No Prosecutions, No Accountability: Another Day in Torture USA

(noon. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Sometimes I am truly overwhelmed with both gratitude and awe at the amount of important work being done on the ongoing torture scandal by journalists, bloggers, attorneys, psychologists, doctors, and just plain decent people.

I wanted to highlight a few that seem specially extraordinary, or of current interest. At the close, we’ll look more closely at where the fight for prosecutions stands today. In this diary, we’ll look at a number of articles, including one that highlights the role of psychologists in planning torture, and one that compares the role of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons with the practice at Guanatanamo.

Patriot Daily News Clearinghouse is a Daily Kos regular blogger, who just finished a second installment of the DK Sunday Torture News Roundup (first installment is here). PDNC highlighted the ongoing case of Aafia Siddiqui. Siddiqui was likely a U.S. “ghost prisoner” of the CIA, and is now being held in a Texas prison, where her sanity and competency to stand trial is being determined. You must read the entire piece, for its cumulative impact, which is powerful.

Psychologists and the Use of Torture

Psychologist and activist Stephen Soldz has been on fire of late. He has published a book chapter, Closing Eyes to Atrocities: U.S. Psychologists, Detainee Interrogations, and the Response of the American Psychological Association, which is part of a new book published by Harvard University Press: Interrogations, Forced Feedings, and the Role of Health Professionals: New Perspectives on International Human Rights, Humanitarian Law, and Ethics (Harvard Law School Human Rights Program Practice Series) edited by Ryan Goodman and Mindy Jane Roseman.

Soldz has also covered the recent revelations in the Washington Post regarding the torture interrogation of Abu Zubaydah. From Stephen’s article:

Though the Post doesn’t say this, similar claims were reported in July 2007 by Vanity Fair reporter Katherine Eban in her account of the role psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen played in designing, conducting, and training for the CIA’s torture program.  Eban added the detail that the pre-torture information was obtained primarily by FBI (rather than CIA) agents….

It appears that these psychologists based their torture program on the “learned helplessness” theories of former American Psychological Association President Martin Seligman. Seligman lectured to a 2002 CIA-organized meeting at which Mitchell and Jessen were present. (See Valtin on this conference) While Seligman claims to be ignorant of any connection between the meeting and CIA torture policy, afterwards Mitchell and Jessen were citing Seligman’s ideas as inspiration for their work. Mayer has pointed out that Seligman must have known Mitchell and Jessen as he has recently admitted that they were in the audience for this talk.

We might also add, as the Defense Department Inspector General and the Senate Armed Services Committee reported, that it was largely psychologists that designed the abusive interrogation techniques for the military that were implemented at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After the Zubaida fiasco, the CIA turned to help from the American Psychological Association (APA). As I recently reported, they organized in July 2003 a joint APA-CIA-Rand conference on the Science of Deception, to which CIA torture psychologists Mitchell and Jessen were invited. At this conference they discussed, among other things:

What pharmacological agents are known to affect apparent truth-telling behavior?…. What are sensory overloads on the maintenance of deceptive behaviors? How might we overload the system or overwhelm the senses and see how it affects deceptive behaviors?

The APA leadership has never come clean regarding their participation in this conference and why the CIA’s top torture consultants were invited. They have never revealed what these torture planners told the conference or what information they were provided by the assembled psychologists. Rather, the APA, when asked about these torture psychologists, simply repeats, as if a mantra, that they are not APA members and are not subject to APA ethics sanctions, as if that clears the APA. Until the APA makes all records of the conference publicly and speaks in depth of what went on there, we can only continue to suspect that they have much to hide.

I should note that the American Psychological Association passed a resolution, initiated by a member referendum, to ban psychologist participation at national security sites that practice torture. However, as impressive as that sounds, the APA’s new policy is advisory only, and it’s unclear how exactly it will be determined what sites don’t fit APA’s policy. Meanwhile, so far as we know, psychologists still staff the Behavioral Science Consultation Teams in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and various undisclosed Special Forces sites.

The APA is also still studying, five years after it was asked to do so, a possible revision of its Ethics Code, which still allows any psychologist the “right” to disregard their own ethical code and follow orders of the organization to which they belong (Standard 1.02). The code, revised in 2002, after 9/11, has been criticized by a number of professionals and other ethicists, who liken it to the Nazi plea that one was “only following orders.”

If psychologists’ ethical responsibilities conflict with law, regulations, or other governing legal authority, psychologists make known their commitment to the Ethics Code and take steps to resolve the conflict. If the conflict is unresolvable via such means, psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority.

When public comment was solicited, military psychologists were quick to jump to the defense of 1.02. One psychologist, known to be a former member of a BSCT team, wrote:

Thanks for the opportunity to comment on Standard 1.02 and to review the abundant materials accompanying the request for comment…. I am not in favor of changing the current standard. I base my opinion on a careful review of these materials, my own experience as a practicing psychologist for almost 30 years (in private, public, and military settings), and my service on a state psychological association ethics committee. I see no evidence that the current situation meets the substantive criteria established by the Ethics Committee (1995, 1997) to warrant change to the Ethics Code outside the standard revision process…. the proposed change would create an impermissibly vague ethical standard that would require psychologists in certain circumstances to violate law, and that an ambiguous standard would have negative consequences for individual psychologists, the association, and the general public.

Torture, Here and Abroad

Meanwhile, over at FDL, bmaz as a great discussion going about Cheney Lies, Obstruction Of Justice & Torture Tape Destruction, taking off on the same Washington Post article that Stephen Soldz was commenting on above:

It has been my belief from the outset that the reason the “torture tapes” were destroyed was not simply because they depicted the brutal torture of detainee subjects but, just as importantly, if not more so, they demonstrated there was no credible/usable information produced as a result of that torture. Warrick and Finn confirm this. Even worse, they confirm what little good information the Bushies did extract from abu-Zubaydah was obtained through traditional interrogation prior to the onset of the torture program….

The Bushies made the conscious and criminal decision to go full tilt torture having direct reason to know both that abu-Zubaydah was cooperating through traditional interrogation and he was of very marginal use as an information source to start with.

I’d also like to point out a very interesting article in the recent New Yorker. Enitled “Hellhole” and written by Atul Gawande, the article discusses the decades long controversy over the use of solitary confinement in U.S. supermax prisons. It describes the terrible psychological consequences of being placed in isolation, without contact with other human beings, for months or even years on end.

EEG studies going back to the nineteen-sixties have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement. In 1992, fifty-seven prisoners of war, released after an average of six months in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia, were examined using EEG-like tests. The recordings revealed brain abnormalities months afterward; the most severe were found in prisoners who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious or, yes, solitary confinement. Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury….

Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, received rare permission to study a hundred randomly selected inmates at California’s Pelican Bay supermax, and noted a number of phenomena. First, after months or years of complete isolation, many prisoners “begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind-to organize their own lives around activity and purpose,” he writes. “Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair often result. . . . In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving,” becoming essentially catatonic.

Second, almost ninety per cent of these prisoners had difficulties with “irrational anger,” compared with just three per cent of prisoners in the general population. Haney attributed this to the extreme restriction, the totality of control, and the extended absence of any opportunity for happiness or joy.

Gawande discussed some of the early research on the effects of isolation by former American Psychological Association president Harry Harlow.

(Harlow) happened upon the findings in the mid-fifties, when he decided to save money for his primate-research laboratory by breeding his own lab monkeys instead of importing them from India. Because he didn’t know how to raise infant monkeys, he cared for them the way hospitals of the era cared for human infants-in nurseries, with plenty of food, warm blankets, some toys, and in isolation from other infants to prevent the spread of infection. The monkeys grew up sturdy, disease-free, and larger than those from the wild. Yet they were also profoundly disturbed, given to staring blankly and rocking in place for long periods, circling their cages repetitively, and mutilating themselves.

An associate had brought the Gawande article to my attention, and thought it deserved a letter to the editor by myself, and I agreed. What follows is the text of my letter to the New Yorker. I can’t know if it will be published. I hope it will be.

Dear Editor,

As someone who only two years ago presented a paper on sensory deprivation to the yearly convention of the American Psychological Association, I was both interested in and touched by Atul Gawande’s article (March 30, 2009) on the effects of isolation and solitary confinement on adult human beings. While in many ways a splendid article, Mr. Gawande’s sources are incorrect in finding Harry Harlow’s monkey isolation experiments to have been the serendipitous result of unintended consequences.

In fact, Harlow’s research was connected to earlier work done by Rene Spitz, Anna Freud, Dorothy Burlingame, and John Bowlby, on the effects of separation and isolation upon children. He was also doing government research on the effects of isolation, as it related to “brainwashing”. With his colleagues, psychologist I.E. Farber, and psychiatrist Louis J. West, Harlow published “Brainwashing, Conditioning, and DDD (Debility, Dependency, and Dread)” in the December 1957 issue of Sociometry. The article was singled out in the CIA’s KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation Manual in the early 1960s as providing a blueprint for a modern type of coercive interrogation, i.e., torture.

The use of isolation at Guantanamo, as pointed out by Mr. Gawande, is an integral part of the detention process there. Its existence is in part derivative from the widespread (and immoral) use of isolation at U.S. Supermax prisons. But it is also connected to the DDD/KUBARK model of intensive interrogation. The Guantanamo Standard Operating Procedures called for initial isolation of prisoners for 30 days or more. The same instruction found its way into the 2006 (and latest) version of the Army Field Manual for interrogations, which has an appendix that also allows for use of sleep deprivation, and modified forms of sensory deprivation. The AFM also calls for manipulation of old fears, and creation of “new” ones, as well as allowing for use of drugs in interrogations. Most recently, Susan Crawford, President Bush’s choice for Convening Authority at Guantanamo, told Bob Woodward of the Washington Post that the use of these techniques, and some others, on the prisoner Mohammad Al-Qahtani amounted to “torture.” Following this revelation, the Center for Constitutional Rights called for President Obama to reject the offending portions of the Army Field Manual.

Harry Harlow’s work on isolation and sensory deprivation (the two are closely related) is a key instance of the uneasy alliance between the military and intelligence agencies with the academic world of the behavioral and medical sciences. As Mary Shelley foresaw two hundred years ago, the scientific understanding of human nature could lead to both great benefits and horrific evils. Harlow’s association with work on torture interrogations was, sadly, one of the bleakest chapters in American psychology.

Another of my colleagues reminds me that the Gottfried bill, now in the New York State legislature targets isolation abuse and domestic prison abuses as well as prohibiting all NY State health care professionals from involvement in interrogations, domestic or military. See also this article on the bill by Stephen Soldz.

Whither Prosecutions?

Finally, to end on a somber note (if being more somber is even possible at this point), journalist Jason Leopold is reporting today that Congressional calls for prosecution of Bush administration officials for torture are basically dead on arrival (emphases added):

Last June, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers and 55 other congressional Democrats signed a letter to then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey demanding a special prosecutor to investigate the growing body of evidence that Bush administration officials had sanctioned torture, which had been documented by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Not unexpectedly, Mukasey – a staunch defender of Bush’s theories about expansive presidential powers – ignored the letter. Now, however, despite even more evidence of torture and a Democratic administration in place, the calls for a special prosecutor have grown muted.

Aides to several Democratic lawmakers who signed the June 2008 letter told me that the focus has shifted to the economy and that pressure for a special prosecutor to bring criminal charges over the Bush administration’s past actions could become a distraction to that focus.

They added that the most that now can be expected is either a “blue ribbon” investigative panel such as Conyers proposed earlier this year or a similar “truth and reconciliation commission” as advocated by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy. Not a single signer of last year’s letter has stepped forward to renew the demand for a special prosecutor to the Obama administration and Attorney General Eric Holder.

When one sees the tremendous bulk of evidence surrounding the use of torture by the United States, and the fantastic amount of ongoing work on the issue by so many outstanding individuals and groups, it’s hard to believe that even months after the departure of the unlamented Bush and Cheney, the issue remains alive and yet under the radar for most Americans. Meanwhile, a Spanish judge “has agreed to consider opening a criminal case against six former Bush administration officials…over allegations they gave legal cover for torture at Guantanamo Bay.” The potential defendants include Bush-Cheney attorneys John Yoo and David Addington, and former Department of Defense General Counsel, William Haynes.

But there are no charges in Spain as yet. Meanwhile, despite assertions to the contrary, torture remains SOP in Obama’s America, whether it be in Supermax prisons, or practiced by “legal” means abroad, courtesy of the Army’s own official field manual, or hidden still by the ongoing existence of the extraordinary rendition program that the Obama administration was reluctant to terminate, or hidden effectively by lack of recourse to review by hundreds, if not thousands of U.S. prisoners from Iraq to Afghanistan.

So one continues to educate, cajole, and stimulate the populace to take action against these crimes against humanity, another frustrating day in Torture USA. One can still sign a petition to Holder and Obama calling for prosecutions, just click here.

Also posted at Invictus


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    • Valtin on March 31, 2009 at 06:17

    threw everything but the kitchen sink re aspects of the torture issue that have been bugging me these last few weeks or so.

    I hope you forgive the longish essay. I know it doesn’t really hang together as a singular piece, but I think there’s a lot of interest in it.

  1. what do you think the effect would be…..

    if small groups(several dozen) of protesters did “crawford type sitins ” at a very large number(30-50) of these peoples homes/neighborhoods……

    do you think that if a hundred or so of these occupations occurred it would hold public attention above the dissociation radar ?…………….

  2. I am disturbed by reading Dr. Soldz’s chapter and seeing the participation of a psychologist at the NSA.  I was under the impression that the people employed by the NSA in psychology were experimental or laboratory psych, over more towards cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Wouldn’t the participation of such a person in interrogations be, therefore, experimentation on a prisoner (not to mention without the usual restraints of informed consent, MRB’s and the like) and therefore banned under Geneva and CAT?

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