On Psychologists and Torture

Where should clinical psychologists draw the line when it comes to using torture to extract information during interrogations?

The newly released report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has provided graphic revelations about the true extect to which torture has been widely used at "black sites" operated by the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).   One of the most shocking revelations provided by the report is that the CIA's torture program was created, implemented, and supervised by two clinical psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen.   

Along with being psychologists, both Mitchell and Jessen are former members of the  United States Air Force and trainers for the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Program (SERE) School at the Fairchild Air Force Base near Washington, D.C as well as serving as chief psychologists on the base.   The SERE program includes a training module to teach military personnel to resist torture.    Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Mitchell and Jessen were asked by the CIA to help convert the SERE simulated torture tactics into actual techniques to be used to extract intelligence from detainees.   The primary rationale for using these particular techniques was that they could not legally be considered torture since they were identical to the techniques used in SERE training.

In 2005, Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen founded a company called Mitchell Jessen and Associates, now based in Spokane, Washington.  The  contracts their company received have earned them more than 81 million over the years through their active role in supervising interrogations and training interrogators.   James Mitchell, now 62, has also personally conducted countless interrogations using waterboarding and other techniques which he developed.   In an interview with the Daily Mail, James Mitchell described being "moved around a lot" as he conducted interrogations around the world and that foreign intelligence officers were also present at many of  his interrogations. 

What was the rationale for using psychologists to interrogate detainees?   A recent article in Slate Magazine pointed out that the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) determined that having psychologists and physicians on site to monitor the condition of prisoners undergoing "enhanced interrogations"  helped protect the CIA and the Bush government from legal liability and potential prosecution.   The OLC later applied the same rules to the Department of Defence's "enhanced interrogation" program which was eventually overseen exclusively by clinical psychologists.

By using the SERE program in an offensive way rather than its original purpose of protecting military personnel from the effects of torture, Mitchell and Jensen reportedly hoped to develop new ways of extracting truth during interrogations.  Their techniques drew on  a wide range of established psychological research studies including work into "learned helplessnes" and persuasion.   Though behavioural research consistently demonstrated that torture is largely ineffective as a means of extracting useful information,  Mitchell and Jessen reportedly persuaded the Justice Department that the techniques were safe and that they did not constitute torture. 

James Risen, whose book Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War described the systematic human rights abuses linked to the new War on Terror.  In discussing Mitchell and Jessen's role in adapting SERE for use with interrogations, Risen points out that this largely stemmed from other psychologists remaining silent about this involvement.   "Mitchell and Jessen’s great achievement was to bend the accepted narrative of how SERE affects the mind and body," Risen wrote.  "They made two important and related claims— that SERE could force prisoners to tell the truth, and that SERE did not constitute torture."   Eager to secure CIA and Pentagon contracts, many psychologists showed little hesitation in helping to develop, and later justify, enhanced interrogation techniques.   Even the American Psychological Association (APA), the largest professional group of psychologists in the world, would eventually put its seal of approval on what Mitchell and Jessen were doing.

Risen bases his allegations on a series of emails found on the computer of a CIA consultant who died in 2008.  These emails show the secret, close relationships among many of the nation's leading psychologists and officials at the CIA and Pentagon.  These include Susan Brandon, behavioural science advisor to the White House, and Kirk Hubbard, the CIA's chief behavioural scientist (it was Hubbard who publicly admitted bringing Mitchell and  Jessen into the CIA enhanced interrogation program in the first place).  Risen also detailed how other psychologists such as Andy Morgan, whose research showed that SERE simulated torture techniques promote false memory, were systematically ignored by psychologists in the SERE program who insisted that their techniques could obtain real information.   

According to a CIA auditor report, CIA psychologists were raising ethical concerns about how Mitchell and Jessen were conducting interrogations as early as 2004.   It was in that same year that the International Committee of the Red Cross released a report on treatment at Guantanamo Bay that mentioned concerns about psychologists conducting enhanced interrogations.   After the Red Cross report was leaked to the New York Times, CIA and Pentagon officials met with APA's director of science policy Geoff Mumford and APA's ethics director Stephen Behnke.  Although the official purpose of the meeting was to discuss domenstic law enforcement, the emails uncovered by James Risen indicate that they also discussed the ethical issues surrounding interrogations.   

In the years since that 2004 meeting, the APA has been rocked by controversy over allegations that it turned a blind eye to psychologists conducting enhanced interrogations.  Not only has this led to mass resignations, but also strong criticism from groups such as Psychologists for Social Responsibility.  Due to the new revelations about psychologists and torture described by James Risen, as well as questions about high-level collusion between the APA and intelligence agencies, the APA has agreed to an independent investigation to be conducted by former federal prosecutor David H. Hoffman.   This investigation follows years of denials and evasion by the APA over questions relating to possible complicity in the CIA's enhanced interrogation program. 

Will this investigation be effective in unraveling years of denials, secrecy, and evasion?   The Coalition for an Ethical Psychology has already raised concerns about the investigation and how it will be conducted.    Despite the cautious optimism about the investigation,  the controversy will likely be with us for years to come.


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