Psychologists Guided Torture for CIA

Psychologists have a code of ethics that clearly states what we may not do in our professional lives and yet, for some, these are merely words just as the Hippocratic Oath is merely meaningless verbiage for some physicians. The guiding principle for those who clearly veer off the designated path of ethical behavior is, of course, that ever-famous motto of “Show me the money!” I suppose it is true that everyone has their price, but I still cling to the belief that it’s not true. Some of us still believe in the moral imperative not to do evil. We don’t need to hark back to the Germany of the 30s because we have perversity working full tilt right here in the good old USA.

Although only two psychologists have been singled out as the ultimate culprits and thought-leaders in the horrendous torture campaign run by the CIA, there is, by some accounts, at least five or so others who worked in the same company. I cannot believe that they weren’t, in some measure, also involved and aided in the ultimate presentation provided to an incredibly gullible CIA purchasing agent.

Ever since we first learned of the existence of this ultra-secret agency (thanks to a fool with a gun), intelligent readers have come to view it as the counterpart of “anything goes” in “protecting” this country. Yes, anything seems to have been permitted despite the objections of those who understood interrogation techniques and had a knowledge of who they were interrogating, Al-Qaeda operatives.

The behavior of James Elmer Mitchell and Bruce Jessen (both nicely ensconced in mega-mansions on either Coast of the USA) is cogently laid out in an article written by Michael Daily in The Daily Beast. Read it and get your fill of this vile, totally unacceptable behavior by men who were supposed to help people, not hurt them. Curious how this happened.

Let me put a bit of perspective from the point of some psychological research into it. It doesn’t condone it, but it tells you where the seeds were planted and then transformed into a program for torture. Think of it as though it were pediatricians who deliberately deformed babies just to see that they could do it and then got paid a king’s ransom to do it. Ugly, I know, but it’s the closest I can come to this brutality and shameful behavior.

Mitchell sat at the knee of famed psychologist Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman who, while at The University of PA, ran a series of experiments with puppies that was aimed at working out the theory of depression development. Actually, he wasn’t interested in puppies, but in college students who were experiencing depression and he wanted to devise a way to help them.

The result of Seligman’s work was that early experiences of either being helpless in a situation or of learning to survive these experiences led to depression or a resistance to depression. We couldn’t go back and change early childhood experiences, but we could help people change their behavior through the technique now known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

The theory of learned helplessness and Mitchell’s craven praising of Seligman led to more discussion and the result was Mitchell’s corruption of the original work into a means of incredibly inhumane torture. Not only would he plan a program, according to some reports, he would gladly supervise it. What soulless individual does something like that? I can only compare it to what was done by Dr. Josef Mengele in Nazi Germany where he injected dye into the eyes of Jewish prisoners to see if he could change them from brown to blue. Medical experiments? No, brutish, incredibly disgusting corruption of his medical training.

What must other psychologist researchers be thinking about this torture program and the psychologists who participated and what of The American Psychological Association’s reaction? My mind goes back to two works, one well-known, the other not so. The not-so-well-known work by Max de Crinis resulted in the Euthanasia Decree signed by Hitler to rid the world of “undesirables.”

The second, very well-known experiment performed at Stanford University, was The Stanford Prison Experiment where the experimenter, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, a social psychologist, became so wrapped up in his study that he lost his professional perspective. He actually believed, for a short time, during the experiment that he had to prevent students from “escaping” from the experimenter-constructed jail at the school.

Forget that at least one student had a psychotic break, others had medical consequences and who knows what else. Zimbardo claimed he adequately debriefed everyone at the end of the experiment and went dancing off into the sunshine of his professorship. OK, Phil, but what about the neighbors who were also involved in seeing students handcuffed at their homes and pushed into police cars or the long-term consequences of PTSD which, I’m sure, there were? How has that played out for you? Still have an absolutely guilt-free conscience about all of this? I won’t go into your experiment into hypnosis which was described in a Sunday NYT magazine article years ago.

While we’re at it, consider the Dr. Stanley Milgram “Obedience to Authority” experiment at Yale. He subjected naive people (call them experimental subjects) to thinking they’d killed someone with an electric shock. Women’s results were tossed from the experiments because Milgram felt they provided results that weren’t in line with his thinking. Oh, yes, all of this was done to see whether ordinary people could be induced to kill someone a la the Nazis during WWII. The work came directly out of that era. Milgram debriefed the subjects later and showed them they hadn’t killed anyone, but what of the woman who shouted at her husband that he was no better than Eichmann? Remember Adolph Eichman who signed the travel orders to send Jews to the gas chambers?

What a wonderful legacy psychology has. I thought we’d learned but there appears to have been inadequate attention paid to psychologists’ mistakes and their casual dismissal of questionable experiments. No, I didn’t mention the experiment where students were actually injected with adrenaline.

I’ve heard of some pretty egregious behavior on the part of psychologists and psychiatrists, but the current CIA report indicates we’ve hit a new low with incredible rewards for the perpetrators of this tawdriness. None of the questionable work that preceded it justifies this in any way, nor am I trying to offer anything other than examples of how psychologists failed those who came to them to help in research.

I remember being in a graduate program where we were required to volunteer (not really the right word, but they used it anyway) for 10 hours of experiments in order to pass our course. There was a large board listing all of the requirements to get into each experiment and also what would disqualify you. I looked for everything that said “no paid” and allowed people wearing glasses. I did my 10 hours in boring memory experiments run by doctoral students and I know they must have wanted to pull their hair out. I was not a willing subject and they knew it.

So, how do you get honest responses from people who are being forced, coerced or tortured (as in the case of the CIA)? You don’t.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Dr. Patricia Farrell’s story.