six-by-nine-foot cell for 19-20 hours per day. The lights were kept on at all times. He was subjected to multiple polygraphs, none of which obtained more than inconclusive results. These polygraphs were administered despite the fact Mr. King was not of sound mind, having trouble distinguishing fact from reality, and having suicidal thoughts. Sometimes they were administered after hours of onerous interrogation, breaking Department of Defense guidelines on the administration of polygraphs. Additionally, interrogators lied to King about the results of his polygraph examinations, which were never anything but inconclusive.

    According to Jonathan Turley's account, Mr. King was encouraged to write down his dreams and prior fantasies about espionage and then sign them as statements. Audiotapes made by the government "show King weeping and sobbing" during interrogation.

    At times, King is shouting, "I don't know what I'm supposed to give you" over and over at the agents as they press him for a signed confession.

    In the end, Petty Officer King was released from custody without charges on March 9, 2001. The investigating officer in the case, Cmdr. James P. Winthrop, wrote in dismissing the charges (emphasis added):

    Although the espionage charge is a very serious one, the government's evidence does not appear to be significantly stronger. It is based exclusively on a confession that the accused subsequently contradicted on several occasions. Additionally, the defense clearly intends to attack the voluntariness of that confession and it appears that such a claim is colorable. The defense contention is bolstered by considerations of the accused's mental state both before and during the weeks-long period where conditions were placed on his liberty. Furthermore, and most importantly, the confession lacks strong corroborating evidence.

    By the end of his incarceration, according to Turley, Daniel King had exhausted his finances. His mother had died and he had missed the funeral. The Navy released him with a statement that he was a "traitor." The case made headlines in early 2001, including reports by CNN, the Washington Post, and NPR (with audio, and includes an interview with Daniel King a
nd a clip from the Gelles interrogation).

    Michael Gelles's Role

    According to a prepared statement for a Senate Intelligence Subcommittee hearing by Lt. Matthew Freedus, the second of two defense counsels for Daniel King from the Judge Advocate General's Corps, Mr. King continued to be interrogated by NCIS agents after his "confession," and after repeated requests for access to counsel.

    On October 19, 1999, three weeks into the interrogation, King was taken at his own request to see psychologist Michael Gelles. While this indicates probable earlier contact with Dr. Gelles, nothing is currently known about any earlier contact. Gelles met with King for 45 minutes. The session was videotaped, although this was done without the legal requirement to read King his rights, or inform him the tape could be used against him in court. Two other NCIS agents were also present during the meeting, which took place after days of prolonged interrogation, sleep deprivation, and ever-present monitoring.

    Lieutenant Freedus stated that King made "highly exculpatory statements" during this meeting, as indeed he did in all other taped sessions with him.

    The actions of Dr. Gelles were documented by a videotape, which, with other audiotapes, were discovered by accident by the defense, as they had illegally been withheld from discovery. The videotape reportedly shows Dr. Gelles referring to himself as "the doc" and "not an agent." King told Gelles he had "no memory" of any of the espionage activities to which he'd confessed. He was concerned he had "repressed memories, or something like that," because he was falsely told the polygraphs had come out positive, and he wondered if perhaps hypnotism or "truth serum" could jog his memory.

    According to Turley's statement to the Senate Intelligence subcommittee (emphasis added):

    [King] told Gelles that he had no memory of the espionage facts but says that the polygraph examinations prove that he must have done something - a clear misconception that neither Gelles nor the agents correct. King asked for hypnosis and truth serum to determine if this is merely a dream. Gelles told him that he might give King hypnosis if King goes back and gives the agents "corroborating" evidence. Gelles told King that he could trust the agents and says that the agents are clearly his friends, he had a "special relationship" with the agents and the agents "will be with you forever." Gelles virtually ignored the statement of King that he had suicidal thoughts when he left Guam - two days before the interview. Instead, Gelles told King to give corroborating evidence as a precondition for the hypnosis that King sought to clear his doubts as to any espionage.

    After King was released, Turley made known his intent to file ethics charges against Michael Gelles with the American Psychological Association (APA). According to Turley, Gelles "refused to give licensing information to the defense or to respond to allegations of violation of basic canons of professional conduct as a licensed psychologist." In a private communication, Turley subsequently indicated the ethics charges were filed and dismissed without any investigation by APA.

    From Guantanamo to the APA PENS Task Force

    After 9/11, Dr. Gelles was appointed in early 2002 to the government's newly formed Criminal Investigations Task Force (CITF). He retained, as well, his position as chief psychologist with NCIS. At first, he appears to have gone to Afghanistan to help train interrogators there. Later he was sent to Guantanamo.

    As documented by the 2008 Senate Armed Services Committee report on prisoner abuse, Dr. Gelles, along with a number of other CITF and NCIS professionals, protested the use of coercive interrogation techniques on prisoners. These techniques derived from the reverse-engineering of torture training protocols by the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) school. CITF and FBI interrogators had developed an alternative interrogation plan based on facilitating "long-term rapport" with the prisoner. In the end, along with his superior officer, Dr. Gelles took his complaints about the SERE-influenced techniques to Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora.

    In a review of the draft interrogation plan for Guantanamo "Detainee 063," Mohammad Al-Qahtani, Dr. Gelles observed of these abusive techniques:

    Strategies articulated in the later phases reflect techniques used to train US forces in resisting interrogation by foreign enemies.... [These techniques] would prove not only to be ineffective but also border on techniques and strategies deemed unacceptable by law enforcement professionals.

    Nevertheless, Dr. Gelles and his colleagues were overruled and the torture plan for Al-Qahtani proceeded. So far as is known, Dr. Gelles continued to work at Guantanamo, and subsequently in Iraq. At no time has Gelles criticized the cruel and degrading treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo stemming from a Standard Operating Procedure that emphasized isolation of prisoners, behavioral control over prisoners' lives, or the "frequent flyer" sleep deprivation program run at the prison. In fact, in an interview for the recent documentary "Torturing Democracy," when asked, Gelles minimized the psychological damage done to prisoners there:

    Well, I think that whether you're detained at Guantanamo Bay or you're detained in any type of prison facility, one could experience psychological disturbance....

    I mean, right now, I have a - though I haven't been there in close to two years, though I do have some connections to those folks who are involved. It's very much like a US prison in many cases. But that doesn't change one's own psychological expectation of what a potential outcome could be. Any degree of detention is going to have a psychological impact on someone.

    With increased controversy over revelations about the use of psychologists in torture at US prison facilities, especially following the Abu Ghraib scandal, the American Psychological Association bowed to pressure from the membership. In Spring 2005, they constituted a Psychological Ethics and National Security Task Force (PENS) to address the role of professional ethics and national security-related activity.

    Altogether, six of the nine formal participants were military-related. One of these six was Michael Gelles.

    While later held up by APA as a model of integrity for his protest against SERE techniques at Guantanamo, APA officials never alluded to the fact that ethics charges had been filed against Gelles in the King case. Nor was any of his behavior in that case ever brought to light. This could not be for lack of knowledge. In fact, Gelles alluded to his participation in the case in private emails exchanged with other PENS participants prior to the Task Force's official meetings (and later published publicly at the ProPublica and Salon web sites) (emphasis added):

    As Chuck Ewing has said on many an occasion ... the Agency is entitled to consultation just as an individual.... In the Squillicoate [sic] case referenced in the article, and to some extent my experience with the King case, a new demand to re-think how the profession was going to hold psychologists in practice accountable in contexts outside of the clinical and academic arenas was becoming more evident.

    There is no further mention of the King case in the PENS email listserv collection.

    In 2005, the PENS Task Force issued their report. While formally condemning torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners, the Task Force endorsed the participation of psychologists in national security interrogations, stating "The Task Force believes that a central role for psychologists working in the area of national security-related investigations is to assist in ensuring that processes are safe, legal, and ethical for all participants."

    Subsequent Developments

    As Gelles's role in protesting abusive interrogations at Guantanamo became public, he became an exemplar for APA in polemics with opponents on their interrogation policy from both within and outside the organization. Dr. Gelles has had letters to APA prominently posted on APA's ethics web site. In an article in the September 1, 2008, issue of Psychiatric Times, Dr. Stephen Behnke, who is APA ethics director, and who authored the PENS report, wrote "of psychologists who have used their professional positions to fight abuse":

    One stellar example is found in "The Dark Side," in which author Jane Mayer reports that psychologist Michael Gelles, an American Psychological Association member, took heroic steps to fight abuse at Guantanamo.

    Other professionals in the interrogation field have also been highly laudatory of Dr. Gelles. A recent example of this occurred in a public email exchange between Col. Steven Kleinman, an intelligence officer and director for Air Force Special Operations Command, and antitorture activist and psychologist Martha Davis, a visiting scholar at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Kleinman told Dr. Davis that he had "extensive professional and personal knowledge" about Dr. Gelles, and some of Gelles's PENS colleagues. "As a result," he told Dr. Davis, "I am in a position to serve as a witness to their principled conduct and willingness to speak truth to power in defense of the law and the moral high ground."

    Despite the seriousness of the Daniel King case, no statement regarding Dr. Gelles's participation in the King interrogation by APA or any of Dr. Gelles's peers can be found. It is difficult to know exactly how much APA officials knew about his previous activities prior to assigning him to the PENS Task Force. Yet, at a minimum, one would think the ethics director would have been aware of the King case; after all, an ethics complaint was filed with his department, and Gelles brought up the subject during the PENS discussion.

    A number of disputes are likely to be aired over interrogations and related issues at the APA Council of Representatives meeting at the psychologists' yearly convention this August 6-9 in Toronto. One such dispute concerns a controversy over APA Ethics Code 1.02, which allows psychologists with ethical conflicts with organizational authorities to defer to government orders. Another controversy concerns the implementation of a member-passed referendum last summer that calls for prohibiting psychologist participation in settings where human rights violations take place.

    It is incumbent upon APA members, as they consider the arguments for and against these issues, to consider the deeds as well as the words of the advocates for status quo at APA. Dr. Gelles is on the record as supporting the inclusion of psychologists in national security interrogations. Yet his words ring hollow when one considers his actual history:

    Having worked with law enforcement, the intelligence community and correctional officers, I am very familiar with the structure and function of detention facilities. I am too aware of how easily aggression can get out of hand, and how the well-intentioned can become carried away with emotion and perverse purpose and drift across boundaries, all of which may result in aggressive, violent and humiliating acts to detainees.... Removing trained professional psychologists from these settings will impact the degree of oversight and inevitably increase the likelihood of abuse, thus having precisely the opposite effect of what occurred as a result of my involvement at Guantanamo Bay.

    Despite the opinions of Dr. Gelles and a number of others who hold the same position, the Daniel King story stands as an indictment of professionals working for a government that all-too-often abuses individuals with no regard to human rights. Whatever Dr. Gelles did or did not do after 9/11, it was wrong to hide the story of his involvement in the King case from his peers, and wrong of APA not to investigate. It calls into question the sincerity of Dr. Gelles, NCIS, APA and other actors involved in the case. It also challenges the legitimacy of the PENS Task Force, as well as the position of Gelles and the APA bureaucracy on the ethics of psychologists in interrogations.

    On a larger scale, the Daniel King case, and the actions of NCIS agents and the "Chief Psychologist" involved, should raise red flags for Congress and other groups considering the proposed new "special unit of professional interrogators," which the Obama administration is said to be "considering creating ... to handle key terror suspects, focusing on intelligence-gathering rather than building criminal cases for prosecution." Typically, "intelligence-gathering" interrogations have less safeguards regarding suspect rights than those used to build probable criminal prosecutions, i.e., less safeguards than even those that supposedly were involved in the King case.

    For the record, back in 2001, the Navy denied using "coercion" on Daniel King. Today, Dr. Gelles is no long working for the Navy, but works as a consultant and writer. He was interviewed in January 2009 by Foreign Policy about interrogation issues and his experience at Guantanamo. Both Dr. Gelles and Dr. Behnke were contacted by email and offered an opportunity to comment for this article. Neither replied.

    Jeffrey Kaye, a psychologist living in Northern California, maintains a personal blog, Invictus. E-mail him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Last modified on Thursday, 06 August 2009 04:15