Snake oil salesmen selling torture

The US Government has just released its report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, aptly branded the “torture report”, which is available online as a pdf.

It makes for appalling reading but sheds light on the role of two psychologists in the creation and running of what turned out to be genuinely counter-productive ‘enhanced interrogations’ that were used in preference to already productive non-abusive interrogations.

In the report the psychologists are given the codenames Grayson SWIGERT and Hammond DUNBAR but these refer to James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen who have been widely identified by other sources in the preceding years.

Mitchell and Jessen were both contractors, who, according to the new report, arrived at detention centres to direct CIA interrogations, despite having no interrogation experience, and in face of sometimes severe reservations of regular CIA staff.

Later, Mitchell and Jessen formed a company, Mitchell Jessen and Associates – given the codename ‘Company Y’ in the report – which was contracted to the tune of $81 million to perform the interrogations. By interrogations here, of course, we mean torture that include waterboarding, unnecessary feeding through the anus, sleep deprivation, violence, threats, confinement to coffin shaped boxes for days on end, and painful stress positions.

Mitchell and Jessen’s approach was flawed from the start because it was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the theory they based their approach on.

They are frequently described in the report as saying that their interrogation method aimed to induce a state of ‘learned helplessness’.

This was a concept first developed by the psychologist Martin Seligman who noted that if you prevented animals from escaping when they were given electric shocks some eventually stopped trying and just fell into a state of passivity as they were repeatedly shocked.

Seligman argued that this might explain depression: people who experience multiple uncontrollable tragedies simply lose motivation and give up trying to make things better.

It’s not a great theory of depression but it does describe the loss of coherent self-helping behaviour that appears in some people who have no control over their abusive situations.

Mitchell and Jessen wanted to induce this state in detainees, thinking that it would make them more likely to co-operate.

This, to be frank, is just bizarre. The theory predicts the opposite would happen and this is, rather grimly, exactly what occurred.

Detainee Abu Zubaydah, the report notes, became “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth” after repeated waterboarding. Ramzi bin al-Shibh started to exhibit “visions, paranoia, insomnia, and attempts at self-harm.”

One CIA staff member understood exactly the counter-productive psychology of these techniques when he noted that “we believe employing enhanced measures will accomplish nothing except show [al-Nashiri] that he will be punished whether he cooperates or not, thus eroding any remaining desire to continue cooperating”. This is learned helplessness in action.

It’s not as if the entirely nonsensical basis of Mitchell and Jessen’s ‘learned helplessness’ approach was a complex or subtle theoretical distinction – it’s undergraduate level psychology. Even for the uninitiated, the clue is in the name.

Perhaps one of the biggest questions is why Mitchell and Jessen were given such a central and powerful role to carry out these useless torture sessions in light of their lack of experience, the incoherent basis of their ideas, lack of results, abusive methods and and massive conflict of interest.

On this last point, the report notes that CIA staff members on the ground expressed concerns that Mitchell and Jessen were responsible for assessing detainees’ suitability for ‘enhanced interrogation’, directing the sessions, evaluating their own performance, and profiting from participation.

If it couldn’t get any worse, the report mentions in several places that established CIA psychologists repeatedly expressed concerns about what was happening but were overruled.

The episode is both a monumental fuck-up on the level of the organisation’s ability to detect psychological snake oil and a vast human tragedy.

pdf of full report from Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

9 thoughts on “Snake oil salesmen selling torture”

  1. US government contractors, be it State or Federal are always hired based on the lowest rate and when doing their work there is usually no communication between the two bodies. Contractors are rarely held responsible for screw-ups. god help you if you do something to make secretive agencies look bad, just look at what happened to Charles Monnett.

    1. I laughed at this, but it’s so true, for so many reasons. My “advisor”(if you could call her that) was never available, never willing to make time. She never even replied to my e-mails the majority of the time. If you don’t have time to advise your grad students, then you’re in the wrong profession. I make myself available for my undergrads all the time, reply to e-mails almost immediately. Maybe it’s something about getting tenure, you don’t feel the need to put your full effort in anymore.

      And I don’t think I need to mention how the schools administration feels towards grad students. We are second-class at best, in their eyes (despite the absurd amount of work we do for them!)

  2. The CIA apparently believed that it might be possible to kill goats with one’s psychic powers. This context may help answer that biggest of questions!

  3. Huh. People who were willing to violate every ethical tenet of their profession for some government money turned out to be incompetent. I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or shrug.

  4. “The episode is both a monumental fuck-up on the level of the organisation’s ability to detect psychological snake oil and a vast human tragedy.”

    This bears repeating – not only is it the crux of the utter debacle it also acknowledges the vast, evil, Hitlerian scale of human suffering.

    I’d like to point out also that state psychological health services are little better. Any professional who argues otherwise is suffering from a severe case of cognitive dissonance and should avail themselves of a THUD program immediately.

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