No torture without psychologists?

Ella Rhodes reports on the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the Central Intelligence Agency's detention and interrogation program.

Two psychologists played a central role in the brutal torture of people captured after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, holding a multi-million dollar contract with the Central Intelligence Agency. Details emerged in December in the 500-page Senate Intelligence Committee report into the use of so-called ‘enhanced’ interrogation techniques on detainees.

In the report, the psychologists are referred to by the pseudonyms Grayson Swigert and Hammond Dunbar, but the New York Times, NBC News and multiple media outlets have identified them as Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. As well as developing techniques for interrogations the pair were also involved with carrying them out using techniques including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and painful stress positions.

In 2005 Mitchell and Jessen formed a company, Mitchell and Jessen Associates, for the sole purpose of conducting their work with the CIA. Shortly after, the agency outsourced almost all aspects of the programme. In 2006, the report said, the value of the CIA’s base contract with this company was more than $180 million, and the psychologists received $81 million prior to the contract’s end in 2009.

Helplessly ineffective

It is also revealed in the report that neither Mitchell nor Jessen had any particular knowledge of al-Qa'ida and counterterrorism, or any relevant cultural or linguistic specialism. Despite this, Mitchell and Jessen (described by The International Business Times as 'experts in Communist Chinese interrogation') ‘carried out inherently governmental functions, such as acting as liaison between the CIA and foreign intelligence services, assessing the effectiveness of the interrogation program, and participating in the interrogation of detainees held in foreign government custody.’

Their interrogation techniques were based on Martin Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness. Seligman is reportedly 'grieved and horrified' that his work was cited to justify the abusive interrogations.  'My impression is that they misread the theory,' said Dr. Charles A. Morgan III, a psychiatrist at the University of New Haven who has met Mitchell and Jessen (see also Maria Konnikova's piece on learned helplessness). Speaking to the New York Times, he added: 'They’re not really scientists.' Psychologist Dr Vaughan Bell, writing on the Mind Hacks blog, said the use of the theory in developing interrogation techniques was inherently flawed: ‘Mitchell and Jessen wanted to induce this [learned helplessness] state in detainees, thinking that it would make them more likely to co-operate. This, to be frank, is just bizarre. The theory predicts the opposite would happen and this is, rather grimly, exactly what occurred.’ Detainee Abu Zubaydah, the report notes, became ‘completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth’ after repeated waterboarding. Ramzi bin al-Shibh started to exhibit ‘visions, paranoia, insomnia, and attempts at self-harm.’

Laurence Alison, Director of the Centre for Critical and Major Incident Psychology at the University of Liverpool, told The Conversation that the use of building rapport, non-judgemental acceptance and empathy were far more useful in gleaning intelligence in interrogations. Speaking of his own research, he added: ‘Interrogators who resisted the (perhaps natural) urge to try and change or challenge the detainee’s behaviours and beliefs engaged more with their suspects and got more information from them.’

The committee’s report also states that the torture used did not extract any life-saving intelligence. In many cases, it says, detainees gave no information or fabricated information (as this piece in New Scientist says, this could have been predicted from 'decades of research': see also our 2009 news item on the effectiveness of torture). In another galling revelation the report states that CIA officers repeatedly raised concerns over the effectiveness of the methods being used. The report also revealed that, in its justification for using torture, the CIA often gave out misleading information, citing counterterrorism success as justification for the use of torture. However in its review the committee found that in some cases there was no relationship between the success of a counterterrorism operation and information gained from torture.

In The Guardian Martin Robbins called for the psychologists involved to be ‘banished from the scientific community’. He outlined the history of torture and why, in popular culture, a belief that torture works is often perpetuated. He wrote: ‘Only 22% of people in a YouGov poll last April were completely opposed to the use of torture, and support generally trended upwards through the Bush years and beyond. The philosophical argument against torture was lost sometime in the Old Testament, and there’s no sign of things turning around any time soon.’ Indeed, a recent study covered by our Research Digest blog suggested that people often endorse the use of torture on the basis of retribution, rather than as a cool utilitarian judgement aimed at extracting information.

Sickening and morally reprehensible

The American Psychological Association released a statement in response to the report, referring to the torture techniques used by the CIA as: ‘Sickening and morally reprehensible.’ It also pointed out that neither Mitchell nor Jessen were members of the APA. It also confirmed that it is looking into allegations made by the New York Times reporter and author James Risen that the APA colluded with the Bush administration to support enhanced interrogation techniques.

This is a central point for critics of the APA: writing for Slate, psychologist Steven Reisner detailed why he believed ‘there would have been no torture without the psychologists’. According to Reisner, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel had determined that the presence of psychologists and physicians, monitoring the state and condition of the prisoner being tortured, afforded protection for the CIA leadership and the Bush administration from liability and potential prosecution for the torture. Later, the OLC applied the same rules to the Defense Department’s ‘enhanced interrogation program’. But Reisner argues that ‘for psychologists to be able to do the Bush administration’s bidding and oversee the torture of detainees, they required not only indemnification for legal liability (Mitchell and Jessen were promised a $5 million legal defense fund by the CIA), but they also required indemnification from another source’. He continues: ‘…major national organizations of physicians, psychiatrists, and nurses determined that their ethical obligations prohibited their members from participating in these interrogations, so what was the American Psychological Association doing?’

Reisner answers his own question in the form of allegations made in James Risen’s book Pay Any Price, that ‘senior staff members of the American Psychological Association, the world’s largest association of psychologists, colluded with national security psychologists from the CIA, the Pentagon, and the White House to adapt APA ethics policy to suit the needs of the psychologist-interrogators’.

Others argue that psychologists were so central to the torture that the buck can’t stop with Mitchell and Jessen. Dan Aalbers, Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Sierra Nevada College, told us: ‘The very presence of a psychologist at black site meant that any interrogation was ipso facto not torture. Every psychologist at GITMO and the black sites was therefore complicit in acts of torture – even those who only did good. And we don’t know of any psychologist who only did good. This is important because proponents for the involvement of psychologists in interrogations are trying to limit the damage done to the profession by emphasising the role that these two psychologists played – but it wasn’t just two psychologists, Mitchell and Jessen were like patient zero of a virus that infected the entire interrogation system.’


The report has drawn responses from James Mitchell himself, who told Reuters the report is 'a bunch of hooey' and a 'partisan pile of bull___', adding 'If they were truly interested in getting the truth out, they would release me from [the non-disclosure agreement]'.  'I’m in a box - I’m caught in some Kafka novel,' he told another source. 'Everyone is assuming it is me, but I can’t confirm or deny it. It is frustrating because you can’t defend yourself.' He also confirmed that he was part of the enhanced interrogation programme in an interview with Vice News. Mitchell also told the Associated Press that "What I would love the American people to know is that the way the Senate Democrats on that committee described the credentials and background of the two psychologists is just factually, demonstrably incorrect." He added: "It's a lot more humane, even if you are going to subject them to harsh techniques, to question them while they are still alive, than it is to kill them and their children and their neighbors with a drone.'

The British Psychological Society also released a statement, noting the Senate’s conclusion that the interrogation methods used were ‘excessive and brutal’. Its statement added: ‘Furthermore we note with deep regret that some members of the profession and discipline of psychology were involved in developing some of these techniques.’ The Society took the opportunity to ‘condemn and repudiate these practices; to reiterate our long-standing and principled stance in these matters; to repeat the overriding ethical responsibility of all psychologists and other healthcare professionals to protect and defend fundamental human rights; and furthermore to note the extensive psychological research concluding that torture and coercive interrogation is ineffective, especially in comparison to rapport-based approaches’.

UPDATE 1 May 2015

A new report has made claims that the American Psychological Association (APA) worked secretly with government officials during the Bush-era to create an ethical justification of the torture programme used on prisoners in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The authors analysed around 600 newly-disclosed e-mails which show this occurred after increased media attention on interrogation techniques after the revelation of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

The report, 'All the President's Psychologists', written by six health professionals including two psychologists and human rights activists, makes the conclusion: ‘The APA secretly coordinated with officials from the CIA, White House, and the Department of Defense to create an APA ethics policy on national security interrogations that comported with then­classified legal guidance authorizing the CIA torture program.’

Writing in the New York Times author James Risen said: ‘The involvement of health professionals in the Bush-era interrogation program was significant because it enabled the Justice Department to argue in secret opinions that the program was legal and did not constitute torture, since the interrogations were being monitored by health professionals to make sure they were safe.’

He added that the Bush administration had relied heavily on psychologists, over psychiatrists or other health professionals, in monitoring interrogations. ‘[This was] at least in part because the psychological association was supportive of the involvement of psychologists in interrogations, a senior Pentagon official explained publicly in 2006,’ he said.

Following the allegations made by James Risen in his book, Pay Any Price, that senior APA staff had colluded with psychologists from the CIA, the association initiated an independent investigation into the alleged complicity between the APA and the Bush Administration. In a renewed statement the APA said Hoffman’s independent review was still in progress and would not comment on APA support for the CIA torture programme at this time. The results from this review are due later in the spring.  

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I am glad that the Society has made a statement against the validation of torture by psychologists. Many of you will remember that we showed the film by Martha Davis at BPS conference in Harrogate two years ago. This film opens up area of discussion and action very important to psychology today (apparently US psychiatrists would have nothing to do with the programme). Martha Davis is this year releasing another film this time showing the courage of psychologists among others who live out their ethics in practice. Here are the two titles:
Davis, M. (Writer). (2011). Doctors on the Dark Side -The critical role of physicians and psychologists in detainee torture [DVD].
Davis, M. (Writer). (2015). "Expert Witness: Health Professionals on the Front Line Against Torture” [DVD].
Dr Peter Martin