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Tortured Profession: Psychologists Warned of Abusive Interrogations, Then Helped Craft Them

Update: May 7, 2009 5:45 p.m.

A version of this story was alsopublished in Salon.


Psychologists versed in the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape "SERE" program, which was meant to train American soldiers how to cope with torture if captured by the enemy, warned officials as early as 2002 that reverse-engineering SERE techniques for use on detainees could be ineffective and dangerous, a Senate Armed Services Committee report revealed last week. What has been little noticed is that the same psychologists helped develop the very interrogation policies and practices they warned against.

The new information re-opens a number of questions that have tugged at the conscience of a whole profession since the Sept. 11 attacks. Is it possible for psychologists to uphold the ethical tenets of their profession while working within a system of interrogation that violates those tenets? Does it matter if they raised objections to the system of interrogation but cooperated with it anyway?

The moral dilemma is encapsulated in the experiences of a psychiatrist and psychologist who worked at the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. According to the Senate report, in an Oct. 2, 2002, memo they prepared a list of harsh interrogation techniques that ended up influencing interrogation policy not only at Guantánamo, but also in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the same memo, they warned that these methods were likely to result in inaccurate tips and could harm detainees. Those warnings disappeared as the memo moved up the chain of command.

Psychiatrist Maj. Paul Burney, psychologist John Leso and a psychiatric technician had been sent to Guantánamo in June 2002 with a combat stress control company. The three had expected to help U.S. soldiers cope with their extremely stressful deployments, but were "hijacked and immediately in processed into Joint Task Force 170, the military intelligence command on the island," Burney told Senate investigators.

The three were instructed to form a Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) and help ramp up intelligence collection at Guantánamo. But they lacked training in how to support interrogations, and there was no standard operating procedure in place to guide their work. "Nobody really knew what we were supposed to do," Burney told Senate investigators.

Burney did not respond to two phone calls and an e-mail message, and Leso -- whose name is blacked out in the Senate committee's final report, but is present in supporting documents released by the committee in December 2008 -- did not respond to a phone message. ProPublica did, however, speak with Leso's former boss at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Col. Larry C. James, who was then psychology chief at the medical center.

In 2004, James served as an Army psychiatrist at Abu Ghraib, dispatched there to study what had produced its prisoner treatment scandal. He wrote a 2008 book about his experiences called "Fixing Hell.” James told ProPublica that Leso contacted him from Guantánamo in June 2002, not long after arriving, upset about what he was being asked to do and seeking guidance. After Leso contacted him seeking help, James sought his own guidance from Col. Louie "Morgan" Banks, chief of the Psychological Applications Directorate at the U.S. Army's Special Operations Command. James said he turned to Banks because he had pioneered a specialty within the Department of Defense that was akin to how civilian psychologists assist police in solving crimes, and he was one of the few military psychologists with high-level security clearance.

By the time James turned to Banks, Banks was already deeply involved in supporting post-9/11 combat operations. He spent the winter of 2001 at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan at a time when some of the earliest interrogations were occurring. Banks was also the chief psychologist for the SERE program, which uses tough but carefully controlled interrogation techniques -- including slapping students, pushing them into walls, forcing them to hold uncomfortable positions, and, in some schools at that time, waterboarding -- to train American personnel to resist interrogations that violate the laws of war.

Banks' job had been to use his psychological expertise to prepare soldiers to deal with torture, but some psychologists, with the encouragement of the Bush administration, were already using that type of expertise to help inform interrogation techniques, as news reports, including Salon, have detailed. The Senate report reveals for the first time that in December 2001, the Department of Defense General Counsel's Office had asked SERE's overseer, the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (JPRA), for information on detainee "exploitation." In a climate of post-9/11 fear, as hundreds of prisoners from a culture poorly understood by Americans were detained, the Senate report makes clear that two psychologists and some JPRA officers saw both a need and an opportunity to promote their expertise.

In the winter of 2001, the report says, retired Air Force SERE psychologist Dr. James Mitchell asked then-senior JPRA SERE psychologist Dr. John “Bruce” Jessen to study documents about al Qaeda resistance training. Within weeks, Jessen and the JPRA, which had “no training or experience in intelligence collection,” according to the Report, were running “crash” courses on interrogations for intelligence personnel, likely including CIA interrogators. (Mitchell and Jessen declined our request to speak with them.)

According to a JPRA memo describing the courses, which reads like a sales pitch for the agency ("JPRA has arguably developed into the DoD's experts on exploitation") and was released in part by the Senate committee, the courses trained interrogators to use the SERE school techniques. The memo stated that SERE techniques including physical (e.g., slapping, repeatedly pushing subjects into a wall, waterboarding, shaking and manhandling) and psychological (e.g., isolation, sensory deprivation, "disruption of sleep and biorhythms") pressures "may be very effective in inducing learned helplessness and breaking the [Afghan] detainees' willingness to resist."

On July 15, 2002, after James had contacted Banks for guidance vis-à-vis the military's interrogation program at Guantánamo, Banks contacted the JPRA and let the behavioral science team at Guantánamo know by e-mail that the agency was willing to modify its interrogation training sessions for the BSCT team. The BSCT and several Guantánamo interrogators flew to Fort Bragg for a four-day session in mid-September 2002 co-hosted by Banks.

Days after the team returned to Guantánamo, senior lawyers for the Bush administration and the CIA visited the prison. BSCT psychiatrist Burney told the Army investigator general in 2006, four years later, that he believed there was "a lot of pressure to use more coercive techniques" because prisoners were resisting interrogators and "we were not being successful at establishing a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq."

Shortly after the administration lawyers visited Gitmo, the camp's director of intelligence asked the BSCT to draft an interrogation policy that could be sent up the chain of command. According to the Senate report, Burney and "the BSCT psychologist," Leso, wrote their memo listing interrogation techniques in a single evening, devising some techniques and incorporating others that they had learned from their Fort Bragg training.

The Oct. 2, 2002, memo, which the Senate report quoted from but didn't publish, mentioned manipulating the detention environment to create dependence and disorientation and promote intelligence gathering. Resistant detainees might be allowed only four hours of sleep per night, subjected to noise as a psychological pressure tactic, and deprived of sheets and blankets, with access to Qurans controlled by interrogators, the authors suggested.

Three categories of interrogation techniques were delineated. Category I included incentives and "mildly adverse approaches." Category II, meant for "high-priority" detainees suspected of having significant information that could impact American security, included stress positions (which may have been used earlier at Guantánamo), long periods of isolation, 12-hour food deprivation, back-to-back 20-hour interrogations once per week, removal of religious and other comfort items, forced grooming, handcuffing and hooding during questioning. The final group, Category III, was reserved for high-priority detainees who were showing advanced resistance. According to the Senate report:

"Category III techniques included the daily use of 20 hour interrogations; the use of strict isolation without the right of visitation by treating medical professionals or the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC); the use of food restriction for 24 hours once a week; the use of scenarios designed to convince the detainee he might experience a painful or fatal outcome; non-injurious physical consequences; removal of clothing; and exposure to cold weather or water until such time as the detainee began to shiver."

Years later, Burney and Leso told the Armed Services Committee's investigators they were uncomfortable with what they were asked to produce. In fact, the memo they drafted in 2002 included clear warnings: "Physical and/or emotional harm from the above techniques may emerge months or even years after their use," they said, stressing that the most effective interrogation strategy is based on building rapport. "Interrogation techniques that rely on physical or adverse consequences are likely to garner inaccurate information and create an increased level of resistance."

Burney sent Banks the memo. He responded "great job" to the BSCT by e-mail on Oct. 2, 2002, the same day the memo was dated, but he too expressed unease about using physical pressures in interrogations:

"The use of physical pressures brings with it a large number of potential negative side effects ... When individuals are gradually exposed to increasing levels of discomfort, it is more common for them to resist harder ... If individuals are put under enough discomfort, i.e. pain, they will eventually do whatever it takes to stop the pain … it usually decreases the reliability of the information ... Because of the danger involved, very few SERE instructors are allowed to actually use physical pressures ... everything that is occurring [in SERE school] is very carefully monitored and paced ... Even with all these safeguards, injuries and accidents do happen. The risk with real detainees is increased exponentially ... My strong recommendation is that you do not use physical pressures ... [If GTMO does decide to use them] you are taking a substantial risk, with very limited potential benefit."

The excerpt of Banks' e-mail in the Senate report does not show him objecting to the use of psychological -- as opposed to physical -- pressures in interrogations. Also, whether or not Banks shared his reservations about the interrogation techniques with anyone outside the BSCT is unclear. Repeated attempts were made to reach Col. Banks directly by phone and e-mail, and via three separate military public affairs offices. A Special Operations Command public affairs officer took questions for Banks, but then, after giving the psychologist time to review them, responded that "it would not be appropriate for Col Banks to make any additional comments at this time."

That same day as the memo and Banks' e-mail response, Oct. 2, Burney and Leso also provided a description of "SERE Psych Training" to senior Guantánamo officials and the chief counsel to the CIA's counterterrorist center, according to notes from the meeting made public by the Senate committee. They also raised doubts about the efficacy of some of the interrogation techniques. "Fear-based strategies" would be unreliable compared with "proven" friendly and rapport-building approaches, the BSCT team said.

"Psychological stressors," however, seemed to be another matter. In the minutes of the meeting, which paraphrased comments made by participants, Burney and Leso called strategies including sleep deprivation, withholding food, and isolation "extremely effective," and said it was "vital" to disrupt normal camp operations through the creation of "controlled chaos."

CIA lawyer Jonathan Fredman, the minutes say, described other SERE techniques, including "wet towel treatment" that can make a person "feel like you're drowning" and the "very effective" use of phobias, including insects, snakes and claustrophobia. He argued that the techniques described in the BSCT memo were legal and that the torture statute was written vaguely. "It is basically subject to perception. If the detainee dies you're doing it wrong." (Click here for Fredman's response to this story)

Two days after the memo, Banks' e-mail and the meeting, on Oct. 4, 2002, the Senate report notes, Burney again wrote to Banks: "persons here at this operation are still interested in pursuing the potential use of more aversive interrogation techniques." Burney asked Banks whether he knew where they could go to get additional training.

Banks answered by e-mail, and again expressed reservations about the direction of interrogation training: "I do not envy you. I suspect I know where this is coming from. The answer is no, I do not know of anyone who could provide that training ... The training that SERE instructors receive is designed to simulate that of a foreign power, and to do so in a manner that encourages resistance among the students. I do not believe that training interrogators to use what SERE instructors use would be particularly productive."

But again, there is no evidence that Banks raised these concerns to higher authorities, or in any forum besides an e-mail message to the BSCT. He also traveled to Guantánamo on several occasions to provide assistance to interrogators, according to the Senate report and Banks' interview with New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, but the exact nature of his involvement is unclear.

What is clear is that JPRA continued to train interrogators, and the Senate report shows that many of the harsh physical and psychological techniques in the BSCT team's hastily written memo went on to be adopted by interrogators not only at Guantánamo, but also in Afghanistan and Iraq. They migrated to Abu Ghraib prison, where Larry James would later be stationed. An official request for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to give blanket approval of counter-resistance strategies at Guantánamo was based on the BSCT memo, but included none of its caveats. A legal memo accompanying the request, which was made public by the Senate committee, stated, in direct contradiction to Burney and Leso's warnings, "there is no evidence that prolonged mental harm would result from the use of these [Category II] strategies." Rumsfeld subsequently approved all of the Category II techniques and one Category III technique.

The Gitmo BSCT team's experiences also showed that even when behavioral health professionals were on hand to consult on interrogations, abuses occurred. From late November to mid-January, Joint Task Force Guantánamo interrogated Mohammed al-Khatani, a high-value detainee suspected of involvement in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. According to the BSCT psychiatrist's statement to the Senate committee, Al-Khatani was "made [to] believe he was sent to a hostile country which advocated torture" and that he "might be killed if he did not cooperate with questioning."

Psychiatrist Burney told the committee he was present for parts of the interrogation, which included "stripping, forced grooming, invasion of space by a female interrogator, treating Khatani like an animal, using a military working dog, and forcing him to pray to an idol shrine," according to a memo by an unknown author. That memo, excerpted in the Senate report, was sent in January 2003 from a BSCT psychiatrist at Guantánamo to Banks, who therefore knew what had taken place. Other sources show that Al-Khatani was doused with water, forced to stand for hours, deprived of sleep, and prevented from praying by shackling his hands to a chair. The convening authority for the U.S. military commissions, Susan Crawford, later refused to approve charges against him because his treatment "met the legal definition of torture."

Psychologist Leso also witnessed parts of the interrogations and was "devastated to have been a part of this," according to the book later written by Col. Larry James, Leso's former boss at Walter Reed. James replaced Leso as the BSCT psychologist in January 2003. "He had no command authority," James wrote of Leso, "meaning he felt as though he had no legal right to tell anyone what to do or not do ... He told me he felt that he had received increasing pressure to teach interrogators procedures and tactics that were a challenge to his ethics as a psychologist and moral fiber as a human being." James confirmed this information in an interview with ProPublica.

One psychologist, Michael Gelles, a civilian employee of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service working with a Criminal Investigation Task Force (CITF) for Guantánamo, had criticized the plans for Al-Khatani's interrogation before they were even implemented. Gelles had served for years as a consultant for both civilian and military interrogators, and the techniques being proposed struck him as both inappropriate and ineffective. "It wasn't what Americans did," Gelles told ProPublica. "Why would you prescribe something that doesn't work? It wasn't the right prescription for what we wanted to do ... to get accurate and reliable information."

In a Nov. 22, 2002, memo excerpted in the Senate report, Gelles warned that if the plans for interrogating Al-Khatani were implemented, he would "have trouble not finding myself from a professional perspective, being forced into an adversary position through cross examination in a military tribunal as an expert in interrogation." Both the CITF and the FBI objected to the al-Khatani interrogation plan, questioned its legality, and offered Joint Task Force Guantánamo Cmdr. Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller an alternative plan based on building rapport, which had long been used successfully by law enforcement personnel. After their repeated objections were ignored, the two agencies refused to participate in al-Khatani's interrogation.

A log of that interrogation was made public on June 12, 2005, by Time magazine. The log records the themes and approaches used by interrogators and Al-Khatani's emotional and verbal responses to them, an experiment-like design that bioethicist Steven Miles, in an interview, called an "outside of the park violation" of the Nuremberg Code on research ethics, which was established in response to the Nazis' infamous experimentation on humans. (The newly released edition of Miles' book "Oath Betrayed: America’s Torture Doctors" discusses this aspect of the al-Khatani interrogation.)

The interrogation log included several references to "MAJ L (BSCT)" -- Leso -- revealing that he was present. On one day the log indicated he advised interrogators to put al-Khatani in a swivel chair to "keep him awake and stop him from fixing his eyes on one spot."

Weeks after Time published the log, a 10-member task force convened by the American Psychological Association met to explore the ethical aspects of psychologists' involvement in national security work and interrogations. Banks, James and Gelles were tapped by the APA president and board as members.

Click to see the e-mail listserv obtained by ProPublica.By then, many stories had emerged about prisoner abuse by U.S. personnel, and the role of psychologists and physicians was under scrutiny and attack. The task force's deliberations were conducted in secret, but its e-mail listserv (PDF) was obtained by ProPublica. Writing to his colleagues on the listserv, Banks said that psychologists were the only professionals left supporting interrogations. "The Army's psychiatry consultant has stated that she is opposed to psychiatrists performing this function," he wrote in an e-mail on May 18, 2005.

Banks, who by that time was training and overseeing all army psychologists involved in interrogation support, held a different view, as did James. When a civilian task force member wrote to the listserv to question whether contributing to coercive interrogations was incompatible with the ethics of psychology, which require professionals to promote well-being and avoid harm, James bristled at the suggestion that "DOD/Military psychologists have done something illegal, morally wrong and/or unethical. Like Morgan Banks, I am very proud of the fact, it was psychologists who fixed the problems and not caused it. This is a factual statement! the fact of the matter is that since Jan 2003, where ever we have had psychologists no abuses have been reported," James wrote on May 23, 2005 to the listserv.

Abuses did occur after that time, and while they may not have been publicly reported by early 2005, they have been now. When asked about this, James told ProPublica, "You're always going to have a guard who's going to do something stupid." He argued that abuse at Guantánamo ended when those who served there started realizing -- thanks to improved camp leadership and the efforts of psychologists such as himself and John Leso -- that rapport-building strategies were more effective than abuse, regardless of what the rules allowed.

But as more information about the still-murky happenings at detention sites has emerged, it seems clear that while psychologists may have helped rein in uncontrolled sadism of the likes depicted in the Abu Ghraib photos, extremely distressing psychological pressure techniques, now banned, continued to be employed with the former administration's legal permission for years. "Maybe [psychologists] curtailed some abuses, but they also continued to participate in the interrogations," said Maj. David Frakt, a lead defense counsel in the military commissions for Guantánamo. Frakt cites evidence that his client (PDF), Mohammad Jawad, who was a teenager when he was detained in Afghanistan and accused of throwing a grenade at U.S. forces, was subjected to prolonged isolation in late 2003 and later endured a sleep-deprivation program known as the "frequent flyer" program in which he was moved from cell to cell with all his belongings 112 times in a 14-day period -- on average every three hours. He later attempted suicide. One camp official testifying at a hearing for Jawad said the program was standard procedure and was "fully vetted" by mental health and medical personnel, Frakt said.

Frakt has asked the military for evidence that anyone, including medical personnel, complained about the program, and has received none. "One of the things that disappointed me was how few people raised objections," he said. The abuses ended, he said, for the most part in June of 2006, when the U.S. Supreme Court stated that the detainees had to be treated humanely in accordance with the minimum standards provided for by the international laws of war. Jawad is still being held at Guantanamo, despite the fact that his former lead prosecutor, Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, resigned from the military commissions and later supported Jawad’s habeas corpus petition, noting that Jawad had suffered “great psychological harm.”

Another example that defies James' characterization is the officially planned and vetted interrogation of Mohamadou Walid Slahi, which was proposed in January 2003 and implemented at Guantánamo in July of that year shortly after James' departure. Slahi's interrogation, which involved stress positions, sensory deprivation and threats to his family, was so abusive that when a military prosecutor assigned to Slahi's case heard about the techniques used, he refused to take part in his prosecution. Records show that a psychologist was made aware by interrogators that Slahi was "hearing voices."

Whether that psychologist took steps to halt the interrogation techniques is unknown. In contrast, James' book is filled with examples of how he used his knowledge of human psychology to convince young, inexperienced interrogators -- themselves living in hot, horrific conditions at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib -- to stop shouting at and demeaning detainees and instead focus on building rapport with them. Both Banks, in a recent academic article he co-authored, and James still argue that the now-formalized BSCT teams play "a critical and vital role in keeping interrogations safe, legal, ethical and effective." Gelles also feels that psychologists with the proper training can provide value to national security-related investigations, just as they do across America in civil law enforcement.

All three men communicated those views to their colleagues on the APA task force in 2005. James credited Leso and Burney's then-secret Guantánamo memo -- which had set out the list of harsh interrogation techniques that the Senate report said was later adopted throughout the world -- with "clearly defin[ing] what can and cannot be done," James wrote to the listserv on July 29, 2005. "[B]y the time I arrived at GITMO in January 2003 this memorandum was on official DOD letterhead, signed by the secretary of defense." Like James, Banks and Gelles, six of the ten task-force members were members of or had consulted for the military or CIA. They had real-life experience in the questions they were considering, but some of their jobs would logically have limited them from helping the APA develop an opinion that went against DoD policy.

"We were hearing from members that they needed guidance," APA spokesperson Rhea Farberman said in an interview. "That was really our original goal. We wanted to give real world guidance. That had a lot to do with the makeup of the task force."

The task force found it to be "consistent with the APA Ethics Code" for psychologists to consult with interrogators in the interests of national security. While noting that psychologists do not participate in torture and have a responsibility to report it, and should be committed to the APA ethics code whenever they "encounter conflicts between ethics and law," the task force decided that "if the conflict cannot be resolved ... psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law."

The board of the APA, the largest membership organization for psychologists, who are employed in great numbers by the Department of Defense, quickly adopted the task force's report as the organization's official policy.

Then came the backlash. Last year, members of the APA successfully petitioned for a vote on whether to ban psychologists from working in detention settings where international law or the U.S. Constitution are violated. The membership passed the proposal.

Some psychologists have filed complaints with the APA and state licensing boards against colleagues who were allegedly involved in abusive interrogations. Two years ago, psychologist Trudy Bond filed an APA ethics complaint against John Leso, arguing that "Dr. Leso's very presence at any point of [al-Khatani's] interrogation" violates numerous professional ethical standards and both national and international laws. She has also filed state licensing board complaints against James and other psychologists.

To her knowledge, none of her complaints have been investigated. Most of the organizations Bond has approached have claimed that they are unable to investigate because so little information about the true role of health professionals supporting interrogations has been released.

To get those details, the organization Physicians for Human Rights has proposed a nonpartisan government commission to investigate and clarify what health professionals did and didn't do. However determined, perhaps the truth would finally help heal the disputes that continue to roil the psychological and medical communities.

Update: May 7, 2009 5:45 p.m.

Jonathan Fredman, former chief legal counsel for the CIA Counterterrorist Center, has disputed the accuracy of the October 2nd 2002 minutes [see p. 14] of a meeting held at Guantanamo Bay to discuss interrogation techniques. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, ProPublica obtained a letter written by Fredman and sent to leaders of the Senate Committee on Armed Services on November 17, 2008. In it, Fredman says that comments he made at the meeting were “paraphrased sloppily and poorly.”

While he did not dispute in particular the quote used in this story, which was attributed to him in the meeting’s minutes, Fredman wrote that at the meeting he “emphasized that all interrogation practices and legal guidance must not be based upon anyone’s subjective perception; rather, they must be based upon definitive and binding legal analysis from the Department of Justice; that DoD must ensure that its treatment of detainees is fully lawful and authorized by the military chain of command, and that the legal analysis and specific authorizations be fully documented, just as the interrogations themselves must be; and that comprehensive investigations must be conducted should a detainee pass away.”

Our previous coverage on U.S. medical personnel and interrogation programs:

Bush Memos Suggest Abuse Isn’t Torture If a Doctor Is There - Apr. 17, 2009

U.S. Medical Personnel and Interrogations: What Do We Know? What Don’t We Know? - Apr. 9, 2009

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