Torture After Dark


Jane Mayer’s new book, The Dark Side, has refocused attention on psychologists’ participation in Bush administration torture and detainee abuse. In one chapter Mayer provides previously undisclosed details about psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen’s role in the CIA’s brutal, “enhanced interrogation” techniques. These techniques apparently drew heavily on the theory of "learned helplessness" developed by former American Psychological Association President Martin Seligman. (Seligman’s work involved tormenting dogs with electrical shocks until they became totally unable or unwilling to extract themselves from the painful situation. Hence the phrase “learned helplessness.”)

Mayer reports and Seligman has confirmed that, in 2002, Seligman gave a three-hour lecture to the Navy SERE school in San Diego. SERE is the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape program, which attempts to inoculate pilots, special forces, and other potential high-value captives against torture, should they be captured by a power that does not respect the Geneva Conventions. For reasons that are not clear, Seligman reportedly was not invited to the presentation by the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) that runs this program, but directly by the Central Intelligence Agency itself.

In responding to reports of his lecture to SERE psychologist, Dr. Seligman has confirmed the presence of both Mitchell and Jessen at his lecture. He also apparently asked his hosts if the lecture would be used for designing interrogation techniques. Seligman reports that they refused to answer his inquiry on the grounds of military security. Despite the reply, Seligman concluded that his  presentation was intended solely to help SERE psychologists protect US troops. He also states unequivocally that he is personally opposed to torture.

The American Psychological Association (APA), the organization of which Seligman was president in 1999, echoed Dr. Seligman’s statement in a press release. The release denied allegations that Dr. Seligman knowingly contributed to the design of torture techniques. The APA, in its recent statements, neither denied nor addressed any of the other reports suggesting that the work of psychologists – including that of Seligman, Jessen, and Mitchellwas used to torture detainees. The only comment APA made about Jessen and Mitchell was that because they are not APA members they are not within the purview of the APA’s ethics committee.

What we do now know, from a report issued by the Defense Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and from documents released during recent hearings by the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), is that these SERE techniques, designed to ameliorate the effects of torture, were "reverse engineered," transformed from ensuring the safety of our own soldiers, to orchestrating the abuse of detainees in Guantánamo, Afghanistan and Iraq. These documents reveal, further, that certain SERE psychologists shifted roles from supervising protective SERE programs to overseeing SERE-inspired abusive interrogations. Several reporters have named Mitchell and Jessen (former SERE psychologists under contract) as responsible for this "reverse-engineering" that was used at secret CIA "black sites". The Senate Armed Senate Committee reported that other psychologists played a role in the “reverse-engineering” of SERE techniques for the Department of Defense at Guantánamo Bay and in Iraq. Senator Carl Levin, in his introductory comments to the hearings stated:

"a… senior CIA lawyer, Jonathan Fredman, who was chief counsel to the CIA’s CounterTerrorism Center, went to [Guantanamo] attended a meeting of GTMO staff and discussed a memo proposing the use of aggressive interrogation techniques. That memo had been drafted by a psychologist and psychiatrist from [Guantanamo] who, a couple of weeks earlier, had attended the training given at Fort Bragg by instructors from the JPRA SERE school…While the memo remains classified, minutes from the meeting where it was discussed are not. Those minutes … clearly show that the focus of the discussion was aggressive techniques for use against detainees."

The psychologist referred to in Levin’s opening remarks was APA member, Maj. John Leso, whose recommendations at that meeting included “sleep deprivation, withholding food, isolation, loss of time…[to] foster dependence and compliance". Also reported in the hearings was that psychologist Col. Morgan Banks had provided training in abusive SERE techniques to Guantánamo interrogators. Col. Banks, while not an APA member, was appointed to the APA’s Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) task force on interrogations. APA has yet to comment upon the startling revelations of psychologist complicity from these committee hearings.

According to Mayer in The Dark Side, and other reporters over the past three years, in the weeks following Seligman’s lecture, Mitchell made liberal use of the "learned helplessness" paradigm in the harsh tactics he designed to interrogate prisoners held by the CIA. One prisoner was repeatedly locked in a fetal position; in a cage too tiny for him to do anything, other than to lie still in a fetal position. The cage was evidently designed not only to restrict movement, but also to make breathing difficult. In periods where the detainee was outside of the cage, the torture mechanism always remained in plain view so the detainee was constantly aware of his pending return to the device.

Another detainee was suspended on his toes with his wrists manacled above his head. This detainee, however, had a prosthesis that agents removed so that he either balanced on one foot for hours on end or hung suspended from his wrists.

Most detainees were subjected to long periods of isolation, often in total darkness, and often while naked. Human contact in these periods was minimized. In one case, the only human contact for a detainee occurred from a single daily visit when a masked man would show up to state, "You know what I want,” and then disappear.

Based on these media reports and government documents, it seems likely that Dr. Seligman’s work on "learned helplessness" was used to aid the development of these torture techniques following his presentation at the SERE school.

APA’s response to the Seligman matter is perplexing. If Dr. Seligman’s report is accurate, and he was kept from knowing how the CIA would be using his material because he did not have security clearance, Seligman was evidently duped. At a minimum, one would hope the APA would be concerned enough about this deception to sound a cautionary alarm against psychologists’ naive engagement with government programs potentially involved in interrogation abuses.

Instead, the APA has put extraordinary effort into maintaining and expanding opportunities for psychologists to serve US intelligence and security institutions. As the APA’s Science Policy Insider News (SPIN) proudly announced in January 2005, "Since 9/11 psychologists have searched for opportunities to contribute to the nation’s counter terrorism and homeland security agenda." 

These efforts included cosponsoring a conference with the CIA to investigate the efficacy of enhanced interrogation techniques, including the use of drugs and sensory bombardment. Among the reported organizers of that conference was APA member Kirk Hubbard, Chief of the Research & Analysis Branch, Operational Assessment Division of the CIA.  Hubbard recruited the “operational expertise” for that conference. Among the attendees to this “by-invitation-only” conference were Mitchell and Jessen. (Hubbard also helped organize the event at which Seligman spoke and to which Mitchell and Jessen were invited.)

In addition, the APA co-sponsored a conference with the FBI during which it was suggested that therapists report to law-enforcement officials information obtained during therapy sessions regarding “national security risk.”  And just this past June, APA’s efforts included lobbying for the retention of “invaluable behavioral science programs within DoD’s Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) as it reorganizes and loses personnel strength.” For those who are not familiar with this issue, the CIFA program was closed down because of numerous scandals, including: misuse of national security letters to gain access to private citizen’s financial information without warrants, the resignation of a Congressman accused of accepting bribes in exchange for CIFA contracts, and, according to the New York Times , the collection of a wide-reaching domestic “database that included information about antiwar protests planned at churches, schools and Quaker meeting halls.” The CIFA psychology directorate, although a top secret operation, was known for its risk assessments of Guantánamo detainees, including feeding questions to interrogators.

The issues of psychologist involvement in "national security" efforts are complex. Although there may be appropriate and ethically acceptable ways for psychologists to participate in such activities, even a cursory historical awareness indicates that such involvement is often ethically problematic. Whether for good or for ill, the CIA has a long record of tapping academic scientists as witting and unwitting consultants and researchers, and of providing protection through cover stories and secrecy. For example, the 1977 Senate investigation of the CIA Behavioral Modification Project (called MKULTRA) disclosed that the CIA had contracted with researchers at over 80 universities, hospitals, and other research-based institutions through a front funding agency. In the Senate hearing, the Director of Central Intelligence stated: “I believe we all owe a moral obligation to these researchers and institutions to protect them from any unjustified embarrassment or damage to their reputations which revelations of their identities might bring."   But these are not just ploys of the past. Recently, Dr. Belinda Canton, a long-time CIA intelligence manager and a member of the 2005 President’s Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, recommended opportunistic use of scientists as an approach to management of uncertainty: “Identify academics and scientists who may have insights” and note where “opportunities exist to exploit scientific cadre.”

This history, along with the current, well-documented authorizations for detainee abuse, should have provided sufficient warning to APA leaders and to individual psychologists about the moral risks in aiding the national security apparatus, especially under the present U.S. administration. But the APA has not taken the lead in helping psychologists confront these dangerous ethical situations. To the contrary, the APA has been insensitive to the use of psychological techniques in torture and to the role of psychologists in aiding that torture. This insensitivity itself has shocked many psychologists here and abroad.

In 2006, Time magazine released the interrogation log of Guantanamo detainee 063, Mohammed al-Qahtani. This log demonstrated that al-Qahtani had been systematically tortured for six weeks in late 2002 and 2003. The log also alleged that psychologist and APA member Maj. John Leso was present at least several times during these episodes. The APA said nothing about this alleged participation of an APA member in documented torture. It is at least 23 months since ethics complaints were filed against Dr. Leso and still the APA has remained silent.

In May 2007, the Defense Department declassified the Office of Inspector General report, documenting the role of SERE psychologists in training military and CIA personnel in techniques of abuse that "violated the Geneva Conventions." The APA responded with silence. When we inquired about the APA’s reaction, we were told that the organization needed time to "carefully study" the report. It has been 14 months, and to date no APA leader has commented upon the Report. 

The APA leadership has failed psychologists and failed the profession of psychology. It has also failed the country. When ethical guidance was required, the APA put its ethical authority in the hands of those involved in the questionable practices that needed investigation. When the evidence became overwhelming that psychologists helped design, implement, and standardize a U.S. torture regime, the APA remained silent. When it was reported that the use of psychological paradigms such as ‘learned helplessness’ have guided psychologists’ manipulation of detainee conditions, the APA continues to ignore or discount these reports. They instead assert that psychologists presence’ at CIA black sites and detention camps “assures safety.” When it became clear that the APA should offer a strong voice and a clear policy prohibiting psychologists’ participation in operations that systematically violate the Geneva conventions and international law, the APA leadership raised  concern that a “restraint of trade” lawsuit might be brought against them. These arguments, of course, do not pass the red face test in any discerning forum of world opinion.

These are not our values. The APA leadership has shamed us and our profession with its strategic helplessness. It is time for the APA to clarify that psychologists may not ethically support in any way abusive or coercive interrogation tactics in any settings. It is also time to identify and hold publicly responsible the individual psychologists who have created the institution that the APA has now become. It is time to hold these psychologists accountable for developing the widespread and systematic moral failures in the organization’s current infrastructure. Indeed, if we do not do this, then we, too, are complicit with torture.

The authors are members of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. They can be reached at: ssoldz@bgsp.edu



  U.S. Senate, Select Committee on Intelligence and Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research of the Committee on Human Resources.  (1977)  Project MKULTRA: the CIA’s program of research in behavioral modification.  U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.  Pp.  7, 12-13, 123 & 148-149.

[Canton, Belinda.  (2008).  The active management of uncertainty.  International  Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, 21 (3):  487-518.]

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