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The Complicity of Psychologists in CIA Torture


Earlier this week the Senate Intelligence Committee released the long-awaited executive summary of its 6,000-page classified report on the CIA’s brutal post-9/11 detention and interrogation program. The report provides gruesome details of the abuse that took place in several “black site” prisons – waterboarding, confinement in a coffin-sized box, threatened harm to family members, forced nudity, freezing temperatures, “rectal feeding” without medical need, stress positions, diapering, days of sleep deprivation, and more. The report also found that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” were ineffective; that the CIA misrepresented their effectiveness; and that the program damaged the standing of the United States around the world.

Two names appear dozens of times in the committee’s summary: Grayson Swigert and Hammond Dunbar. These are the pseudonyms that were given to James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. It has been known for several years that these two contract psychologists played central roles in designing and implementing the CIA’s torture program. Now we also know how lucrative that work was for Mitchell and Jessen: their company was paid over $80 million by the CIA.

Prior to their CIA contract work, Mitchell and Jessen were psychologists in the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training program. Even though they had no experience as interrogators, spoke no Arabic, and had no expert knowledge of al-Qaeda, they were hired by the CIA in late 2001 to reverse-engineer SERE principles and transform them into a set of new and more aggressive interrogation techniques. Mitchell and Jessen arrived at the CIA black site in Thailand in April 2002 and applied those harsh techniques for the first time in their interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian national thought to be a high-ranking member of al-Qaeda. They kept Zubaydah naked for almost two months, with his clothes provided or removed depending on how cooperative he was judged to be. They deprived him of sleep for weeks at a time by painful shackling of his wrists and feet. And in August 2002 they waterboarded him at least 83 times.

Responding to the new Senate report, the American Psychological Association (APA) was quick to issue a press release distancing itself from Mitchell and Jessen. The statement emphasized that the two psychologists are not APA members – although Mitchell was a member until 2006 – and that they are therefore “outside the reach of the association’s ethics adjudication process.” But there is much more to this story. After years of stonewalling and denials, last month the APA Board appointed an investigator to examine allegations that the APA colluded with the CIA and Pentagon in supporting the Bush Administration’s abusive “war on terror” detention and interrogation practices.

The latest evidence of that collusion comes from the publication earlier this fall of James Risen’s Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless WarWith access to hundreds of previously undisclosed emails involving senior APA staff, the Pulitzer-prize winning reporter concludes that the APA “worked assiduously to protect the psychologists…involved in the torture program.” The book also provides several new details pointing to the likelihood that Mitchell and Jessen were not so far removed from the APA after all.

Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, APA member and CIA head of behavioral research Kirk Hubbard first introduced Mitchell and Jessen to the CIA as “potential assets.” A few months later, in mid-2002, Hubbard arranged for former APA president Martin Seligman to present a lecture on his theories of “learned helplessness” to a group that included Mitchell and Jessen at the Navy SERE School in San Diego. And in 2003 Hubbard worked closely with APA senior staff in developing an invitation-only workshop – co-sponsored by the APA and the CIA – on the science of deception and other interrogation-related topics. Mitchell and Jessen were both participants (having returned from overseas where they were involved in the waterboarding of detainees Abu Zabaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed).

Then, in mid-2004, shortly after the horrific Abu Ghraib photos were released, Hubbard was among a small group of senior CIA and Pentagon officials who received an invitation to a private meeting from APA Ethics Office Director Stephen Behnke. According to emails obtained by Risen, one key reason for the gathering was to “sort out appropriate from inappropriate uses of psychology” in national security settings. In extending the invitation, Behnke assured Hubbard and the other attendees that their names and the substance of their discussions would never be made public, and that “in the meeting we will neither assess nor investigate the behavior of any specific individual or group” (presumably including the activities of Mitchell and Jessen).

That private meeting was the springboard that led to the creation of the APA’s controversial 2005 Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS). The PENS task force was dominated by representatives from the military and intelligence community, several of whom were drawn from chains of command where detainee abuses reportedly took place. The task force held a single weekend meeting and then issued a report asserting that it was ethical for psychologists to serve in various national security-related roles, including as consultants to detainee interrogations.

Although Hubbard was not a member of the PENS task force, he played an influential role. Indeed, according to Risen, within days of the release of the PENS report in July 2005, Hubbard received an email from Geoff Mumford, APA’s Science Policy Director. In that letter Mumford thanked Hubbard for his “personal contribution…in getting this effort off the ground” and assured him that his views “were well represented by very carefully selected [PENS] task force members.” A month before receiving that note of appreciation, Hubbard had emailed Mumford and other colleagues to let them know that he had retired from the CIA. In the same message Hubbard also told them about his new job: “Now I do some consulting work for Mitchell and Jessen Associates.”

These troubling connections – between Mitchell and Jessen, Hubbard, and the APA – represent only a single trail in what must be a broad and thorough investigation of possible collusion and corruption within the world’s largest organization of psychologists. Other evidence suggests that the abhorrent actions of two highly paid CIA contractors were by no means the only instances in which the profession’s do-no-harm principles were tragically abandoned. So while this week’s grim Senate report provides important answers to crucial questions, for the psychology profession there is much more yet to be illuminated.

Roy Eidelson is a clinical psychologist and the president of Eidelson Consulting, where he studies, writes about, and consults on the role of psychological issues in political, organizational, and group conflict settings. He is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, associate director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College, and a member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology.  Email:

Trudy Bond is a counseling psychologist in independent practice in Toledo, Ohio. She is a member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and on the steering committee of Psychologists for Social Responsibility.  Email:

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