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The Psychology of Torture

We talked to Stephen Soldz, founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, about the dark theories behind the CIA's enhanced interrogation tactics.

Jules Suzdaltsev

Water and rack at Belgium's torture museum. Photo via Wikimedia

​ Among the most interesting details published in the ​Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA's torture program released this week was the revelation that two psychologists were paid $80 million to develop and carry out the agency's "enhanced interrogation" program.

On Wednesday, the day after the ​Senate report was released, VICE News published an exclusive i​nterview with one of those psychologists, former military officer James Mitchell. Mitchell and his partner, Bruce Jessen—referred to in the report by the pseudonyms "Grayson Swigert" and "Hammond Dunbar"—were military psychologists tasked with developing an efficient interrogation program for the CIA based on their experience in the Air Force's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program, which prepared military personnel against torture through mock interrogations.

According to the Senate report summary, the pair "reverse engineered" the most effective SERE methods to develop the CIA's interrogation tactics, including the now infamous waterboarding method, despite having no experience in interrogation themselves. The summary states that in 2003, the contractors were directly involved in the interrogation of accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The report also explains that in 2005, Mitchell and Jessen left the CIA and created their own company that contracted interrogation services for the agency. According to Senate investigators, the firm received $81 million before the contract was terminated in 2009.

Because of his non-disclosure agreements with the CIA, Mitchell was unable to confirm or deny details about his work with the CIA in his interview with VICE News. But the findings in the Senate report raise important questions about the ethics of his and Jessen's roles in the agency's interrogation program, and about the disturbing psychological theory of "learned helplessn​ess" that apparently informed the CIA's techniques.

To find out more about all this, I spoke to Stephen Soldz, a professor of ethics at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis and co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, who has also been a vocal critic of the US government's use of psychological torture in War on Terror.

VICE: You have been an outspoken critic of psychologists who participate in interrogations. What exactly are the ethical issues here? 
Stephen Soldz: There are two levels of ethical implication, for the general public and for psychologists in particular. There's a good reason why torture is illegal through an [inter]national conve​ntion signed by a majority of countries (though also unfortunately breached by many of them.) Torture is a particularly brutalizing procedure, or set of actions. Torture can be torturous to societies, which should be moving to reduce the level of brutalization. So at the general level, torture lessens the values on which society is supposedly based.

And for psychologists?
For psychologists and health providers, it's also a violation of the fundamental tenants all the health professions: The "do no harm" ethic, the [ethic] of informed consent—that [psychologists]do things with the agreement of people and that we don't use our skills to hurt people.

Is there any way to successfully apply psychology to interrogations without crossing the line?
Of course. I mean, good police do it all the time. You know, people try to get information from people who [don't want] to give it all the time, and that's ethical. But torture involves the deliberate infliction of harm in the process of trying to get that information. I'm not an interrogator, that's not my skill set, but I've talked to a number of interrogators who are very clear that not only is it ethically wrong to get near the line of torture, but if we even approach the line, then we're really in trouble.

What is the psychological basis for some of these interrogation tactics outlined in the report?
Referring to the CIA's enhanced interrogation program, which is a synonym for torture, they apparently based it on Martin Seli​gman's theory of learned helplessness. The idea, as I understand it, is that you torture somebody and you increase their level of hopelessness and helplessness, and then they basically give up and you can do whatever you want. Then the idea is that you switch, and what you want them to do is cooperate with you, and they're supposed to do that.

Does it work?
I'm not an expert on the efficacy, but I don't know of any evidence that learned helplessness gets to the point of inducing cooperation, or even submission. And I don't know of any evidence that says [that] in submission, people tell you truthful intelligence that you want to have. In fact, many interrogators deny that.

Have there been any studies on whether or not learned helpless could lead to divulging useful information?
The CIA has claimed to have some classified studies, but I'm not aware of any. I do know ​[CIA officials] were collecting data on these enhanced interrogation techniques. But actually, people within the CIA were very concerned that this violated human ethics rules that we've had since World War II, since the Nazis, which bar human subject research without informed consent. 

Is there a vetted, better way of collecting that information?
Veteran interrogators claimed that [the CIA] would've gotten more useful information if they had treated them [detainees] differently. Like how they did with the Nazi generals in World War II, where [intelligence officers] got credible information by playing chess with them and building a relationship, during which they spoke freely and let things slip. These enhanced interrogation programs were a way that the interrogators didn't have to be very smart.

Wasn't there some value to having a psychologist's input on the enhanced interrogation process? At the very least to make sure it didn't cross the line into torture?
Well first, there is no evidence that psychologists do that. This was a myth that was permeated partially by the [Department of Justice's] Office of Legal Counsel when they created the torture memos. The myth was, you'll have these health professionals to be there to tell you if things are safe or not, but what they really did was get health professionals to say that [the tactics] wouldn't cause "severe, long lasting harm,"which is how the torture memos defined torture. Then if it did cause severe, long lasting harm, [the CIA] could say, "We didn't intend to do that" because a health professional had told them it wouldn't. So it wasn't about protecting [detainees], it was about legal protection for the torturer. It was a get-out-of-jail free card.

What Mitchell and Jessen brought to it, and Kirk Hubbard [the former head of the C.I.A.'s research and analysis division],was the patina of science. People could rationalize themselves, saying, "We're not torturing people, we're just doing what the scientists tell us we need to do to get information." We're in a culture where science has great prestige. It wasn't that [psychologists] actually brought real knowledge based on psychology, it was that being psychologists bought them a certain aura of professionalism that made it easier for everybody, and provided that ethical cover.

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