Psychologists’ role in the CIA’s torture: Why these medical professionals were so crucial for the enhanced interrogation techniques used on detainees.

Why There Would Have Been No Torture Without the Psychologists

Why There Would Have Been No Torture Without the Psychologists

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Dec. 12 2014 6:23 PM

CIA on the Couch

Why there would have been no torture without the psychologists.

Group of doctors, portrait
Major national organizations of physicians, psychiatrists, and nurses determined that their ethical obligations prohibited their members from participating in these interrogations, so what was the American Psychological Association doing?

Photo by Jochen Sand/Thinkstock

Thanks to revelations in the newly released report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, it is now widely known that the CIA’s torture program was created, supervised, and implemented by two licensed clinical psychologists—James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen—who were paid millions of dollars for their efforts. Less widely known is that the Bush administration’s torture operation, at both the CIA and the Pentagon—at “black sites” and at Guantanamo—was devised and supervised largely by clinical psychologists. These psychologists used their knowledge of the workings of the human mind and psychological “mind-control” research to induce “learned helplessness” and “debility, dependency, and dread,” aiming to destroy the minds of detainees in the hope that “actionable intelligence” and “critical threat information” could be sifted from the wreckage.  

The psychologists were vital to the torture program for one additional reason: The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel had determined that the presence of psychologists and physicians, monitoring the state and condition of the prisoner being tortured, afforded protection for the CIA leadership and the Bush administration from liability and potential prosecution for the torture. Later, the OLC applied the same rules to the Defense Department’s “enhanced interrogation program,” which, according to an investigation by the Senate Armed Services Committee, was created and overseen by a team led by a clinical psychologist, and eventually overseen exclusively by clinical psychologists.

But this scandal has not been fully exposed, nor is it over. It turns out that for psychologists to be able to do the Bush administration’s bidding and oversee the torture of detainees, they required not only indemnification for legal liability (Mitchell and Jessen were promised a $5 million legal defense fund by the CIA), but they also required indemnification from another source—a higher authority, if you will. Medical professionals are beholden to their respective professional ethics codes. The psychologists involved in the “enhanced interrogation techniques”—what most of us call torture—were concerned about being brought up on charges of ethics violations. If found guilty of ethical violations, these psychologists could lose their licenses and, according to CIA and Defense Department regulations, they could lose their positions and potential for future professional work. The same applies today, as monitoring remains an essential component of the Obama administration’s adherence to the new Army Field Manual, with its own set of “enhanced interrogation techniques.”


Recent revelations in James Risen’s new book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, add an additional dimension to this story—it appears that senior staff members of the American Psychological Association, the world’s largest association of psychologists, colluded with national security psychologists from the CIA, the Pentagon, and the White House to adapt APA ethics policy to suit the needs of the psychologist-interrogators. Now, the APA, under enormous pressure because of the allegations reported by Risen, has agreed to an independent investigation to be conducted by David Hoffman, a former inspector general and federal prosecutor. It will in all likelihood provide a rare opportunity to look inside the secret world of APA-counterintelligence collusion.

Risen based his allegations on emails found on the personal computer of Scott Gerwehr, a researcher at the Rand Corp. and apparent CIA consultant, who died in a motorcycle accident in 2008. Gerwehr had established close ongoing collaboration with a group of “national security psychologists who had influence behind the scenes at key institutions throughout Washington.” Among them were Susan Brandon, behavioral science adviser at the Bush White House (she is now chief interrogation scientist for the Obama administration) and Kirk Hubbard, the CIA’s chief behavioral scientist. Hubbard has publicly admitted to bringing Mitchell and Jessen into the CIA to design the agency’s “enhanced interrogation” program. Brandon, Hubbard, Gerwehr, and Geoff Mumford, APA’s director of science policy, had worked together since soon after the 9/11 attacks to bring psychologist-researchers together with psychologist-operatives to collaborate on issues related to national security interrogations and interrogations research. Mitchell and Jessen were among the operatives present at these invitation-only meetings.

In July 2004, months before the role of psychologists in torture was made public when a report from the International Committee of the Red Cross on Guantanamo was leaked to the New York Times, Hubbard, Gerwehr, and personnel from the CIA and Pentagon were invited by Mumford and APA’s ethics director Stephen Behnke to a secret meeting. Publicly the APA has claimed at various points that the meeting was to address challenges faced by domestic law enforcement investigations. However, the true goal of the meeting, according to the emails obtained by Risen, was to “bring together people with an interest in national-security” interrogations and to “ask individuals involved in the work what the salient issues” were and to “provide guidance” for the ethical issues that may come up with regard to those interrogations—the very interrogations so nauseatingly described in the Senate report.

We might divine some of the immediate motivation for convening this meeting from information released this week in the Senate committee’s report. The report cites a CIA inspector general review, dated May 7, 2004, in which CIA psychologists were raising ethical questions about the way Mitchell and Jessen were conducting their interrogations: “Psychologists objected to the use of on-site psychologists as interrogators and raised conflict of interest and ethical concerns.” The questions were reportedly “based on a concern that the on-site psychologists who were administering the [CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques] participated in the evaluations, assessing the effectiveness and impact of the [CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques] on the detainees.” Could it be that these were the same fears that had prompted Hubbard, Mumford, and Behnke to brainstorm on APA ethics and national security?


As a direct result of this secret meeting, Mumford and Behnke proposed the creation of an APA task force to determine APA’s ethics policy on psychologists’ participation in national security interrogations. The task force met in June 2005 and decided that “it is consistent with the APA Ethics Code for psychologists to serve in consultative roles to interrogation and information-gathering processes for national security-related purposes.” In this conclusion, the APA stood alone among health professions. The other major national organizations of physicians, psychiatrists, and nurses all determined that their ethical obligations prohibited their members from participating in these interrogations. But the APA concluded that it was not only ethical for psychologists to participate, the leadership claimed that psychologists were necessary to keep national security interrogations “safe, legal, ethical, and effective,” roles that the other health professions determined were conflicting, unethical, and impossible to perform responsibly. 

APA members have long suspected that the creation of the task force was a predetermined rubber stamp for CIA and Defense Department policy because a majority of its members were drawn from CIA and Pentagon units directly involved in national-security interrogations or interrogation research. But there was only circumstantial evidence that its members had been chosen for what appeared to be a CIA- and Defense Department–determined fait accompli.

With the publication of the Gerwehr emails, however, Risen has provided the smoking gun. It is undoubtedly this email exchange, from APA’s Mumford to CIA’s Hubbard that pressed the APA into agreeing to an independent investigation: On July 5, 2005—the day the task force released its report, Mumford sent Hubbard a copy of the report and wrote: “I also wanted to semi-publicly acknowledge your personal contribution ... in getting this effort off the ground. ... Your views were well represented by very carefully selected task force members.” He went on to reveal that Susan Brandon had served as an “observer” at the task force meeting (the observers’ names had not been made public) and “helped craft some language related to research” for the task force report. And then, Risen provides one additional bombshell—at the time of Mumford’s thank-you letter, Hubbard had retired from the CIA and was working directly for Mitchell Jessen and Associates, the company created in 2005 by the two psychologists specifically for the purpose of conducting their work with the CIA. Between 2005 and 2009, their firm collected $81 million from the CIA.

Since its release, members of the APA have fought to rescind the task force report and keep psychologists out of national security interrogations. But every time a policy is proposed or passed, the APA leadership has found a way to subvert its intent. In 2008, a group of APA members appealed to the entire membership in a referendum to prohibit psychologists from participating in any operation that violates the Geneva Conventions or the United Nations Convention Against Torture. The referendum passed overwhelmingly and in February 2009 was made APA official policy by the member-run council. Yet to date, APA leadership refuses to implement the referendum, claiming the APA cannot determine when U.S. national security policy violates international law; the APA holds to this position even in the face of judgments rendered by the United Nations Committee Against Torture, for example, as to the illegal status of indefinite detentions at Guantanamo Bay.

We await the results of the independent investigation. In the meantime, there are three questions Americans and the profession of psychology must answer together. Why did the APA devote its resources to guarantee psychologists’ presence in these criminal operations? How did the U.S. government permit this weaponization of psychology? And how can we hold the psychologists who apparently created, justified, supervised, and implemented torture, and the professional association that seems to have supported those psychologists, to account?