Top U.S. Behavioral Scientists Studied Survival Schools to Create Torture Program Over 50 Years Ago

12:02 pm in Uncategorized by Jeff Kaye

In commemoration of the passage of the treaty known as the Convention Against Torture (CAT), the United Nations declared June 26 the International Day of Support of Victims of Torture, I want to review where we are in the fight against U.S. torture today. I also want to revisit some important episodes in the history of how we arrived here, including the a look at the role of top U.S. behavioral scientists in the construction of a torture program for the CIA and military.

The U.S. is formally a signatory to CAT, but from the day it was ratified by the U.S. Senate, the treaty was eviscerated by a number of "reservations, declarations, and understandings", which legalisms were meant to shield the United States from actions that any reasonable person would understand constitute torture or cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment of prisoners. Still, the CAT remained a formidable obstacle to the Bush/Cheney lawyers, when they were drawing up their memorandum to allow torture. Yoo, Bybee and Bradbury made sure they addressed legal problems for the administration faced by the treaty the U.S. signed, and turned rhetorical and forensic somersaults to make sure that no one would charge U.S. actors for the crimes of torture.

Meanwhile, the administration of Barack Obama has made a fetish of the idea that U.S. society must not "look backward," and refuses to promote the necessary investigations and prosecutions of the crimes undertaken by the Bush/Cheney administration — and this is true even after recent revelations indicate that besides torture, illegal human experimentation on prisoners also occurred. Even worse, there is plenty of evidence to now indicate the Obama administration has itself embraced the policies of rendition, secret prisons, assassination, and abuse of prisoners.

Nor has Congress acquitted itself especially well. The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) undertook an in-depth investigation of Department of Defense involvement in detainee abuse, producing a fairly redacted public report that described how the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency and its Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape school (SERE) personnel were utilized to teach torture methods to the CIA, the DIA, and Special Operations teams (and perhaps others — see PDF report). Nevertheless, the SASC never recommended any specific reforms, and not one high-ranking military officer was held accountable for what had occurred. The use of JPRA personnel in interrogations remained "a policy decision" to be decided by the Secretary of Defense — who happens to remain, over a third of the way through Obama’s current term of office, Bush Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

The Senate and House Intelligence Committees were supposedly briefed on the CIA’s interrogation program, but as a number of articles by Marcy Wheeler have documented, the CIA lied about who was briefed, and falsified the evidence of the briefings when it was convenient to them.

Even so, one could criticize the overall actions of Congress on the torture issue. The Senate Intelligence Committee currently is investigating the circumstances around the CIA’s interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, and other aspects of the CIA "enhanced interrogation" program, including charges of human experimentation. But this investigation is behind closed doors, and we cannot judge its efficacy, nor does it do what real investigations of torture should do: educate the public about what has occurred, and mobilize society for the necessary task of cleaning up the government from the infection of torture and brutality that debilitates it. In order to keep the truth at bay, ever-increasing attacks against whistleblowers, ever-increasing encroachments on civil liberties and privacy, are taking place.

On this International Day of Support of Victims of Torture, I offer a reposting of an article of mine from last year, posted at Jason Leopold’s The Public Record. This is an important article that details the origins of the torture program, and demonstrates the importance of delaying real accountability. A failure to end the practice of torture has resulted in increasing militarism, increasing governmental secrecy, and the empowerment of a clique of individuals whose operations and immorality have penetrated to every major societal institution.

If this article is too long for you, bookmark it and read it later. Send it to your iPad or Kindle, print it out and read it at your leisure (though you might miss the hyperlinks). As an accompanying piece, you might also wish to take a look at this excellent diary at Daily Kos, which describes the uses of torture domestically, in U.S. jails and Supermax prisons. Torture at home, torture abroad, the question we must be asking ourselves is this: So far down the road to becoming a "torture state," do we have the courage and fortitude to turn back, to create a better society, or will we succumb to barbarism?

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Top U.S. Behavioral Scientists Studied Survival Schools to Create Torture Program Over 50 Years Ago

A couple of recent articles have highlighted the unseemly fact that some past presidents of the American Psychological Association (APA), the foremost professional organization for psychologists in the United States, if not the world, had links to the use of torture, or at least to military research into coercive interrogations.

An article by Jane Mayer in the recent New Yorker on CIA Director Leon Panetta noted in passing the participation of a former APA president Joseph Matarazzo on the governing staff of the Mitchell, Jessen & Associates (MJA) torture firm. First identified as one of the “governing people” of MJA by Bill Morlin in a Spokesman Review article in August 2007, Matarazzo is now known to have also been CIA, as noted in an article by Physicians for Human Rights Campaign Against Torture director, Nathaniel Raymond (emphasis added):

Mayer notes, parenthetically, that she has learned from the CIA’s Kirk Hubbard that former American Psychological Association president Joseph Matarazzo sat on the CIA’s professional-standards board at the time when psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen were developing an interrogation program for the CIA, based on the US military’s SERE training program.

This new information came at the same time as former APA insider Bryant Welch was publishing his own tell-all about APA and the Defense Department, "Torture, Psychology, and Daniel Inouye". Welch singled out former APA presidents Gerald Koocher and Ron Levant, along with Senator Daniel Inouye’s office, as key lobbyists for the participation of psychologists in interrogations (emphasis added):

One of Inouye’s administrative assistants, psychologist Patrick Deleon, has long been active in the APA and served a term in 2000 as APA president. For significant periods of time DeLeon has literally directed APA staff on federal policy matters and has dominated the APA governance on political matters. For over twenty-five years, relationships between the APA and the Department of Defense (DOD) have been strongly encouraged and closely coordinated by DeLeon.

Another famous former APA president, Martin Seligman, was also linked with the government’s recent torture program. According to Jane Mayer, Seligman taught his “learned helplessness” theories to the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape or SERE psychologists, who reverse-engineered it into the “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” used by the CIA and DoD to torture prisoners in “war on terror” prisons around the world. Seligman admitted lecturing at SERE, but has denied any role in torture.

The role of former APA presidents DeLeon, Koocher, Levant, Seligman, and Matarazzo in supporting the role of military psychologists in interrogations, even after evidence of torture by the U.S. government was manifest, is perhaps unequalled in the annals of professional societies, as providing political, and possibly organizational and theoretical or practical support to unethical procedures, especially torture. (Stephen Soldz has outlined some of this recent history in an article just posted at ACLU Blog of Rights.) One might think this a terrible offshoot of the former Bush administration’s insane post-9/11 turn to the “dark side.”

But that is not the end of the story; it is not even the beginning.

Before this set of military/CIA-collaborationist APA presidents, there was Harry Harlow, and before him, Donald Hebb. Both were famous, distinguished U.S. psychologists, and both had been presidents of the APA in the 1950s. Both engaged in research, some of it secret, for the military and CIA. Hebb was a pioneer in the study of sensory deprivation. Harlow’s contribution was more synthetic: he helped construct an entire paradigm around the problem of how to break down an individual by torture.

In 1956, in the pages of an obscure academic journal, Sociometry, I.E. Farber, Harry F. Harlow, and psychiatrist Louis Jolyon West published a classic work on interrogation, Brainwashing, Conditioning, and DDD (Debility, Dependency, and Dread) (BCD). It was based on a report for the Study Group on Survival Training, paid for by the U.S. Air Force. (See West LJ., Medical and psychiatric considerations in survival training. In Report of the Special Study Group on Survival Training (AFR 190 16). Lackland Air Force Base, Tex: Air Force Personnel and Training Research Centers; 1956.) This research linked Air Force “Survival” training, later called SERE, with torture techniques, and as we will see, use of such techniques by the CIA, something we would see again decades later in the Mitchell-Jessen “exploitation” plan.

BCD examined the various types of stress undergone by prisoners, and narrowed them down to “three important elements: debility, dependency, and dread”.

Debility was a condition caused by “semi-starvation, fatigue, and disease”. It induced “a sense of terrible weariness”.

Dependency on the captors for some relief from their agony was something “produced by the prolonged deprivation of many of the factors, such as sleep and food… [and] was made more poignant by occasional unpredictable brief respites.” The use of prolonged isolation of the prisoner, depriving an individual of expected social intercourse and stimulation, “markedly strengthened the dependency”.

Dread probably needs no explanation, but BCD described it as “chronic fear…. Fear of death, fear of pain, fear of nonrepatriation, fear of deformity of permanent disability…. even fear of one’s own inability to satisfy the demands of insatiable interrogators.”

The bulk of BCD explains the effects of DDD in terms of Pavlovian conditioning and the learning theories of American psychologist Edward Thorndike. The consequence of the resulting “collapse of ego functions” is described as similar to “postlobotomy syndrome”.

By disorganizing the perception of those experiential continuities constituting the self-concept and impoverishing the basis for judging self-consistency, DDD affects one’s habitual ways of looking at and dealing with oneself. [p. 275]

BCD explains aspects of the U.S. torture program that otherwise to our eyes appear insane. (Not that it isn’t on a moral level “insane.”) Take the painful stress positioning of prisoners documented at Abu Ghraib and other U.S.-run detainee prisons — most recently, at Bagram prison in Afghanistan. BCE explains: it’s all part of inducing dependency through expectation of relief, but in a diabolical way. Forced stress positions are a “self-inflicted punishment”, one which increases the expectancy of relief via “voluntary” means. But the latter is “delusory… since the captor may select any behavior he chooses as the condition for relieving a prisoner’s distress” [pp. 276-277].

This form of carrot and stick torture may not seem that sophisticated, but it is the use of basic nervous system functioning and human instinctual need that makes it “scientific”. The need for sensory stimulation and social interaction, the need to eat, to sleep, to reduce fear, all of these are used to build dependencies upon the captor, using the fact that “the strengthening effects of rewards — in this instance the alleviation of an intensely unpleasant emotional state — are fundamentally automatic” [p. 278]. This impairment of higher cognitive states and disruption and disorganization of the prisoner’s self-concept, producing something like “a pathological organic state”, was subsequently modified and used by the CIA in its interrogations of countless individuals. If more brutal forms of torture sometimes were used, especially by over-eager foreign agents or governments, DDD remained the gold standard, the programmatic core of counterintelligence interrogation at the heart of the CIA’s own intelligence manuals.

Chapter Nine of the 1963 CIA KUBARK manual, ”Coercive Counterintelligence Interrogation of Resistant Sources,” describes coercive interrogation procedures as “designed to induce regression.”

The anonymous authors of KUBARK quote the BCD article specifically:

Farber says that the response to coercion typically contains “… at least three important elements: debility, dependency, and dread.” Prisoners “… have reduced viability, are helplessly dependent on their captors for the satisfaction of their many basic needs, and experience the emotional and motivational reactions of intense fear and anxiety”….

The subheads to the chapter are evocative of the DDD paradigm: “Deprivation of Sensory Stimuli”, “Threats and Fear”, “Debility”, “Pain”, “Heightened Suggestibility and Hypnosis”, and “Narcosis”. That this was all constructed, in part, by the demented genius of a famous U.S. psychologist and former president of the APA only contributes to a deep, dark irony that runs like a blood-red gash through the body politic of this country.

The 2006 rewrite of the Army Field Manual was lauded for banning the beating of prisoners, threatening them with dogs, sexual humiliation, performing mock executions, electrocution of prisoners, and waterboarding, among other “techniques.” But in an appendix to the manual, the following procedures are authorized for certain prisoners: complete separation, sometimes with forced wearing of goggles and earmuffs, for up to 30 days (after which approval for more must be sought); limiting sleep to four hours a day, for 30 straight days (and more, with approval); and other concurrent techniques, including “futility”, “incentive”, and “fear up harsh”. In the latter, fear within a detainee is significantly increased, through knowledge of the person’s phobias, if possible.

In the press, and in the speeches of politicians on both sides of the aisle, the new AFM was praised as a model of reform. The CIA was urged to embrace the AFM’s policies, but has demurred. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is studying the interrogation issue, but so far has advocated the AFM be the government-wide interogation standard. Why, one wonders, as it’s evident the AFM has maintained a core DDD operational capacity (isolation, sleep and sensory deprivation, fear)? The Center for Constitutional Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, Amnesty International and other human rights organization have called publicly for the Obama administration to rescind Appendix M and other offensive sections of the Army Field Manual.

It is important that all elements of the U.S. torture program be exposed and made illegal. If the country can not rise morally to this, then a terrifying future lies before us.