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OT: Psychologist Ethics and Torture

December 17, 2010

Everyone is familiar with the the military’s vague, often-secret use of psychological operations (psy-ops) but this takes it to a whole new level. From Raw Story:

The CIA agreed to cover at least $5 million in legal fees for two contractors who were the architects of the agency’s interrogation program and personally conducted dozens of waterboarding sessions on terror detainees, former U.S. officials said.

The secret agreement means taxpayers are paying to defend the men in a federal investigation over an interrogation tactic the U.S. now says is torture. The deal is even more generous than the protections the agency typically provides its own officers, giving the two men access to more money to finance their defense.

It has long been known that psychologists Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen created the CIA’s interrogation program. But former U.S. intelligence officials said Mitchell and Jessen also repeatedly subjected terror suspects inside CIA-run secret prisons to waterboarding, a simulated drowning tactic.


The Mitchell and Jessen arrangement, known as an “indemnity promise,” was structured differently. Unlike CIA officers, whose identities are classified, Mitchell and Jessen were public citizens who received some of the earliest scrutiny by reporters and lawmakers. The two wanted more protection.

The agency agreed to pay the legal bills for the psychologists’ firm, Mitchell, Jessen & Associates, directly from CIA accounts, according to several interviews with the former officials, who insisted on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.


After the terrorism attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mitchell and Jessen sold the government on an interrogation program for high-value al-Qaida members. The two psychologists had spent years training military officials to resist interrogations and, in doing so, had subjected U.S. troops to techniques such as forced nudity, painful stress positions, sleep deprivation and waterboarding.

But those interrogations had always been training sessions at the military’s school known as SERE — Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape. They had never conducted any actual interrogations.

That changed in 2002 with the capture of suspected al-Qaida facilitator Abu Zubaydah (ah-BOO’ zoo-BY’-dah). The agency believed tougher-than-usual tactics were necessary to squeeze information from him, so Mitchell and Jessen flew to a secret CIA prison in Thailand to oversee Zubaydah’s interrogation.

The pair waterboarded Zubaydah 83 times, according to previously released records and former intelligence officials. Mitchell and Jessen did the bulk of the work, claiming they were the only ones who knew how to apply the techniques properly, the former officials said.

The psychologists also waterboarded USS Cole bombing plotter Abd al-Nashiri (ahbd al-nuh-SHEE’-ree) twice in Thailand, according to former intelligence officials.

The role of Mitchell and Jessen in the interrogation of confessed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is a bit murkier.

At least one other interrogator was involved in those sessions, with the company providing support, a former official said. Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in Poland in 2003, according to documents and former intelligence officials.

The CIA inspector general concluded in a top secret report in 2004 that the waterboarding technique used by the CIA deviated from the rules outlined by the Justice Department and the common practice at SERE school. CIA interrogations involved far more water poured constantly over the prisoner, investigators said.

“One of the psychologists/interrogators acknowledged that the agency’s use of the technique differed from that used in SERE training and explained that the agency’s technique is different because it is `for real’ and is more poignant and convincing,” the inspector general’s report said.


On top of the waterboarding case, Mitchell and Jessen also needed lawyers to help navigate the Justice Department’s investigation into the destruction of CIA interrogation videos.

Mitchell and Jessen were recorded interrogating Zubaydah and al-Nashiri and were eager to see those tapes destroyed, fearing their release would jeopardize their safety, former officials and others close to the matter said.

Last month, Durham closed the tapes destruction investigation without filing charges.[emphasis added]

It’s amazing that there was no finding of wrong-doing in the destruction of the CIA torture tapes (ie. evidence).

From the NYT in 2008:

In late September, the American Psychological Association reversed a longstanding policy by voting to ban its members from participating in interrogations at United States detention centers, including Guantanamo Bay. Just a year earlier, the association had declined to take this action, but did pass a resolution listing a number of methods of interrogation -– sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, exploitation of phobias, loud music, harsh lights and mock executions were examples –- with which psychologists should not be involved.

What the association did this September brought it into line with the positions of the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, which declared in a May 2006 statement that “No psychiatrist should participate directly in the interrogation of person held by military or civilian investigative or law enforcement authorities.”

Why did psychology, generally considered to be one of the most liberal of disciplines, lag behind its sister professions? One answer can be found in the A.M.A.’s explanation of its prohibition: “Physicians must not conduct, directly participate in, or monitor an interrogation with an intent to intervene, because this undermines the physician’s role as healer.” The American Psychiatric Association is even more explicit: “Psychiatrists . . . owe their primary obligation to the well being of their patients.”

Psychology, on the other hand, is not exclusively a healing profession. To be sure, there are psychologists who provide counseling, therapy and other services to patients; but there are many psychologists who think of themselves as behavioral scientists. It is their task to figure out how the mind processes and responds to stimuli, or how the emotions color and even create reality, or how reasoning and other cognitive activities are affected by changes in the environment. Their product is not mental health, but knowledge; their skills are not diagnostic, but analytic -– what makes someone do something -– and it is an open question as to whether there are limits, aside from the limits of legality, to the uses to which these skills might be put.

Murky indeed.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. HillaryFan permalink
    December 17, 2010 11:49 am

    That’s pretty incredible that the CIA ordered the destruction of the tapes and got away with it. If it were you or me, we’d be in prison. The war on terror has brought out a very ugly, dangerous side of our government and shown the whole world how hypocritical we can be. Governments that engage in these kinds of acts always come up with a rationale just as we have. Everyone thinks they are entitled to break the rules and that they are justified. I can’t help but wonder if torture really has stopped in Afghanistan and Iraq. I’ve read that Tor prison in Afghanistan is terrible and I bet we still fly people to egypt and other countries to be tortured.

    Most interrogators say torture doesn’t work and that it gives inaccurate information and wastes time. Leave interrogation to the specialists in interrogation- the FBI. There was a reason the FBI and military opposed torture all along.

  2. AsherLev permalink
    December 17, 2010 3:45 pm

    Psychologists don’t take any kind of oath like physicians do?

    • Carolyn-Rodham permalink
      December 18, 2010 2:31 am

      Nope. For psychologists, there is nothing equivalent to the Hippocratic oath (first, do no harm) that physicians take on graduating from medical school.

  3. March 24, 2013 4:15 pm

    I’m glad most people don’t have this happen to them.

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