Psychologists and Torture, Then and Now

Torture has been a steadfast word in the news for two weeks pursuant to the release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program on 12/09/14. The 525-page report is available here:

And almost two weeks later, the New York Times Editorial Board published a scathing editorial entitled, Prosecute Torturers and Their Bosses on December 21, 2014. Noting that “Americans have known about many of these acts for years”, the editorial adds that

the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report erases any lingering doubt about their depravity and illegality: In addition to new revelations of sadistic tactics like “rectal feeding,” scores of detainees were waterboarded, hung by their wrists, confined in coffins, sleep-deprived, threatened with death or brutally beaten.

The Editorial Board urges that a “credible investigation” should include several individuals identified in the editorial. They state, however, that

Starting a criminal investigation is not about payback; it is about ensuring that this never happens again and regaining the moral credibility to rebuke torture by other governments. Because of the Senate’s report, we now know the distance officials in the executive branch went to rationalize, and conceal, the crimes they wanted to commit. The question is whether the nation will stand by and allow the perpetrators of torture to

have perpetual immunity for their actions.

The editorial is available here:

Psychologists like to have operational definitions. What exactly is torture?

Torture defined:

Torture, the infliction of severe physical or psychological pain upon an individual to extract information or a confession, or as an illicit extrajudicial punishment.

Definition by the United Nations Convention against Torture:

Article 1 of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment is the internationally agreed legal definition of torture:

“Torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

This definition contains three cumulative elements:

  • the intentional infliction of severe mental or physical suffering
  • by a public official, who is directly or indirectly involved
  • for a specific purpose

There is a legal definition:

18 U.S. Code § 2340

  1. “torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control;
  2. “severe mental pain or suffering” means the prolonged mental harm caused by or resulting from—
  • the intentional infliction or threatened infliction of severe physical pain or suffering;
  • the administration or application, or threatened administration or application, of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or the personality;
  • the threat of imminent death; or
  • the threat that another person will imminently be subjected to death, severe physical pain or suffering, or the administration or application of mind-altering substances or other procedures calculated to disrupt profoundly the senses or personality; and
  1. “United States” means the several States of the United States, the District of Columbia, and the commonwealths, territories, and possessions of the United States.

Tip of the iceberg?

As noted in the Times Editorial, much was known before the CIA Torture Report was released on 12/09/14. See for instance this article dated March 1, 2012:

Psychologists and Torture, Then and Now

U.S. psychologists cast ethics aside when they forged relationships with the state to aid in torture.

The article refers to the CIA’s counterintelligence KUBARK Manual:

The 1963 KUBARK Manual and its later iterations were used widely by U.S. intelligence and disseminated to other governments in Latin America and Southeast Asia.

The “farce” was played post-9/11, as psychologists became involved once again in aiding counterintelligence interrogators. Although some of the material in KUBARK remained in use, psychologists augmented already- existing material with newer techniques, some of which had been developed from torture resistance protocols used to train U.S. military personnel to survive capture and interrogation themselves. Thus, as Katherine Eban has reported, discoveries initially applied to help possible torture victims were later used to break interrogation subjects held in U.S. custody. Psychologists were complicit in designing and using techniques to break subjects rather than aid them, and in so doing they made a mockery of their ethical obligation to “do no harm.”

Twice, then, psychologists forged relationships with the state in which they cast ethics aside. And both times they acted with impunity.

Access to the documents is available here:

Here is Part I of the manual, Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual – 1983:

Taking a closer look at Part II, see Section L-O Coercive Techniques. The “psychological” aspect is apparent throughout. There is another section, Objections to Coercion L-6 II that notes “irreversible psychological damage.” There is a fair amount of handwritten editing and reference to “violates policy.”

The American Psychological Association has been mentioned often. The Timeline of APA Policies & Actions Related to Detainee Welfare and Professional Ethics in the Context of Interrogation and National Security is available here:

As one begins to peel away the layers of skin pursuant to reading thousands of pages of documents in a robust history of worldwide torture including the U.S., one has to ask, how many players have unclean hands?


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s