On torture-22: Psychologists complicity in torture

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

We see that once you allow torture as authorized and official policy, you inevitably widen the circle of people who are involved. In particular, psychologists and doctors have been deeply involved in the process, the former to devise the torture techniques and to measure the effects, and the latter to monitor the extent of the physical harm done to the victims and try and prevent death. After all, the purpose of torture is to create psychological breakdown, to get the person to confess or reveal information. Physical abuse is just a means to achieving that end.

There has been considerable controversy within the psychology and medical communities about the extent to which they have been involved in researching and constructing the torture protocols that are currently being used. After all, what does it say about the medical profession if it allows its members to be part of such a repugnant process?

But the discussion about the highly questionable role that psychologists have played in torture has not really made it into mainstream news, so much so that it became #10 of Project Censored’s list of the top 25 censored stories for 2009. One of the ignored stories it highlights appeared in 2007 in Vanity Fair magazine. Katherine Eban reports that in 2006:

a psychologist named Jean Maria Arrigo came to see me with a disturbing claim about the American Psychological Association, her profession’s 148,000-member trade group. Arrigo had sat on a specially convened A.P.A. task force that, in July 2005, had ruled that psychologists could assist in military interrogations, despite angry objections from many in the profession. The task force also determined that, in cases where international human-rights law conflicts with U.S. law, psychologists could defer to the much looser U.S. standards—what Arrigo called the “Rumsfeld definition” of humane treatment.

Arrigo and several others with her, including a representative from Physicians for Human Rights, had come to believe that the task force had been rigged—stacked with military members (6 of the 10 had ties to the armed services), monitored by observers with undisclosed conflicts of interest, and programmed to reach preordained conclusions.

Jane Mayer, author of the book The Dark Side has written about the role that even well-known psychologists have played in torture. Scott Horton summarizes one key thesis of Mayer’s book:

She traces the development of the torture techniques to the work of two contractors, Mitchell and Jessen, and disclosed the specific techniques they developed. She notes that the techniques rely heavily on a theory called “Learned Helplessness” developed by a Penn psychologist Martin Seligman, who assisted them in the process. All of this was done under the thin pretext of being a part of the SERE program. Seligman is a former president of the American Psychological Association. This helps explain why the APA alone among professional healthcare provider organizations failed to unequivocally condemn torture and mandate that its members not associate themselves with the Bush Administration techniques.

The names of military psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen come up repeatedly in discussing the involvement of psychologists in torture. They were two of the trainers in the original SERE program that was used to train US personnel to resist torture and were the ones who originally suggested in the wake of 9/11 that those same techniques be used on detainees to elicit information, although there had been no evidence that this produced anything useful. While you can make people talk, it has been seen with Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that what people say under torture is of little value.

Mitchell and Jessen have been defended by other military psychologists in the program like Bruce Lefevre, who argue that when it comes to advancing the interests of the US, normal ethical guidelines that call for looking after the welfare of the person in front of you can be abandoned.

Under questioning about his own role, Seligman has tried to distance himself from the charges that he actively aided in the development of torture techniques, although he allows that his work may have been used this way. He said that his research interest was in how to resist torture and that he cannot be held responsible for those who use it ways not originally intended.

The psychology community has not come out well in this shoddy episode. The American Psychological Association (APA) is the one major medical professional organization that has rejected calls to come out with a strong and unequivocal condemnation of torture and to require its members to refuse to participate with the activities in the detention centers.

Psychologist Bryant Welch, author of the book State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind and someone in a position to provide an insider’s view of the organization, in an article titled Torture, Political Manipulation and the American Psychological Association tries to find the answers to some key questions: “How did the APA form such an obviously close connection to the military? And why did the APA governance—the Board of Directors and the Council of Representatives—go along with the military interests? How could an organization of such bright and ethical people be rendered so incompetent to protect the profession from the horrible black eye they have given us?” He concludes that over time, the organization had become too cozy with the military and developed an anti-democratic ethos that stifled debate and criticism.

Another psychologist Stephen Soldz reveals that another former APA president Joseph Matarazzo was involved with Mitchell and Jensen’s CIA-consulting torture firm, and describes the efforts by the APA to now distance itself from the disgrace of being seen as accommodating of torture.

Jane Mayer sums up the sorry state of professional ethics:

I personally feel that the medical and psychological professionals who have used their skills to further a program designed to cause pain and suffering should be a high priority in terms of accountability. It has long been a ghastly aspect of torture, worldwide, that doctors and other medical professionals often assist. The licensing boards and professional societies are worthless, in my view, if they don’t demand serious investigations of such unethical uses of science.

Mayer is absolutely right.

POST SCRIPT: Jose Padilla vs. John Yoo

Last Friday, Federal District Court Judge Jeffrey S. White (who incidentally was appointed to the bench by George W. Bush) refused to dismiss Jose Padilla’s civil lawsuit against John Yoo, as requested by the latter. Padilla has alleged that Yoo’s torture memos were instrumental in causing the abuse Padilla received and thus Yoo had violated his constitutional rights.

Obama’s justice department defended Yoo’s argument that the president’s war powers meant that the judiciary had no oversight. In other words, the current justice department agrees with the despicable Bush doctrine that the president can do what pretty much what he likes with detainees.

In his ruling, the judge outlines the case that Yoo and the Obama justice department is trying to make:

First, Yoo contends that the courts should not review the designation of Padilla as an enemy combatant because Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force Joint Resolution, authorizing the President to make such a designation, and thereby relegated the issue of designation specifically to the legislative and the executive branches of government. Second, Yoo contends that the Court should show the proper deference to executive discretion in times of war. Next, Yoo contends that the Court should abstain from reviewing the alleged constitutional violations presented in this matter because the claims necessarily would uncover government secrets, thereby threatening national security. Lastly, Yoo argues the courts should deny review of this matter because the allegations involve issues relating to foreign affairs and foreign relations, matters specifically designated to control by the coordinate branches of government.

The judge rejected these arguments and ruled that the case against Yoo can now continue. See Glenn Greenwald (as usual) for more details.


  1. Jordan Peterson says

    Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Torture has certainly become a global problems, especially because of the reasons you describe, Mano. “authorized and official policy” -- Once that happens, it literally opens up a nasty can of worms.

    -- Jordan (Free Online Dating/Finding True Love Consultant)

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