The two psychologists at the center of the CIA torture report

Today’s Senate Select Committee on intelligence (SSCI) report on CIA’s use of torture in interrogation provides plenty of new details about the two psychologists at the center of the CIA program. But I suspect there is much more coverage about them to come.

But already by 2007 and 2009 there were reports by Katherine Eban (Vanity Fair) and Scott Shane (NYT) on these two PhD credentialed scholars that should give pause to academics everywhere, and raises important questions about the weaponization of knowledge.

In addition, see the discussion in James Risen’s new book Pay any Price. The role and actions of professional academic organizations (such as the APA) on the application of SERE to CIA prisoners “has never before been fully explained” he says (p. 178).

The two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, get their own main finding in the SSCI report:

#13: Two contract psychologists devised the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques and played a central role in the operation, assessments, and management of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. By 2005, the CIA had overwhelmingly outsourced operations related to the program.
The CIA contracted with two psychologists to develop, operate, and assess its  interrogation operations. The psychologists’ prior experience was at the U.S. Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school. Neither psychologist had any experience as an interrogator, nor did either have specialized knowledge of al-Qa’ida, a background in counterterrorism, or any relevant cultural or linguistic expertise. On the CIA’s behalf, the contract psychologists developed theories of interrogation based on “learned helplessness,”^^ and developed the list of enhanced interrogation techniques that was approved for use against Abu Zubaydah and subsequent CIA detainees. The psychologists personally conducted interrogations of some of the CIA’s most significant detainees using these techniques. They also evaluated whether detainees’ psychological state allowed for the continued use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, including some detainees whom
they were themselves interrogating or had interrogated. The psychologists carried out inherently governmental functions, such as acting as liaison between the CIA and foreign intelligence services, assessing the effectiveness of the interrogation program, and participating in the interrogation of detainees in held in foreign government custody.

In 2005, the psychologists formed a company specifically for the purpose of conducting their work with the CIA. Shortly thereafter, the CIA outsourced virtually all aspects of the program. In 2006, the value of the CIA’s base contract with the company formed by the psychologists with all options exercised was in excess of $180 million; the contractors received $81 million prior to the contract’s termination in 2009. In 2007, the CIA provided a multi-year indemnification agreement to protect the company and its employees from legal liability arising out of the program. The CIA has since paid out more than $1 million pursuant to the agreement.

(The reference to “inherently governmental functions” by the way, indicates activities that contractors are not supposed to do at all, by law, in any context.)

As an academic myself, this is the part of the report that comes closest to my day job. And note that these academics did not just assist in the interrogation process, they actually helped define and create it (SSCI fn.138). The report continues that CTC Legal department actually drafted a letter promising them immunity from prosecution for what they were doing (p. 33/59 pdf).

But this is not about two individuals, but rather the larger academic community in which they worked, as well as their national organization, the APA. (For some reason, and rather horse-boltingly too late, Mitchell and Jessen’s names are given pseudonyms in the report, SWIGERT and DUNBAR.)

As academics we bear a special responsibility to be aware of what went down here. Eban:

Mitchell and Jessen, Sifton says, offered a “patina of pseudo-science that made the C.I.A. and military officials think these guys were experts in unlocking the human mind. It’s one thing to say, ‘Take off the gloves.’ It’s another to say there was a science to it. sere came in as the science.”

The use of “scientific credentials in the service of cruel and unlawful practices” harkens back to the Cold War, according to Leonard Rubenstein, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights. Back then, mental-health professionals working with the C.I.A. used hallucinogenic drugs, hypnosis, and extreme sensory deprivation on unwitting subjects to develop mind-control techniques. “We really thought we learned this lesson—that ambition to help national security is no excuse for throwing out ethics and science,” Rubenstein says.

(The reference here is to the MKULTRA program.)

This appeal to scientificity, scholarly expertise and the triumph of belief over evidence that the techniques even work, is a salient lesson for we academics.

One response to “The two psychologists at the center of the CIA torture report

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