Bush and Psychologists Who Abet Torture | Harper's Magazine

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
[No Comment]

Bush and Psychologists Who Abet Torture


Just out: Vanity Fair’s Katherine Eban provides a polished, probing account of the Bush Administration’s use of torture techniques, and how it bamboozled and coerced medical professionals into disregarding their own professional ethics to help guide the way. Money quote:

I did not set out to discover how America got into the business of torturing detainees. I wasn’t even trying to learn how America found out who was behind 9/11. I was attempting to explain why psychologists, alone among medical professionals, were participating in military interrogations at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere.

Both army leaders and military psychologists say that psychologists help to make interrogations “safe, legal and effective.” But last fall, a psychologist named Jean Maria Arrigo came to see me with a disturbing claim about the American Psychological Association, her profession’s 148,000-member trade group. Arrigo had sat on a specially convened A.P.A. task force that, in July 2005, had ruled that psychologists could assist in military interrogations, despite angry objections from many in the profession. The task force also determined that, in cases where international human-rights law conflicts with U.S. law, psychologists could defer to the much looser U.S. standards—what Arrigo called the “Rumsfeld definition” of humane treatment.

Arrigo and several others with her, including a representative from Physicians for Human Rights, had come to believe that the task force had been rigged—stacked with military members (6 of the 10 had ties to the armed services), monitored by observers with undisclosed conflicts of interest, and programmed to reach preordained conclusions…

A key role is played by two CIA contractor psychologists who were tapped through a series of sleazy behind-the-scenes contracts directed by Rumsfeld’s deputy Stephen Cambone. We’ll shortly be hearing quite a lot more about these gentlemen. But for the moment, here’s what Eban has to say:

Two psychologists in particular played a central role: James Elmer Mitchell, who was attached to the C.I.A. team that eventually arrived in Thailand, and his colleague Bruce Jessen. Neither served on the task force or are A.P.A. members. Both worked in a classified military training program known as sere—for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape—which trains soldiers to endure captivity in enemy hands. Mitchell and Jessen reverse-engineered the tactics inflicted on sere trainees for use on detainees in the global war on terror, according to psychologists and others with direct knowledge of their activities. The C.I.A. put them in charge of training interrogators in the brutal techniques, including “waterboarding,” at its network of “black sites.” In a statement, Mitchell and Jessen said, “We are proud of the work we have done for our country.”

The agency had famously little experience in conducting interrogations or in eliciting “ticking time bomb” information from detainees. Yet, remarkably, it turned to Mitchell and 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.”

Eban’s research benefited from the support of Physicians for Human Rights, which has been playing a focal role in exposing all the shady dealings between medical professionals on the ethical edge and the Rumsfeld Pentagon. Here’s what PHR has to say in a press release just put out to mark the Vanity Fair piece:

“The indisputable evidence disclosed today that the US government, with the assistance of psychologists, was engaged in psychological torture tactics for the CIA is as morally reprehensible as Tuskegee and the MK-Ultra program of the 1950’s and 60’s,” stated Leonard S. Rubenstein, Executive Director of PHR. “It is imperative that both White House and Congress explicitly prohibit the use of these specific tactics once and for all. They have no place in lawful and honorable military and intelligence communities,” …

Beyond the disclosures about the alleged actions of psychologists at CIA Black Sites, today’s report in Vanity Fair contains disturbing new information about high-level authorizations in late 2001 of broad parameters for CIA interrogations involving personnel, including psychologists, seconded from the DoD. These authorizations strongly suggest the involvement of senior-level Bush Administration officials in the events that led to the regime of psychological torture that migrated to all three theaters of operation in the “War on Terror,” including Iraq, Afghanistan, and the CIA Black Sites.

“The long-standing distinctions between the roles of the military and intelligence communities appear to have been ripped asunder in the rush to employ abusive interrogation tactics after the tragedy of 9/11,” stated Xenakis. “Harnessing the medical knowledge of health professionals to break bodies and minds is, sadly, but one of many egregious consequences when over two centuries of military tradition and ethical discipline is tossed aside.”

(The Xenakis quoted towards the end is my friend Stephen N. Xenakis, a retired Army general who has taken a lead role in the investigations, one of a great number of retired flag officers who have acquitted themselves magnificently in helping to expose this affair and restore the integrity of the military service.)

We are three years past the exposure of Abu Ghraib and the steady trickle of disclosures moves inevitably in the same direction. It shows that torture was embraced as formal policy by the White House and was crammed down on people out in the field who didn’t want it. When future historians look back for those hallmark facts which define the presidency of George W. Bush, this evil, and the gushing dishonesty which followed it, will top the list.

More from