May 5, 2015

New report reveals American Psychological Association collaborated with Bush administration to sanctify “enhanced interrogation”


The Senate Intelligence Committe Report on Torture whiteOne of the most haunting revelations of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture was the role of two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who appear in the report as Grayson Swigert and Hammond Dunbar:

Both Swigert and Dunbar had been psychologists with the U.S. Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school, which exposes select U.S. military personnel to, among other things, coercive interrogation techniques that they might be subjected to if taken prisoners by countries that did not adhere to Geneva protections. Neither psychologist had experience as an interrogator, nor did either have specialized knowledge of al-Qa’ida, a background in terrorism, or any relevant regional, cultural, or linguistic expertise. Swigert had reviewed research on “learned helplessness,” in which individuals might become passive and depressed in response to adverse or uncontrollable events. He theorized that inducing such a state could encourage a detainee to cooperate and provide information.

Mitchell and Jessen proved instrumental in the use of torture by the CIA. As the Los Angeles Times put it shortly after the release of the report: “Over the next six years, the practices that the two psychologists championed were used against 38 additional CIA captives, according to the Senate report.” Their company was eventually paid $81 million for their services.

If Mitchell and Jessen were the symbols of a particular kind of institutional corruption on the part of psychologists, last week’s release of a report by Stephen Soldz, Nathaniel Raymond, and Steven Reisner suggests that the corruption may have been far more widespread. The report, titled “All the President’s Psychologists: The American Psychological Association’s Secret Complicity with the White House and US Intelligence Community in Support of the CIA’s ‘Enhanced’ Interrogation Program” was described in detail in the New York Times:

The American Psychological Association secretly collaborated with the administration of President George W. Bush to bolster a legal and ethical justification for the torture of prisoners swept up in the post-Sept. 11 war on terror, according to a new report by a group of dissident health professionals and human rights activists.

The report, which, according to the Times, is “the first to examine the association’s role in the interrogation program,” seems like an important piece of concordance to the torture report. If the latter was a damning, systematic examination of a major government program, the new report takes a scrupulous and disturbing look at one of its major elements. The publication of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture was meant, in part, to provoke further public scrutiny of a dark period in recent history—the new APA report suggests that this is exactly what’s taking place.


Mark Krotov is senior editor at Melville House.