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Leading Mental Health Professionals and Organizations File Amici Brief in Landmark CIA Detainee Case at U.S Supreme Court

In “U.S. v. Abu Zubaydah,” Renowned Mental Health Experts Highlight How CIA-Contracted Psychologists Mitchell and Jessen – Architects of the U.S. Torture Program – Grossly Violated Professional Ethics, Federal and International Law

A group of eminent mental health professionals and organizations today filed a brief of amici curiae at the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of U.S. v Abu Zubaydah. Led by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), the experts assert that the U.S. government cannot use the state secrets privilege to shield the egregious actions of the psychologists who designed and implemented the U.S. torture program under U.S. government contracts.

In U.S. v. Abu Zubaydah, the Supreme Court will consider if a detainee can obtain information about their torture while in the custody of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) at a so-called “black site” in Poland, or whether the U.S. government can claim that the “state secrets” privilege completely blocks from view key information about the detainee’s experiences. Abu Zubaydah – detained since 2002 – is seeking to subpoena the two former CIA contractors, psychologists James Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen, who devised the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” used against him and other detainees in CIA black sites and at Guantánamo Bay. Oral arguments in the case will occur during the Supreme Court’s fall term.


The amici brief filed today makes the case that Mitchell and Jessen’s actions constituted gross violations of professional ethics, federal law, and international law. The amici write:

“Almost a decade since the U.S. Senate first met to review their conduct, they should not continue to be completely shielded under the veil of secrecy afforded by the state secrets privilege. The need for transparency for the profession of psychology, the mental health profession generally, and society at large is paramount and certainly outweighs the overbroad application of the state secrets privilege that the government seeks.”

The amici include Physicians for Human Rights; the American Psychoanalytic Association; the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology; Psychologists for Social Responsibility; Carol A. Bernstein, MD; David S. Cantor, PhD; Vincent Iacopino, MD, PhD; Steven Reisner, PhD; Gail Saltz, MD; Stephen Soldz, PhD; Kerry J. Sulkowicz, MD; Matthew Wynia, MD, MPH; Stephen N. Xenakis, MD; and Phil G. Zimbardo, PhD.

The amicus brief’s summary of argument states:

“Although this case involves legal questions regarding assertion of the state secrets privilege, amici believe that full consideration of these questions requires understanding the perspective of the mental health profession toward the interrogation techniques at issue here.

“The discovery at the heart of this appeal concerns two practicing mental health practitioners, psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who employed the learning and research of the mental health profession to implement an interrogation regime universally recognized as torture. The mental health profession’s view of these practices underscores the powerful public interest in allowing litigants, the public generally, and the mental health profession itself access to the details regarding their conduct.

“This brief, which is submitted by a host of mental health professionals and organizations, and intimately details how the regime devised by Mitchell and Jessen – which required Abu Zubaydah to remain naked, suffer sleep deprivation, be rectally “fed,” and undergo waterboarding (83 times in one month alone) — violates numerous medical and ethical standards, including those of the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Medical Association.

“The brief further explains how the techniques used by these psychologists to “break” detainees, including Abu Zubaydah, violated myriad U.S. and international legal prohibitions, including the U.S. War Crimes Act, the U.S. Torture Convention Implementation Act of 1994, the U.S. Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, and laws against nonconsensual human subject research.

“The government seeks to shield much of this egregious conduct under the veil of secrecy afforded by what amici mental health professionals believe is an overbroad and dangerous use of the state secrets privilege. While some facts have been disclosed about the conduct of Mitchell and Jessen, transparency is sorely needed to implement all of the changes necessary to prevent future unethical conduct and rebuild trust in the mental health profession and the government. The torture perpetrated by Mitchell and Jessen, ostensibly on behalf of the U.S., constitutes one of the most severe abuses of professional ethics imaginable. This stain on morals, ethics, and law should not be covered up.”

Abu Zubaydah, a Saudi national, was detained and tortured at a variety of CIA black sites – secret overseas facilities – before being transferred to Guantánamo Bay. During his time in CIA custody, Abu Zubaydah was water-boarded at least 83 times in just one month and subjected to prolonged sleep deprivation, confinement in small boxes, painful stress positions, and blunt force trauma. Abu Zubaydah’s U.S. Supreme Court case follows separate but related cases in the Polish courts and the European Court of Human Rights, where he sought information about his treatment while detained at a CIA black site in Poland.

The amici brief provides intimate details of the role of Mitchell and Jessen, including how these two psychologists designed and implemented their system of “enhanced interrogation,” as well as the inhumane treatment of Abu Zubaydah by Mitchell and Jessen. The amici explain in detail how Mitchell and Jessen violated moral, ethical, and professional standards in their actions, and that “enhanced interrogation” both conceptually and in practice violated U.S. and international legal prohibitions against torture. They conclude by arguing that transparency and openness are paramount for the mental health professions, the government, and for society at large.

“Aiming to ‘break’ detainees through extreme psychological and physical pain, Mitchell and Jessen orchestrated so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ which was a name created to cover up their torture,” said Gerson H. Smoger, JD, PhD, the lead counsel on the brief and a member of PHR’s Advisory Council. “With our amici brief, joined by leaders across the fields of psychology, psychiatry, and medical ethics, we hope to make clear that the gravity of abuse perpetrated by Mitchell and Jessen is not deserving of any protection or confidentiality as a U.S. government state secret. Given Mitchell and Jessen’s deplorable breach of professional ethics and U.S. and international law, it is tragic that our government would still seek to shield their conduct.”

“The egregious breaches of professional ethics by Mitchell and Jessen must not be covered up under the cloak of state secrecy,” said amici brief signer Matthew Wynia, MD, MPH, director, Center for Bioethics and Humanities, and professor, School of Medicine and Colorado School of Public Health, University of Colorado, Anschutz Medical Campus and a PHR Advisory Council member. “What we know of their actions might not even be the worst of it, as much of their torture program has remained secret. What we do know about their abuses has been condemned over and over again – both at the time and repeatedly in the years since – by professional organizations and experts in professional ethics, regulation, and law. The way to avoid others going down this same terrible path again is full transparency and accountability. Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

“Mitchell and Jessen have shamed the profession of psychology, making a mockery of the ‘do no harm’ ethics that bind all health professions,” said amici brief signer Stephen Soldz, PhD, a psychologist, psychoanalyst, and research methodologist in Boston who serves as director of research and evaluation, Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. “And their actions have disgraced our country. Our government should not be obstructing a legitimate investigation into their heinous actions.”

Physicians for Human Rights has published a series of groundbreaking reports and papers based on investigations and research conducted since 2001, documenting and analyzing the U.S. government’s authorization and use of extreme and abusive interrogation methods on detainees.

Read the full brief of amici curiae here.

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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