30+ torture memos remain sealed while thousands of torture photos will eventually be released. Be prepared: Learn the deep history of US torture in SERE, Vietnam, Latin America, GMTO, Black Sites and beyond in American Torture.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Top U.S. Behavioral Scientists Studied Survival Schools to Create Torture Program Over 50 Years Ago

Posted by Valtin at 5:45 PM |

Cross-posted from The Public Record

A couple of recent articles have highlighted the unseemly fact that some past presidents of the American Psychological Association (APA), the foremost professional organization for psychologists in the United States, if not the world, had links to the use of torture, or at least to military research into coercive interrogations.

An article by Jane Mayer in the recent New Yorker on CIA Director Leon Panetta noted in passing the participation of a former APA president Joseph Matarazzo on the governing staff of the Mitchell, Jessen & Associates (MJA) torture firm. First identified as one of the "governing people" of MJA by Bill Morlin in a Spokesman Review article in August 2007, Matarazzo is now known to have also been CIA, as noted in an article by Physicians for Human Rights Campaign Against Torture director, Nathaniel Raymond (emphasis added):

Mayer notes, parenthetically, that she has learned from the CIA's Kirk Hubbard that former American Psychological Association president Joseph Matarazzo sat on the CIA's professional-standards board at the time when psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen were developing an interrogation program for the CIA, based on the US military's SERE training program.

This new information came at the same time as former APA insider Bryant Welch was publishing his own tell-all about APA and the Defense Department, Torture, Psychology, and Daniel Inouye. Welch singled out former APA presidents Gerald Koocher and Ron Levant, along with Senator Daniel Inouye's office, as key lobbyists for the participation of psychologists in interrogations (emphasis added):

One of Inouye's administrative assistants, psychologist Patrick Deleon, has long been active in the APA and served a term in 2000 as APA president. For significant periods of time DeLeon has literally directed APA staff on federal policy matters and has dominated the APA governance on political matters. For over twenty-five years, relationships between the APA and the Department of Defense (DOD) have been strongly encouraged and closely coordinated by DeLeon.

Another famous former APA president, Martin Seligman, was also linked with the government's recent torture program. According to Jane Mayer, Seligman taught his "learned helplessness" theories to the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape or SERE psychologists, who reverse-engineered it into the "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques" used by the CIA and DoD to torture prisoners in "war on terror" prisons around the world. Seligman admitted lecturing at SERE, but has denied any role in torture.

The role of former APA presidents DeLeon, Koocher, Levant, Seligman, and Matarazzo in supporting the role of military psychologists in interrogations, even after evidence of torture by the U.S. government was manifest, is perhaps unequalled in the annals of professional societies, as providing political, and possibly organizational and theoretical or practical support to unethical procedures, especially torture. (Stephen Soldz has outlined some of this recent history in an article just posted at ACLU Blog of Rights.) One might think this a terrible offshoot of the former Bush administration's insane post-9/11 turn to the "dark side."

But that is not the end of the story; it is not even the beginning.

Before this set of military/CIA-collaborationist APA presidents, there was Harry Harlow, and before him, Donald Hebb. Both were famous, distinguished U.S. psychologists, and both had been presidents of the APA in the 1950s. Both engaged in research, some of it secret, for the military and CIA. Hebb was a pioneer in the study of sensory deprivation. Harlow's contribution was more synthetic: he helped construct an entire paradigm around the problem of how to break down an individual by torture.

In 1956, in the pages of an obscure academic journal, Sociometry, I.E. Farber, Harry F. Harlow, and psychiatrist Louis Jolyon West published a classic work on interrogation, Brainwashing, Conditioning, and DDD (Debility, Dependency, and Dread) (BCD). It was based on a report for the Study Group on Survival Training, paid for by the U.S. Air Force. (See West LJ., Medical and psychiatric considerations in survival training. In: Report of the Special Study Group on Survival Training (AFR 190 16). Lackland Air Force Base, Tex: Air Force Personnel and Training Research Centers; 1956.) This research linked Air Force "Survival" training, later called SERE, with torture techniques, and as we will see, use of such techniques by the CIA, something we would see again decades later in the Mitchell-Jessen "exploitation" plan.

BCD examined the various types of stress undergone by prisoners, and narrowed them down to "three important elements: debility, dependency, and dread".

Debility was a condition caused by "semi-starvation, fatigue, and disease". It induced "a sense of terrible weariness".

Dependency on the captors for some relief from their agony was something "produced by the prolonged deprivation of many of the factors, such as sleep and food... [and] was made more poignant by occasional unpredictable brief respites." The use of prolonged isolation of the prisoner, depriving an individual of expected social intercourse and stimulation, "markedly strengthened the dependency".

Dread probably needs no explanation, but BCD described it as "chronic fear.... Fear of death, fear of pain, fear of nonrepatriation, fear of deformity of permanent disability.... even fear of one's own inability to satisfy the demands of insatiable interrogators."

The bulk of BCD explains the effects of DDD in terms of Pavlovian conditioning and the learning theories of American psychologist Edward Thorndike. The consequence of the resulting "collapse of ego functions" is described as similar to "postlobotomy syndrome".

By disorganizing the perception of those experiential continuities constituting the self-concept and impoverishing the basis for judging self-consistency, DDD affects one's habitual ways of looking at and dealing with oneself. [p. 275]

BCD explains aspects of the U.S. torture program that otherwise to our eyes appear insane. (Not that it isn't on a moral level "insane.") Take the painful stress positioning of prisoners documented at Abu Ghraib and other U.S.-run detainee prisons -- most recently, at Bagram prison in Afghanistan. BCE explains: it's all part of inducing dependency through expectation of relief, but in a diabolical way. Forced stress positions are a "self-inflicted punishment", one which increases the expectancy of relief via "voluntary" means. But the latter is "delusory... since the captor may select any behavior he chooses as the condition for relieving a prisoner's distress" [pp. 276-277].

This form of carrot and stick torture may not seem that sophisticated, but it is the use of basic nervous system functioning and human instinctual need that makes it "scientific". The need for sensory stimulation and social interaction, the need to eat, to sleep, to reduce fear, all of these are used to build dependencies upon the captor, using the fact that "the strengthening effects of rewards -- in this instance the alleviation of an intensely unpleasant emotional state -- are fundamentally automatic" [p. 278]. This impairment of higher cognitive states and disruption and disorganization of the prisoner's self-concept, producing something like "a pathological organic state", was subsequently modified and used by the CIA in its interrogations of countless individuals. If more brutal forms of torture sometimes were used, especially by over-eager foreign agents or governments, DDD remained the gold standard, the programmatic core of counterintelligence interrogation at the heart of the CIA's own intelligence manuals.

Chapter Nine of the 1963 CIA KUBARK manual, "Coercive Counterintelligence Interrogation of Resistant Sources," describes coercive interrogation procedures as "designed to induce regression."

The anonymous authors of KUBARK quote the BCD article specifically:

Farber says that the response to coercion typically contains "... at least three important elements: debility, dependency, and dread." Prisoners "... have reduced viability, are helplessly dependent on their captors for the satisfaction of their many basic needs, and experience the emotional and motivational reactions of intense fear and anxiety"....

The subheads to the chapter are evocative of the DDD paradigm: "Deprivation of Sensory Stimuli", "Threats and Fear", "Debility", "Pain", "Heightened Suggestibility and Hypnosis", and "Narcosis". That this was all constructed, in part, by the demented genius of a famous U.S. psychologist and former president of the APA only contributes to a deep, dark irony that runs like a blood-red gash through the body politic of this country.

The 2006 rewrite of the Army Field Manual was lauded for banning the beating of prisoners, threatening them with dogs, sexual humiliation, performing mock executions, electrocution of prisoners, and waterboarding, among other "techniques." But in an appendix to the manual, the following procedures are authorized for certain prisoners: complete separation, sometimes with forced wearing of goggles and earmuffs, for up to 30 days (after which approval for more must be sought); limiting sleep to four hours a day, for 30 straight days (and more, with approval); and other concurrent techniques, including "futility", "incentive", and "fear up harsh". In the latter, fear within a detainee is significantly increased, through knowledge of the person's phobias, if possible.

In the press, and in the speeches of politicians on both sides of the aisle, the new AFM was praised as a model of reform. The CIA was urged to embrace the AFM's policies, but has demurred. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is studying the interrogation issue, but so far has advocated the AFM be the government-wide interogation standard. Why, one wonders, as it's evident the AFM has maintained a core DDD operational capacity (isolation, sleep and sensory deprivation, fear)? The Center for Constitutional Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, Amnesty International and other human rights organization have called publicly for the Obama administration to rescind Appendix M and other offensive sections of the Army Field Manual.

It is important that all elements of the U.S. torture program be exposed and made illegal. If the country can not rise morally to this, then a terrifying future lies before us.

Also posted at Invictus

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Physicians, Psychologists & the Problem of "The Dark Side"

Posted by Valtin at 10:10 PM |

"Any of us could be the man who encounters his double." -- Friedrich Durrenmat (1)
Jane Mayer's new book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals (not due out in the bookstores until tomorrow), is already creating headlines and generating controversy. This article will examine the issues around U.S. torture practice, in light of new allegations in the book, and review an email conversation between myself and a prominent nationally-known psychologist whom Mayer says assisted in the planning of U.S. government torture.

Scott Shane at The New York Times wrote an article last Friday describing how Mayer reveals that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told the CIA last year in a report that the interrogation of "high-level" detainees, such as Abu Zubaydah, "categorically" constituted torture, were illegal, and amounted to prosecutable war crimes. Zubaydah, famously, was one of three prisoners the government has admitted were waterboarded. A videotape of his interrogation was destroyed by the CIA.

In an July 14 interview with Scott Horton at Harper's, Jane Mayer discussed the reaction to the ICRC charges:
... Abu Zubayda claimed to have been locked in a tiny cage, in which he had to remain doubled up for long periods of time, prior to the period when he was waterboarded. This account — which he gave to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) — was confirmed to me independently by a former CIA officer familiar with his interrogation....

The reaction of top Bush Administration officials to the ICRC report, from what I can gather, has been defensive and dismissive. They reject the ICRC’s legal analysis as incorrect. Yet my reporting shows that inside the White House there has been growing fear of criminal prosecution...
Ms. Mayer concludes that the addition of an immunity provision in the Military Commissions Act passed by Congress in 2007 was an attempt to address such fears among administration figures. She further opines that it seems unlikely to her that anyone in the Bush administration will actually face domestic prosecution for war crimes, as the "political appetite" seems lacking. And then she adds the following (emphasis added):
An additional complicating factor is that key members of Congress sanctioned this program, so many of those who might ordinarily be counted on to lead the charge are themselves compromised.
A Prominent Psychologist Comes Under Fire

While medical personnel associated with the ICRC have played a heroic role in documenting and advocating for prisoners' rights, doctors and psychologists associated with U.S. detention and interrogation of so-called "enemy combatants" in the "war on terror" have not acquitted themselves with the same ethical probity. In fact, they may be guilty of war crimes themselves.

Jane Mayer's new book also looks more closely at the utilization of SERE techniques as a template for U.S. torture of detainees. (SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, & Escape, and is a military program aimed at training U.S. soldiers for torture at the hands of vicious captors, those who would not honor Geneva Convention protocols. Ironically, the U.S. itself announced that "enemy combatants" are not bound by those same Geneva agreements.)

It's been a year since SERE military psychologists James Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen were accused, in an article by Katherine Eban in Vanity Fair, of teaching SERE techniques to interrogators at Guantanamo and elsewhere. (I covered the "nuts and bolts" of how SERE procedures were taught at Guantanamo in a recent essay.) According to a different article by Jane Mayer last year, Mitchell utilized the theories of "learned helplessness" in implementing his interrogation lessons. (Mr. Mitchell denied this assertion.) Mayer wrote:
Steve Kleinman, a reserve Air Force colonel and an experienced interrogator who has known Mitchell professionally for years, said that “learned helplessness was his whole paradigm.” Mitchell, he said, “draws a diagram showing what he says is the whole cycle. It starts with isolation. Then they eliminate the prisoners’ ability to forecast the future—when their next meal is, when they can go to the bathroom. It creates dread and dependency. It was the K.G.B. model. But the K.G.B. used it to get people who had turned against the state to confess falsely. The K.G.B. wasn’t after intelligence.”
This torture model of dread, debility through isolation, and dependency may have been the model of the K.G.B., but it was intellectually codified by U.S. psychologists and psychiatrists in the 1950s, most notably in a 1956 article in the journal Sociometry, Brainwashing, Conditioning, and DDD (Debility, Dependency, and Dread). One of the authors of this article, Harry Harlow, went on to become a president of the American Psychological Association (APA).

In Mayer's new book, she implicates another former APA president in the development of torture, Martin Seligman, the creator of the theory of "learned helplessness". I have not seen Mayer's book, which hasn't been released yet, so my accounts come from statements online by Scott Horton, as well as the latter's interview with Mayer previously cited. Horton wrote (emphasis added):
[Mayer] 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.
Seligman is no obscure academic, or bureaucrat. He is one of the best known psychologists in the country, a prominent professor, and leader of the Positive Psychology movement, often quoted in the nation's psychology textbooks. Mayer's allegations about Seligman were picked up anti-torture activist and psychologist Stephen Soldz at his blog. This brought a rejoinder from Seligman himself, denying he assisted in torture in any way. He continued:
I gave a three hour lecture sponsored by SERE (the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape branch of the American armed forces) at the San Diego Naval Base in May 2002. My topic was how American troops and American personnel could use what is known about learned helplessness and related findings to resist torture and evade successful interrogation by their captors.

I was told then that since I was (and am) a civilian with no security clearance that they could not discuss American methods of interrogation with me. I have not had contact with SERE since that meeting. I have not worked under government contract (or any other contract) on any aspect of interrogation or any aspect of torture. Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Jessen were present in the audience of about 50 others at my speech, and that was, to the best of my knowledge, the sum total of my “assisting them in the process."
What Seligman Told Me

In December 2006, following suspicions (at that time uncorroborated by government documents) that SERE had been used to reverse-engineer torture, as reported by Jane Mayer in a July 2005 New Yorker article, which mentioned Seligman by name, and by Mark Benjamin at Salon.com, I wrote to Seligman and asked him about reports he had taught at the SERE school. I was then researching an article on psychological research into sensory deprivation and torture. (The article turned into a presentation at the APA convention in 2007, and was subsequently published as "Psychology and Research into Coercive Interrogation".) Dr. Seligman's answer to me then (December 2006) was much the same as that made to Soldz above.

I tried to push Seligman a little harder on the issue:
I really have only one outstanding question that remains from my original questions: Were you aware -- or do you even believe -- that your work on learned helplessness has been used not only to help our soldiers withstand coercive interrogation, but to conduct such types of interrogation by U.S. interrogators themselves?
Martin Seligman replied tersely:
I am not available for further comment. (2)
About seven months later, as further revelations about SERE and torture surfaced, including admissions by the Pentagon Office of Inspector General (in a report publicly released in May 2007) that SERE reverse-engineering had taken place, and that Mitchell and Jessen were involved, I revisited the issue with Dr. Seligman in August 2007:
When I wrote to you before, you declined to comment on my question. But I think it is incumbent upon you now to say more about what you know, as well as what you think, about the use of your work by military and CIA psychologists to instigate torture. I ask you this as a colleague in the field, and as a psychologist interested in stopping torture, and ashamed of the actions of some in our field in perpetuating abusive behavior. I would think you would like to clear your name, which otherwise remains linked (even if in obscure ways) to some of the worst episodes in our nation's and our profession's history.
Dr. Seligman replied (emphasis added):
I am entirely out of this loop, having had zero contact with SERE since my talk in April 2002. I know nothing at all about how they have applied LH concepts to either help our own people or to the interrogation of prisoners. When I asked about the latter at my talk, they told me that they could not give me any information at all, since I had no "classification."

My talk was about how to teach our people to resist LH [Learned Helplessness] and my life work has been devoted to the issues of undoing LH, not about inducing it in other human beings.
Once again, I persevered, intrigued that Seligman appeared to be admitting that he had asked about application of "learned helplessness" techniques to the interrogation of prisoners. Why, in December 2002, had he bothered to ask? Was he suspicious? Did he know more than he was saying, or even worse, had he done more than he was admitting? I wrote (emphasis in original):
I appreciate your quick reply, and I understand that you had nothing to do with how LH concepts were used by others. But, given the controversy over psychologist participation in interrogations (a vote on competing resolutions is due at the next [APA] Council meeting), and the fact that your ideas and research were obviously used (you even asked them about it), what is your position on the use of your research by others, and on psychologists involved in military/CIA interrogations under the current administration?
Dr. Seligman replied:
The only "position" I am comfortable staking out is "Good science always runs the risk of immoral application. It goes with the territory of discovery."
Doubling and Collaboration with Torture

Dr. Seligman's "position" was startling. Even if one accepts his denial of further association with the torture program initiated by the Bush administration, utilizing SERE coercive techniques, Seligman seems to believe it's okay to settle for a "see no evil" approach. In his point of view, he is a scientist, a discoverer of new knowledge. If his work might be abused, that is not a concern of his.

This is an immoral position, of course, even if not necessarily criminal, in a forensic sense. If I could question him further, I would ask why he was asked to give this particular "lecture" at a SERE school at this time, and who asked him to do so. (Mayer says Seligman was connected with the CIA, but no further details are given.) I would further ask what led him to inquire about the possible use of SERE techniques on interrogations of prisoners, and why, when he was waved off, he acquiesced so meekly.

For years now, Dr. Seligman has been quiet about the use of his own theories in the application of horrifying torture techniques. Why this silence?

The situation with Seligman, like those of other psychologists and psychiatrists who worked for the CIA's MKULTRA and like programs over forty years ago, reminds me of the analysis Robert Jay Lifton made of the behavior of doctors in Nazi Germany, who were implicated in anti-semitic purges of Jews from the medicine field, and in programs of forced sterilization, euthanasia of mental patients, and later, in the operations of the concentration camps. (The Germans, I should note, were not the only people to engage in forced sterilizations. The United States, too, engaged in eugenics policies such as forced sterilization earlier in the twentieth century, and many doctors participated in that.)

In his book, The Nazi Doctors, Lifton describes the phenomenon of "doubling", or "socialization to evil."

Doubling arises in the context where a professional must "function psychologically in an environment... antithetical to his previous ethical standards..." The person must be able to connect with both the prior, ethical self and the new, unethical environment or institution. The splitting of the professional self allows for an adaptation to evil and an escape from subsequent feelings of guilt or wrong-doing, as "the second self tends to be the one performing the 'dirty work'." What makes the entire process so insidious is that it usually takes place outside of individual consciousness, even as it involves "a significant change in moral consciousness." Thus, doubling can be understood as an adaptation to an extremely immoral culture or institution, allowing for disavowal of guilt. (See The Nazi Doctors, Lifton, pp. 421-423).

We can see this in Seligman's disavowal of any wrong-doing, and even his strong protestations of being against torture. Now, it's notoriously difficult to psychoanalyze someone from afar, but how else are we to explain the monumental and repeated violations of basic ethical practice by physicians and psychologists over the years, whether it has to do with secret study done on unknowing African-American subjects as part of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis patients experiments that lasted for forty years, until 1972; the human plutonium radiation experiments of the last century; the CIA mind control programs noted above; or the development and implementation of current psychological torture programs, which continues to date?

Are We Morally Doomed?

I think Jane Mayer is wrong on one point. As pointed out earlier, she is pessimistic that this nation has the "political appetite" to bring the perpetrators of torture to the bar of justice in his country. I hear that from many. But where there is a will, there is, proverbially, a way. It is not about "appetite" anymore. It is about what we must do, if we are not to take that final step into the dark side, a place Vice President Cheney so-famously told us we would have to go. We know now what awaits us there.

Worse even than the doubling of an individual like Martin Seligman is the behavior of the professional organizations for doctors and psychologists. The American Medical Association, while officially having a policy of not participating in interrogations at Bush's war on terror prisons, has taken no steps I know of to investigate or police violations of this policy. For years, the American Psychological Association has maintained that, while against torture, it supports psychologists working at prisons like Guantanamo, even if they do not allow basic human rights, because supposedly they lessen the possibility of abuse. The logic is grotesque, at best, and grossly misleading when you realize it's psychologists who have been implicated in organizing the abuse. But on this, the APA remains silent, rendering that organization, in Mayer's own characterization, "worthless."

In the famous legend, Faust bargains away his soul to the devil for the privilege of obtaining knowledge. In Goethe's rendering of the story, Faust is redeemed in the end, and the spirits who help him remind us, "He who persists in striving ever upwards, him we can save."


(1) Quote taken from Robert Jay Lifton's The Nazi Doctors, Basic Books, 1986/2000, p. 418.

(2) The quotes from my email correspondence with Dr. Seligman were the source of some quandary for me, as I was unsure whether to utilize them. I sought consultation for this issue with a long-time, highly respected journalist who thought it appropriate. I do want to make clear that all who communicate with me by voice or by writing (including email) and ask for confidentiality or non-attribution will have their request respected. My quotations from the Seligman correspondence with me are drawn from a professional exchange and not, in my opinion, privileged.

Also posted at Invictus and The Public Record

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