"Any of us could be the man who encounters his double." -- Friedrich Durrenmat (1)
Jane Mayer's new book, The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals (not due out in the bookstores until tomorrow), is already creating headlines and generating controversy. This article will examine the issues around U.S. torture practice, in light of new allegations in the book, and review an email conversation between myself and a prominent nationally-known psychologist whom Mayer says assisted in the planning of U.S. government torture.
Scott Shane at The New York Times wrote an article last Friday describing how Mayer reveals that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told the CIA last year in a report that the interrogation of "high-level" detainees, such as Abu Zubaydah, "categorically" constituted torture, were illegal, and amounted to prosecutable war crimes. Zubaydah, famously, was one of three prisoners the government has admitted were waterboarded. A videotape of his interrogation was destroyed by the CIA.
In an July 14 interview with Scott Horton at Harper's, Jane Mayer discussed the reaction to the ICRC charges:
... Abu Zubayda claimed to have been locked in a tiny cage, in which he had to remain doubled up for long periods of time, prior to the period when he was waterboarded. This account — which he gave to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) — was confirmed to me independently by a former CIA officer familiar with his interrogation....
The reaction of top Bush Administration officials to the ICRC report, from what I can gather, has been defensive and dismissive. They reject the ICRC’s legal analysis as incorrect. Yet my reporting shows that inside the White House there has been growing fear of criminal prosecution...
Ms. Mayer concludes that the addition of an immunity provision in the Military Commissions Act passed by Congress in 2007 was an attempt to address such fears among administration figures. She further opines that it seems unlikely to her that anyone in the Bush administration will actually face domestic prosecution for war crimes, as the "political appetite" seems lacking. And then she adds the following (emphasis added):
An additional complicating factor is that key members of Congress sanctioned this program, so many of those who might ordinarily be counted on to lead the charge are themselves compromised.
A Prominent Psychologist Comes Under Fire
While medical personnel associated with the ICRC have played a heroic role in documenting and advocating for prisoners' rights, doctors and psychologists associated with U.S. detention and interrogation of so-called "enemy combatants" in the "war on terror" have not acquitted themselves with the same ethical probity. In fact, they may be guilty of war crimes themselves.
Jane Mayer's new book also looks more closely at the utilization of SERE techniques as a template for U.S. torture of detainees. (SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, & Escape, and is a military program aimed at training U.S. soldiers for torture at the hands of vicious captors, those who would not honor Geneva Convention protocols. Ironically, the U.S. itself announced that "enemy combatants" are not bound by those same Geneva agreements.)
It's been a year since SERE military psychologists James Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen were accused, in an article by Katherine Eban in Vanity Fair, of teaching SERE techniques to interrogators at Guantanamo and elsewhere. (I covered the "nuts and bolts" of how SERE procedures were taught at Guantanamo in a recent essay.) According to a different article by Jane Mayer last year, Mitchell utilized the theories of "learned helplessness" in implementing his interrogation lessons. (Mr. Mitchell denied this assertion.) Mayer wrote:
Steve Kleinman, a reserve Air Force colonel and an experienced interrogator who has known Mitchell professionally for years, said that "learned helplessness was his whole paradigm." Mitchell, he said, "draws a diagram showing what he says is the whole cycle. It starts with isolation. Then they eliminate the prisoners’ ability to forecast the future—when their next meal is, when they can go to the bathroom. It creates dread and dependency. It was the K.G.B. model. But the K.G.B. used it to get people who had turned against the state to confess falsely. The K.G.B. wasn’t after intelligence."
This torture model of dread, debility through isolation, and dependency may have been the model of the K.G.B., but it was intellectually codified by U.S. psychologists and psychiatrists in the 1950s, most notably in a 1956 article in the journal Sociometry, Brainwashing, Conditioning, and DDD (Debility, Dependency, and Dread). One of the authors of this article, Harry Harlow, went on to become a president of the American Psychological Association (APA).
In Mayer's new book, she implicates another former APA president in the development of torture, Martin Seligman, the creator of the theory of "learned helplessness". I have not seen Mayer's book, which hasn't been released yet, so my accounts come from statements online by Scott Horton, as well as the latter's interview with Mayer previously cited. Horton wrote (emphasis added):
[Mayer] traces the development of the torture techniques to the work of two contractors, Mitchell and Jessen, and disclosed the specific techniques they developed. She notes that the techniques rely heavily on a theory called "Learned Helplessness" developed by a Penn psychologist Martin Seligman, who assisted them in the process.
Seligman is no obscure academic, or bureaucrat. He is one of the best known psychologists in the country, a prominent professor, and leader of the Positive Psychology movement, often quoted in the nation's psychology textbooks. Mayer's allegations about Seligman were picked up anti-torture activist and psychologist Stephen Soldz at his blog. This brought a rejoinder from Seligman himself, denying he assisted in torture in any way. He continued:
I gave a three hour lecture sponsored by SERE (the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape branch of the American armed forces) at the San Diego Naval Base in May 2002. My topic was how American troops and American personnel could use what is known about learned helplessness and related findings to resist torture and evade successful interrogation by their captors.
I was told then that since I was (and am) a civilian with no security clearance that they could not discuss American methods of interrogation with me. I have not had contact with SERE since that meeting. I have not worked under government contract (or any other contract) on any aspect of interrogation or any aspect of torture. Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Jessen were present in the audience of about 50 others at my speech, and that was, to the best of my knowledge, the sum total of my "assisting them in the process."
What Seligman Told Me
In December 2006, following suspicions (at that time uncorroborated by government documents) that SERE had been used to reverse-engineer torture, as reported by Jane Mayer in a July 2005 New Yorker article, which mentioned Seligman by name, and by Mark Benjamin at Salon.com, I wrote to Seligman and asked him about reports he had taught at the SERE school. I was then researching an article on psychological research into sensory deprivation and torture. (The article turned into a presentation at the APA convention in 2007, and was subsequently published as "Psychology and Research into Coercive Interrogation".) Dr. Seligman's answer to me then (December 2006) was much the same as that made to Soldz above.
I tried to push Seligman a little harder on the issue:
I really have only one outstanding question that remains from my original questions: Were you aware -- or do you even believe -- that your work on learned helplessness has been used not only to help our soldiers withstand coercive interrogation, but to conduct such types of interrogation by U.S. interrogators themselves?
Martin Seligman replied tersely:
I am not available for further comment. (2)
About seven months later, as further revelations about SERE and torture surfaced, including admissions by the Pentagon Office of Inspector General (in a report publicly released in May 2007) that SERE reverse-engineering had taken place, and that Mitchell and Jessen were involved, I revisited the issue with Dr. Seligman in August 2007:
When I wrote to you before, you declined to comment on my question. But I think it is incumbent upon you now to say more about what you know, as well as what you think, about the use of your work by military and CIA psychologists to instigate torture. I ask you this as a colleague in the field, and as a psychologist interested in stopping torture, and ashamed of the actions of some in our field in perpetuating abusive behavior. I would think you would like to clear your name, which otherwise remains linked (even if in obscure ways) to some of the worst episodes in our nation's and our profession's history.
Dr. Seligman replied (emphasis added):
I am entirely out of this loop, having had zero contact with SERE since my talk in April 2002. I know nothing at all about how they have applied LH concepts to either help our own people or to the interrogation of prisoners. When I asked about the latter at my talk, they told me that they could not give me any information at all, since I had no "classification."
My talk was about how to teach our people to resist LH [Learned Helplessness] and my life work has been devoted to the issues of undoing LH, not about inducing it in other human beings.
Once again, I persevered, intrigued that Seligman appeared to be admitting that he had asked about application of "learned helplessness" techniques to the interrogation of prisoners. Why, in December 2002, had he bothered to ask? Was he suspicious? Did he know more than he was saying, or even worse, had he done more than he was admitting? I wrote (emphasis in original):
I appreciate your quick reply, and I understand that you had nothing to do with how LH concepts were used by others. But, given the controversy over psychologist participation in interrogations (a vote on competing resolutions is due at the next [APA] Council meeting), and the fact that your ideas and research were obviously used (you even asked them about it), what is your position on the use of your research by others, and on psychologists involved in military/CIA interrogations under the current administration?
Dr. Seligman replied:
The only "position" I am comfortable staking out is "Good science always runs the risk of immoral application. It goes with the territory of discovery."
Doubling and Collaboration with Torture
Dr. Seligman's "position" was startling. Even if one accepts his denial of further association with the torture program initiated by the Bush administration, utilizing SERE coercive techniques, Seligman seems to believe it's okay to settle for a "see no evil" approach. In his point of view, he is a scientist, a discoverer of new knowledge. If his work might be abused, that is not a concern of his.
This is an immoral position, of course, even if not necessarily criminal, in a forensic sense. If I could question him further, I would ask why he was asked to give this particular "lecture" at a SERE school at this time, and who asked him to do so. (Mayer says Seligman was connected with the CIA, but no further details are given.) I would further ask what led him to inquire about the possible use of SERE techniques on interrogations of prisoners, and why, when he was waved off, he acquiesced so meekly.
For years now, Dr. Seligman has been quiet about the use of his own theories in the application of horrifying torture techniques. Why this silence?
The situation with Seligman, like those of other psychologists and psychiatrists who worked for the CIA's MKULTRA and like programs over forty years ago, reminds me of the analysis Robert Jay Lifton made of the behavior of doctors in Nazi Germany, who were implicated in anti-semitic purges of Jews from the medicine field, and in programs of forced sterilization, euthanasia of mental patients, and later, in the operations of the concentration camps. (The Germans, I should note, were not the only people to engage in forced sterilizations. The United States, too, engaged in eugenics policies such as forced sterilization earlier in the twentieth century, and many doctors participated in that.)
In his book, The Nazi Doctors, Lifton describes the phenomenon of "doubling", or "socialization to evil."
Doubling arises in the context where a professional must "function psychologically in an environment... antithetical to his previous ethical standards..." The person must be able to connect with both the prior, ethical self and the new, unethical environment or institution. The splitting of the professional self allows for an adaptation to evil and an escape from subsequent feelings of guilt or wrong-doing, as "the second self tends to be the one performing the 'dirty work'." What makes the entire process so insidious is that it usually takes place outside of individual consciousness, even as it involves "a significant change in moral consciousness." Thus, doubling can be understood as an adaptation to an extremely immoral culture or institution, allowing for disavowal of guilt. (See The Nazi Doctors, Lifton, pp. 421-423).
We can see this in Seligman's disavowal of any wrong-doing, and even his strong protestations of being against torture. Now, it's notoriously difficult to psychoanalyze someone from afar, but how else are we to explain the monumental and repeated violations of basic ethical practice by physicians and psychologists over the years, whether it has to do with secret study done on unknowing African-American subjects as part of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis patients experiments that lasted for forty years, until 1972; the human plutonium radiation experiments of the last century; the CIA mind control programs noted above; or the development and implementation of current psychological torture programs, which continues to date?
Are We Morally Doomed?
I think Jane Mayer is wrong on one point. As pointed out earlier, she is pessimistic that this nation has the "political appetite" to bring the perpetrators of torture to the bar of justice in his country. I hear that from many. But where there is a will, there is, proverbially, a way. It is not about "appetite" anymore. It is about what we must do, if we are not to take that final step into the dark side, a place Vice President Cheney so-famously told us we would have to go. We know now what awaits us there.
Worse even than the doubling of an individual like Martin Seligman is the behavior of the professional organizations for doctors and psychologists. The American Medical Association, while officially having a policy of not participating in interrogations at Bush's war on terror prisons, has taken no steps I know of to investigate or police violations of this policy. For years, the American Psychological Association has maintained that, while against torture, it supports psychologists working at prisons like Guantanamo, even if they do not allow basic human rights, because supposedly they lessen the possibility of abuse. The logic is grotesque, at best, and grossly misleading when you realize it's psychologists who have been implicated in organizing the abuse. But on this, the APA remains silent, rendering that organization, in Mayer's own characterization, "worthless."
In the famous legend, Faust bargains away his soul to the devil for the privilege of obtaining knowledge. In Goethe's rendering of the story, Faust is redeemed in the end, and the spirits who help him remind us, "He who persists in striving ever upwards, him we can save."
(1) Quote taken from Robert Jay Lifton's The Nazi Doctors, Basic Books, 1986/2000, p. 418.
(2) The quotes from my email correspondence with Dr. Seligman were the source of some quandary for me, as I was unsure whether to utilize them. I sought consultation for this issue with a long-time, highly respected journalist who thought it appropriate. I do want to make clear that all who communicate with me by voice or by writing (including email) and ask for confidentiality or non-attribution will have their request respected. My quotations from the Seligman correspondence with me are drawn from a professional exchange and not, in my opinion, privileged.
Also posted at Invictus