CIA, Pentagon Co-Opted Help of Top Psychologists

CIA Seal

CIA, Pentagon Co-Opted Help of Top Psychologists
| published July 11, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton Thursday Review editor

According to the New York Times, top officials within the American Psychological Association downplayed the extent of—and overstated the effectiveness—of harsh interrogation techniques used by the CIA in the post-9/11 years.

Those top APA officials, according to documents obtained by the New York Times, were aware of the strong dissenting views of psychologists and psychiatrists within both the CIA and the APA, but ignored those criticisms in order to gain political favor from the White House and the Pentagon, and to advance the professional cause of some top members.

A newly-completed report analyzing the post-9/11 interrogation programs conducted by the CIA and Pentagon operatives says that top officials of the APA deliberately recalibrated its own definitions of torture, while ignoring criticism and dissenting views regarding the interrogation programs conducted between late 2002 and early 2009. In essence, according to the 542-page report, APA officials worked to square the circle, as it were—forcing APA policy to bend and conform to the standards and guidelines as defined by the Pentagon, not the other way around.

Among the things revealed in the recently-concluded report: at least two former presidents of the APA served on a key advisory panel within the CIA, the very panel which gave the ultimate go-ahead for the types of interrogation techniques employed by CIA operatives. Those techniques included sleep-deprivation, binding and elevating detainees in positions of extreme discomfort, and water-boarding. At least one of those former APA officials authored an opinion stating that neither sleep deprivation nor discomfort positions were torture.

The report comes at the end of a long investigation of the matter by the Chicago law firm Sidley Austin, LLP. The Sidley Austin team was hired by the current leadership of the APA to look into the matter of how the association behaved during the period after 9/11, and how the organization’s opinions and conclusions regarding interrogation and torture were incorporated into CIA and Department of Defense thinking.

According to journalistic investigations into the Bush-era decision-making apparatus at the White House, some Bush insiders and legal scholars have pointed to documents and statements by former APA officials as having been supportive of some of the interrogation techniques used. It remains unclear to this day whether the harsh interrogation techniques employed by the CIA and DoD resulted in actionable intelligence in the war on terror, or whether the information gleaned was useful in preventing potential terror attacks.

Also unclear is whether such harsh interrogation methods proved pivotal in the long hunt for Osama bin Laden. According to some books and investigations into the tracking and killing of bin Laden, the location of his compound in Pakistan was determined in part because of intelligence gleaned during instances of extreme interrogation conducted by CIA agents at secret locations in the Middle East and elsewhere. But even among former CIA agents there is dissent on this point, and some say that those harsh interrogation sessions produced little useful data in the hunt for bin Laden.

More troubling for some in the psychology profession, according to the detailed report, is the revelation that the APA’s then-president Stephen Behnke won a contract to train CIA and Pentagon interrogators without disclosing the lucrative arrangement to the association’s board of directors. In addition, at least two former APA presidents formed a private consulting company which gained an exclusive deal with CIA and Pentagon interrogation shortly after the two had signed off on a letter opining that sleep deprivation was not torture. One of those former APA officials was already a member of the CIA advisory committee, making it appear that the authorship of the opinion was a way to curry favor with the CIA and bolster the consulting firm.

Also of concern was the relationship of James Mitchell to the interrogation process. Mitchell, a former Air Force officer who later became an instructor at the Air Force’s “Survival, Evasion, Rescue & Escape” (SERE) unit, where military members are trained using the same harsh techniques they might encounter if they were to be captured by a hostile country, became a key consultant to the CIA program in Afghanistan and other locations. According to the report, some APA psychologists and psychiatrists were uneasy with many of Mitchell’s interrogation techniques, but when they passed along those concerns, APA officials brushed them aside. Mitchell also served on the same advisory committee as the two former APA presidents. Mitchell would later go into business with at least two former APA officials.

The lengthy report says that in essence officials with the APA colluded with U.S. government officials to ensure that the association’s ethics guidelines did not contradict CIA and Pentagon activities of the handpicked psychologists.

On Friday, officials with the American Psychological Association issued a statement apologizing for its role in the matter. The APA also said it would retool its code of ethics, and strongly consider several proposals which would limit or even prohibit its officers, representatives or members from participation in interrogations.

The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, headed by Diane Feinstein, issued its own report in December 2014 denouncing the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation methods. The Senate report’s conclusions were widely supported by many liberals and most Democrats on Capitol Hill, but the report’s findings were also controversial, and came under intense fire even from some former CIA operatives and at least one former director of the CIA.

The Senate report outlined the tactics used during the interrogation of al Qaeda and terror suspects from several countries—interrogation sessions which took place at several top-secret “black sites” operated by the CIA in Afghanistan, Poland, Romania, Lithuania, and possibly Turkey. Neither Republicans nor Democrats disputed the actual descriptions of interrogations as outlined in the Senate report, but there were sharp differences on whether those forms of harsh interrogation constituted torture, and even more heated disagreements as to whether such techniques produced valuable or actionable intelligence.

Those interrogation tactics, known in CIA vernacular as Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs), began only months after the September 2001 terror attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Among those within the White House who gave legal sanction for the interrogations were White House legal counsel John Yoo and White House advisor David Addington. It was their legal justifications which gave then-President George W. Bush the green light to proceed with the CIA’s program, a program with many former and current CIA officials—including former directors John Brennan, George Tenet and Porter Goss—say helped thwart more terror attacks, and helped pave the road for the capture of bin Laden.

Yoo has defended his role in the controversy by pointing out not only the crisis mode of the White House in the days immediately after 9/11, but also the extreme pressure government officials faced from Congress, the media and a public which wanted to be assured of safety and security. “The Feinstein report,” Yoo wrote in Time magazine, “cannot deny that most Americans agree President Bush acted reasonably under these emergency conditions.” Yoo—and other supporters of the Bush era post-9/11 intelligence gathering program—have also pointed out that the interrogation methods used on detainees were composed of the same exact techniques employed to train those American military personnel in the art of survival during captivity. To Yoo this means the legal justification was supported by the relative safety and track record of the EITs as prescribed by existing Pentagon training.

Still, this new report will fuel a fire which may burn for years. The Sidley Austin Report points to substantial dissent within the APA, and indicates to some observers an all-too-ready willingness by the top leaders of a professional medical organization to be easily co-opted by major government agencies. The report also shows that despite the protests of many of the APA members—and the discomfort they felt toward the methodologies employed—the organization continued its close relationship with the CIA and the Pentagon.

The report concludes that—for better or worse—the APA chose to makes its ethics policies elastic enough to accommodate the endgame purposes of the Pentagon and the CIA, to advance the professional careers of some of its professional members, and to shield the CIA from criticism that its interrogation methods during the post 9/11 years were unnecessarily harsh and extreme.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Washington Divided on CIA Interrogations; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; December 11, 2014.

A Senate Report Vs the CIA; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; December 10, 2014.