Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Psychologists pan CIA interrogation techniques as ineffective

CIA contractors were inspired by learned helplessness theory, which experts say is futile and unreliable

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report revealed earlier this week that the CIA’s techniques — which included waterboarding, staging mock burials of detainees and caging them in coffin-size boxes — were designed by two former Air Force psychologists.

The men, identified as Bruce Jessen and Jim Mitchell, had no experience with interrogations or counterterrorism, according to the report. They had, though, taught special forces how to resist torture through the Department of Defense’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance Escape) schools.

The duo developed the CIA's interrogation program based on the learned helplessness psychological theory, inspired by experiments performed during the 1960s by psychologists Martin Seligman and Stephen Maier at the University of Pennsylvania (PDF).

In the experiments, dogs that were repeatedly given mild electric shocks eventually became inert and did not attempt to escape them. Evidently, Seligman and Maier theorized, the dogs had learned to be helpless because they discovered their actions did not prevent the shocks.

For humans, this would be coming to believe that no matter what a person does, he or she cannot change a situation.  

Seligman went on to use that theory on human reaction to adversity, and today he is considered a top expert on happiness and learned optimism.

But Jessen and Mitchell, according to the Senate report, quoted Seligman’s theories as useful in breaking CIA detainees into a state of helplessness, apparently with the aim of getting them to reveal information.

Guantánamo detainee Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain Abu Zabaydah, for example, became so helpless that he “slowly walked on his own to the water table and sat down.” When his interrogator snapped his fingers twice, he “would lie on the water board,” according to the report.

Seligman told Al Jazeera in an email message that while he does not consider himself an expert on interrogation, he feels that the objective should be “to get at the truth, not at what the interrogator wants to hear.”

“I think learned helplessness would make someone more passive, less defiant and more compliant, but I know of no evidence that it leads reliably to more truth-telling,” said Seligman, currently the director of University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center.

“I am grieved and horrified that good science, which has helped so many people overcome depression, may have been used for such dubious purposes,” said Seligman. “Most importantly, I have never and would never provide assistance in torture. I strongly disapprove of it.”

How psychologists formerly involved in SERE training decided to co-opt this research as official CIA interrogation strategy isn’t fully understood.

New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer said that Seligman told her he gave a talk at a Navy SERE school in San Diego in 2002, but that it focused on helping U.S. soldiers resist torture. Seligman’s learned helplessness theories “were cited admiringly soon after by James Mitchell, the psychologist whom the CIA put on contract to advise on its secret interrogation protocol,” she told Harper’s magazine.

The American Psychological Association recently told Reuters that, while Mitchell and Jessen were not APA members and therefore outside the association’s disciplinary process, they should be held “fully accountable” for human rights violations. The APA called their techniques “sickening and reprehensible.” 

Mitchell, for his part, told Reuters that the CIA report was "a bunch of hooey." Jessen did not respond to Al Jazeera requests for comment.

It 'just doesn't work'

Dr. Steven Miles, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Bioethics and and a board member at the Center for Victims of Torture said the U.S. government has known for decades that techniques such as those devised by Mitchell and Jessen are ineffective.

“The use of interrogative abuse had been comprehensively studied by every major regime, East and West, going back to World War II,” he said. “And it’s been repeatedly been found to not work. It just doesn’t work.”

Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a retired brigadier general and Army medical corps officer who now serves as a torture expert for Physicians for Human Rights, has interviewed several Guantánamo Bay detainees during his lobbying efforts to close down the U.S. prison.

While he has signed protective orders not to speak about any of the cases, he told Al Jazeera that research has shown that the CIA’s techniques “would lead to serious psychiatric problems, depression, PTSD, that these men would suffer, that the effects would be chronic.”

“We said that, even though it leaves no marks, it constitutes torture,” he said.

Miles says that beyond the traumatizing effects, interrogational torture eventually causes a detainee to lie to stop the pain — and it also eliminates any ability to recruit him or her for future intelligence.

“It seems like almost out of the hat, they [Jessen and Mitchell] drew learned helplessness without even looking at the fact that this is a proven failed method for interrogation,” he said. “And then they set up a secret interrogation system built out of inexperienced interrogators, told them this was the way to go, and then got the green light.”

These techniques also inspire the countries of the tortured detainees to torture U.S. captives, Miles said, as retaliation for the violation of the Geneva Conventions and other human rights pacts.

“Basically what we’ve said is, an executive order can essentially waive these [treaties], which is music to the ears of Kim Yong Un, [Zimbabwean President Robert] Mugabe, and [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad,” said Miles.

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