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A Year After Torture Report, Impunity Persists

New Paper Details the CIA’s Reliance on Psychological Torture; Calls for Accountability

For Immediate Release

The U.S. government must investigate and prosecute all those responsible for the CIA’s unlawful torture program, provide redress to victims, and release the full Senate torture report, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said in a briefing paper today.

The document discusses the central role that two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, played in developing and operationalizing the CIA’s brutal torture regime. The methods they devised, including the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” were designed to break down detainees through the infliction of extreme mental and physical pain. This calculated process of reducing people to a state of profound debilitation and helplessness constitutes torture, in violation of U.S. and international law.

“The United States authorized torture and employed health professionals to design and implement the program, but a year after the Senate torture report, there has been no accountability for these crimes,” said Widney Brown, PHR’s director of programs. “The express aim of the CIA program was to psychologically destroy human beings. Mitchell and Jessen were the architects of these methods and were paid millions for their unlawful and unethical work.”

On December 9, 2014, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released parts of its 6,700-page report on the CIA’s torture program. Practices highlighted include indefinite secret detention and brutal interrogation techniques such as hooding, stress positions, prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation and overload, forced nudity and sexual humiliation, and waterboarding. These techniques, long classified as torture, were nonetheless authorized in the U.S. Department of Justice “torture memos,” which have since been rescinded.

Over the last year, there have been increased efforts by civil society actors to tell the truth about Bush-era torture practices and to take actions to prevent torture. These include the American Psychological Association’s ban on psychologists participating in national security interrogations and being present at Guantánamo Bay, as well as the filing of a lawsuit against Mitchell and Jessen by the American Civil Liberties Union. But the U.S. government has failed to take steps towards accountability and transparency, which are crucial for ensuring that torture and other human rights violations are not repeated.

PHR’s 17-page document, “Truth Matters: Accountability for CIA Psychological Torture,” outlines the psychological dimensions of the CIA’s torture program:

  • Legal protection: Government officials relied on health professionals to certify that torture was safe, legal, ethical, and effective, and to indemnify those responsible against prosecution.
  • Regime of psychological torture: Mitchell and Jessen developed torture methods based on the psychological theory of “learned helplessness” and convinced the CIA to adopt their program.
  • Intentional infliction of pain and suffering: Profound psychological trauma was embedded in the design and implementation of the CIA program. These methods achieved their intended result and no efforts were made to avoid harm.
  • Short- and long-term health effects: As a result of their torture, detainees suffered severe and prolonged harm, which PHR and others have documented in additional populations of torture survivors.

PHR said the United States has an obligation under international law to investigate torture allegations, prosecute the perpetrators, and provide victims access to an effective remedy for past human rights violations.

“One year later, transparency and accountability – let alone redress to victims – remain stalled,” the paper says. “Torture is a crime, and the United States’ failure to reject impunity has come at a very high cost.”

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.

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