Psychology and Coercive Interrogations in Historical Perspective
Aid and Comfort for Torturers
This essay is the text of a talk delivered, March 17, 2007 at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California (PINC) conference:
On January 24, 2003, National Guardsman Sean Baker, stationed as a military policeman at Guantanamo detention center, volunteered to be a mock prisoner, donning an orange suit and refusing to leave his cell as part of a training exercise. As planned, an Immediate Reaction Force team of MPs attempted to extract him from the cell. When he uttered the code word, "red," indicating that this was a drill and that he'd had enough, one of the MPs "forced my head down against the steel floor and was sort of just grinding it into the floor. The individual then, when I picked up my head and said, 'Red,' slammed my head down against the floor," says Baker. "I was so afraid, I groaned out, 'I'm a U.S. soldier.' And when I said that, he slammed my head again, one more time against the floor. And I groaned out one more time, I said, 'I'm a U.S. soldier.' And I heard them say, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa,' ". Even though, unlike if Baker had been a real prisoner, the "extraction" was called off part-way through, he was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and was left with permanent injuries, including frequent epileptic-style seizures.
When asked what would have happened if he had been a real detainee, Baker told CBS's 60 Minutes: "I think they would have busted him up. I've seen detainees come outta there with blood on 'em. If there wasn't someone to say, 'I'm a U.S. soldier,' if you were speaking Arabic or Pashto or Urdu or some other language in the camp, we may never know what would have happened to that individual."
This detention facility is one of the environments in which psychologists serve as consultants to interrogations. The American Psychological Association sees no ethical problems with psychologists serving there.
We psychoanalysts know that understanding requires a historical perspective. The abuses being perpetrated on America's detainees in the War of Terror, and psychologists' roles in those abuses have a long history.
About 60 years ago, as the Cold War shifted into high gear, people in the American government, most notably the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), became concerned that the Communist enemies had developed specialized techniques for mind control. They observed senior Soviet officials and others confessing to crimes they likely had not committed. They were shocked by the number of American Korean War soldiers who collaborated with their captors and denounced the United States. At first defensively, and then as an offensive tool, the CIA undertook what became a 25-year program of research into mind control techniques under a variety of names, including, most notoriously MKULTRA. While time precludes an extensive review of this program, [the December 1977 APA Monitor contains an account of some of these activities] two components are of special relevance to today's topic. 1) For years the Agency, as the CIA is known, searched for a magic "truth serum" that would allow them to get captives to reveal their secrets; and 2) the CIA and the military funded extensive research into potentially effective interrogation techniques, including the possible use of hypnosis, of drugs, of isolation and extreme sensory deprivation, of brain stimulation, etc..
Some of the knowledge developed during MKULTRA and related programs were incorporated into the CIA's KUBARK interrogation Manual in 1963. Similar techniques were contained in CIA training manuals distributed throughout Latin America in the 1970's and 80's. The only one of these manuals which became public is one used to train in Honduras in 1983, as was revealed in a January 1997 Baltimore Sun article entitled: "Torture was taught by CIA; Declassified manual details the methods used in Honduras; Agency denials refuted"
The manual advises an interrogator to "manipulate the subject's environment, to create unpleasant or intolerable situations." From this Baltimore Sun article:
""While we do not stress the use of coercive techniques, we do want to make you aware of them and the proper way to use them," the manual's introduction states. The manual says such methods are justified when subjects have been trained to resist noncoercive measures.
Forms of coercion explained in the interrogation manual include: Inflicting pain or the threat of pain: "The threat to inflict pain may trigger fears more damaging than the immediate sensation of pain. In fact, most people underestimate their capacity to withstand pain."
A later section states: "The pain which is being inflicted upon him from outside himself may actually intensify his will to resist. On the other hand, pain which he feels he is inflicting upon himself is more likely to sap his resistance. "
Those who have examined practices at US detention facilities in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo have identified, as a 2005 126 page report from Physicians for Human Rights entitled Break Them Down describes in its subtitle: "Systematic Use of Psychological Torture by US Forces."
The practice of Psychological Torture in US facilities includes:
Prolonged Isolation for months, even years.
Sleep Deprivation, sometimes allowing as little as two hours a night, for prolonged periods
Sensory Distortion including sensory deprivation (masks, goggles, etc.), very loud music; and hypothermia (turning air conditioning on high)
Sexual and Cultural Humiliation -- forced urination on self; forced nakedness; sexual humiliation; religious humiliation (Koran's being thrown around); being led naked on a leash. Being forced to bark like a dog. [As regards religious humiliation, former Guantanamo Chaplain James Yee was quoted as stating in a recent lecture: " 'Guantanamo Bay's secret weapon,' is 'the use of Islam against prisoners to break them.' He said prisoners were forced to prostrate in the center of a circle inscribed with a pentagram by a guard who yelled, 'Satan is your God now, not Allah.' He said female interrogators 'exploit(ed) conservative Islamic etiquette" by undressing before interrogating detainees and "giving lap dances" to unnerve them.
Yee said the Quran, believed by Muslims to be the literal word of God, was 'desecrated in many different ways,' such as being urinated upon and 'tossed on the floor.' "]
These purely psychological techniques are often combined with another component:
Self-inflicted pain--the infamous "stress positions", including chaining in positions for hours on end and the infamous Abu Ghraib picture of a detainee balancing on a box with arms outstretched and electrodes attached (this technique is referred to in the torture literature as the "Vietnam") [Remember, from the Honduras interrogation manual: 'On the other hand, pain which he feels he is inflicting upon himself is more likely to sap his resistance.']
Additionally, there have been repeated claims by detainees that they were subjected to drugging. [Remember that developing drugs for use in interrogations was a key element of the CIA's MKULTRA research.] Thus, as one example out of many, on March 2, 2007, the Sydney Morning Herald contained an account of Australian detainee David Hicks in US custody. In addition to the beatings, the isolation, the cultural assaults, the self-inflicted pain, there was this line: "He was also injected with a substance that 'made my head feel strange.' "
Many of these techniques, in reduced form, were used in the military's SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) program to teach American officers counter-resistance training. According to several journalists, these methods were "reverse-engineered" and exported to Guantanamo and elsewhere through training in SERE techniques. Thus Salon's Mark Benjamin, in an article entitled "Torture Teachers" documents that SERE techniques were indeed taught to interrogators at Guantanamo. Benjamin goes on to state:
"There are striking similarities between the reported detainee abuse at both Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib and the techniques used on soldiers going through SERE school, including forced nudity, stress positions, isolation, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation and exhaustion from exercise. The unnamed interrogation chief from Guantánamo notes in his statement that on his watch detainees were exposed to loud music and yelling. 'The rule on volume," he said, "was that it should not be so loud that it would blow the detainees' ears out.' The chief claimed interrogators would crank up the air conditioning to make detainees cold, and that one prisoner was also given a "lap dance" by a female interrogator 'to use sexual tension in an attempt to break a detainee.' "
While the role of psychologists at Guantanamo and elsewhere is still murky, due to the extreme secrecy surrounding it, more and more evidence is dribbling out. It increasingly looks like key agents in this were psychologists and, initially, psychiatrists, in so-called Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCT) that participated in selected interrogations.
Mohammed al-Qahtani was interrogated over many months at Guantanamo. BSCT Psychologist Major John Leso was present during this interrogation.
During al-Qahtani's interrogation he was subjected to extreme cold to the point where his heart slowed and he was hospitalized (he was then warmed up and again subjected to extreme cold), he was injected with several bags of saline solution while being strapped to a table until he urinated on himself, and he was forced to bark like a dog; we are not told what was done to him to get him to bark. He required cardiac monitoring after 60 days in a cell flooded with artificial light, being questioned for 48 out of 54 days for 20 hours at a time. He was briefly hospitalized and immediately returned for continued interrogation.
By the way, the US government insists that al-Qahtani was treated "humanely," as are, it claims, all the Guantanamo detainees. And the American Psychological Association leadership has repeatedly claimed that the BSCT psychologists participate in interrogations to prevent abuse, to ensure "that such processes are safe and ethical for all participants". They have never commented publicly on the interrogation involvement of Major Leso, an APA member, not have they taken any steps whatsoever to investigate the repeated claims that BSCT psychologists are in Guantanamo to teach torture techniques, not to prevent their use.
In July 2005, the New Yorker published an article by Jane Mayer entitled The Experiment. In it she presents the evidence available at that time on SERE and its role in the interrogation process at Guantanamo. She quotes Baher Azmy, an attorney for one of the detainees whose client reported physical brutality, sexual humiliation, and being injected with debilitating drugs:
Attorney Azmy told Mayer:
"These psychological gambits are obviously not isolated events. They're prevalent and systematic. They're tried, measured, and charted. These are ways to humiliate and disorient the detainees. The whole place appears to be one giant human experiment."
The prominent Middle East scholar Juan Cole, on his Informed Comment blog posted an email from a former military officer:
"I'm a former US [military officer], and had the 'pleasure' of attending SERE school.
The course I attended . . . [had] a mock POW camp, where we had a chance to be prisoners for 2-3 days. The camp is also used as a training tool for CI [counter-intelligence], interrogators, etc.
I'm sure you must also realize that Gitmo must be being used as a "laboratory" for all these psychological manipulation techniques by the CI guys. Absolutely sickening . ..
1. My gut feeling tells me that the SERE camps were 'laboratories' and part of the training program for military counter-intelligence and interrogator personnel. I heard this anecdotally as far as the training goes.
2. Looking at Gitmo in the 'big picture', you have to wonder why it is still in operation though they know so many are innocent of major charges. A look through history at the various 'experimentation' programs of the DOD gives a ready answer. The camp provides a major opportunity to expose a population to various psychological control techniques. Look at some of the stuff that has become public, and this becomes even more apparent. Especially the sensory deprivation--not only sleep, but there are the photos of inmates in gas masks or sight/hearing/smell deprivation setups. There has already been voluminous research into sensory deprivation, and it seems this is another good opportunity for more."
PENS Task Force
As word spread about the involvement of health professionals, psychologists included, in abusive interrogations, pressure built on professional associations to do something about the situation. The American Psychological Association decided to form a Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS). Strangely, the APA did not release the names of PEN task force to the APA membership, nor were the names included in the report. The PENS membership was first published in the press in full by Mark Benjamin of Salon last July, more than a year after the PENS report was released; Benjamin got the names from a Congressional source, not the APA.
Let's look at a few of the members, as described in their official APA biographical statements:
Colonel Morgan Banks is currently the Command Psychologist and Chief of the Psychological Applications Directorate of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC). " He is the senior Army Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) Psychologist, responsible for the training and oversight of all Army SERE Psychologists, who include those involved in SERE training. He provides technical support and consultation to all Army psychologists providing interrogation support, and his office currently provides the only Army training for psychologists in repatriation planning and execution, interrogation support, and behavioral profiling."
Robert A. Fein is currently a consultant to the Directorate for Behavioral Sciences of the Department of Defense Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA), the DOD Criminal Investigative Task Force (CITF), and the U.S. Secret Service's National Threat Assessment Center. He also serves as a member of the Intelligence Science Board.
Colonel Larry C. James In 2003, he was the Chief Psychologist for the Joint Intelligence Group at GTMO, Cuba, and in 2004 he was the Director, Behavioral Science Unit, Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center at Abu Ghraib, Iraq. Col. James was assigned to Iraq to develop legal and ethical policies consistent with the Geneva Convention Guidelines and the APA Ethics Code in response to the abuse scandal.
Captain Bryce E. Lefever as assigned to the Navy's Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) School from 1990 to 1993. He served with Navy Special Forces from 1998 to 2003 and was deployed as the Joint Special Forces Task Force psychologist to Afghanistan in 2002, where he lectured to interrogators and was consulted on various interrogation techniques. Capt. Lefever has been deployed to many parts of the world during his career including Haiti, Panama, Israel, Afghanistan, Italy, Bahrain, Crete, Puerto Rico, Iceland, Antarctica, and Spain where he has lectured on Brainwashing: The Method of Forceful Interrogation.
R. Scott Shumate has worked for the federal government in highly classified positions that have required him to travel extensively and live overseas. He has performed many of his duties under highly stressful and difficult circumstances. In May of 2003, Dr. Shumate accepted a senior position in the Department of Defense as the Director of Behavioral Science for the Counterintelligence Field Activity. DOD/CIFA is responsible for support to offensive and defensive counterintelligence (CI) efforts. His team of renowned forensic psychologists are engaged in risk assessments of the Guantanamo Bay Detainees.
Also on the PENS taskforce was Michael Gelles. Dr. Gelles was the chief psychologist for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Dr. Gelles was at Guantanamo in order to develop evidence for potential criminal prosecution of detainees. As he witnessed the treatment of detainees, he was outraged and became a whistleblower. According to a Boston Globe article "Dr. Michael Gelles, completed a study of Guantánamo interrogations in December 2003 that included extracts of detainee interrogation logs. Gelles reported to the service director, David Brant, that interrogators were using 'abusive techniques and coercive psychological procedures.'" As such, Dr. Gelles is one of the true heroes of this rather sordid tale. At the same time, however, it is at least debateable for two reasons whether he should have been on the PENS taskforce. First, as a member of the military hierarchy he was subject to military discipline, rather than being a free agent; like the other PENS members from the military and intelligence services, his career could be directly affected by the outcome of the PENS process. [Just ask the heroic Navy JAG attorney, Lt. Commander Charles Swift who won a landmark Supreme Court victory against the Guantanamo military tribunals in the Hamdan case, only to be forced to retire after over 20 years of sevice.] Further, as a psychologist and military interrogator, Dr. Gelles was in no position to seriously consider the view that involvement in interrogations was, in itself, unethical.
Not surprisingly, given its composition, the PENS report concluded:
"The Task Force stated that it is consistent with the APA Ethics Code for psychologists to serve in consultative roles to interrogation and information-gathering processes for national security-related purposes."
In handling this report, the APA did not follow normal procedures and did not present it to the elected Council of Representatives for discussion and approval. Rather, within days it was presented to and approved by the APA Board, circumventing Council.
Other Professional Associations
In contrast, the American Medical Association, in June 2006 adopted: "Physicians must neither conduct nor directly participate in an interrogation, because a role as physician-interrogator undermines the physician's role as healer and thereby erodes trust in the individual physician-interrogator and in the medical profession."
In June, 2005, the American Psychiatric Association expressed concern over the reports of psychiatrist involvement in abuses at Guantanamo:
"The American Psychiatric Association is troubled by recent reports regarding alleged violations of professional medical ethics by psychiatrists at Guantanamo Bay. APA is reviewing issues related to psychiatry and interrogation procedures and plans to develop a specific policy statement in the near future."
I have been unable to find one mention of concern regarding reports of involvement of psychologists in Guantanamo abuses by the American Psychological Association or any of its recent leadership. Rather, in February 2006, then President Gerald Koocher wrote:
"A number of opportunistic commentators masquerading as scholars have continued to report on alleged abuses by mental health professionals."
In May, 2006 the American Psychiatric Association went on to ban all direct participation in interrogations by psychiatrists:
"No psychiatrist should participate directly in the interrogation of person[s] held in custody by military or civilian investigative or law enforcement authorities, whether in the United States or elsewhere."
American Psychiatric Association President Steven S. Sharfstein devoted a significant portion of his 2006 Presidential Address to this issue:
"We must exercise vigilance over our other core values. When I read in the New England Journal of Medicine
After returning to Andrews, we began a spirited 3-hour discussion over dinner. I found myself looking eye to eye with top Pentagon brass -- they are much taller than I am, but we were sitting down. I told the generals that psychiatrists will not participate in the interrogation of persons held in custody. Psychologists, by contrast, had issued a position statement allowing consultations in interrogations. about psychiatrists participating in the interrogation of Guantanamo detainees, I wrote to the Assistant Secretary for Health in the Department of Defense expressing serious concern about this practice. In mid-October I found myself on a Navy jet out of Andrews Air Force Base on a 3-hour trip to Guantanamo Bay. We were briefed thoroughly on interrogation methods and the involvement of Behavioral Science Consultation Teams in the process.
If you were ever wondering what makes us different from psychologists, here it is. This is a paramount challenge to our ethics and our Hippocratic training. Judging from the record of the actual treatment of detainees, it is the thinnest of thin lines that separates such consultation from involvement in facilitating deception and cruel and degrading treatment. Innocent people being released from Guantanamo-people who never were our enemies and had no useful information in the War on Terror-are returning to their homes and families bearing terrible internal scars. Our profession is lost if we play any role in inflicting these wounds."
As President Sharfstein looked eye to eye with Pentagon brass, then American Psychological Association President Ronald Levant was along for the trip to Guantanamo. While the psychiatrists' President told the brass "that psychiatrists will not participate in the interrogation of persons held in custody," here is what the psychologists' President had to say upon return:
I accepted this offer to visit Guantanamo because I saw the invitation as an important opportunity to continue to provide our expertise and guidance for how psychologists can play an appropriate and ethical role in national security investigations. Our goals are to ensure that psychologists add value and safeguards to such investigations and that they are done in an ethical and effective manner that protects the safety of all involved."
As a psychologist, it deeply saddens me to admit that Psychiatric Association President Sharfstein has it correct. What distinguishes the two professions is that psychiatrists have taken a moral position, at the cost of a potential loss of access to top military decision-makers and funding-providers, while the leadership of psychologists, in contrast, have put access and, potentially, funding, above taking a moral stand on the perversions of the War on Terror. In the process of protecting this access, the psychological association has regularly used deception and bad faith, trying to argue that participation in interrogations is, indeed, ethical.
The Association leadership has worked persistently to protect the ability of psychologists to participate in "national security" interrogations, even, at times, claiming an ethical obligation to do so to prevent harm to society, presumably from the "terrorists" imprisoned there for the last five years. [See also Olivia Moorehead-Slaughter's report on the PENS Task Force she chaired: "as experts in human behavior, psychologists contribute to effective interrogations."]
These efforts have paid off: On June 7, 2006 the New York Times reported:
"Pentagon officials said Tuesday that they would try to use only psychologists, and not psychiatrists, to help interrogators devise strategies to get information from detainees at places like Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The new policy follows by little more than two weeks an overwhelming vote by the American Psychiatric Association discouraging its members from participating in those efforts.
Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, told reporters that the new policy favoring the use of psychologists over psychiatrists was a recognition of differing positions taken by their respective professional groups."
Thus did psychologist score a major victory over their ancient enemy, the psychiatrists.
On January 8, 2007, British attorney Brent Mickum wrote of his two clients, Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil el-Banna, in Guantánamo's lost souls on the website of the British newspaper the Guardian. These two men are known from extensive evidence almost certainly to be innocent:
Bisher al-Rawi is, slowly but surely, slipping into madness.
The diminution of Bisher's mental faculties has not taken place all at once. Gradually, over time, Bisher simply has worn down. He no longer has the power to withstand the ravages of psychological isolation and the constant abuse he suffers. To be sure, Bisher is not the only affected prisoner; attorneys representing other prisoners at Guantánamo report that clients who are being kept in isolation are going insane..
Bisher's world is a 6 by 8-foot cell in Camp V, where alleged "non-compliant" prisoners are incarcerated. After years and hundreds of interrogations, Bisher finally refused to be interrogated further. Despite the fact that Guantánamo officials have publicly proclaimed that prisoners are no longer required to participate in interrogations, Bisher is deemed non-compliant and tortured daily.
Solitary confinement is but a single aspect of the torture that Bisher endures on a daily basis. While in isolation, Bisher has been constantly subjected to severe temperature extremes and other sensory torments, many of which are part of a sleep deprivation program that never abates. Frequently, Bisher's cell is unbearably cold because the air conditioning is turned up to the maximum. Sometimes, his captors take his orange jumpsuit and sheet, leaving him only in his shorts. For a week at a time, Bisher constantly shivers and is unable to sleep because of the extreme cold. Once, when Bisher attempted to warm himself by covering himself with his prayer rug, one of the few "comfort items" permitted to him, his guards removed it for "misuse". On other occasions, the heat is allowed to become so unbearable that breathing is difficult and labored. For a week at a time, all Bisher can do is lie completely still, sweat pouring off his body during the day when the Cuban heat can reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and the temperature inside Camp V is even higher.
Bisher is allowed no contact with fellow prisoners. Bright lights are kept on 24 hours a day. Bisher is given 15 sheets of toilet paper per day, but because he used his sheets to cover his eyes to help him to sleep, his toilet paper - considered another comfort itemhas been removed for "misuse".
Accordingly, he is no longer receives his daily ration of 15 sheets of toilet paper. Imagine being in the position of having to make a choice between using your tiny allotment of toilet paper for the purpose for which it was intended or using it to sleep, and then having it removed altogether. Dinner never arrives before 9.30pm and sometimes comes as late as 12.00am. It is almost always cold. Changes of clothing take place at midnight when prisoners are given a single, thin cotton sheet for sleeping. Thereafter, a noisy library cart is dragged through the corridors; Bisher has been denied library privileges for some time, but the library cart and the noise are constant reminders that he is afforded no intellectual stimulation. Prisoners are unable to sleep until close to 1.00am. They are awakened at 5.00am, when each is required to return his sheet. All of Bisher's legal documents and family photographs were seized in June and have never been returned."
About the other prisoner he represents, Jamil el-Banna, this attorney reports:
" I have see[n] letters from Jamil's youngest children on my visits to Guantánamo, one-page letters that are heavily redacted by military censors. What is the offending language that the military has seen fit to redact? Language like "Daddy, I love you" and "Daddy, I miss you." How do I know? Because on my instructions, Jamil's wife has saved copies of the letters her children sent."
Guantanamo and other US detention facilities are illegal and immoral institutions. They appear to be designed to break people down, to destroy them, whether they are innocent or guilty, whether they have any intelligence value or not. It is possible that they are intentional experimental facilities designed to develop and test new behavior manipulation techniques. In any case, they clearly constitute a hell on earth, the "gulag of out time" as Amnesty International described Guantanamo. It is well past time that the United States start respecting those lofty human rights sentiments spouted by our leaders and enshrined in our laws and binding international treaties.
It is also long past time that psychology as a profession, along with the other health professions, starts contributing to the building of respect for humanity rather than aiding the creation of hell. As Harry Stack Sullivan clearly stated long ago: " We are all much more simply human than otherwise." Surely we, as psychologists and psychoanalysts, should be leaders in recognizing the humanity of all, even those identified as alleged "terrorists." Surely, carrying out our duties as psychologists, as citizens, and as human beings is of far greater importance than is maintaining our professional access to the levers of power. If not, then humanity has no need of our profession.
Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He maintains the Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice web site and the Psyche, Science, and Society blog.