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CIA Torture Report: A Sad Day for Psychologists

CIA Torture Report: A Sad Day for PsychologistsThis week marks a low point for U.S. psychologists. Two psychologists were responsible for devising the CIA program that uses “enhanced interrogation techniques” — what the rest of the world calls torture — on certain detainees after 9/11.

It also took the American Psychological Association years to clarify its ethical policies on how psychologists could be involved in the torture of suspects. (In contrast, the American Psychiatric Association — representing U.S. psychiatrists — simply invoked an outright ban for its members from being a part of any torture interrogation.)

One of the two psychologists — who were paid handsomely ($81 million) for their program development — even had the audacity to defend his work to the Associated Press yesterday.

James E. Mitchell, along with psychologist Bruce Jessen, were the architects of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” begun under the Bush administration against 9/11 suspects.

The two were said to be involved in some of the most brutal interrogations, including waterboarding applied to 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed that went beyond what the Justice Department had approved.

The CIA contracted out much of the interrogation program to the two men, the report said, and ultimately paid their company $81 million.

In the AP interview, Mitchell said the committee’s report cherry-picked evidence to present a false narrative about the CIA program.

“It’s flat wrong,” he said, to suggest that he had no experience as an interrogator and no understanding of al-Qaida, as the report says of the psychologists.

But Mitchell declined to detail his experience, other than to point out he spent 30 years with the Air Force and other government organizations. […]

The report said Mitchell “had reviewed research on ‘learned helplessness,’ in which individuals might become passive and depressed in response to adverse or uncontrollable events. He theorized that inducing such a state could encourage a detainee to cooperate and provide information.”

It also looks like the CIA likely overpaid for these two professionals’ advice and consultation, given their lack of experience. And the research showing that most torture techniques do not result in good, reliable information. The psychologists’ CIA contract was for $180 million total, but only $81 million had been paid out when the Obama administration directed the contract be cancelled.

The torture was horrible at times:

During an ordeal at a secret prison in early 2003, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, captured in 2002 and suspected of masterminding the bombing of the USS Cole at Aden in 2000, was waterboarded repeatedly, forced to stand with his hands on his head for hours at a time and once, while blindfolded, was threatened with a buzzing power drill held near his head. Some CIA personnel involved in the episode concluded that Nashiri was not withholding significant information on terrorism plots.

Even after that, a psychologist present urged that Nashiri be subjected to further harsh methods to induce the “desired level of helplessless,” according to the report released on Tuesday.

In his book The Longest War, author Peter Bergen writes:

The CIA contractor, a psychologist, had not interrogated anyone before, nor did he know anything about Islamist extremists or the Middle East. [Other] professional interrogators with him watched the new approach [“the enhanced interrogation techniques”] unfold with astonishment. [At] one point, Abu Zubaydah [the 9/11 detainee] was sitting naked on the floor, and the CIA contractor insisted that his new experimental interrogation techniques were working on the prisoner:

“He’s like, ‘See! See! He tilted his head to the right: That means it’s working. He’s contemplating, he’s thinking, because he tilted his head to the right — he’s in agreement, he’s going with the program…” […]

Abu Zubaydah then promptly fell asleep, snoring loudly. […]

Abu Zubaydah was later “waterboarded” eighty-three times by the CIA. […] In the end the multiple waterboardings of Abu Zubaydah provided no specific leads on any plots.

Top United Nations officials have called for the prosecution of all senior U.S. officials and CIA agents who authorized or carried out the torture under the CIA program. “Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said it’s “crystal clear” under international law that the United States, which ratified the U.N. Convention Against Torture in 1994, now has an obligation to ensure accountability,” according to an AP report. Amnesty International and other international human rights organizations have also called for the prosecution of those involved in the torture program.

Torture is not something anyone should ever support — much less be an active participant in. We know from the research that most torture results in bad or misleading information intended only to stop the torture and delay future torture. The fact that two psychologists used their psychological knowledge and expertise to help with these activities is downright revolting.

I hope they sleep well at night with their millions in the bank.


Read the full articles:

Psychologist defends harsh CIA interrogations

Report slams psychologists who devised Bush-era interrogation

CIA Torture Report: A Sad Day for Psychologists

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John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). CIA Torture Report: A Sad Day for Psychologists. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 11 Dec 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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