Inside an interrogation room at Guantanamo Bay. By Haraz Ghanbari/AP Photo.
A scathing new report reveals how the Defense Department and psychologists went in on what amounts to an “undisclosed joint venture.”
Why, exactly, did the United States end up torturing detainees during George W. Bush’s administration’s war on terror, when there was no scientific proof that coercive interrogations would yield valuable intelligence, and ample proof that it would harm our national security interests, elicit false information and spread unnecessary ill will throughout the Muslim world, possibly for generations to come?
It’s a head scratcher, to say the least, but a blockbuster report issued last week suggests one answer: greed. Specifically, the greed of psychologists who hoped to receive, and in some cases did receive, financial benefits in exchange for providing the Pentagon with intellectual and moral cover for its torture of detainees.
The American Psychological Association, roughly the equivalent of the American Medical Association for psychologists, played a crucial, long-hidden role in the story of American torture. James Elmer Mitchell, who created the C.I.A.’s torture program with Bruce Jessen, was a member of the A.P.A. Psychologists sold the C.I.A. and the Pentagon on a menu of aggressive interrogation techniques presented as scientifically proven to be effective; in reality, they were based on Communist methods designed not to find the truth but to produce false confessions that could be used for propaganda purposes.
When information about psychologists assisting in coercive interrogations began to trickle out in 2004, the A.P.A. did not condemn the psychologists involved. Instead, the A.P.A. defended them, thereby applying a sheen of respectability to coercive interrogations. The new, 542-page report—named after David Hoffman, the former prosecutor who oversaw the investigation—found that the A.P.A. task force that made some of these critical ethical decisions was influenced by behind-the-scenes collusion with the Defense Department.
Indeed, this was a uniquely American scandal—one with careerism and profiteering at its heart, and real science out the window. But a close reading of the 542-page report raises another troubling possibility: were it not for the immediate and future profits to be made by psychologists looking for any angle for self-advancement, the torture of detainees may have never happened at all.
As well, had the defense department, ever sensitive about public opinion, faced unanimous opposition from all the medical and mental health professional societies, it may well have been forced to reconsider its interrogation methods early on.
This began, for the most part, in 2005, when the executive board of A.P.A. convened the Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security to determine whether the A.P.A. ethics code adequately addressed a relatively new phenomenon in the war on terror: psychologists who were in the room during coercive interrogations, and helping to extract intelligence. The PENS task force deliberations led to a change in the organization’s ethics code, which clarified that psychologists could be present, so long as they saw their role as to help keep the interrogations safe, legal, ethical and effective.
It was a loophole big enough to drive a waterboard through.
In 2006, a number of the psychologists who sat on the task force, and disagreed with its conclusions, came to see me, alleging that the process had been manipulated, the task force itself had been packed with military psychologists and its conclusion essentially pre-ordained. The task force records they gave me held no overt evidence of collusion. However, my investigation ultimately led me to find that it was two psychologists on contract to the C.I.A., Mitchell and Jessen, who had actually designed the C.I.A.’s coercive interrogation regimen, by reversing the tactics used in a military training course, Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE), that is used to train troops how to resist interrogations.
And as we learned from a report summary released by the U.S. Senate Select Intelligence Committee last December, Mitchell and Jessen not only designed and monitored the torture, but undertook it with sleeves rolled up, an effort for which their company Mitchell Jessen & Associates was awarded $180 million in contracts by the C.I.A., $81 million of which was paid by the time the agreement was terminated.
The Hoffman report is about their enablers, the senior staff of the A.P.A. who gave the Defense Department and to a lesser degree the C.I.A. cover for these activities, when other medical associations had pulled its members from the torture chambers. Why would a high-level task force of psychologists give their okay, and in so doing, corrupt a professional association to its core? One of the answers, concludes the Hoffman report, is money. The DoD had been a long-standing benefactor to the psychology profession, and interrogations were a potential growth sector. There was, in other words, a market for white-washing torture. “In some ways, DoD is like a rich, powerful uncle to A.P.A.” the report concludes. “The financial motivations for A.P.A. related to the substantial benefits that flowed from DoD to the profession of psychology.”
The report details how A.P.A. officials colluded secretly with defense department officials, plotted to deflect critics, used procedural sleight-of-hand to bury ethics complaints against participating psychologists, ignored blatant conflicts of interest, kept their communications secret and even tried to destroy the e-mail trail when things got too close for comfort. So determined were some A.P.A. staff to remove any daylight between psychologists and their defense department benefactors, that they even suppressed a book of essays raising questions about war’s troubling impact, with the specious claim that some of the science wasn’t sound.
At least one former A.P.A. president, Joseph Matarazzo, was consulted by the C.I.A. as to whether sleep deprivation constituted torture. He gave his expert opinion that it wasn’t necessarily torture. He wound up with a one percent ownership stake in Mitchell Jessen & Associates, though he told the Sidley Austin firm that his stake was in an entity called Knowledge Works, a division of the company devoted to continuing education activities.
The most extreme example of collusion, according to the report, is the A.P.A.’s own ethics director Dr. Stephen Behnke, who comes off as a villainous charmer practically worthy of Shakespeare. Behnke’s back-channel communications with Dr. Morgan Banks, then the Chief Army Operational Psychologist for the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, were so continuous – checking in to determine what A.P.A.’s position should be, what its public statements should say, and what strategy to pursue — that they amounted to an “undisclosed joint venture,” the report says.
The collaboration between the two men was intended to be secret. According to the Hoffman report, in an e-mail to Banks where Behnke “sought his review and pre-clearance” of a draft A.P.A. statement, Behnke told Banks that ‘discretion about prior review is essential.’ They titled numerous emails ‘Eyes Only,’” and discussed making sure their e-mails were “securely deleted.”
In one instance where Behnke was to do a live N.P.R. interview on the interrogation question, he expressed to Banks and another military associate that he wished they could be in the room with him to help him better refine the desired message. When one DoD official praised him as a “superb strategist,” the report notes Behnke responded with an “e-mail wink emoticon.”
We also learn here for the first time that a desire to help the C.I.A.-contracted psychologists Mitchell and Jessen continue their work was likely one factor that led the A.P.A. to form its task force. Kirk Hubbard, a leading C.I.A. psychologist, who supervised Mitchell and Jessen, contacted the organization in March 2004 with the concern that psychologists assisting in interrogations might be violating the A.P.A. ethics code. Instead of raising questions about their activities, Behnke took the lead in proposing an approach that would be “positive [and] supportive” of the psychologists in question. That approach turned out to be a wholesale change to the ethics code.
The report also raises the specter of self-dealing, in that while Behnke was manipulating the A.P.A.’s processes, he was serving as a contractor to DoD, leading psychologist interrogation training programs. The Hoffman report states that it had not yet determined whether Behnke had turned over all defense department contracting fees to the A.P.A.’s ethics office. The report also shows that Behnke purposely concealed his contracting activities from the A.P.A. board. In emails, he proposed to one military psychologist that he describe the trainings in his “yearly report to the Board” with “something simple” like “training on ethics and interrogations” without identifying the military facility where the trainings took place.
With calls growing for a Justice Department investigation of A.P.A. officials, it was disclosed Sunday that Behnke had retained probably the best person to stop a Justice Department probe in its tracks: former F.B.I. director Louis Freeh. Freeh released a statement calling the Hoffman report “defamatory” and a “gross mischaracterization of [Behnke’s] intentions, goals, and actions.” The statement concludes with a barely-veiled threat: “Fortunately, in America it is judges and juries who decide the law, not private organizations beholden to political agendas.” On Tuesday, the A.P.A. announced the retirement of its C.E.O. and deputy C.E.O. (the latter of whom was Behnke’s supervisor), and the resignation of its communications director, who had been involved in much of the association’s disingenuous messaging. (A representative from Freeh’s office declined to make Behnke available for comment.)
With the release of the report, the A.P.A. issued a public apology for the organizational failings, as well as proposals to increase transparency and overhaul its ethics process. But one thing is clear: over the last decade, many supposed experts in parsing the human psyche allowed the expectation of fat government contracts to cause them to lose their heads.