Protection of Conscience Project
Protection of Conscience Project
Service, not Servitude

Service, not Servitude

Psychologists criticised in CIA torture report

BioEdge, 14 December, 2014
Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence

Michael Cook*

Two psychologists contracted by the CIA to create enhanced interrogation techniques for al-Qaeda detainees have come under fire for violating human rights and medical ethics. Although pseudonyms were used in the 480-page report published this week by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, it was clearly referring to Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, who were paid US$81 million for their work.

Both Jessen and Mitchell had worked on  the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program in which soldiers are trained to endure brutal mock interrogations, including waterboarding. After 9/11 they were asked to design an interrogation program.

Despite the opprobrium heaped on them, the two men cannot respond directly to the criticisms in the report because they have signed non-disclosure agreements. “I’m in a box -- I’m caught in some Kafka novel,” Mitchell, who is now retired and living in Florida, told Bloomberg. “Everyone is assuming it is me, but I can’t confirm or deny it. It is frustrating because you can’t defend yourself.”

But he defended the broad aims of the program he helped to design.

“The people who think the men and woman in the CIA are doing the heavy lifting for them so they can sleep safe at night, those people I get a lot of positive comments from. Then there are the people who think it would be better that 3,000 people die than that KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] get slapped and they don’t care because it isn’t going to be them who is dying. They just don’t care.”

The techniques they designed were based on the notion of “learned helplessness”, which was developed in the 1960s with dogs by Martin Seligman (who is mortified by his indirect link with torture). People who face unending adversity eventually become depressed and give up attempts to improve their situation. The CIA's psychologists thought that this state would encourage detainees to become cooperative and volunteer information.

Physicians for Human Rights was highly critical of the participation of health professionals in all stages of the CIA’s program. Their involvement in monitoring the torture techniques was central to providing legal protection to interrogators, said PHR, as torture could them be described as “safe, legal, and effective”.

"They were complicit at every step, including designing the torture techniques, monitoring the infliction of severe physical and mental pain, and failing to document clear evidence of harm,” said Dr Vincent Iacopino, PHR’s senior medical advisor. “What happened was unethical, unlawful, and immoral, and we must ensure it never happens again."

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