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First Psychologists Designed Torture, Then Lawyers Justified It

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Psychologists for an Ethical APA Rally, Boston, August 16, 2008. (Farnoosh Hashemian/PHR)

Today, on the In These Times website, Fredrick Clarkson hones in on more of what the recently released Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) report reveals about the central role played by psychologists in "in devising, directing and overseeing the torture of prisoners."

Clarkson writes:

Early in the Senate report, we learn that the SERE program’s adaptation began with two senior military psychologists. In December 2001, Dr. James Mitchell, the senior SERE psychologist at the Pentagon’s Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, asked his former colleague Dr. John “Bruce” Jessen to review a recently obtained al Qaeda interrogation resistance training manual.

“The two psychologists reviewed the materials and generated a paper on al Qaeda resistance capabilities and countermeasures to defeat that resistance,” according to this heavily redacted section of the Senate report. Mitchell and Jessen became CIA interrogation consultants the next year.

In April of 2002, Jessen created an “exploitation draft plan” for Guantanamo detainees. According to this plan, Jessen would direct SERE training of interrogators at the “exploitation facility,” which would be “off limits to non-essential personnel.” The Senate report makes several references to changing conditions at GTMO whenever the International Committee of the Red Cross came to visit.

Eventually, Guantanamo became known as a “Battle Lab for new interrogation techniques,” which were then applied at military prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan and at CIA detention centers.

SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape; it is a training program for US military personnel at risk of capture. The SERE program includes a significant psychological component, overseen by military psychologists at multiple sites, particularly Fort Bragg, North Carolina. As part of the program, trainees are subjected to harsh and abusive psychological interrogation methods—largely derived from Cold War techniques employed by Soviet and Chinese interrogators to extract false confessions. Clarkson notes that SERE instructors themselves objected to how their training techniques were being adapted for interrogations:

In an interview with the Army’s Inspector General, Army psychiatrist Major Charles Burney said “interrogation tactics that rely on physical pressures or torture…do not tend to get you accurate information or reliable information.” According to Burney, instructors repeatedly stressed that harsh interrogations don’t work and that the information gleaned “is strongly likely to be false.”

The SASC report (PDF 15MB) says further that, typically,

those who play the part of interrogators in SERE school neither are trained interrogators nor are they qualified to be. These role players are not trained to obtain reliable intelligence information from detainees. Their job is to train our personnel to resist providing reliable information to our enemies. As the Deputy Commander for the Joint Forces Command (JFCOM), JPRA's higher headquarters, put it: "the expertise of JPRA lies in training personnel how to respond and resist interrogations – not in how to conduct interrogations." (xiii)

Clarkson also connects the dots on accountability for torture, reminding us that to understand how the SERE program was perverted for US interrogations must include an examination of the American Psychological Association's sanction of its members' involvement in interrogations.

The role of psychologists in torture became a hot issue within the American Psychological Association in 2005, when the board of the organization of mental health professionals endorsed psychologists’ role in interrogations as consistent with APA ethics, for the purpose of making it safe, legal and effective. But a 2007 resolution of the APA membership proscribed member involvement in a number of interrogation tactics. Then, in 2008, the organization passed a further resolution against members’ presence at any facility where U.S. and international law was being violated, unless they were working for the benefit of the people held

Clarkson quotes Sara Greenberg's blog post from yesterday:

In January 2005, the American Psychological Association issued its Report of the Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security, which seeks to legitimize the involvement of psychologists in interrogation—a role that is fundamentally inconsistent with ethical principles and both US and international law. In concluding that psychologists have a central role in interrogations, the Task Force gave short shrift to the ethical and human rights implications of coercive interrogation practices used by US forces that relied on psychological expertise. Nor has the APA sanctioned its members responsible for designing and implementing torture.

As Steven Reisner, PHR's advisor on psychological ethics, concludes:

These individuals must not only face prosecution for breaking the law, they must lose their licenses for shaming their profession’s ethics.

Further Reading

Recent PHR Statements

PHR Reports on US Torture

Further Comment