The last fortnight has been a grim period for psychology as a two major news sources have published additional revelations about the key role of psychologists in military interrogations that many deem tantamount to torture under international law.
As we’ve reported earlier, online news source Salon have been investigating the role of contracted psychologists in creating an abusive and likely-illegal CIA interrogation programme.
They’ve also been covering the unbelievably flaccid response of the American Psychological Association who have yet to explicitly ban their members from participating in these interrogations, in direct contrast to the clear non-participation policy adopted by their medical colleagues.
In fact, the APA seems even to allow participation in unethical practices when following orders from a “governing legal authority” – the so-called Nuremberg defence.
Mainly a professional matter until now, the story has become huge during the last fortnight as articles in The New Yorker and Vanity Fair have reported a raft of additional disturbing revelations.
The Vanity Fair article investigates the role of psychologists, named as James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen of Mitchell, Jessen & Associates, in developing practices that reportedly include ‘waterboarding‘ (simulated drowning), isolation, sleep deprivation, environmental extremes, ritual humiliation and severe psychological pressure.
It has been widely cited that this is derived from a ‘reverse engineering’ of the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) programme, designed at the end Korean War, ironically, to protect US troops from the effects of torture.
Notably, the article quotes several senior military and civilian psychologists who are scathing about the lack effectiveness and scientific evidence for the technique.
Both Vanity Fair and The New Yorker report that the method was used on ‘Al-Qaeda lieutenant’ Abu Zubaydah. The New Yorker article has this interesting snippet:
Nevertheless, the SERE experts’ theories were apparently put into practice with Zubaydah’s interrogation. Zubaydah told the Red Cross that he was not only waterboarded, as has been previously reported; he was also kept for a prolonged period in a cage, known as a “dog box,” which was so small that he could not stand. According to an eyewitness, one psychologist advising on the treatment of Zubaydah, James Mitchell, argued that he needed to be reduced to a state of “learned helplessness.” (Mitchell disputes this characterization.)
The description of the cage as a “dog box” is interesting when put in context.
‘Learned helplessness‘ is a theory of clinical depression that was proposed by psychologist Martin Seligman. It was developed, to be blunt, by torturing dogs.
In a series of experiments Seligman found that if a dog was prevented from escaping an electric shock it eventually gave up trying, just remaining passive while being electrocuted.
The idea was that depression might be similar: a state of helpless, hopeless passivity caused by a series of unavoidable painful events.
Although ‘learned helplessness’ in animals is still used as a model of depression it has never been convincingly shown that it explains depression in humans.
There’s much more information in the full articles that can be summarised here, but needless to say it is a mixture of the disturbing and shameful.
The Vanity Fair and The New Yorker articles are complimented by an article in this month’s Psychologist that charts the history of psychologists assisting in developing and deploying abusive interrogations.
Unfortunately, the current situation may well be the most reprehensible episode so far.
Link to Vanity Fair article ‘Rorschach and Awe’ (via Corpus Callosum).
Link to New Yorker article on interrogation ‘black sites’.