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Yes, America’s Psychologists Abetted Torture Interrogations

 
Photograph of Captive Hands
 (Photo by Justin Norman / Flickr)

But where’s the oversight of their contracts with the Pentagon and CIA and of their conflicts of interest?

Conflicts of interest. Cozy relationships. Undisclosed payments. Professional opinions based on pseudo-science. A sole-source contract awarded to a company whose principals had no experience in the field of interrogation. This list comes from an unlikely source: a 542-page study commissioned by the American Psychological Association (APA), psychologists’ 122,500-strong professional organization. After years of denying accusations that it abetted the CIA’s torture program, the group recently “apologized” and conceded that its leadership engaged in “collusion” with the Pentagon and CIA at Guantanamo, at secret “black sites” around the world, and in preparation of its public policy positions on the matter.

In a climate of urgency and post-9/11 fear, the CIA decided it needed a program to force information out of prisoners of the War on Terror. In an incredible turn of events, they turned to two psychologists who had little to no experience in interrogation and gave them a sole-source contract. Even for those who don’t have a problem with torture and believe that psychologists’ involvement is fine, the APA study raises—but does not answer—troubling questions about apparently blatant conflicts of interest and possible fraud and abuse involving both the Department of Defense and CIA.

The APA commissioned its study, authored by former federal prosecutor David Hoffman, after allegations made last year by New York Times reporter James Risen in his book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War.

The publication of the Hoffman study several weeks ago has already triggered one resignation and two early retirements by top APA leaders and the firing of another. Attendees at the APA annual meeting now underway in Toronto, expected to be a contentious meeting, will be asked to vote on a resolution banning the participation of psychologists in interrogations.

The Hoffman report contains 35 references to “conflicts of interest”—all involving key APA psychologists who, in some cases, received significant payments from deals with the Pentagon and CIA. Many of these conflicts were widely known or at least recognized by federal officials. And, according to the official Principles of Ethical Conduct for Federal Employees, those in the know would bear a proactive obligation to report such wrongdoing or the appearance of wrongdoing. Yet it’s unclear whether any reports were ever made. A sampler:

On conflicts of interest, the study’s biggest red flag involves a more than $180 million sole-source contract awarded by the CIA to Mitchell, Jessen & Associates of Spokane, Washington. The firm was controlled by two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. Mitchell was an APA member.

According to a report issued late last year by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Mitchell and Jessen were responsible for developing “enhanced interrogation techniques and personally conducted interrogations of some of the CIA’s most significant detainees using those techniques. [Mitchell and Jessen] also evaluated whether the detainees’ psychological state allowed for continued use of the techniques, even for some detainees they themselves were interrogating or had interrogated.” The roster of Mitchell and Jessen’s “enhanced techniques” included waterboarding—widely recognized as torture—as well as protracted sleep deprivation, stress positions, and other physical and psychological pressures.

Whatever anyone thinks of these techniques, the contract with Mitchell and Jessen’s company—which has never been publicly disclosed—raises a host of issues that cry out for more rigorous oversight.

The two longtime psychologists had no experience in real-life interrogation. Nor did they have any expertise in al Qaeda. What the duo relied on was their deep knowledge of a program known as SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape), training designed to help Americans—mostly military members—survive capture by exposing volunteers to the interrogation methods used by North Korea and China to elicit false confessions. In a post-9/11 twist lacking in both logic and scientific underpinning, the pair convinced the CIA that SERE techniques should be used on terrorists in American custody in hopes that the techniques would suddenly elicit the truth.

According to the Hoffman report, their hiring provoked a significant dispute inside the CIA, partly on ethical and practical grounds, and partly because they faced financial incentives to please the Agency by endorsing brutal techniques. Responding to the intelligence community’s apparent predisposition to get tough, Mitchell concocted a completely unproven program to force prisoners to tell the truth during interrogation, created a company, and turned it into a multi-million dollar contract with the government. In the end, the Senate Intelligence Committee report  concluded that the CIA’s “enhanced techniques” were “not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation.” It also found that intelligence that did emerge from use of the techniques was neither “unique” nor “valuable.”

After years of offering no comment, Mitchell has recently defended his actions, saying at one point, “I went through my ethical obligations, and decided for me, the least worst choice was to help save American lives. It felt like something was going to happen at any minute. I felt like you had to do something.” Mitchell himself had been permitted to waterboard prisoners.

The person who introduced Mitchell and Jessen to the CIA was, according to Hoffman’s report, a CIA psychologist named Kirk Hubbard. He later left the Agency and went to work for Mitchell and Jessen’s company, another factor which, under the circumstances, suggests that the company’s contract and the arrangements that led to its signing require further scrutiny.

The Hoffman report highlights yet another conflict, this involving APA’s ethics director, Stephen Behnke, now fired. The report says he routinely and proactively submitted the organization’s public policy statements on interrogation and the involvement of psychologists to one of the Pentagon’s own top psychologists before those statements were publicly released. According to the Hoffman report, Behnke also accepted a Pentagon contract to train interrogators at the same time he was working at the APA, a step that Behnke took without informing the organization’s board. Since the Hoffman report was released several weeks ago and Behnke was dismissed, he has hired former FBI director Louis Freeh as his lawyer. Freeh has called the Hoffman report a “gross mischaracterization” of his client’s “intentions, goals and actions,” and threatened legal action on his behalf.

Then there’s the case of a conflicted former APA Practice Directorate Executive Director, Russ Newman, whose wife served as a psychologist involved in interrogations at Guantanamo. At the time, in 2005, he was serving on an APA task force that found it was ethically appropriate for psychologists to work with military and CIA interrogators, a position rejected by both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association.

Or there’s the example of former APA President Joseph Matarazzo, who was asked to render his professional opinion as to whether sleep deprivation constituted torture. (The CIA was authorized to keep prisoners awake for 180 hours, about a week.) After consulting other psychologists, Matarazzo told the CIA that sleep deprivation did not amount to torture. He also took partial ownership of a separate firm established by Mitchell and Jessen that offered continuing education to psychologists. In a statement he released publicly, Matarazzo denied any role in coercive interrogations, a position backed up by a spokesman for the CIA.

The Hoffman report’s recitation of conflicts of interest goes on. And on. Americans and their elected representatives may have differences of opinion over the ethics and effectiveness of torture, but taxpayer funded contracts should be based on truth and science, and without bias or conflicts of interest.

The mandate for Hoffman’s study was to determine what really happened at the APA, America’s principal professional organization for psychologists. Now that we know, more oversight is also necessary to determine what happened to the millions of taxpayer dollars apparently used to suborn the “collusion” of these supposedly independent professionals, and whether Pentagon and CIA employees acted lawfully and appropriately amid the thicket of conflicted interests that Hoffman uncovered. All Americans need answers to these questions.

By: Adam Zagorin
Journalist in Residence, POGO

Adam Zagorin, Journalist in Residence Adam Zagorin is a journalist in residence for the Project On Government Oversight. Adam's work dives into many different areas including corruption and the financial arena.

Topics: Government Accountability

Authors: Adam Zagorin

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