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Accused of Enabling Torture, a US Military Psychologist Says He Was Doing the Opposite

In an exclusive interview with VICE News, retired US Army colonel Morgan Banks disputes claims that he helped the American Psychological Association and Defense Department collude to justify the torture of detainees.
Photo by Marcos Hernandez/US Navy

Retired US Army colonel and psychologist Morgan Banks says he has spent more than 10 years trying to prevent the abuse of "war on terror" detainees in custody of the US military.

"We did some bad stuff in 2002 and 2003," Banks said. "I helped fix it."

In a series of exclusive interviews with VICE News over the past week, Banks said he wrote policy guidance for the Department of Defense that spelled out how military psychologists who consulted on the interrogations of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo should conduct themselves. In 2004, as a member of the Army's watchdog team that examined interrogation programs in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said he wrote a portion of an internal watchdog report that documented the abuse of prisoners and how to stop it from happening again.


"People are alive because of my work," Banks said. "Detainees are alive because of it."

But a voluminous report released last week by the American Psychological Association (APA) accused Banks and top APA officials of colluding with the Department of Defense (DOD) and manipulating a 2005 APA national security task force into issuing a set of "loose" ethical guidelines for psychologists who participated in military interrogations. Those guidelines, the report found, may have enabled the torture of detainees.

Related: Psychologist James Mitchell Admits He Waterboarded al Qaeda Suspects

The report was written by former federal prosecutor David Hoffman, who was tapped by the APA last November to review the roles psychologists played in interrogation programs. Banks, who was director, Psychological Applications for the US Army's Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, and who was a member of that APA national security task force, is named in the 542-page report more than 800 times and identified as one of the "key players" who conspired with APA leadership to keep the organization's ethical guidelines in sync with DOD's interrogation policies.

Banks suggested Hoffman, who campaigned as a Democrat for a US Senate seat in Illinois several years ago, and who in the 1990s served as press secretary and legislative assistant for foreign policy to Senate Intelligence Committee chairman David Boren, was driven by "partisan" politics, as exemplified by the report's harsh criticisms of George W. Bush-era policies.


Banks acknowledges that "abuse" of detainees took place at Guantanamo and elsewhere after 9/11, but he doesn't characterize it as torture. He also says such abuse stopped after 2005.

"Military psychologists in general would look at [the report] and be horrified at the way DOD is treated," he said. "DOD is really denigrated and slandered. There's a fundamental assumption in the entire report that illegal and improper interrogations continue to be conducted."

When Hoffman interviewed Banks for the report in late May, Banks says, it was hardly contentious. The pair had lunch at Banks's home in North Carolina, and spoke for eight or nine hours.

"It was a very positive meeting," Banks said. "I don't have anything to hide about my actions or the actions of my psychologists. I tried to be as transparent as I possibly could. The biggest problem with the report is it's a prosecutor's argument. [The APA] brought in the prosecutor, he's now made the case to the grand jury, but you've gone all the way to the sentencing phase without a chance for a defense. It's clear to me from reading the report that Hoffman had already made up his mind before he started his review. It's biased and full of unsupported accusations and innuendos."

Banks claims Hoffman could not produce any evidence to support his case, and so implied things by using words in the report such as "likely," "presumably," "perhaps," and "implied" when discussing Banks and his motives.


Banks also says the report also got some basic facts about him wrong. For example, it identified him as the "Chief of Psychological Operations" at Fort Bragg, when in reality he was the director, Psychological Applications. It also said he helped run the Army's survival training program there. According to Banks' resume, he was the senior psychologist for the Army's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) school, where he was responsible for the training and oversight of all Army SERE psychologists.

"I have nothing to do with psychological operations [commonly referred to as psyops], and I never had any command authority over [survival] training," he said. "I was a staff adviser…. I had technical supervision to give guidance to other psychologists in special operations. But I'm not their boss."

In an email to VICE News, Hoffman acknowledged a mistake was made regarding Banks' title on page 12 of the report, but also noted four other places where Banks' title is correctly listed.

Hoffman did not comment on Banks calling into question the integrity of the report and review.

* * *

The role psychologists have played in the torture and abuse of detainees in custody of the US military and CIA has been the subject of books and dozens of news reports. It has also been a source of major concern for the profession for more than a decade.

The APA has vehemently denied time and again that the organization or any of its members enabled or participated in the abuse and torture of detainees in custody of the US military and CIA. The organization's leadership has attacked critics who have suggested otherwise while refusing calls to investigate the allegations.


Last December, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its long-awaited report on the efficacy of the CIA's detention and interrogation program and concluded that the program and the interrogation techniques were devised and managed by two CIA contract psychologists.

At Guantanamo, a similar set of interrogation techniques to which detainees were subjected — such as sleep deprivation, prolonged stress positions, and isolation — were later widely deemed to be torture. Like the CIA's interrogation methods, the techniques used at Guantanamo were derived from the SERE program, which trains military personnel how to resist torture if captured by enemy forces. The psychologists who came up with the methods used at Guantanamo attended a September 2002 SERE training session at Fort Bragg overseen by Banks.

Watch 'The Architect,' about retired Air Force psychologist and CIA contractor James Mitchell.

Military psychologists sent to Guantanamo who thought they would be providing support to soldiers dealing with the effects of PTSD instead found themselves ordered into interrogation consultation positions for which they weren't prepared — and, Banks says, that they weren't eager to take on.

"By accident, we got psychologists to support the interrogation operation" at Guantanamo, Banks said. "They had no experience whatsoever. They were smart enough to reach out to me. I went 'Holy shit, what are we going to do?' and brought them to train at Fort Bragg."


When he received a memo from Army Major John Leso, a psychologist at Guantanamo, listing proposed techniques for use on detainees at the detention facility, Banks said he warned Leso against employing any "physical pressures" against detainees because it would produce unreliable intelligence information. In August 2002, the month Leso contacted Banks and the other military psychologist, Leso reportedly consulted on the brutal interrogation at Guantanamo of suspected "20th hijacker" Mohammed al-Qahtani. Leso was identified in the detainee's interrogation log as "MAJ L." The former Convening Authority for the military commissions at Guantanamo said the treatment of Qahtani met the legal definition of torture and, as a result, she would not allow a war crimes tribunal against him to proceed. The APA received an ethics complaint against Leso, but the APA, which spent seven years investigating the charges, said Leso did not act unethically.

Banks claims the psychologists did not want to consult on interrogations or take on the task of developing a list of interrogation techniques, but were forced to by their commanding officers.

A landmark 2009 Senate Armed Services Committee report into the treatment of captives in custody of the US military noted that Banks said in a memo:

If individuals are put under enough discomfort, i.e. pain, they will eventually do whatever it takes to stop the pain. This will increase the amount of information they tell the interrogator, but it does not mean the information is accurate. In fact, it usually decreases the reliability of the information because the person will say whatever he believes will stop the pain. Now, there are certain exceptions, like with all generalizations, but they are not common. Bottom line: The likelihood that the use of physical pressures will increase the delivery of accurate information from a detainee is very low. The likelihood that the use of physical pressures will increase the level of resistance in a detainee is very high.


The Hoffman report suggests that Banks didn't go far enough in his condemnation, however. The report says that while Banks warned against the use of "physical pressures," he did not raise red flags about the use of "psychological pressures" during interrogations at Guantanamo, and therefore subtly endorsed their use.

"I told [the psychologists] that you can't torture people, and that there's a US definition," Banks said. "Hoffman said I didn't say what that meant. I didn't have to…. I made it clear to psychologists you can't torture people."

In 2004 and 2005, when revelations surfaced about the torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, which included allegations that psychologists had assisted interrogators in exploiting detainees' phobias, Banks said he and the DOD approached the APA in hopes of obtaining their expert advice on the ethical quandaries of psychologists participating in military interrogations.

"My strategic goal was to establish rules that psychologists could then rely on," Banks said. "Rules, for example, that would say you can't do that or you're putting yourself in legal jeopardy. That's what drove me to establish training and policies that we now have…. Part of that process was me and DOD going to the APA and saying, 'Guys, can you help us think out the ethical guidelines here?'"

At the time, Banks was not yet a member of the APA. But he said his concerns led the APA to convene a Presidential Taskforce on Psychological Ethics and National Security, often referred to as PENS, where ethical questions about psychologists' participation was discussed on a listserv. Ten members of the task force were selected from a list of more than 100 candidates. Banks was one of them. A point of contention with some APA members was that the majority of the task force was made up of active duty military officers, which the members said created a conflict of interest.


"It was important for me to say, 'Let's shine as much light on this as we can in terms of ethics and make sure that what we are doing is ethical and being reviewed by this professional organization,'" Banks said about his reasons for reaching out to the APA. "I'm not looking for you to tell me to turn left when the light is red. I'm telling you to tell me to look out for stop lights."

ProPublica obtained the emails of the task force's listserv in 2009, which show that Banks had disclosed his intentions.

"My main interest is in psychology support to DoD organizations, and in providing clear guidance to the Army psychologists that I train and to whom I provide oversight," Banks wrote to task force members on May 11, 2005. "I believe that understanding what the legal requirements are for the treatment of detainees is a critical first step as we develop our thoughts on the ethical standards. I am not saying that there may not be conflict between the two, but I believe it is important to understand the legal requirements first."

'The central revelation of the report is collusion. It's clear that a small number of individuals concealed their actions and motives. The APA's internal checks and balances failed to detect the collusion.'

Banks said he stands by everything he wrote to the listserv. Still, one task force member, psychologist Jean Maria Arrigo, pushed back on the listerv and expressed reservations about the direction the APA was headed as a result of what the Hoffman report described as Banks' influence. At the same, word leaked out that the APA stacked the task force with a majority of military and former CIA officials who worked on interrogations, leading to widespread criticism of the organization by many of its members who accused the APA of sanctioning torture.


Banks says he understands why there was a backlash.

"I do believe there is a strong element of individuals who believe psychologists should only be involved in healthcare, and they do not believe that psychology should be in support of national security," he said. "I think they have a right to that opinion, but I believe they are in error."

The task force met just once. But it resulted in a report, adopted by the APA along with a rewritten set of ethical guidelines, that said it was "consistent with the APA Code of Ethics for psychologists to serve in consultative roles to interrogation- or information-gathering processes for national security-related purposes. While engaging in such consultative and advisory roles entails a delicate balance of ethical considerations, doing so puts psychologists in a unique position to assist in ensuring that such processes are safe and ethical for all participants."

Some of the language was lifted from Pentagon policies Banks wrote that were used by military psychologists at Guantanamo, which he had discussed on the listserv with task force members.

But APA spokesman Jim Silwa told VICE News that the APA was duped. He said Hoffman's report concluded that the process by which the PENS task force was created, the composition of its members, and the report that was subsequently produced "was influenced by collusion between a small group of APA representatives and government officials."


"The central revelation [of the report] is collusion," Silwa said. "In his report, Mr. Hoffman lays out the details of what happened, how it happened, and why it happened. He makes it clear that a small number of individuals concealed their actions and motives. Our internal checks and balances failed to detect the collusion."

* * *

One of the APA officials who was accused of colluding with Banks is the organization's longtime ethics director, Stephen Behnke, who was fired two days before the release of Hoffman's report. Behnke has since tapped former FBI director Louis Freeh to mount a legal defense against the APA. Freeh said the report is a "gross mischaracterization" of Behnke's "intentions, goals, and actions." On Tuesday, three additional longtime APA officials named in the report, including the organization's chief executive officer, Dr. Norman Anderson, resigned.

Hoffman's report said Banks and Behnke and another APA official "collaborated behind the scenes about the eventual content of the task force's report with the result that the key high-level framework set out in the then-draft DoD policy regarding the participation of psychologists in interrogations was (i) proposed by Banks on the listserv as a good framework for the task force, and then (ii) recommended by Behnke [through the chair of the task force, Olivia Moorehead-Slaughter] as a good framework for the task force.


"The framework — interrogation practices must be 'safe, legal, ethical, and effective' ('SLEE') — was touted by Banks as a safeguard that would somehow ensure the humane treatment of detainees. In reality, however, it was a malleable, high-level formula that easily allowed for subjective judgments to be made, including by people such as Banks who interpreted the formula to permit stress positions and sleep deprivation in some circumstances."

Hoffman's report noted that the PENS task force refused to take a position on sleep deprivation — whether or not it rose to the level of torture — despite being asked to do so. Banks told VICE News it would have been inappropriate for the task force to weigh in on specific techniques "to which the task force was not informed."

"The purpose of an ethical set of guidelines is not to drill down on a set of details that we have no knowledge about," Banks said.

Hoffman said in the report that Banks' main agenda when he approached the APA was to:

"…get the APA's 'good housekeeping' seal of approval for the involvement of psychologists in interrogations, and to otherwise keep the status quo and avoid limits or constraints beyond the ones the Army or DOD had in place (or would decide to put in place in the future). Banks told task force members that he had consulted with his generals within his US Army Special Operations Command and had already come to an agreement with his leaders that the 'safe, legal, ethical, and effective' framework was the appropriate way forward…. If Banks and Behnke really believed that safety was the only reason a psychologist needed to be involved in interrogations, they could have written the PENS report to limit a psychologist's role in interrogations to this function,"

Banks said he's most outraged at the way in which Behnke was treated by the APA and in the report.

"Steve Behnke is one of the finest, most ethical individuals I have ever met," Banks said. "He was fired without any chance to provide an alternative view…. They besmirched the reputation of a man who tried to do his best to work together to find the right answer to very complex problems that would not only be good for psychology, but also for the country."

Silwa, who would not respond to VICE News' specific questions about Banks' claims of being slandered, said the APA's board of directors has asked the group's legislative body to adopt a policy at its annual meeting next month prohibiting psychologists from participating in interrogations of detainees in custody of the US military and intelligence agencies. Dr. Nadine Kaslow, the chair of the APA's independent review special committee, which commissioned the report, apologized to APA members last Friday.

"The organization's intent was not to enable abusive interrogation techniques or contribute to violations of human rights, but that may have been the result," she said in a statement. "The actions, policies, and the lack of independence from government influence described in the Hoffman report represented a failure to live up to our core values. We profoundly regret, and apologize for, the behavior and the consequences that ensued. Our members, our profession, and our organization expected, and deserved, better."

Related: Watch VICE News Interview the CIA's Former Deputy Director Michael Morell

Banks retired from the military in 2011 and now works as a psychological consultant. He said he is exploring his legal options against the APA for allegedly slandering him — but he's still a member himself, and not sure if he'll quit the organization.

"It depends on what their actions are in response to this report," he said. "Certainly it's difficult to be a member of an organization that has acted without upholding the due process one would expect…. It will all depend on whether due process occurs."

Follow Jason Leopold on Twitter: @JasonLeopold

Photo via DVIDS