Recently in the news the ACLU is targeting the psychologists who designed and administered the CIA torture program on which the US Senate reported late last year. Two psychologists Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell have been named in the suit. However, the America Psychological Association has also been implicated in the justification of torture, as well as Martin Seligman a past president of the APA and a major proponent of the Positive Psychology movement.
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit on behalf of three former Guantanamo detainees against two psychologists responsible for creating and overseeing the CIA’s torture program at the US naval base in Cuba.
From 2001 to 2010, psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen took in almost $85 million in CIA contracts to create interrogation techniques to be used on terror suspects Guantanamo Bay detention camp. They now face a federal lawsuit for their role in convincing the CIA to subject the prisoners to “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding, bodily contortions and sleep deprivation. The psychologists’ contract continued until 2009, when President Obama signed an executive order that ended the enhanced interrogation program.
Famously, Jessen and Mitchell, former instructors in the military’s Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (SERE) program to counter torture, revised torture techniques from the SERE training and proposed to use them on CIA detainees.
They faced their first test case in the spring of 2002, after the CIA captured Abu Zubaydah, then thought to be a senior member of al-Qaida, and took him to Thailand. Although Zubaydah spoke openly with his FBI interrogators who sought to establish a rapport with him, Mitchell cabled the CIA’s Counterrorism Center “nearly every day” for permission to torture him.
CIA personnel, with Mitchell overseeing, waterboarded Zubaydah 83 times in the span of a month. Eventually, according to the Senate intelligence committee’s report – which gives Mitchell and Jessen the pseudonyms Grayson Swigert and Hammond Dunbar – Zubaydah would submit to torture after hearing his captors snap their fingers twice. They forced him into “confinement boxes”, one the size of a coffin and the other just two and a half feet square and 21 inches deep.
Salim, a Tanzanian fisherman, said in a video published by the Guardian that flashbacks from his ordeal in CIA custody are a permanent part of his life. After five years in CIA and then US military custody, Salim’s captors released him unceremoniously from Bagram in August 2008, presenting him with a memo stating that the US determined him not to pose a threat to the US.
“You can’t sleep, you can’t eat, you can’t smell,” said Salim, who says his CIA captors chained his arms and legs to a metal hoop in his cell that forced him into a squatting position so uncomfortable it prevented him from sleeping. Like other detainees, Salim was doused in ice-cold water and then wrapped in a freezing plastic sheet. According to the lawsuit, Salim hid painkillers he was given in order to hoard a dose strong enough for an ultimately unsuccessful suicide attempt.
“Flashbacks come anytime, so much they make you crazy,” Salim said in the video.
The complicity of the APA
Responding to the new Senate report, the American Psychological Association (APA) was quick to issue a press release distancing itself from Mitchell and Jessen. The statement emphasized that the two psychologists are not APA members – although Mitchell was a member until 2006 – and that they are therefore “outside the reach of the association’s ethics adjudication process.” But there is much more to this story. After years of stonewalling and denials, last month the APA Board appointed an investigator to examine allegations that the APA colluded with the CIA and Pentagon in supporting the Bush Administration’s abusive “war on terror” detention and interrogation practices.
The latest evidence of that collusion comes from the publication earlier this fall of James Risen’s Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War. With access to hundreds of previously undisclosed emails involving senior APA staff, the Pulitzer-prize winning reporter concludes that the APA “worked assiduously to protect the psychologists…involved in the torture program.” The book also provides several new details pointing to the likelihood that Mitchell and Jessen were not so far removed from the APA after all.
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, APA member and CIA head of behavioral research Kirk Hubbard first introduced Mitchell and Jessen to the CIA as “potential assets.” A few months later, in mid-2002, Hubbard arranged for former APA president Martin Seligman to present a lecture on his theories of “learned helplessness” to a group that included Mitchell and Jessen at the Navy SERE School in San Diego. And in 2003 Hubbard worked closely with APA senior staff in developing an invitation-only workshop – co-sponsored by the APA and the CIA – on the science of deception and other interrogation-related topics. Mitchell and Jessen were both participants (having returned from overseas where they were involved in the waterboarding of detainees Abu Zabaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed).
Martin Seligman president of the APA in 1998 is a major proponent of the Positive Psychology has been linked to the justification for and theoretical underpinning of the torture program. Mitchell and Jessen drew on Seligman’s study into “learned helplessness” which was based an a study which systematically tortured dogs with electric shocks.
The ultimate objective of Seligman’s research was to determine how human’s could unlearn or avoid learned helplessness and substitute learned optimism. From a TED biography:
Martin Seligman, Director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, describes the shift in modern psychology from relieving misery to building happiness. As many psychologists move away from the traditional disease model treatment, is there more than one definition of a happy life and what types of intervention can build sustained happiness?
Well of course the sustained happiness is so much easier to achieve when your back pocket is stuffed full of homeland security budget money. Sustained happiness is less easy to achieve if you are spending the rest of your life recovering from torutre experiments that were designed and administered by APA psychologists.
Seligman has repeatedly expressed regret that his studies into learned helplessness were the inspiration for the CIA’s turture program and yet in 2002 he gave a lecture on learned helplessness to a group that included Mitchell and Jessen at the Navy SERE School in San Diego. Mitchell and Jessen have of course expressed no such self-awareness.
One of the critiques of positive psychology is that one of it’s key concepts “learned optimism” can encourage repression of any negative self-evaluation. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to see how this could lead the situation where senior officials from the President of the USA to the President of the APA could justify heinous actions based on denying their own badness and projecting it onto the body of the torture victim.
Psychology cannot exclude recognition of the consideration of the negative. This “learned optimism” tempts hubris. If we ignore or repress awareness of our own dark sides we inevitably see that darkness projected on to others.