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Aid and Comfort for Torturers: Psychology and Coercive Interrogations in Historical Perspective

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On January 24, 2003, National Guardsman Sean Baker, stationed as a military policeman at Guantánamo detention center, volunteered to be a mock prisoner, donning an orange suit and refusing to leave his cell as part of a training exercise. As planned, an Immediate Reaction Force team of MPs attempted to extract him from the cell. When he uttered the code word, "red," indicating that this was a drill and that he'd had enough, one of the MPs "forced my head down against the steel floor and was sort of just grinding it into the floor. The individual then, when I picked up my head and said, ‘Red,’ slammed my head down against the floor," says Baker. "I was so afraid, I groaned out, ‘I’m a U.S. soldier.' And when I said that, he slammed my head again, one more time against the floor. And I groaned out one more time, I said, ‘I’m a U.S. soldier.’ And I heard them say, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa,' ". Even though, unlike if Baker had been a real prisoner, the "extraction" was called off part-way through, he was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and was left with permanent injuries, including frequent epileptic-style seizures.

When asked what would have happened if he had been a real detainee, Baker told CBS's 60 Minutes: "I think they would have busted him up. I've seen detainees come outta there with blood on 'em. …If there wasn't someone to say, 'I'm a U.S. soldier,' if you were speaking Arabic or Pashto or Urdu or some other language in the camp, we may never know what would have happened to that individual."

This detention facility is one of the environments in which psychologists serve as consultants to interrogations. The American Psychological Association sees no ethical problems with psychologists serving there.

We psychoanalysts know that understanding requires a historical perspective. The abuses being perpetrated on America's detainees in the War of Terror, and psychologists' roles in those abuses have a long history.

About 60 years ago, as the Cold War shifted into high gear, people in the American government, most notably the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), became concerned that the Communist enemies had developed specialized techniques for mind control. They observed senior Soviet officials and others confessing to crimes they likely had not committed. They were shocked by the number of American Korean War soldiers who collaborated with their captors and denounced the United States. At first defensively, and then as an offensive tool, the CIA undertook what became a 25-year program of research into mind control techniques under a variety of names, including, most notoriously MKULTRA. While time precludes an extensive review of this program, [the December 1977 APA Monitor contains an account of some of these activities] two components are of special relevance to today's topic. 1) For years the Agency, as the CIA is known, searched for a magic "truth serum" that would allow them to get captives to reveal their secrets; and 2) the CIA and the military funded extensive research into potentially effective interrogation techniques, including the possible use of hypnosis, of drugs, of isolation and extreme sensory deprivation, of brain stimulation, etc..

Some of the knowledge developed during MKULTRA and related programs were incorporated into the CIA's KUBARK interrogation Manual in 1963. Similar techniques were contained in CIA training manuals distributed throughout Latin America in the 1970's and 80's. The only one of these manuals which became public is one used to train in Honduras in 1983, as was revealed in a January 1997 Baltimore Sun article entitled: Torture was taught by CIA; Declassified manual details the methods used in Honduras; Agency denials refuted. The manual advises an interrogator to "manipulate the subject's environment, to create unpleasant or intolerable situations."

From this Baltimore Sun article:

" 'While we do not stress the use of coercive techniques, we do want to make you aware of them and the proper way to use them,' the manual's introduction states. The manual says such methods are justified when subjects have been trained to resist noncoercive measures.

Forms of coercion explained in the interrogation manual include: Inflicting pain or the threat of pain: 'The threat to inflict pain may trigger fears more damaging than the immediate sensation of pain. In fact, most people underestimate their capacity to withstand pain.'

A later section states: 'The pain which is being inflicted upon him from outside himself may actually intensify his will to resist. On the other hand, pain which he feels he is inflicting upon himself is more likely to sap his resistance.' "

Those who have examined practices at US detention facilities in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantánamo have identified, as a 2005 126 page report from Physicians for Human Rights entitled Break Them Down describes in its subtitle: Systematic Use of Psychological Torture by US Forces.

The practice of Psychological Torture in US facilities includes:

Prolonged Isolation for months, even years.

Sleep Deprivation, sometimes allowing as little as two hours a night, for prolonged periods

Sensory Distortion including sensory deprivation (masks, goggles, etc.), very loud music; and hypothermia (turning air conditioning on high)

Sexual and Cultural Humiliation -- forced urination on self; forced nakedness; sexual humiliation; religious humiliation (Koran’s being thrown around); being led naked on a leash. Being forced to bark like a dog. [As regards religious humiliation, former Guantánamo Chaplain James Yee was quoted as stating in a recent lecture: " 'Guantánamo Bay's secret weapon,' … is 'the use of Islam against prisoners to break them.' He said prisoners were forced to prostrate in the center of a circle inscribed with a pentagram by a guard who yelled, 'Satan is your God now, not Allah.' He said female interrogators 'exploit(ed) conservative Islamic etiquette" by undressing before interrogating detainees and "giving lap dances" to unnerve them.

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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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