Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Interrogation, Sensory Deprivation and the CIA: A Canadian Connection

Thirty-six years ago, Donald Capri was driving across the Redwood Bridge in Winnipeg when he spotted a body floating in the Red River. Police later identified the victim as Prof. John Zubek, a distinguished psychologist at the University of Manitoba. Cause of death was determined to be suicide by drowning. Zubek was 49.

Zubek’s mysterious life and death has a direct and largely unexplored relationship with the CIA’s methodology of interrogation. Zubek devoted his life’s work to researching sensory deprivation. In a special isolation chamber at the University of Manitoba, he conducted experiments on more than 500 people over 15 years, depriving them of all sensations for up to two weeks. The research was begun at a time when the CIA’s MK-ULTRA program was spending millions to understand how manipulating human behaviour could assist interrogations.

Zubek, who was funded by the Canadian defence department and the US government, was considered a world leader in sensory deprivation research, elaborating the covert work begun by colleague Donald Hebb at McGill University -- work he assisted, according to documents in Zubek's personal papers.

Despite his death in 1974, Zubek’s legacy endures in the methods used at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and other detention centres. The notorious photo of a hooded prisoner in Abu Ghraib, standing on a box with arms extended, shows the importance of sensory deprivation in the CIA’s methods. So does the declassified Foreign Affairs document that reveals how Omar Khadr was placed on the “frequent flyer” program at Guantanamo, constantly moved from cell to cell and denied uninterrupted sleep. “He will soon be placed in isolation for up to three weeks and then he will be interviewed again,” says the once-secret 2004 memo. In his influential book A Question of Torture, Alfred McCoy argues that the “no-touch torture” technique of sensory deprivation is critical to the US interrogation paradigm.

I have examined Zubek's archives at the University of Manitoba and written a lengthy article about his activities for the current issue of Canada's History magazine.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Getting Closer to the Truth in the Mulroney-Schreiber Affair

Harvey Cashore has a new book on the stands about the Airbus Affair. It's called : The Truth Shows Up: A Reporter's Fifteen-Year Odyssey Tracking Down the Truth About Mulroney, Schreiber and the Airbus Scandal.

I have reviewed it in the July/August issue of the Literary Review of Canada. Here is a portion of that review:

Cashore’s book is an engaging and instructive roadmap for any aspiring reporter. And he succeeds in revealing more of the truth behind the story than anyone else has to date. He takes the reader on a fascinating, behind-the-scenes journey of a complex journalistic investigation. The stakes are always high, because at the heart of the story is the suggestion that former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney may have benefited from commissions paid by Airbus to secure a sale of jets to Air Canada.

The secrets held by prime ministers and presidents are rarely, if ever, fully revealed. Last year, at a speech to the annual conference of the Investigative Reporters and Editors, legendary Watergate journalist Bob Woodward described a dinner he recently had with former vice-president Al Gore. How much does the public know about what really went on in the Clinton White House, Woodward asked his dinner guest. Gore thought for a moment before replying: “About one percent.” Add to the equation potential illegal behaviour on the part of a prime minister, and the odds for revelation of the truth become far smaller.

When Air Canada decided to buy 34 jets from Airbus in 1988, Karlheinz Schreiber received about $500,000 in secret commissions per plane. Reporters with Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine began chasing the story in 1994, and soon they were in partnership with CBC’s the fifth estate. Cashore was assigned to research the story for the program, and over the years his research produced a number of important documentaries and books about the affair.

Cashore brought with him a specific journalistic methodology he had learned from his mentor, former newspaper reporter and author John Sawatsky. In his groundbreaking investigation of the RCMP security service in the 1970s and 1980s, Sawatsky learned the importance of taping and transcribing all conversations. By studying his own questions and the answers they produced, and analyzing the questions posed by his colleagues and students, Sawatsky deduced that the quality of information was often directly related to the precise language employed in the questioning. He came up with a unique methodology of interviewing, and he stressed the value of maintaining a chronology of events in every story he worked on. Sawatsky also believed in maintaining a militant neutrality in his approach, always keeping an open mind and allowing for disconfirmatory evidence to be heard.

As a researcher for Sawatsky’s biography of Mulroney, The Politics of Ambition, Cashore learned the methodology well and adopted it for his own inquiries. Much of the book’s rich detail comes in the transcripts of Cashore’s taped interviews.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Exposing the Dangers of Asbestos

For most people, asbestos is the stuff we desperately try to remove from old buildings because of its cancer-causing properties. But in much of the developing world, asbestos continues to be used, causing an estimated 100,000 deaths per year.

Canada plays a role in this situation by continuing to mine asbestos and export it around the world. Even though 52 countries ban the use of asbestos, Canada exports it to India, China, Mexico and other countries, where controls on its use have been shown to be lacking.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, working with the BBC and journalists around the world, recently released an expose on the problem called Dangers in the Dust: Inside the Global Asbestos Trade.

Among other things, the series looks at a global network of lobby groups that has spent nearly $100 million since the mid-1980s to preserve the market for asbestos. It exposes relationships between governments, industry and scientists to promote the continued production and export of asbestos.

One of those lobby groups is Canada's Chrysotile Institute, based in Montreal. Asbestos mining has been a traditional industry in Quebec, one which governments continue to support.

The ICIJ report says Canada exported 153,000 tonnes of chrysotile, or white asbestos, to India, Indonesia, Thailand, Mexico, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the UAR. Only a small fraction of that amount is used back home.

There is currently a debate over enhanced funding for the expansion of an asebstos mine in Quebec. The Canadian and Quebec governments support the production and export of asbestos, while arguing that end users need to ensure the product is handled safely. The Canadian Cancer Society is urging government not to extend loan guarantees to the Jeffrey Asbestos Mine. The town of Asbestos in Quebec retaliated by cancelling support for the society's Relay for Life fundraising effort next year.

The ICIJ works collaboratively with reporters in many countries to produce investigative reports. This expose involved reporters in eight countries, though Canada was conspicuously absent.

A year ago, the CBC broadcast a powerful documentary on the asbestos issue called Canada's Ugly Secret. Reporter Mellissa Fung showed how workers in India handled Canadian asbestos with virtually no protection, exposing them to long-term health hazards.