The Enablers

The psychology industry’s long and shameful history with torture

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America’s psychologists are having a problem with commitment. Despite a flood of revelations about their colleagues’ participation in abusive interrogations at Guantanamo Bay, CIA black sites, and other U.S. detention facilities, and despite the prospect of congressional hearings and even, potentially, war-crimes prosecutions, the 148,000-member American Psychological Association (APA) has refused to condemn its members’ roles in such interrogations. Both the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association have banned their members from taking part in military inquisitions; even the Society for Ethnomusicology has taken a stand, in response to reports of interrogators blaring music to torment detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. That leaves psychologists as “the last ones willing to do this dirty work,” according to Steven Reisner, a psychoanalyst and professor at Columbia and New York universities who has been involved with the dissident group, Psychologists for an Ethical APA. (Reisner is now running for president of the APA on a platform calling for barring psychologists from participating in abusive interrogations.)

The APA’s intimate relationship with the military goes back a long way; the field itself owes a great deal to the armed services and their desire to fight wars of the mind as well as the body. Psychology as a science distinct from psychiatry (psychiatrists, who are physicians, can prescribe drugs; psychologists cannot) came into prominence during World War II, when the U.S. military turned to psychologists for evaluating soldiers; by the 1950s, nearly all federal funding for the social sciences came from the military, and billions were spent on developing techniques for interrogation. “The roots of contemporary psychology are in war and defense efforts,” says Steven Breckler, head of the APA Science Directorate.

The controversy over psychologists’ work regarding military interrogations has intensified in the past year as a stream of revelations has detailed the key role these professionals have played in torture. Last May, a Pentagon report showed that military psychologists oversaw the adaptation of the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape program for use in “terror” interrogations. SERE was originally designed to train U.S. troops to withstand torture techniques once used by Soviet and Chinese interrogators to extract false confessions—including stress positions, sleep deprivation, and isolation. SERE training is intended “to replicate harsh conditions that the Service member might encounter if they are held by forces that do not abide by the Geneva Conventions,” according to the 2007 report. By using SERE techniques against prisoners, the United States has become the country that is violating the Geneva Conventions.

After 9/11, psychologists helped reverse-engineer the SERE program from defensive to offensive use. Members of the Army’s Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT), which included psychologists, oversaw the use of these torture techniques against prisoners at Guantanamo. Last November, a Guantanamo Bay standard operating procedures manual from 2003 was leaked that revealed how new prisoners were to be kept in isolation—and hidden from Red Cross investigators, in violation of the Geneva Conventions—for their first month in order to “enhance and exploit the disorientation and disorganization felt by a newly arrived detainee in the interrogation process.” This process of sensory deprivation and isolation is a cornerstone of the psychological torture techniques used by the U.S. military and CIA. And psychologists played a role in developing it.

The brutality of SERE techniques was in evidence during the interrogation of Mohammed al-Qahtani, believed by some to be the missing 20th hijacker of the 9/11 attacks. From November 2002 to January 2003, interrogators and psychologists at Guantanamo experimented with ways to torment Qahtani into confessing. The methods used in his torture, which were directly authorized by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, included months of isolation, sleep deprivation, forced nudity, and even a stint where a female interrogator allegedly performed lap dances on him. He begged to commit suicide. Qahtani ultimately “confessed” in June 2005, claiming that 30 other Guantanamo prisoners were Osama bin Laden’s bodyguards. The Pentagon claimed this was vital intelligence, though Qahtani repudiated all his confessions a year later, saying they were extracted under duress. According to military prosecutors, what was done to him negated any value he may have had in a trial setting. Nevertheless, in February, the Bush administration and Pentagon announced that Qahtani would be among the first Guantanamo prisoners to be granted a trial; he faces execution if found guilty.

In the wake of these revelations, a growing number of APA members have protested by withholding dues. In August, Mary Pipher, author of the best-selling Reviving Ophelia, returned her APA Presidential Citation. And a stream of prominent APA members are resigning, including Kenneth Pope, the former chair of the organization’s ethics committee, who quit in February. In addition, at least six college psychology departments—Earlham, Guilford, Smith, University of Rhode Island, California State University at Long Beach, and York College of the City University of New York—have gone on record saying it was a violation of professional ethics for psychologists to participate in interrogations in any prison outside the U.S. where prisoners are not afforded due process. And in January, the California State Senate Committee on Business, Professions, and Economic Development passed a resolution discouraging California licensed health professionals from participating in detainee interrogations.

The fight came to a head at the APA’s annual convention in San Francisco last August where, not surprisingly, uniforms were ubiquitous. Men and women in desert camo and navy whites worked the convention floor, and Army officers in crisp dress greens took to the microphones that were placed around a cavernous room in the Moscone Center. Military psychologists insisted that their presence at interrogations makes the questioning safer and more ethical, and they cited instances where psychologists had intervened to stop abuse. “If we remove psychologists from Guantanamo, innocent people are going to die!” bellowed Army psychologist Colonel Larry James, who is also a member of the APA governing body.

Moments later, the APA Council of Representatives rejected a measure effectively banning association members from participating in interrogations at detention centers. Instead, it passed a resolution condemning “torture and any form of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment,” and prohibiting psychologists from participating in 19 specific techniques, such as mock executions, rape, waterboarding, and physical assault. Some techniques, such as isolation, sensory deprivation, and sleep deprivation, were off limits only when “used in a manner that represents significant pain or suffering or in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm.” This loophole is crucial: It appears to leave room for the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that President Bush approved last July for the CIA to use at its secret black sites.

Psychologists’ involvement in devising interrogation tactics dates back to the 1950s, when the work of government-sponsored researchers, such as onetime APA president Donald Hebb, was incorporated into CIA practice. In the decades since, countless psychologists have done their graduate work on military-funded projects. James Mulick, professor of pediatrics and psychology at Ohio State University, told me about Project Themis, an Air Force-funded program he was associated with at the University of Vermont, wherein volunteers were placed inside a soundproof chamber for a month at a time. “We were told this was being done to see how it affected their sense of time,” Mulick says. “But we were taking both physical and psychological measurements, and I could see that it had other uses.” It’s worth noting that the project’s main investigator, the University’s then-psychology chairman Donald Forgays, publicized his findings in military publications. Today, the APA aggressively lobbies on behalf of psychologists and research centers for funding from the military, the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the DOD Counterintelligence Field Activity. In FY 2003, DOD spending on behavioral, cognitive, and social science research stood at about $405 million.

The APA’s leadership is closely linked to the military funding stream, principally through the Human Research Resources Organization. HumRRO was founded in 1951 exclusively to do research in behavioral and social sciences for the U.S. Army; it was originally affiliated with George Washington University, but became independent in 1969 following student protests. HumRRO was entirely funded by the military for many years, but now gets only about 55 percent of its work from the Pentagon. The organization is intimately connected with the APA: The chairman of HumRRO’s board is James McHugh Jr., who has served as senior counsel to the APA; vice chair Charles McKay is the APA’s chief financial officer; and HumRRO vice president Bill Strickland is past president of the APA’s division of military psychology and has been a vocal opponent of barring psychologists from military detention centers.

Other APA leaders with military ties include former APA president Joseph Matarazzo, who is a part owner and board member of Mitchell Jessen & Associates, a Spokane-based CIA contractor headed by two psychologists that has been implicated in advising the CIA on brutal interrogation techniques. (The firm currently is being investigated by the Senate Armed Services Committee.)

None of these connections, says the APA’s Breckler, have anything to do with the APA’s pro-military stance. “Collaboration does not mean capitulation,” he insists. “We are not in bed with them.”

But the APA has been less than forthright about the role played by members with military connections in developing its policy on interrogations. In 2005, Jean Maria Arrigo, a social psychologist and oral historian from Irvine, California, served on an association task force examining the role of psychologists in national security. The group deliberated behind closed doors, and Arrigo said she was told she could not take notes or speak about her experience. The panel’s report, which initially did not name the task force members, concluded that psychologists working in interrogations provide “a valuable and ethical role to a system protecting our nation, other nations, and innocent civilians from harm.” It wasn’t until July 2006 that reporter Mark Benjamin revealed that six of the body’s nine voting members had close ties to the military—including four who were involved with questioning detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, or who served in Afghanistan, where serious abuses have been documented at the Bagram Air Base. Arrigo has since given the notes she secretly took at task force meetings to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which began investigating psychologists’ role in interrogations last year.

Members of Congress may not be the last to grill APA members on the subject. The ACLU has warned the association that participating in “cruel, inhuman, and degrading interrogation of detainees is not only unethical but illegal, and may subject APA members to legal liability or even prosecution.” APA critics have frequently raised the specter of prosecutions related to post-9/11 interrogations. As APA member Dan Aalbers said at the annual convention in August, “This detention and interrogation policy is going to go down. And once it does go down, we will find that we have secured the best cabin on the Titanic.”


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