Psychologists Exposed as Key Players in U.S. Torture Programs

by | Mar 6, 2016

RestraintsThe American Psychological Association states that “Our mission is to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives.”
How embarrassing to discover that some former APA presidents and other top psychologists were active advisers to the Pentagon and CIA in the creation of the torture techniques used by the US to interrogate prisoners – techniques that violate international law and all sense of human decency.
Psychologists not only developed the techniques but were actually paid huge sums of money to personally oversee the application of them to prisoners.
The APA’s Ethics Director, Stephen Behnke, coordinated the group’s public policy statements on interrogations with a top military psychologist and received a Pentagon contract to help train interrogators.
He and other APA officials sought favor with Pentagon officials by keeping the association’s ethics policies in line with the Defense Department’s interrogation policies. They did not want to hinder the ability of psychologists to remain involved with the military interrogation program. His ethics office “prioritized the protection of psychologists – even those who might have engaged in unethical behavior – above the protection of the public.”
The CIA asked Mel Gravitz, a prominent outside psychologist, and a member of the CIA’s advisory committee, whether it was ethical for psychologists to continue to participate in the CIA’s interrogations. Gravitz justified it this way “the psychologist has an obligation to (a) group of individuals, such as the nation,” and that the ethics code “must be flexible [sic] applied to the circumstances at hand.”
So much for APA ethics!
The New York Times published a series of articles on the topic including publishing a 542-page report that was the result of a seven-month investigation led by David Hoffman, a Chicago lawyer with the firm Sidley Austin. The APA requested this independent investigation and immediately issued the following “apology” once the report was published.
“The actions, policies and lack of independence from government influence described in the Hoffman report represented a failure to live up to our core values,” Nadine Kaslow, a former president of the organization, said in a statement. “We profoundly regret and apologize for the behavior and the consequences that ensued.”
Of course there is more to the story, including the fact that torture still continues and psychologists are still involved.
Psychologists’ Role in the Post – Sept. 11 U.S. Interrogation Program
A psychologist named Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman had discovered in the 1960s that dogs that learned they could do nothing to avoid small electric shocks would become listless and simply whine and endure the shocks even after being given a chance to escape. He called this “learned helplessness.”
In December 2001, small group of professors, law enforcement and intelligence officers met at his home to discuss Muslim extremism. Among them was psychologist Dr. Jim Mitchell, who expressed great admiration and praise to Dr. Seligman on his work and writings on “learned helplessness”. Dr. Seligman later said he was “grieved and horrified” to learn that Mitchell admired “learned helplessness” as the key concept behind brutal interrogation techniques.
Dr. Mitchell had been working in an Air Force program called SERE (Survival, Evasion, Rescue and Escape) which included simulated torture of US military personnel to prepare them for possible capture.
In 2002 Former APA president Joseph Matarazzo worked with Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Bruce Jessen, another SERE psychologist, to design a new CIA interrogation regimen, much of it based on techniques employed by Chinese Communist torturers. Mitchell and Jessen had never done real interrogations, had no language skills to do it and no expertise about Al Qaeda. But they were interested in torture.
These psychologists formed a private corporation and the CIA hired them to develop techniques, run the program and ultimately to apply torture to prisoners. Their total corporate pay was to be $181 million dollars! Their company received $81 million before their contract was cancelled in 2009.
Psychology Approved Techniques to Create “Learned Helplessness”
What techniques did they dream up? They borrowed from their SERE experience with Chinese communist torture methods.
Old APA President Dr. Matarazzo had ruled that sleep deprivation was “not torture.”
Of course, Dr. Matarazzo also owned a piece of the company that was being paid $181 million dollars so he wanted to be sure Mitchell and Jessen would get good interrogation results for the CIA.
After Abu Zubaydah, thought to be #3 in Al Queda, was captured, he voluntarily gave a great deal of information to the military. Then Mitchell and Jessen took over. They ordered Zubaydah stripped naked, exposed to cold and blasted with rock music to prevent sleep. They had him confined to a coffin size box for over 11 days. He spent 29 hours in a smaller box 2.5 feet x 2.5 feet x 21 inches.
They had him water-boarded 83 times before deciding he had nothing else to tell them. (Water boarding involves near drowning of the prisoner and creates convulsions and vomiting.) Toward the end the psychologist would snap his fingers and Zubaydah would walk over to the water-boarding table and climb up ready to receive his treatment.
Psychologists were supposed to be on hand at interrogations to “add value and safeguards” according to APA President Ronald Levant. In actual fact the psychologist participated in the torture and asked the questions.
Interrogation also involved slaps and “wallings” (banging detainees into walls). Sleep deprivation could run up to 180 hours, often forcing the prisoner to stand or hold the body in an unnatural position, sometimes with hands shackled above their heads. Other techniques included giving them rectal feedings instead of meals, use of ice baths, threatening harm to the prisoner’s mother or family, and threats of personal death.
These psychologists were inventing and using interrogation not approved by The Department of Justice or CIA headquarters. Apparently, if you give a psychologist an inch, they’ll take a mile.
Suddenly APA Votes to Ban Psychologists in National Security Interrogations
On August 7th, 2015, the APA voted 156 to 1 to ban any involvement by psychologists in national security interrogations conducted by the US government, even non-coercive interrogations now conducted by the Obama administration.
Sounds good and it’s a step in the right direction, but psychologists will still be involved.
The ban states “psychologists shall not conduct, supervise, be in the presence of, or otherwise assist any national security interrogations for any military or intelligence entities, including private contractors working on their behalf, nor advise on conditions of confinement insofar as these might facilitate such an interrogation.”
But, “psychologists may consult with the government on broad interrogation policy, but may not get involved in any specific interrogation or consult on the specific detention conditions for detainees.” In other words, they can still plan interrogation techniques but they’ll have to let others do the actual dirty work of interrogation.
The ban does not prohibit psychologists from working with the police or prisons in criminal law enforcement interrogations.
Most interrogations of important terrorism suspects now are conducted by the High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, an inter-agency unit led by the FBI that includes CIA and Pentagon personnel. This group also includes psychologists, who both conduct research and consult on effective means of interrogating terrorism suspects, and the Pentagon says psychologists are still assigned at the American military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where they oversee voluntary interrogations of detainees.
The A.P.A. will be sending a letter to Mr. Obama and other top government officials informing them of the new policy, and requesting that psychologists be removed from Guantánamo Bay and other sites where national security interrogations are conducted.
Meanwhile the APA military psychologists were fuming mad and met separately after the vote to see how they can handle this to still remain on the military payroll.
As far as the APA goes, it said that psychologists could be subject to ethics complaints if they continued to be involved in national security interrogations once the new ethics code is published.
How many psychologists will turn down government millions to avoid an ethics complaint on their APA record? We will have to wait and see.


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