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Torture-linked Shrink’s Army Program Labels Some Soldiers “Spiritually Unfit”

4:25 pm in Military, Torture by Jeff Kaye

Jason Leopold has posted a new article at Truthout, describing how an “experimental, Army mental-health, fitness initiative” called Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) is drawing criticism from civil rights groups and rank-and-file soldiers by testing military personnel for “spiritual fitness.”

CSF appears to be the brainchild of Brig. Gen. Rhonda Cornum and Dr. Martin Seligman, the psychologist who developed the theories of “learned helplessness” and “learned optimism.” Jane Mayer, Scott Shane, and others have connected Seligman to talks at San Diego’s SERE school in May 2002, where he discussed, in Seligman’s own words, “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.” Notorious SERE/CIA interrogator-psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen were present at the Seligman talk. Former Air Force Colonel Steve Kleinman told Jane Mayer that he knew Mitchell for years, and “learned helplessness was his whole paradigm.”

According to Jason Leopold, five months prior to the May 2002 SERE lecture:

… Seligman hosted a meeting at his house that was attended by Mitchell, along with the CIA’s then-Director of Behavioral Science Research, Kirk Hubbard, and an Israeli intelligence agent. Seligman has claimed he was totally unaware his theory on Learned Helplessness was being used against detainees after 9/11 and denied ever engaging in discussions about the Bush administration’s torture program with Mitchell, Jessen, or any other government official.

But Seligman’s SERE days appear to be behind him, and he has repackaged himself as “Dr. Happy.” His new “learned optimism” theories, supposedly sold in program format (for millions of dollars) to the Army as a way to reduce PTSD and suicide rates, are instead packaging conformist and religious ideologies in the name of resiliency “fitness” for the Army.

CSF examines “spiritual fitness” with questions like “I am a spiritual person, my life has lasting meaning, I believe that in some way my life is closely connected to all humanity and all the world.” One soldier tested last month told Truthout that he was labeled “spiritually unfit” because he answered the “not like me at all” box. As a result, the Army has told him he “may lack a sense of meaning or purpose in his life.” Presumably, like other soldiers with low spirituality scores, he’ll have to attend remedial courses and “be forced to participate in exercises that use religious imagery to ‘train’ soldiers up to a satisfactory level of spirituality.”

According to the Truthout article, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) has sent letters to the Army demanding it “immediately cease and desist administering the ‘spiritual’ portion of the CSF test.

The fact the Army is enforcing religious ideology upon soldiers is already outrageous enough, but the piquant irony by which the primary theorist of the program is also one of the primary theorists behind the use of certain techniques to break down and torture people, and whose theories were used by DoD/CIA psychologists to devise a diabolical torture program, well… one’s head could spin for days processing the internal contradictions. But that’s America today, a torturing country that uses huckster psychology to promote ersatz spirituality in soldiers sent to invade foreign countries for the purpose of selling arms and controlling oil and gas supplies.

What’s next? Will atheism be pronounced a new form of “material support to terrorism”? Will Elmer Gantry replace Robert Gates as next Secretary of Defense? Gates has been President Obama’s Secretary of Defense nearly as long now as he served as same in the administration of George W. Bush.

Truly, nothing can be considered strange anymore.

Psychologists Notes May Indicate Zubaydah Torture Experimentation

12:01 pm in Uncategorized by Jeff Kaye

Originally posted at Truthout

One interesting nugget found in newly released CIA documents related to the destruction of 92 torture tapes concerns the unreported existence of psychologist’s notes as a standard part of the interrogation protocol.

In a "top secret" paper (undated) entitled "The CIA Interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, March 2001 – January 2003," in a section that, though heavily redacted, describes the review of the tapes by a CIA attorney from the Office of General Counsel, "interrogation materials" are described as consisting of "videotapes, logbook, notebook, and psychologist’s notes."

(The "March 2001" date on the report is surely incorrect, and should say March 2002, when Zubaydah was captured and brought into the CIA interrogation process. There are many errors and outright lies in the report. One of them concerns the affirmative statement that Zubaydah was "the author of a seminal Al Qaeda manual on resistance to interrogation methods." This is a step beyond the conditional language used to assert the same claim in other CIA documents. The al-Qaeda manual’s authorship is considered unknown. It was discovered in May 2000 on a computer drive belonging to Anas al-Liby in Manchester, England. Al-Liby was reportedly working then with purported double or triple agent, FBI informant and former US Special Forces member, Ali Mohamed. Al-Liby himself, was, according to a November 2002 story in the UK Guardian, a member of a Libyan al-Qaeda cell that was paid by British intelligence in 1996 to attempt an assassination of Muammar Gaddafi.)

The content of those psychologist notes, should they become available, will indicate to what end CIA interrogators and/or behavioral scientists were measuring the responses of Zubaydah or other prisoners to variations in the interrogation techniques’ application. Variables of interest to CIA psychologists might include head movements and hand movements, facial expressions or microexpressions, used in detecting deception or behavioral manifestations of stress. These types of observation are synonymous with computer analysis and argue for the use of a digital video system or the transfer of analog video into data stored on magnetic or optical media. The same release of documents to the ACLU that contained the "The CIA Interrogation of Abu Zubaydah," also described CIA officials asking for "instructions" regarding the "disposition of hard drives and magnetic media" associated with the torture of Zubaydah.

In his or her notes, the CIA psychologist-analyst also would be describing mood; affect (appropriate or not, what it was); observed variations in consciousness, including instances of possible dissociation; and particularly unusual behaviors (e.g., urinating on oneself, or continually masturbating, as Zubaydah was reported to do as a soothing activity for a person highly stressed and regressed).

The examination of psychological variables, such as could be determined upon videotape review, does not rule out other forms of data that could be drawn from the prisoner interrogations. The CIA has noted that it took preliminary medical examinations of prisoners, and that while they were subjected to "enhanced interrogation techniques" they were medically and psychologically monitored daily. Such medical forms of monitoring would include variables associated with the experience of "uncontrollable stress."

Studying "Uncontrollable Stress" and "Learned Helplessness"

In a number of professional studies, the terms "uncontrollable stress" and "learned helplessness" are used interchangeably, as in this example. The term learned helplessness itself was fashioned by psychologist, researcher and former American Psychological (APA) President Martin Seligman. The theory was taken up by military psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen to describe the kinds of effects on prisoners the enhanced interrogation techniques were meant to produce. While Seligman spoke to a SERE meeting in 2002 on the subject of learned helplessness, he denies he had any connection with the formation of the Bush-era torture program. Last August, Scott Shane of The New York Times reported that Mitchell visited Seligman’s home, accompanied by CIA psychologist Kirk Hubbard, where "a small group of professors and law enforcement and intelligence officers gathered … to brainstorm about Muslim extremism."

CIA and Department of Defense (DoD) researchers are known to have experimented (including upon SERE mock torture trainees) with the use of a number of techniques to measure such uncontrollable stress, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), acoustic startle eye-blink response (ASER), heart rate variability (HRV), testosterone and neuroendrocrine sampling, particularly of cortisol and neuropeptide-Y (NPY).

Psychologist’s notes might also include preliminary hypotheses in relation to these reactions and the psychological theories of learned helplessness that were driving the interrogations. Perhaps – and this would be even more important – we would discover evidence that the psychologist(s) were conjuring suggestions about ways to manipulate the situation on a day-by-day basis.

From what is known or speculated about a second taping system used in the interrogation of Zubaydah, it seems likely that psychologist notes were also an integral part of the process involved in the use of those tapes.

The specific use of psychologist’s notes corroborates earlier information that ongoing psychological and medical observations were playing a key role in the CIA interrogation process. This was clearly revealed in the various Office of Legal Counsel memos released last year. According to a report by Sheri Fink at ProPublica in May 2009, descriptions of CIA cables released to the ACLU at that time (see PDFs here and here) showed that "medical update[s]" and "behavioral comments" regarding the interrogation of Zubaydah were sent from CIA personnel in the "field" to CIA headquarters on a daily basis. Fink elaborates:

On five occasions between Aug. 4 and Aug. 9, [2002] an additional cable was sent containing "medical information" along with such information as the strategies for interrogation sessions, raw intelligence, the use of interrogation techniques to elicit information, and the reactions to those techniques. The fact that medical information was included in these cables hints that Abu Zubaydah was medically monitored during or after being subjected to those techniques. Both professional organizations and human rights groups have rejected as unethical any monitoring role for medical personnel.

A number of psychologists have been associated with the CIA interrogation program, either directly through participation in the planning and implementation of the torture, or by supporting the presence of psychologists in the interrogation process. The latter issue embroiled the APA in a controversy that led to the exodus of many members. A number of the presidents and other prominent members of the APA have been connected in one way or another to the CIA and DoD interrogation programs, in clear violation of the organization’s own ethical standards.

Last August, Physicians for Human Rights released a white paper that raised the question of medical collaboration with the CIA in constructing its torture interrogation program.

"The [CIA] Inspector General’s report confirms much of what had been reported about the essential role played by health professionals in designing, deploying, monitoring and legitimizing the program of torture, but also raises disturbing new questions which require further investigation," stated the study "Aiding Torture: Health Professionals’ Ethics and Human Rights Violations Demonstrated in the May 2004 CIA Inspector General’s Report."

"The possibility that health professionals monitored techniques to assess and improve their effectiveness, constituting possible unethical human experimentation, urgently needs to be thoroughly investigated."

Waterboarding Too Dangerous, Internal DoD Memo Reveals

5:16 pm in Uncategorized by Jeff Kaye

Originally posted at Truthout

In recent weeks, former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen has been on a public relations campaign defending the efficacy of waterboarding, going so far as to say that the torture technique sanctioned by the Bush administration is not only safe, but is in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church.

On Tuesday, in an interview with "Fox News," John Yoo, the former Justice Department attorney who was the principal author of legal memoranda that cleared the way for CIA interrogators to waterboard "war on terror" detainees and subject them to other brutal torture techniques, asserted that waterboarding was harmless.

In his defense of the practice, Yoo cited the thousands of US servicemen who have undergone SERE training and said, "we don’t think it amounts to torture because we would not be doing it to our own soldiers otherwise."

However, a previously unreleased internal Department of Defense (DoD) memo, summarizing a review of the Navy SERE program in late February – early March 2007, reveals that there was fierce criticism within the DoD of the Navy SERE school in North Island, San Diego, for being the only SERE facility to still use waterboarding in its training program.

The memo, obtained by Truthout, stated that the use of waterboarding left students "psychologically defeated" and impaired in the ability to develop "psychological hardiness."

The attempt to remove waterboarding from Naval survival school training goes back to at least 2005, which was also the period when then-Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney Steven Bradbury was fashioning a series of legal opinions that approved waterboarding as an "enhanced interrogation" technique. Bradbury cited the use of waterboarding on numerous SERE students over the years, supposedly without reported serious injury or prolonged mental harm, as relevant in approving it as not meeting the legal criteria for torture.

The Joint Personnel Recovery Agency memo from Fort Belvoir, Virginia, is marked "For Official Use Only," and addressed to the headquarters of the departments of the Navy and the Marine Corps, and copied to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Security Affairs. US Air Force Col. Brendan G. Clare signed it.

SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, and SERE schools exist across the military services, but the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA) is considered the "Executive Agency" for all the SERE schools. The aim of SERE "Code of Conduct" training is to prepare US military personnel for possible capture and torture by an enemy that does not follow Geneva conventions guidelines.

The Clare memo stated, in part:

3. Area of Concern: The JPRA official stance is that the water board should not be used as a physical pressure during Level C SERE training. This position is based on factors that have the potential to affect not only students but also the whole DoD SERE program. The way the water board is most often employed, it leaves students psychologically defeated with no ability to resist under pressure. Once a student is taught that they can be beaten, and there is no way to resist, it is difficult to develop psychological hardiness. None of the other schools use the water board that leaves the San Diego school as a standout.

In an attachment to Colonel Clare’s memo, "Observations and Recommendations," JPRA indicates that the waterboard technique as used in the SERE schools is "inconsistent" with the JPRA philosophy that its training and procedures be "safe, effective" and provides "a positive learning experience."

The water board has always been the most extreme pressure that required intense supervision and oversight because of the inherent risks associated with its employment…. Forcing answers under the extreme duress of the water board does not teach resistance or resilience, but teaches that you can be beaten. When a student’s ability to develop psychological resiliency is compromised… it may create unintended consequences regarding their perception of survivability during a real world SERE event. Based on these concerns and the risks associated with using the water board, we strongly recommend that you discontinue using it [underlined in the original].

According to a "Talking Paper" attached to the memo, JPRA addressed its concerns regarding waterboarding with the commander of the San Diego SERE program going back to 2005. The paper indicated that waterboarding continues at the California SERE School because it is "an emotional issue with former Navy POWs." The talking paper, dated October 11, 2007, was incisive regarding criticism of the North Island program. Colonel Clare indicated that three of the six SERE schools had been visited by Congressional staffers, and that "It’s only a matter of time before Navy SERE School (W) is visited and the Navy has to explain and justify the continued use of this instructional method and JFCOM/JPRA is asked, why it was allowed to continue."

Furthermore, the paper indicated that JPRA felt it had "exhausted all efforts" at lower levels of bureaucracy, and indicated the issue should be brought to the attention of officers at the JFCOM [Joint Forces Command] Flag level, with an eye to preventing "an embarrassing situation" for the military, and "discretely prevent a risky and documented ineffective training technique." As of October 2007, there were no DoD restrictions on physical pressures applied during SERE training, including the waterboard.

Colonel Clare indicated that he specifically brought his concerns to Air Force Gen. Lance L. Smith, Commander, JFCOM, in December 2006, but was told that lacking anything in writing, "I should ‘stay in my lane.’" (General Smith left JFCOM in November 2007 and is now retired.)

The Navy SERE school in Brunswick, Maine, discontinued the use of waterboarding in its training curriculum after a SERE psychologist found via "empirical medical data … elevated levels of cortisol in the brain stem caused by stress levels incurred during water boarding." Cortisol is a stress hormone released by the adrenal glands as part of the body’s fight-or-flight mechanisms. Excess cortisol can lead to chronic stress, impaired cognitive abilities, thyroid problems, suppressed immune functioning, high blood pressure, and other health problems.

The OPR Report and the PREAL Manual

A great deal has been written about the purported safety of waterboarding. Recently, former Vice President Dick Cheney has advocated its continued use, and told ABC "This Week" that he was "a big supporter of waterboarding."

The issue came to prominence again when the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) report was released February 19. The report capped a four-and-a-half-year-long investigation into misconduct by Justice Department attorneys in the writing of memos and other written materials used to justify the use of harsh interrogation techniques ordered by the White House and the CIA.

In each of the released three drafts of the OPR report, there is a short section, introduced without comment, on a May 7, 2002, SERE "Pre-Academic Laboratory (PREAL) Operating Instructions" manual. We do not know when or how the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) obtained this manual, but it’s possible that it was supplied by the same means that other JPRA/SERE material was delivered to OLC.

The August 2002 torture memos drafted by Yoo and former OLC attorney Jay Bybee, as well as memos written in 2005 by former OLC acting head Bradbury, had relied in part on assurances from the SERE program and personnel that the waterboard technique was not physically harmful, was used upon SERE students, albeit at a lesser degree of application, and was, therefore, with medical monitoring, safe to use.

The PREAL document had noted, as OPR pointed out, that SERE training was different from "real-world conditions." Under the SERE techniques, the SERE trainee could "develop a sense of ‘learned helplessness’" during training.

The interrogator must recognize when a student is overly frustrated and doing a poor job resisting. At this point the interrogator must temporarily back off, and will coordinate with and ensure that the student is monitored by a controller or coordinator. (Pages 40-41 of the OPR Final Report.)

Despite the warnings that, even at SERE training school level, the dangers of waterboarding (and other SERE techniques) required monitoring, with the implication that the dangers were even worse in "real-world conditions," neither the OPR report, nor the memorandum written by Associate Deputy Attorney General David Margolis, who reviewed the final OPR report, indicated that SERE itself had decided the dangers were too great to include waterboarding in its training. It is not known when waterboarding was ceased at the bulk of the SERE schools, but it appears that it had been discontinued for the reasons described above at all but the North Island SERE school by the time Bradbury was writing his OLC opinions, which like the Yoo/Bybee memos approved the use of waterboarding.

"Learned Helplessness"

According to a related SERE document, dated September 26, 2007, written by SERE Human Factors Chief Gary Percival Ph.D., "Waterboarding consists of immobilizing an individual and pouring water over their face to simulate drowning." It elicits a gag reflex in the victim, "making the subject believe his or her death is imminent." The document noted that when waterboarding is "poorly executed," it "can cause extreme pain and damage," including broken bones from pulling against restraints. As a result, and in line with risks associated with other SERE techniques, at SERE school both medical and psychological monitoring is considered vital to protect students from injury. Dr. Percival indicated that JPRA did not support use of waterboarding in SERE training, as it "does not teach resilience or resistance," and "risks promoting learned helplessness."

As the SERE techniques were "reverse-engineered" by SERE psychologists and CIA contractors, John Mitchell, Bruce Jessen, and possibly others, for use by the CIA in early 2002 (or late 2001), the requirements for the presence of both medical and psychological personnel at the interrogation site was written into the torture protocols. Besides possible physical damage or even death, the presence of psychologists, in particular, was meant to provide monitoring capacity to prevent the acquisition of a state of "learned helplessness" in the prisoner.

A 2001 document written for the Human Factors Directorate of JPRA, "Scientific Implications for Code of Conduct Training Across the Captivity Spectrum," co-written by Dr. Percival and Dr. J. Bruce Jessen, described learned helplessness:

When students feel they are faced with unsolvable problems, their performance and retention are significantly reduced. Training models that induce learned helplessness are worse than no training at all.

According to the American Heritage Medical Dictionary, learned helplessness (LH) is "A laboratory model of depression in which exposure to a series of unforeseen adverse situations gives rise to a sense of helplessness or an inability to cope with or devise ways to escape such situations, even when escape is possible."

The original experiments on LH, performed by former psychologist and former American Psychological Association president Martin Seligman, in the mid-1960s, and published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology with Steven Maier as "Failure to Escape Traumatic Shock," exposed dogs to a situation where they were faced with inescapable electrical shocks. Within a short period of times, the dogs could not be induced to escape the situation, even when provided with a previously taught escape route. Drs. Seligman and Maier theorized that the dogs had "learned" their condition was helpless. The experimental model was extended to a human model for the induction of clinical depression and other psychological conditions.

According to New York Times reporter Scott Shane, James Mitchell was an admirer of Dr. Seligman’s writings on LH, and told him so at a meeting at Dr. Seligman’s home in December 2001, where "a small group of professors and law enforcement and intelligence officers gathered … to brainstorm about Muslim extremism." CIA psychologist Kirk M Hubbard accompanied Dr. Mitchell.

According to the OPR report, in late July 2002, OLC attorneys received a psychological assessment of Abu Zubaydah "and a report from CIA psychologists asserting that the use of harsh interrogation techniques in SERE training had resulted in no adverse long-term effects" (p. 62). In the CIA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) report on the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques," (EITs) released last year, the proposal to use SERE-like techniques on Zubaydah, and other prisoners, originated in the CIA’s Counter-terrorism Center and the Office of Technical Services (OTS). The report stated:

CIA’s OTS obtained data on the use of the proposed EITs and their potential long-term psychological effects on detainees. OTS input was based in part on information solicited from a number of psychologists and knowledgeable academics in the area of psychopathology….

OTS also solicited input from DoD/JPRA regarding techniques used in its SERE training and any subsequent psychological effects on students.

Moreover, the CIA OIG report remarked that the subsequent Yoo/Bybee memos of August 1, 2002 were "based, in substantial part, on OTS analysis and the experience and expertise of non-Agency personnel and academics concerning whether long-term psychological effects would result from use of the proposed techniques."

It is not known if Dr. Hubbard, or Drs. Jessen or Mitchell, or even psychologist Dr. R. Scott Shumate, who accompanied Mitchell to the Thailand interrogation of Zubaydah in April 2002, were among those in the CIA who guaranteed "no adverse long-term effects" for the torture techniques proposed. Dr. Shumate was the chief operational psychologist for the CIA’s Counter-terrorism Center at the time, and is reported to have left the Zubaydah interrogation in protest over the use of SERE techniques.

Dr. Seligman denied that he had any connection with the implementation of the CIA’s torture program. In a recent article, he described his association with the SERE program:

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. I was invited to speak about how American troops and American personnel could use what is known about learned helplessness to resist torture and evade successful interrogation by their captors. This is just what I spoke about.

I was told then that since I was (and am) a civilian with no security clearance that they could not detail American methods of interrogation with me. I was also told then that their methods did not use "violence" or "brutality." James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen were present in the audience of between 50 and 100 others at my speech, and that was, to the best of my knowledge, the sum total of my "assisting the CIA."

The San Diego base is the site where the controversial continuation of waterboarding students in SERE training continues. Dr. Seligman did not describe under what circumstances he was told he could not be given details about the US interrogation program or even why the subject came up.

Dr. Seligman now says he is "grieved and horrified" over the use of the learned helplessness theories in the construction of the CIA’s torture protocols. Yet, when I wrote to Dr. Seligman in August 2007 to ask, "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.’"

The Margolis Memo, SERE and the Waterboard

In a memo to the attorney general vacating the decision of the OPR report to charge OLC torture memo authors Yoo and Bybee with "professional misconduct" and refer them for bar discipline, Margolis supplied his own analysis of the use of the SERE material. He described SERE training as "relevant to the threshold question of whether everyone subjected to the waterboard suffers severe physical pain or suffering." Furthermore, Margolis stated that Yoo and Bybee relied on the psychological assessment of Zubaydah in order to assess if Zubaydah "would suffer severe mental pain or suffering as a result of the waterboard."

Margolis felt the Yoo/Bybee memo relied too much on the SERE experience, and not enough on the monitoring of Zubaydah or others by CIA medical personnel and psychologists, or on the CIA’s psychological assessment of Zubaydah. But the evidence of the recently revealed 2007 JPRA memo on waterboarding shows that the SERE schools themselves had serious doubts that waterboarding could be made safe, even under controlled conditions. This doubt had led them to campaign vigorously within the Pentagon bureaucracy to end the use of the waterboard at the remaining SERE school where it was used.

There is no indication in his memo that Margolis was aware of this situation, nor made an attempt of his own to investigate the facts behind the CIA or OLC assertions regarding waterboarding and its use by SERE.

As for the Zubaydah psychological evaluation, it is clear the evaluation was written specifically to get permission for waterboarding, and not to undertake a serious psychological evaluation of the prisoner. The report is amateurishly and hastily written, and is mostly a compilation of claims about Zubaydah that have since been refuted or even dropped by the government, e.g. that Zubaydah was a top al-Qaeda official, that he wrote the al-Qaeda resistance manual etc.

While Margolis could say that both Yoo and Bybee were not competent to judge the validity of the psychological evaluation of Zubaydah, and that they relied on the statements of the CIA psychologists in the case, nevertheless, it is notable that the psychological evaluation was only produced after Yoo had indicated in a July 13, 2002, letter to CIA acting General Counsel John Rizzo that consultation with "experts" would constitute the "due diligence" necessary to contest a charge of "specific intent" in a torture case. A psychological evaluation could be considered such a consultation with experts. Yoo also cited as examples of such "due diligence" surveys of professional literature and "evidence gained from past experience."