On psychologists’ foray into torture

In today’s New York Times, Scott Shane reports on the contracting business of two psychologists, Drs. Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who were integral in the development of the CIA’s interrogation tactics following the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2009. In classic “objective” scientist style, it turns out that they were also intimately involved in developing the program that trained US elite military forces how to resist torture — Dr. Jessen was the psychologist associated with the Air Force’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) program in 1980s, and Dr. Mitchell had been a psychologist for an elite special operations unit. Once retired, these two set up a consulting company that was hired to advise how to interrogate Al Qaeda prisoners.

Who better to advise on interrogation than those who had trained people to resist it, right? Wrong. First of all, these guys had never been involved in interrogation, nor had they any expertise on interrogation — their expertise was on resisting torture. Any good interrogator anywhere can tell you that physical tactics and even harsh psychological tactics are a very small part of what is “in their toolbox,” and most will tell you that these aren’t consistently effective ways to get information. So, asking someone who can tell you how to resist these tactics how to get information out of people is like, say, asking a firearms expert to set up a bank’s security system. You’re going to have a lot bank tellers with guns, but no cameras, alarms, etc.

Second, does anyone see the problem in advising the use of a tactic that you can teach people how to resist? Turns out these guys were doing this even after the discovery of an Al Qaeda manual in which members of the terrorist network were taught to do many of the things the psychologists were teaching the US military.

Third, it’s wrong in the moral sense. I’m no ethicist (although I admit to knowing a couple), but it seems to me that if you take a position of protection from harm and then turn around and advise the same type of harm on others, that’s wrong. The American Medical Association seems to agree, and has explicitly prohibited their members from being involved in interrogation. The American Psychological Association, after much hemming and hawing, essentially did the same thin at it’s 2008 conference.

We should put Drs. Jessen and Mitchell’s activities in context. Clearly lots of psychologists were trying to help after 9/11 — even Martin Seligman, who is understandably horrified that these psychologists used his description of “learned helplessness” as a basis of their advice to the CIA, shortly after the attacks wrote that we psychologists should use our science to increase patriotism in the US. (As an aside, I went to a psychology conference in October 2001 where we were all asked to start the conference with a rousing round of “God Bless America,” at which time everyone in the room started tentatively singing “America the Beautiful” — not a particularly patriotic bunch.) Psychologists, like nearly everyone in the US, wanted to do something, and those psychologists in the mainstream were more pulled towards boosting military efforts rather than pointing out the sticky pieces of mass psychology. The more important context, is, of course, the reception of the government to the psychologists’ advice. The architecture of the CIA’s interrogation program was possible because it was allowed to be possible. Leaders have a duty to lead morally, even in the face of eager scientists.

The CIA has officially prohibited the use of torture, and the current Director, Leon Panetta, has prohibited the use of contractors in interrogation as well.

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