UN states US interrogations use torture, Guantanamo is a torture facility… So why do military psychologists want to work there?

For some time now, military psychologists have been pressing to get back their positions working with detainees at Guantanamo. Three years ago, they lost their ability to work there, either assisting interrogations as members of the military’s Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs), or as therapists to the detainees, because of an outpouring of member revulsion to revelations about ways in which leading psychologists had worked with the military and CIA to maintain their status working at sites like Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib.

With the opening of the 2018 convention of the American Psychological Association, APA Council members are set to consider a proposal by leading military psychology division members to modify an APA ban against psychologists working at Guantanamo or any “illegal” national security site that fails to abide by international laws, especially those against torture.

[Update, August 10, 2018: On August 8, at a vote by APA’s Council of Representatives, the proposal to allow psychologists to return to sites like Guantanamo, that are considered illegal and stand outside of international law, or where human rights abuses routinely take place, was defeated by a vote of 105 to 57, with 15 abstentions.]

While not every military psychologist could be said to have acquiesced to torture, or worked with torturers, there were some who did. But the mainstream narrative since the beginning of the Obama Administration is that torture ended at these DoD facilities, and CIA “black sites” were shuttered thanks to Obama’s 2009 executive orders withdrawing Bush-era legal opinions allowing abuse.

This image is of Abu Ghraib prisoner Ali Shallal al-Qaisi being psychologically tortured. The wires are fake, bu al-Qaisi didn’t know it. This is a Defense Department photo and in the public domain.

But this was totally untrue, as we shall see below. The fact is that continuing torture by the U.S. government is a politically inconvenient fact, in large part because the Democratic Party, and Republicans like John McCain, were only willing to ban some kinds of torture, and turned a blind eye to the rest.

Today, according to experts at the United Nations, including those who officially monitor the world’s nations for use of torture, the U.S. uses torture methods like sleep and sensory deprivation as part of its Army Field Manual, while the continuing use of “indefinite detention” at Guantanamo is deemed “a flagrant violation of international human rights law, which in itself constitutes a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”

Back when Obama was recommending to his Attorney General the withdrawal of all the CIA’s torture memos, ultimately one memo was not rescinded: Stephen Bradbury’s April 2006 memo approving the Army Field Manual and a special section within it that reserved certain abusive forms of interrogation for detainees the U.S. was holding outside Geneva Convention protections, a form of interrogation so severe it required the presence of a medical or psychological professional during its application.

The section harboring the most extreme forms of abuse, raising “concerns of torture” in UN and human rights groups, were collected in the Appendix M to the manual.

(Interested readers are also directed to my recent interview by The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill discussing these matters in full.)

Army Field Manual Shell Game Used to Hide Torture

The Democrats, and to be fair some Republicans like John McCain, worked as far back as 2005’s Detainee Treatment Act (DTA) to ban techniques like waterboarding, exposure to attack dogs, and the hooding of detainees. They said (back in 2005) that no interrogation method could be used that wasn’t in the Army’s official interrogation manual, which forbid, for instance, use of stress positions or sleep deprivation.

But, according to a September 2005 Washington Times story, when proposing the legislation that became the DTA, McCain knew that a new Army Field Manual on interrogation was being written to replace the then-current manual, but said his legislation would include the mandate that Congressional defense committees be informed of any changes to the manual. I don’t know if he understood the kinds of changes being contemplated at the time, but he certainly learned of them later.

The new Army Field Manual — titled in Pentagonese, “Human Intelligence Collector Operations” — would remove concrete restrictions on sleep deprivation and stress positions, and make use of isolation the keystone of detainee interrogation “approaches.” The new interrogation techniques, which were at first contemplated as a classified annex to the report, were later published as an “Appendix M.”

These techniques included use of solitary confinement, modified sleep deprivation (no more than 4 hours of sleep per night for 30 days or more), and modified sensory deprivation, including use of blackout goggles and earmuffs. The admonitions against use of sleep deprivation and stress positions, which had been part of the previous manual, were removed.

Interrogators were encouraged to use these techniques in conjunction with other AFM techniques, such as “Fear Up,” “Ego Down” and “Futility.” The latter technique was used to promote feelings of “hopelessness and helplessness” in detainees.

Interrogators likely knew or remembered that only a year or two earlier, prisoners exposed to loud music for long periods were subjects of the “music futility” technique. The new manual warned only that exposure to noise, or “dampness” or light or ventilation not be “excessive,” as judged by “interrogation activity leadership.”

Appendix M also made allowance for a popular form of disruption practiced at that time on detainees. The military’s “frequent flyer” program had detainees moved from cell to cell many times over a period of days, weeks, or even months. It was meant as a form of sleep deprivation and overall psychological disruption. Detainee Mohammed Jawad, who was brought to Guantanamo as a teenager, told a hearing on his case, “day and night they were shifting me from one place to another…nobody answered why they were giving me this punishment.”

The new manual noted in passing, “ Oversight should account for moving a detainee from one environment to another (thus a different location)… in accordance with the approved interrogation plan.”

In sum, the new Army Field Manual was consolidating a form of psychological torture long studied by the military and CIA. It relied on monopolization of perception and impressing a feeling of total control over the prisoner, who they hoped would regress to a form of helplessness and primitive dependency towards their captors.

The new torture program was not about physically harming prisoners, but about psychologically breaking them down

U.S. photo of either Iraq or Afghanistan interrogation/torture victims, released to ACLU in FOIA lawsuit

According to the Los Angeles Times, the new field manual’s first draft was complete by May 2005. The McCain amendments, which became the Detainee Treatment Act, were first introduced on July 24, 2005.

In other words, McCain, and others, knew that the manual that was being proposed as “a single, uniform standard for all” U.S. interrogators, including detainees held by the CIA and by the DoD at Guantanamo and Bagram, Afghanistan, and prisoners held also in Iraq, would not be the same as the manual being discussed as the new guideline. Interestingly, domestic agencies, such as the FBI, were exempt from use of the manual.

New Manual Tied to Techniques Researched by CIA Psychologists and Psychiatrists in 1950s

While the new edition of the Army Field Manual was being touted as an improvement on the older version, in fact it turned out to allow far harsher methods to be used on detainees, including use of sleep deprivation, forms of sensory deprivation, isolation, and environmental and dietary manipulations.

The latter were to be combined with previously approved, but dubious methods that worked to increase levels of a prisoner’s fear to create feelings of “hopelessness and helplessness” in detainees. The new manual proposed “exploit[ing] the source’s psychological and moral weaknesses, as well as weaknesses inherent in his society.”

In the end, while the CIA’s experiment in using harsh physical techniques such as waterboarding, slapping, “walling,” and stress positions was to be ended, an even earlier CIA and Pentagon tested form of torture that used primarily psychological torture was to take its place. (In practice, we should note, it’s not always simple to separate out what is physical and what is psychological torture.)

As codified in the CIA’s 1963 “KUBARK” interrogation manual, the classic CIA form of torture relied on long-term isolation, sleep deprivation, use of psychological fear and emotional abuse, and attack on a prisoner’s nervous system via calculated deprivation of stimuli (sensory deprivation) or excessive exposure to intense stimuli over time (sensory overload), or via administration of certain drugs.

An example of sensory overload is the loud music and strobe lights as portrayed tormenting a prisoner in the film, The Men Who Stare At Goats.

Oddly, another film from the 1960s, The Iprcress File, graphically dramatized a form of torture that relied on psychological stress. “Ipcress” stood for “Induction of Psycho-Neuroses by Conditioned Reflex with Stress.” Its operation was dramatized in the film, wherein the main character, during the film’s key torture sequence, was deprived of sleep and decent food, and placed in isolation, all while subjecting him periodically to protracted sensory overload. The aim was to psychologically break down the prisoner to bend him to, or make him dependent upon his captor’s will.

The CIA had developed their own theory behind this model — labelling it DDD, for Debility, Dependency and Dread — in part by studying the responses of military men forced to participate in torture simulations in DoD-run “survival” training camps. The core ideas animating this model were written up in 1956 by psychologist-researcher Harry Harlow, who went on to become a president of the American Psychological Association, and CIA-linked psychiatrist, Louis Joylan West.

(In an unrelated but oddly compelling aside, Dr. West, who worked with the CIA’s MKULTRA program, once conducted a very dubious psychiatric examination on Jack Ruby, the assassin of Lee Harvey Oswald, including use of hypnosis and intravenous sodium pentothal, a supposed “truth drug” that could also be used to induce suggestion in a subject. Research into the interplay of drug-induced suggestion, hypnosis and dissociative states was a specialty of West’s.)

The PENS report

There was one person who knew about a new Army Field Manual draft in the spring of 2005. Lt. Col. Louie “Morgan” Banks was Chief of the Psychological Applications Directorate (PAD) at the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command (USASOC). LTC Banks was also “the senior psychologist for the Army’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) school, where he was responsible for the training and oversight of all Army SERE psychologists.”

According to an investigation by the Senate Armed Services Committee, Banks helped lead a September 2002 training with SERE’s parent command, the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, for various interrogators, psychologists and at least one psychiatrist. There were three BSCT members from Guantanamo.

According to one of the JPRA participants, Terrence Russell, the training was “to provide attendees a ‘familiarization with the academic or the theoretical application of exploitation from a SERE perspective.’” Banks has denied that any abusive techniques were advocated, although he also stated he wasn’t present for all of the training. The Senate committee also quoted emails from Banks to a Guantanamo psychologist warning against the use of “physical pressures” during interrogation. But there were some who noticed there was no similar warning about psychological pressures.

Banks told journalist Jason Leopold in July 2015 that he agreed some “abuse” took place at Guantanamo and elsewhere in 2002–2003, but that all that stopped after 2005. Indeed, he says he helped “fix” the “abuse” problem.

But, according to a November 30, 2004 article in the New York Times, during a visit to Guantanamo in June 2004 the Red Cross “found a far greater incidence of mental illness produced by stress than did American medical authorities, much of it caused by prolonged solitary confinement. It said the medical files of detainees were ‘literally open’ to interrogators.”

After the Times article, and other revelations, including the Abu Ghraib torture pictures, the APA felt pressured to assure critics of reported psychologist involvement in torture that nothing bad was really happening, and that psychologists were following institutional ethical guidelines to prevent harm to detainees.

Hence, in late 2004, the APA’s board of directors voted to fund a task force to work on “national security-related interrogations.” The task force, which included a number of military psychologists, and at least one former CIA psychologist, was titled the Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security, or PENS.

The PENS panel ultimately concluded that psychologists could work ethically in national security interrogations, and that the APA’s ethics guidelines were sufficient to guarantee psychologist ethical behavior going forward. The subsequent PENS report was derided by some as pro-torture, or at least enabling the Department of Defense to engage in abusive interrogations with psychologist assistance. These charges culminated in a report by attorney David Hoffman documenting elements of alleged collusion regarding interrogation policy between APA members and the military.

A number of people named as colluding with the government on interrogation policy that included torture, including Lt. Col. Banks, fought back against Hoffman’s conclusions with written critiques of the Hoffman report, and ultimately a lawsuit against Hoffman and others it felt were unfairly maligning them.

“Ill-treatment” and “Concerns of torture”

While PENS critics noted the undue influence that a preponderance of military members had on the PENS process, one aspect of the PENS affair that has not been mentioned much up to this point is the fact that there was a a particular conflict of interest by one of its military members.

According to Banks’ own account, written with three other military and/or APA officials, during the time he was on the APA’s PENS panel (approximately April-June 2005), working out APA policies on ethics and interrogations, he also was “consulting to the Army on a revision to the Army Field Manual” on interrogations.

This was to be no merely bureaucratic revision. The Army Field Manual on interrogations lies at the very heart of the controversies swirling over the use of varying interrogation techniques on “war on terror” detainees. The AFM was contrasted with the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” torture program, which leaned heavily on SERE-originated forms of torture such as waterboarding, physical slapping and “walling,” as well as close confinement in a box, and exploitation of prisoner phobias.

The revision to the new manual was being written at the Army’s Intelligence Center at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, under the command guidance of Maj. Gen. Barbara G. Fast. Fast had been embroiled in the Abu Ghraib scandals, though she was exonerated of any serious wrong-doing by most, though not all, military investigators.

Despite being written in draft form in spring 2005, the manual’s release was held up for some time after some Congressional opposition arose around what appeared to be harsher forms of interrogation allowed in the new manual. But briefings on the topic were limited to “a handful of senior senators and aides.”

When the manual was finally released in September 2006, some human rights and legal groups recognized the abuse implications of the new Army Field Manual interrogation techniques, but most groups, commentators, and the media generally were laudatory, following DoD’s script about how great the new manual was.

But over time the abuse potential in the Army Field Manual could not be denied.

The former president of the National Lawyers Guild, Marjorie Cohn, told this author as far back as January 2009 that portions of the AFM contained the use of isolation and prolonged sleep deprivation, which constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and was illegal under the Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, the U.N. Convention Against Torture and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Ultimately, in November 2014, the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) released their “Concluding observations on the third to fifth periodic reports of United States of America” in regards to US adherence to the prohibitions against torture and cruel, inhumane, and degrading forms of treatment of prisoners.

The committee specifically criticized the U.S. Army Field Manual’s use of sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation, calling it “ill treatment” raising “concerns of torture”.

U.S. Department of Defense photos of cell tier in Guantanamo’s Camp Delta.

UNCAT, which operates under the auspices of the UN Convention Against Torture treaty, to which the U.S. is a signatory, noted that the manual’s use of “field expedient separation” could cause psychosis in detainees. In addition, the committee condemned the use of isolation and indefinite detention at Guantanamo.

To date, none of the problems raised by UNCAT have been resolved. The U.S. denies that the Army Field Manual uses any form of abuse. These forms of interrogation remain U.S. policy today, having even been enshrined in Congressional legislation backed by both the Republican and the Democratic parties.

The mainstream debate about torture has been orchestrated by interested parties in the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies, and by the politicians who work closely with them, to present in the media a narrative about torture that is only a part of the truth. It associates torture with physical and outrageous actions, such as waterboarding, mock execution, and locking someone up in a box. It almost never mentions use of isolation or sensory deprivation or use of fear to help break down prisoners.

But experts at the UN and in various medical and human rights groups have recognized this KUBARK-style of psychological torture for what it is, and have identified its presence in the current Army Field Manual. The only response of their critics is really silence, hoping non-recognition of this truth will render it invisible to those who only know these issues from the mass media.

Why Military Psychologists Want to Get Back Into Gitmo

I can’t say I know exactly why military psychologists are so desperate to get back into Guantanamo. Perhaps some of them sincerely wish to psychologically treat tortured detainees, although I don’t know how they’ll do this impossible task.

At Guantanamo, torture is an off-limit subject, and various forms of torture are practiced at the facility, including indefinite detention, violent cell extractions, and forced feeding of hunger strikers, as well as the kinds of interrogation abuse described above in the Army Field Manual and its Appendix M.

Perhaps some are truly afraid that psychologists’ “brand” in the marketplace of therapy suffers by their banishment from Guantanamo.

But I believe the leadership of this movement to bring psychologists back to Guantanamo are essentially following orders. Their superiors in Washington D.C. want psychologists back in Guantanamo and other illegal detention sites to provide an image of normality to these sites.

The APA’s current ban on psychologists at Guantanamo functions as a powerful accusation against the U.S. government that things are not really right at their Cuban-based detention prison. One way or another, APA’s military psychologists hope to defeat the previous surge of anti-torture feeling at the APA after revelations about psychologist involvement in the Bush-era torture program.

Meanwhile, an active core group of psychologists, Alliance for an Ethical APA, are working hard to lobby APA council of representatives against the attempt to revise APA policy and allow psychologists back into Guantanamo to treat detainees. Other groups like The Center for the Victims of Torture (see their letter to APA), Veterans for Peace, and Physicians for Human Rights are joining in.

The battle to defeat the abusive portions of the Army Field Manual and its Appendix M is inextricably entwined with the struggle to keep psychologists from working for the military and CIA in illegal sites that exist outside both national and international law, and where torture still takes place.

In a larger sense, given we live in a country whose current president is an outspoken advocate of torture, the battle could even be said to be over the soul of a nation.