Did psychologists prevent CIA torture or 'enhance' it?

Former detainees at notorious 'black site' prisons are suing psychologists who advised the CIA on 'enhanced interrogation.'

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
CIA Director John Brennan speaks to reporters in December 2014, days after the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report condemning the Agency's use of enhanced interrogation. The CIA has rejected claims that harsh methods used on terrorism suspects were not useful for national security.

Two former CIA prisoners and the family of another who died in detainment filed a lawsuit on Thursday, alleging that they suffered torture at one of the Agency’s secret “black site” prisons for terrorism suspects.

They allege that the black sites often used so-called “enhanced interrogation” methods condemned by a 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report, including beatings, exposure to extreme cold, and confinement in small boxes.

But the target of their lawsuit is not the CIA itself, but the two psychologists responsible for shaping the Agency’s interrogation policies: James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, both retired Air Force psychologists.

The accusations come just months after the release of the Hoffman report, a separate investigation requested by the American Psychological Association (APA) that found the professional organization guilty of collaborating with the Department of Defense and contorting its ethical guidelines to permit members to advise on interrogations, which the American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association had forbidden for their own members.

As consultants for the CIA, Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen advised interrogators on harsh techniques, including waterboarding. Mitchell was initially invited to join the program based on his expertise in “resistance,” after years of training Air Force personnel on how to resist torture, and was asked to brainstorm how the CIA interrogators might overcome Al Qaeda operatives’ own resistance.

In an interview with Vice, Mitchell claims that the Senate’s report, which identifies the psychologists by pseudonym, paints an inaccurate picture of his own and Jessen’s involvement, saying that they frequently protested when they felt interrogations had gone too far.

But he does not deny recommending harsh methods, and he believes that they produced valuable security information. As he told Vice,

You have to start the session with the waterboarding, but the questioning happens the next time you come in the room. It's like any sort of thing you fear: The closer you get to it the next time, the more you struggle to get out of it and find an escape. So the moment [a detainee] was most susceptible to beginning to provide information was just before the next waterboarding session.

The lawsuit against Mitchell and Jessen was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of former prisoners Suleiman Abdullah Salim, Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, and the family of Gul Rahman.

“The nature of what [Mitchell and Jessen] did has been banned since Nuremberg,” ACLU staff attorney Dror Ladin told Vice. 

Neither is currently a member of the APA, which called the interrogations described in the Senate Report “sickening and morally reprehensible” and called for Mitchell and Jessen to be “held fully accountable for violations of human rights.” 

However, the APA has been dogged by accusations, borne out in the Hoffman Report, that its ethics standards permitted similarly inappropriate involvement in interrogations.

As The Christian Science Monitor's Sanya Mansoor reported in July:

The psychological association adopted new, DOD-friendly ethical guidelines as official policy in June 2005, only a week after the Presidential Task Force on Ethics and National Security published them ...

The US Justice Department wrote memos to the CIA in 2002 that narrowly defined physical torture as acts resulting in pain equivalent to organ failure or death, and said that psychological harm only reached the level of torture if effects lasted "for months or even years."

In addition, they said that interrogation – no matter the abuse suffered – could not be considered torture if the interrogator could show they "did not intend to cause severe mental pain."

These added up to essentially blanket authorization.

The APA has since voted to forbid members’ participation in interrogations.

“This is the single greatest health professional ethics scandal of the 21st century,” human rights investigator Nathaniel Raymond told Newsweek.

Some who support the ban argue that without the support from the APA, the interrogation program could not have survived as long as it did.

But is removing psychologists from the CIA the best way to maintain the standard of “Do no harm”?

Sticking one’s head in the sand doesn’t undo past wrongs, not does it prevent new ones from occurring,” argues psychiatrist and former Department of Defense consultant Anne Speckhard in the Washington Post.

"Banning involvement in what the government is doing is simply refusing to take a stand for what is right," writes Dr. Speckhard. "Psychologists can, and must, continue to play an important and ethical role in guiding our governments to do the right thing."

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