2007: “Rorschach and Awe”, Vanity Fair

Katherine Eban reports in Vanity Fair that the military, which has championed modern-day psychology since World War II, continues to be one of the largest single employers of psychologists through its network of veterans’ hospitals. The military also funded a prescription-drug training program for military psychologists in the early 1990s, which lends validity to the suspicion that the American Psychological Association lent its “scientific” seal to CIA’s brutal interrogation procedures to obtain the Pentagon’s support for giving psychologists prescribing privileges that only medical doctors have.

After a 10-month investigation comprising more than 70 interviews as well as a detailed review of public and confidential documents, Katherine Eban pieced together the account of the Abu Zubaydah interrogation. She also discovered that psychologists weren’t merely complicit in America’s aggressive new interrogation regime. Psychologists, working in secrecy, had actually designed the tactics and trained interrogators in them while on contract to the C.I.A.

“The agency had famously little experience in conducting interrogations or in eliciting “ticking time bomb” information from detainees. Yet, remarkably, it turned to James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who were equally inexperienced and had no proof of their tactics’ effectiveness; say several of their former colleagues. Steve Kleinman, an Air Force Reserve colonel and expert in human-intelligence operations, says he finds it astonishing that the C.I.A. “chose two clinical psychologists who had no intelligence background whatsoever, who had never conducted an interrogation … to do something that had never been proven in the real world.”

Mitchell and Jessen’s methods were so controversial that, among colleagues, the reaction to their names alone became a litmus test of one’s attitude toward coercion and human rights. Their critics called them the “Mormon mafia” (a reference to their shared religion) and the “poster boys” (referring to the F.B.I.’s “most wanted” posters, which are where some thought their activities would land them).”

“Mitchell and Jessen offered a patina of pseudo-science that made the C.I.A. and military officials think these guys were experts in unlocking the human mind. It’s one thing to say, ‘Take off the gloves.’ It’s another to say there was a science to it. SERE came in as the science.”

The use of “scientific credentials in the service of cruel and unlawful practices” harkens back to the Cold War, according to Leonard Rubenstein, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights. Back then, mental-health professionals working with the C.I.A. used hallucinogenic drugs, hypnosis, and extreme sensory deprivation on unwitting subjects to develop mind-control techniques. “We really thought we learned this lesson—that ambition to help national security is no excuse for throwing out ethics and science,” Rubenstein says.

“JTF GTMO ‘SERE’ Interrogation Standard Operating Procedure” (Dec. 2002) a five-page, typo-ridden document divided into four categories: “Degradation,” “Physical Debilitation,” “Isolation and Monopoliztion [sic] of Perception,” and “Demonstrated Omnipotence.” The tactics include “slaps,” “forceful removal of detainees’ clothing,” “stress positions,” “hooding,” “manhandling,” and “walling,” which entails grabbing the detainee by his shirt and hoisting him against a specially constructed wall. “Note that all tactics are strictly non-lethal,” the memo states, adding, “it is critical that interrogators do ‘cross the line’ when utilizing the tactics.” The word “not” was presumably omitted by accident.

“In a bizarre mixture of solicitude and sadism, the memo details how to calibrate the infliction of harm…The SERE-inspired interrogations would be violent. And therefore, psychologists were needed to help make these more dangerous interrogations safer.  Dr. R. Scott Shumate, then chief operational psychologist for the C.I.A.’s counterterrorism center, opposed the extreme methods and packed his bags in disgust, leaving before the most dire tactics had commenced. He later told associates that it had been a mistake for the C.I.A. to hire Mitchell.

“With Shumate gone, the interrogators were free to unleash what they called the “sere school” techniques. These included blasting the Red Hot Chili Peppers at top volume, stripping Zubaydah naked, and making his room so cold that his body turned blue…Ultimately, the F.B.I. pulled its agents from the scene and ruled that they could not be present any time coercive tactics were used, says Michael Rolince. It was a momentous decision that effectively gave the C.I.A. complete control of interrogations.” (Vanity Fair, 2007)