Psychologist Bryce Lefever Clarifies Defense of Torture

The recently public posting on the Propublica web site of the listserv from the American Psychological Association’s secretive 2005 PENS [Psychological Ethics and National Security] task force has again focused attention on the nature of this task force and on potential collusion between the APA and the Pentagon to provide “ethical” cover for psychologists aiding Bush administration interrogations at Guantanamo, the CIA’s “black sites,” and  in in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One piece of evidence supporting a claim of collusion is that, in a highly unusual step, the task force membership was kept confidential from both the APA membership and the press and public. Salon reporter Mark Benjamin had to go to Congressional sources to get the names a year later, though it turned out that they had been available on an obscure website, if one had known to look there. APA members learned from Benjamin that a majority of members were from the military-intelligence establishment. Five of these members had aided Bush-era interrogations, with four from chains of command accused of abuses; among other ethical problems with the task force composition, these members were giving themselves get-out-of-jail-free cards by pronouncing these interrogations “ethical.”

Not long after the listserv release psychologist and PENS member Bryce Lefever was featured on NPR’s All Things Considered, defending CIA torture psychologists Mitchell and Jessen and the reverse-engineering of the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape [SERE] techniques. Lefever revealed in that interview that he saw no ethical problems with Bush administration interrogation tactics, based as they were on the techniques used on US service members in the SERE school where Lefever had served as a psychologist monitoring trainees for possible harm.

The Lefever NPR interview created quite a stir among psychologists, including members of the APA’s Council of Representatives, as it revealed the questionable ethical reasoning of those chosen to form policy for the APA in this critical area. Reportedly, a major figure in the APA military psychology division wrote a letter distancing the division from Lefever’s extreme views, as depicted on NPR. In response to the criticism, Lefever has issued an Open Letter to military psychologists in which he taken exception to this criticism, and to the NPR interview, claiming major distortions of his views by NPR. In addition to clarifying and defending his views, in this Open Letter Lefever incidentally provides additional evidence of APA-Pentagon collusion in forming the PENS task force.

Before examining his Open Letter, it is useful to understand that this NPR interview was not the first time Lefever made the arguments supporting US interrogation tactics. In an article on the NPR interview, I quoted material from the PENS listserv indicating that he made many of the same arguments to the task force, and was largely ignored, but met with no objection from other members. Further, in August 2007, Lefever defended the SERE-based abuse [torture] of Jose Padilla to a Christian Science Monitor reporter:

‘There’s something to be said for sending the message that the gloves are coming off,’ says Capt. Bryce Lefever, a Navy psychologist and former SERE school instructor. ‘You don’t take a knife to a gunfight.’

Captain Lefever says it is unfair to compare US antiterror interrogations with Soviet interrogation techniques. ‘Their abuse was a systematic practice to conceal the truth,’ he says. ‘If Padilla was abused, then it was for a righteous purpose – to reveal the truth.’

Lefever opposes the use of torture because in most instances it is ineffective. But sometimes, harsh and brutal tactics can produce results, he adds. The key is that interrogators must be careful in their questions not to telegraph an agenda to the subject, because if the technique is coercive enough, the subject will say anything to make it stop.’

Here is the Lefever Open Letter:

“Open Letter to Military Psychology

To Bill Strickland, Eve Weber and members of the military psychology community:

Over the years, I have granted interviews to various publications on matters pertaining to clinical psychology.  I have done so with the intention to inform, educate and persuade both the professional and lay community on matters that I believe are important to the practice of psychology and to the defense of our nation.  I believe that it is the responsible obligation of citizens to debate matters that affect policy, health, freedom, as well as US and world opinion.   I also believe that free, open and honest expression, in pursuit of the truth, is the only way in which any idea can mature or truly progress.  Actions based on ignorance, if they succeed, will do so on dumb luck.  Clarity in our terms, philosophies and ideas will lead to informed decisions.

When I have spoken to the press, I have done so judiciously and have maintained, in every instance, that I speak as a private citizen.  I have never desired or pretended to speak for another person.  And, I have insisted that I do not speak for the Navy, the Department of Defense, or military psychology.  Until recently, this admonition has been largely respected.

There has been a strong reaction to the interview and accompanying article on NPR All Things Considered.  Much of the negative reaction has come from the military psychology community.  This has caused me considerable anguish-particularly because those colleagues critical of the interview condemned it, me, my participation, etc. without first contacting me or seeking to understand.  The Strickland letter immediately sought to distance the military community from what were assumed to be my views.  In the material that follows, I will address a few of the particulars in where and how NPR misrepresented my views.  Now you might ask how, within a recorded interview, my stated views could be twisted or misrepresented.  Let me provide a few examples:

1.    The correspondent, Alix Spiegel, promised that the story would be mine, that she would be in the background and that I would be able to lay out the thesis.  Now, I am not as naïve as some of you would think.  I am aware of NPR’s reputation.  However, with the various assurances, and that my statements would be recorded verbatim, I agreed to the interview.  Hindsight is perfect, however, going in, I had no particular reason to suspect that she would lie, twist and manipulate so egregiously.

2.    The title:  “Military Psychologist Says Harsh Tactics Justified.”  If you believe in the honesty of NPR’s reporting, and logic, you would assume that the rest of the interview would support that headline.  However, I never made such a statement.  In fact, the article quoted me as saying I was opposed to torture and advocated only slow, rapport-building techniques.  When Strickland’s letter stated: “…we strongly disagree with the assertions attributed to Dr. Lefever,”  I was quite taken aback.  I thought that he believed the “hit piece,” didn’t read the story, and disagreed with my position opposing torture.  It is important that we not twist and mischaracterize or misrepresent each other’s positions.

3.    I did not defend Mitchell and Jessen.  I like them and respect them.  However, I told Alix Spiegel several times that they were big boys and could defend themselves.   I did point out I was convinced that harsh tactics worked in interrogation as did a host of other, less harsh measures. I emphatically told her that this was my opinion and that it was a matter for empirical investigation. I stated that in pursuit of the truth, the key when using any interrogation technique, was to never lead the detainee during questioning.

4.    Alix skillfully wove in Answer A on Question B.  For example, I did say that I liked and was proud of the work we did at the SERE Schools.  I did not say or remotely imply that I liked torturing people.  In fact, I have never tortured anyone nor have I advised anyone to do it.  And, by the way, I have never seen it done.

5.    Alix implied that we engaged in tying a prisoner’s arms behind his back and keeping him awake lying on the ground-or advocated these tactics.  In fact, I told the story of CAPT Rod Knutson, whose account was well described in the Reader’s Digest Book: POW, under the title: “A Tough Nut to Crack.”  The technique described was used by the enemy (North Viet Nam-Viet Cong) and is called the rope torture or “rope trick.”  Nothing of the like, to my knowledge, has ever been suggested for use by the American Armed Forces.

6.    Alix made it sound like I advocated putting a bug in with a prisoner.  I never suggested this and believe it is a hapless, stupid idea.  However, I did point out that there were similarities between what was called torture in one context and therapy in another.  My general thesis, over three hours of interviewing, was that empiricists, ethicists, behavioral researchers, academicians, and philosophers needed to debate and decide what constituted torture and the effect of context on the topography of behavior.

7.    I was given a voice in this important debate.  This occurred by my appointment to the PENS Taskforce in 2005.  This appointment was officially requested by my Specialty Leader.  It was sanctioned by the Navy.  It is important that those of us who can contribute to the war of ideas and philosophies do so and that the right, reasonable, prudent, and ethical side win.  For example, the pacifist movement before WWII and the appeasers in England, France and other countries had catastrophic consequences on the events that set the stage for the invasion of Europe by Germany, Nazism, and the Third Reich.  My side of the debate includes standing against terror, protecting America, upholding the Constitution, and adhering to American values and rights as protected by the Constitution.  I am resoundly opposed to pacifism as I believe it is a moralistic-feel good about oneself-philosophy which has no historical support for its efficacy and is contrary to everything I know about human (or animal) behavior.

8.    I pointed out to Alix that I was waterboarded in 1990.  I have been quoted as saying (Vanity Fair) that it was terrifying.  It was.  However, I was not harmed by the experience.  I pointed this out to NPR as well as Vanity Fair and others.  This point is never reported by the press.  I told her that there is no life free of pain or adversity.  And, the Waterboard made me stronger, more able to face the various problems of my life.  My general thesis was, if something does not harm you, can you call it torture?  This has been my consistent question from the PENS Taskforce until now.  By this definition, I have now been tortured by NPR, and by those who have chosen to perpetuate their lies-far more so than by my experience on the Waterboard.  I believe that torture must include the element of harm.  Clearly, as psychologists, we are ethically bound to do no harm.

9.    I also informed Alix that my colleagues at APA have passed a resolution that has the breathtaking arrogance of suggesting how my military colleagues should and should not practice in settings that they have decided are or have been abusive to our Detainees.  I am sure that there have been psychologist consultants to business and industry and that many of those businesses, banks or industry are now failing at great cost to Americans. Perhaps we should pass a resolution limiting their activities. Perhaps those consultants should be limited to treating only those who have lost money at those banks or businesses.  The fact of the matter is that those who have committed heinous acts (criminals, terrorists) are deprived of some or all of their human rights (through incarceration, loss of rights to vote, death penalty, etc.).  Even those accused of committing these acts, though presumed innocent, are deprived of their liberty for the benefit and safety of society.  Human Rights and Ethics are different concerns-although in an ideal world, one becomes the other.  In a world of terror, the peaceful, moral, productive citizen must be protected by those who would deprive his rights by force, terror and deceit.  This is what I swore to do when I took my oath. Our enemies are both foreign and domestic.

10.    This is the easiest possible criticism that someone can make: “You should have done more, or you should have done something different.”  The set of things we don’t do is infinitely larger that the set we choose to do.  Our first order of business is to seek and to promote understanding so that we will be wise in the few things we choose to do.

11.    Finally, I told Alix that the reputation of America-mostly to other Americans-was a vital concern.  It is our own self-opinion of what America stands for that is at issue.  It was correctly reported that I have no particular fondness for our enemy-but I would and have behaved correctly and ethically in regard to him for our sake.

Yours truly,
Bryce Lefever

In this Letter Lefever apparently is saying that “harsh” techniques are sometimes effective, and that they are, in many cases, not harmful, and therefore cannot be considered to be “torture.” Lefever similarly told the PENS task force that they shouldn’t assume that SERE-based techniques would be harmful to US detainees because, he claimed, they were character-building for US troops who went through SERE:

“When I brought up the idea of harm, and what is harm, it fell on deaf ears. I pointed out that behavioral and psychological techniques used in training our high-risk-of-capture students in Survival Schools [SERE] are viewed as vital, necessary, good, and for the greater good. Psychologists are strong proponents of these techniques even though they inflict psychological and physical pain. Yet the very same behaviors are proscribed by the Department of Defense and viewed as harmful when applied to America’s prisoners.”

This new letter helps clarify his claim to the PENS listserv. His argument is that, because these SERE-based techniques are not “harmful,” they are not torture. “I was waterboarded in 1990…. However, I was not harmed by the experience…. My general thesis was, if something does not harm you, can you call it torture?”

Therefore psychologists, ethically-bound as they are to “do no harm,” can ethically adopt waterboarding or any other SERE-based techniques. Because of this reasoning, he can claim that he never used or witnessed “torture.” Not when he was a SERE psychologist witnessing SERE techniques used on US service members , one presumes. And not when he trained interrogators in Afghanistan. Given his caveats, we are still left wondering what techniques he did use in Afghanistan.

Lefever says he only used “rapport-building.” However, we now know that the abuses in Guantanamo from 2003 on were often described as “rapport-building.” Thus, we are left wondering which “non-harmful” techniques he taught US interrogators in Afghanistan.

Another very important element of this letter is that it confirms the extensive collaboration between the APA and the military in the creation of the PENS task force. Lefveer tells us:

“I was given a voice in this important debate.  This occurred by my appointment to the PENS Taskforce in 2005.  This appointment was officially requested by my Specialty Leader.  It was sanctioned by the Navy.”

Lefever here tells us that he, a member of the task force was “officially requested” by a military official and was officially sanctioned by the Navy. This puts the lie to any claim that APA leaders selected the task force. Rather, they merely ratified choices “officially requested” by military officials. They thus surrendered the association’s ethics decision-making to the military.

Lefever, in his sincerity, further informs us that “human rights” are divorced from “ethics” in the real world. While human rights are concerned about the rights of individuals, Lefever makes clear that he feels an ethical obligation to ride roughshod over those rights in order to protect “the peaceful, moral, productive citizen.” He shows a profound misunderstanding of the fundamentals of our criminal justice system when he state, and his willingness to dispense with many of the protections that protect our freedoms:

“Even those accused of committing these acts, though presumed innocent, are deprived of their liberty for the benefit and safety of society.”

Perhaps most chillingly, Lefever concludes his discussion of the flaws and dangers of “human rights” and of pacifism by stating “Our enemies are both foreign and domestic.” Given the totality of the Letter, it certainly is reasonable to wonder if “pacifists” and “human rights” advocates are among those domestic enemies he has sworn to fight. Safe to say, few even among the APA leadership would openly support such views.

In putting Bryce Lefever, along with the other military-intelligence members, on the PENS task force and making them their “ethics” policy-makers, and in keeping their  participation secret, the APA demonstrated the extremes to which they were willing to go to do the Bush administration’s bidding.

With a new administration in Washington, the APAis busy trying to scrub their recent history. They may even rescind the PENS report, defended so vigorously for years, that resulted from this flawed process. But no mere policy change can be sufficient without a detailed understanding of how and why the nation’s largest organization of psychologists created this obviously flawed and unethical “ethics” process. Four organizations —  Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, Psychologists for Social Responsibility, Psychologists for an Ethical APA, and Physicians for Human Rights — have so far called for independent investigations of APA-Bush administration ties. This investigation is necessary to begin the process of reforming an organization that has gone so far astray. The investigation must then be followed by changes in organizational structures and personnel to reduce the chances of a recurrence of flawed policy-making in the wake of the next national crisis.

STEPHEN SOLDZ is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He maintains the Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice web site and the Psyche, Science, and Society blog. He is a founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, one of the organizations working to change American Psychological Association policy on participation in abusive interrogations. He is also a Steering Committee member of Psychologists for Social Responsibility [PsySR].

STEPHEN SOLDZ is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He edits the Psyche, Science, and Society blog. He is a founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, one of the organizations working to change American Psychological Association policy on participation in abusive interrogations. He is President-Elect of Psychologists for Social Responsibility [PsySR].