The CIA’s inner circle of white elephant specialists

CC Licensed Image from Flickr by The U.S. Army.  Click for source.The New York Times recently covered a report by long-term critics of psychologists’ involvement in the CIA torture programme.

It includes a series of leaked emails which suggests something beyond what is widely noted – that the US security agencies have been handing out key contracts to high profile psychologists on the basis of shared political sympathies rather than sound scientific evidence. The result has been a series of largely ineffective white elephant security projects that have cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

To back up a bit, this new report claims, on the basis of the leaked emails, that there was collusion between the American Psychological Association and the CIA to make psychologists’ participation in brutal interrogations possible through engineering the written code of ethics.

The allegations are not new but as part of the coverage The New York Times includes the full text of the report which includes the full text of key emails.

The APA have commissioned an independent investigation and have released a statement, quite reasonably actually, saying they’re not going to comment until it’s concluded.

But looking at the emails, you can see that the CIA was buddies with a select group of high profile psychologists who later get big money contracts from the US Government. You may recognise the names.

One email from Kirk Hubbard, Senior Behavioral Scientist for the CIA, notes that “I have been in contact with Ekman and he is eager to do work for us”, seemingly with regard to a forum on the science of deception. This is Paul Ekman famous for his work on facial emotions and micro-expression.

Hubbard notes that Martin Seligman, famous for his work on learned helplessness and later positive psychology, “helped out alot over the past four years”. Seligman hosted a now well-documented meeting in December 2001 for “a small group of professors and law enforcement and intelligence officers” who “gathered outside Philadelphia at the home of a prominent psychologist, Martin E. P. Seligman, to brainstorm about Muslim extremism”.

This meeting included James Mitchell, of the now notorious Mitchell Jessen and Associates, who developed the CIA’s brutal interrogation / torture programme.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that Ekman and Seligman were directly involved in CIA interrogations or torture. Seligman has gone as far as directly denying it on record.

But there is something else interesting which links Ekman, Seligman and Mitchell: lucrative multi-million dollar US Government contracts for security programmes based on little evidence that turned out to be next to useless.

Ekman was awarded a contract to train ‘behavior detection officers’ at US airports using a technique called SPOT (Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques) based on detecting facial expressions – part of a $900 million programme. It was widely criticised as lacking a scientific foundation, there has been not one verified case of a successful terrorist detection, and evaluations by the Department of Homeland Security, the Government Accountability Office and the Rand Corporation were scathing.

Seligman was reportedly awarded a $31 million US Army no-bid contract to develop ‘resilience training’ for soldiers to prevent mental health problems. This was surprising to many as he had no particular experience in developing clinical interventions. It was deployed as the $237 million Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme, the results of which have only been reported in some oddly incompetent technical reports and are markedly under-whelming. Nicholas Brown’s analysis of the first three evaluative technical reports is particularly good where he notes the tiny effects sizes and shoddy design. A fourth report has since been published (pdf) which also notes “small effect sizes” and doesn’t control for things like combat exposure.

And famously, Mitchell and Jessen won an $81 million contract to develop the interrogation programme, now officially labelled as torture, and which the Senate Intelligence Committee suggested was actually counter-productive in gathering intelligence.

Applying psychology to improve airport security screening, soldiers’ well-being and interrogation are all reasonable aims. But rather than reviewing the evidence to see what’s possible and contracting relevant specialists to develop and evaluate programmes where possible, they seem to have contracted supporters of the ‘war on terror’ for work that lacked an applied evidence base.

The outcome has been expensive and ineffectual.
 

Link to full text of critical report, full text of emails in Appendix.

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