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Torture of Abu Zubaida, designed by psychologists, yielded nothing

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Looking beyond the Post article, Eban, together with Jane Mayer and Mark Benjamin, reminds us that it was psychologists who developed these techniques that proved eminently able to elicit prolific, albeit false, information. as Eban expressed it:

I…  discovered that psychologists weren’t merely complicit in America’s aggressive new interrogation regime. Psychologists, working in secrecy, had actually designed the tactics and trained interrogators in them while on contract to the C.I.A.

It appears that these psychologists based their torture program on the "learned helplessness" theories of former American Psychological Association President Martin Seligman. Seligman lectured to a 2002 CIA-organized meeting at which Mitchell and Jessen were present. [See Valtin on this conference] While Seligman claims to be ignorant of any connection between the meeting and CIA torture policy, afterwards Mitchell and Jessen were citing Seligman's ideas as inspiration for theirwork. Mayer has pointed out that Seligman must have known Mitchell and Jessen as he has recently admitted that they were in the audience for this talk.

We might also add, as the Defense Department Inspector General and the Senate Armed Services Committee reported, that it was largely psychologists that designed the abusive interrogation techniques for the military that were implemented at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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After the Zubaida fiasco, the CIA turned to help from the American Psychological Association [APA]. As I recently reported, they organized in July 2003 a joint APA-CIA-Rand conference on the Science of Deception, to which CIA torture psychologists Mitchell and Jessen were invited. At this conference they discussed, among other things:

  • What pharmacological agents are known to affect apparent truth-telling behavior?….
  • What are sensory overloads on the maintenance of deceptive behaviors? How might we overload the system or overwhelm the senses and see how it affects deceptive behaviors?
  • The APA leadership has never come clean regarding their participation in this conference and why the CIA’s top torrture consultants were invited. They have never revealed what these torture planners told the conference or what information they were provided by the assembled psychologists. Rather, the APA, when asked about these torture psychologists, simply repeats, as if a mantra, that they are not APA members and are not subject to APA ethics sanctions, as if that clears the APA. Until the APA makes all records of the conference publicly and speaks in depth of what went on there, we can only continue to suspect that they have much to hide.

    Furthermore, when the APA in 2005 formed an “ethics” task force to discuss the participation of psychologists in Bush administration interrogations, one of the majority of participants from the military-intelligence establishment was Scott Shumate, who Eban places at the torture of Zubaida. While Eban claims that Shumate was disturbed by the treatment meeted out there, he nonethless remained at his CIA post for another year while the torture of Zubaida and others continued. Any disgust that Shumate may have felt did not prevent his bragging of his involvement with “several” captured, and presumably tortured, terrorists,  in a bio for consulting:

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    He has been with several of the key apprehended terrorists as well as numerous other terrorists ….

    Thanks to the new Post article, we have further evidence that the CIA’s torture program designed by supposedly “scientific” psychologists, was worse than ineffective. Also ineffective were the policies of the APA that supposedly prevented psychologists from participating in torture. It is time that both are investigated.

    [Also posted on Psyche, Science, and Society.]

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    Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. He was a psychological consultant on two of (more...)

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