The CIA’s Torture Regime and the Psychologists who Designed and Abetted it

Stephen Soldz
March 16th, 2009

Reporter and attorney Mark Danner has obtained a copy of the International Committee of the Red Cross’ report on the torture at the CIA’s black sites. The report was based upon extensive interviews with 14 “high value” detainees who were transferred from CIA custody to Guantanamo in 2006. Danner has written an extended piece based on the report in the New York Review of Books and has excerpted a small portion of the article as an op-ed in the New York Times. As Danner points out, the 14 detainees had been kept isolated from each other since their capture. Thus they had no opportunity to coordinate their stories. The fact that many of the details were repeated by multiple detainees thus constitutes strong evidence for the veracity of the reports.

Here is one excerpt of what the detainees relate, as told by Abu Zubaydah:

After the beating I was then placed in the small box. They placed a cloth or cover over the box to cut out all light and restrict my air supply. As it was not high enough even to sit upright, I had to crouch down. It was very difficult because of my wounds. The stress on my legs held in this position meant my wounds both in the leg and stomach became very painful. I think this occurred about 3 months after my last operation. It was always cold in the room, but when the cover was placed over the box it made it hot and sweaty inside. The wound on my leg began to open and started to bleed. I don’t know how long I remained in the small box, I think I may have slept or maybe fainted.

I was then dragged from the small box, unable to walk properly and put on what looked like a hospital bed, and strapped down very tightly with belts. A black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe. After a few minutes the cloth was removed and the bed was rotated into an upright position. The pressure of the straps on my wounds was very painful. I vomited. The bed was then again lowered to horizontal position and the same torture carried out again with the black cloth over my face and water poured on from a bottle. On this occasion my head was in a more backward, downwards position and the water was poured on for a longer time. I struggled against the straps, trying to breathe, but it was hopeless. I thought I was going to die. I lost control of my urine. Since then I still lose control of my urine when under stress.

I was then placed again in the tall box. While I was inside the box loud music was played again and somebody kept banging repeatedly on the box from the outside. I tried to sit down on the floor, but because of the small space the bucket with urine tipped over and spilt over me…. I was then taken out and again a towel was wrapped around my neck and I was smashed into the wall with the plywood covering and repeatedly slapped in the face by the same two interrogators as before.

I was then made to sit on the floor with a black hood over my head until the next session of torture began. The room was always kept very cold.

This went on for approximately one week. During this time the whole procedure was repeated five times. On each occasion, apart from one, I was suffocated once or twice and was put in the vertical position on the bed in between. On one occasion the suffocation was repeated three times. I vomited each time I was put in the vertical position between the suffocation.

During that week I was not given any solid food. I was only given Ensure to drink. My head and beard were shaved everyday.

I collapsed and lost consciousness on several occasions. Eventually the torture was stopped by the intervention of the doctor.

I was told during this period that I was one of the first to receive these interrogation techniques, so no rules applied. It felt like they were experimenting and trying out techniques to be used later on other people.

Danner gives us the Table of Contents of the report, which clearly evokes the nature of the CIA program:


1. Main Elements of the CIA Detention Program
1.1 Arrest and Transfer
1.2 Continuous Solitary Confinement and Incommunicado Detention
1.3 Other Methods of Ill-treatment
1.3.1 Suffocation by water
1.3.2 Prolonged Stress Standing
1.3.3 Beatings by use of a collar
1.3.4 Beating and kicking
1.3.5 Confinement in a box
1.3.6 Prolonged nudity
1.3.7 Sleep deprivation and use of loud music
1.3.8 Exposure to cold temperature/cold water
1.3.9 Prolonged use of handcuffs and shackles
1.3.10 Threats
1.3.11 Forced shaving
1.3.12 Deprivation/restricted provision of solid food
1.4 Further elements of the detention regime….

He also gives its conclusion which makes it unequivocal that, in the ICRC’s view, the United States government committed major crimes through its “enhanced interrogation” program:

The allegations of ill-treatment of the detainees indicate that, in many cases, the ill-treatment to which they were subjected while held in the CIA program, either singly or in combination, constituted torture. In addition, many other elements of the ill-treatment, either singly or in combination, constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Danner places the report in the context of the lies and disinformation continually told us by our leaders, President Bush foremost among them:

“This debate is occurring,” as President Bush told reporters in the Rose Garden the week after he delivered his East Room speech,because of the Supreme Court’s ruling that said that we must conduct ourselves under the Common Article III of the Geneva Convention. And that Common Article III says that, you know, there will be no outrages upon human dignity. It’s like—it’s very vague. What does that mean, “outrages upon human dignity”?

In allowing Abu Zubaydah and the other thirteen “high-value detainees” to tell their own stories, this report manages to answer, with great power and authority, the President’s question. ...

As a psychologist, I am well aware that the techniques documented in this report were created and monitored by psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, as Jane Mayer, Katherine Eban, and Mark Benjamin have documented. As Mayer reports in her book, The Dark Side, Mitchell and Jessen apparently adopted ideas on “learned helplessness” from former American Psychological Association President Martin Seligman, who lectured, under CIA auspices, to the Navy Survival Evasion, Resistance, and Escape school, with Mitchell and Jessen in the audience. [An earlier version of the following comments were made by me yesterday on a listerve and were quoted by Daily Kos blogger Valtin in his commentary on the Danner article.] These psychologists were present at the APA-CIA-Rand conference on the Science of Deception. Among the topics discussed at this conference were:

•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?

Is it plausible that no APA official in attendance considered or has since considered the possibility that discussion of these topics at a CIA workshop was connected to the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation,” a.k.a. torture program? If such thought ever occurred to any APA leaders, they have never been expressed publicly. Rather, the APA has never explained why these torturers were invited to this conference, what they said or what was said to them. Nor have the APA leaders who invited and participated with these torturers expressed any remorse that they may have aided their torture. Rather, these leaders tried to hide the attendance list for this conference, just as they later tried to hide the membership of their “ethics” task force, and even claimed to have “misplaced” it. And these leaders repeatedly have tried to change the subject to whether or not these torturers were “APA members”, as if its fine to aid torturers if they aren’t members of the association.

APA leaders also have given recognition and awards to a military psychologist who helped design the Guantanamo interrogation system, while refusing to disciple those psychologists whose participation in US abuses was reported to them.

But, perhaps most disturbingly, when the APA created a task force to formulate ethics policy regarding interrogations, they chose psychologists who had been involved in the U.S. government’s interrogation programs at the CIA’s black sites, Guantanamo, and Afghanistan to form the majority of that task force and then refused to reveal the task force membership. One member of the task force was even reportedly present at the torture of Abu Zubaydah, a fact he neglected to mention during the task force proceedings. Not surprisingly, the task force report echoed the government’s cover story that the participation of psychologists in these interrogations “puts psychologists in a unique position to assist in ensuring that such processes are safe and ethical for all participants.”

Accountability for US torture MUST include accountability for those who aided the torturers, including those in the APA leadership who, wittingly or unwittingly, helped provide cover for the torture program. Continued silence is not acceptable. The truth must come out. We must pressure any Truth Commission or other accountability process to explore the role of the APA, other psychologists, and other health professionals, in the US torture program. It is up to psychologists, along with other citizens concerned with human rights and human decency, to demand accountability from our leaders.

Leave a Reply