Senate Report Calls CIA Tactics Inhumane and Ineffective, Details Unethical Application of Psychology

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s long-awaited summary of their investigation into the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) interrogation program following 9/11 details a horrifying program of physical and psychological torture that they argue was ineffective in eliciting new intelligence.

The 525-page executive summary released Tuesday is only a fraction of the full 6,700-page classified report from the Senate Intelligence Committee’s 6-year, $50 million investigation into CIA interrogation tactics. Led by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the report describes in detail the agency’s development and use of enhanced interrogation techniques at so called black sites — secret prisons built and maintained by the CIA for the purpose of housing and interrogating detainees.

The report identified 119 detainees held by the CIA during its seven years of operation between 2002 and 2008, more than the “fewer than a hundred” the CIA originally reported. According to the report, 39 detainees were subjected to enhanced interrogation. Abuses included waterboarding, sleep deprivation for up to 180 hours, prolonged light deprivation, isolation, rectal rehydration, forced nudity, and confinement to compact spaces — practices widely defined as torture by the international community.

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In the introduction to the Senate Intelligence Committee’s executive summary, Feinstein wrote “It is my personal conclusion that, under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured. I also believe that the conditions of confinement and the use of authorized and unauthorized interrogation and conditioning techniques were cruel, inhuman, and degrading. I believe the evidence of this is overwhelming and incontrovertible.”

The report describes in detail how these methods resulted in severe physical and psychological injuries. Detainees showed signs of paranoia, insomnia, and depression. Many detainees made repeated attempts at self-harm including slamming their heads into walls and trying to cut themselves using broken glass or a filed toothbrush.

During its operations, the CIA repeatedly blocked attempts at oversight from Congress and the White House. They misrepresented the effectiveness of the program and strategically leaked misleading information to the press about successful intelligence gains to win public support. According to the report, none of the 39 detainees subjected to coercive interrogations provided new, actionable intelligence during or after such interrogations.

Highly unsettling is the fact that the CIA not only declared these techniques to be wrong, they knew them to be ineffective long before implementing them with the approval of President George W. Bush. By that time, it had been CIA policy to limit their interrogation methods to those listed in the Army Field manual. Twenty-five years earlier, in 1989, the CIA informed the Senate Intelligence Committee that “inhumane physical or psychological techniques are counterproductive because they do not produce intelligence and will probably result in false answers.” Similar conclusions have been drawn with regard to the use of coercive interrogation methods in police investigations.

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Since the Senate Intelligence Committee released their report, a number of high-profile politicians and CIA agents have defended the program, saying the CIA’s enhanced interrogations did lead to life-saving intelligence. Shortly after the report’s release, former CIA officials launched the website defending their tactics.

In contrast, the American Psychological Association (APA) released a statement Tuesday calling the CIA’s interrogation techniques “sickening and morally reprehensible,” and affirmed  the Senate Intelligence Committee’s decision to release its executive summary.

The APA also reiterated their official stance against torture and stated they are not associated with the two psychologists featured prominently in the report. Referred to by the pseudonyms “Dr. Grayson Swigert” and “Dr. Hammond Dunbar,” the New York Times has identified them as James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, two former Air Force SERE – Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape – psychologists.

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report describes how these two men, without any real-world interrogation experience, with no relevant linguistic or cultural skills, and with no relevant scholarly research to their names, developed an interrogation program aimed at breaking the human will.

Although not supported by any scientific evidence, Mitchell and Jessen believed through administering uncontrollable, unpredictable pain, interrogators could torture detainees into a state of complete passivity and compliance.

Mitchell and Jessen’s program of coercive interrogation was based in part by psychologist Martin E. P. Seligman’s famous work on “learned helplessness,” that found when dogs were subjected to random, uncontrollable electric shocks, they would become listless, passive, and would not try to escape electrocution even when they had the opportunity. Although not supported by any scientific evidence, Mitchell and Jessen believed through administering uncontrollable, unpredictable pain, interrogators could torture detainees into a state of complete passivity and compliance.

Seligman’s work has been instrumental in treating human depression. Its unethical application by Mitchell and Jessen went beyond the scope of his research, and Seligman has expressed on a number of occasions his dismay at its use to develop coercive interrogation techniques.

In a public letter clarifying his limited association with the CIA published in 2010, Seligman wrote, “I am grieved and horrified that good science, which has helped so many people overcome learned helplessness and depression, has been used for such inhumane purposes.”

In a lengthy article published in 2009, New York Times reporter Scott Shane detailed Mitchell and Jessen’s rise to prominence in the military as experts in resisting enemy interrogations that lead them to heading the CIA’s greatest counterterrorism effort.

His story shows how Mitchell and Jessen leveraged their military connections to gain the attention of CIA higher-ups for their plan involving the use of coercive interrogation methods against suspected terrorists. The two convinced the CIA to enter into a $180 million contract with their consulting firm, of which they received more than $80 million before their contract was terminated in 2009.

Indeed, as the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report states, the CIA did not seek out Mitchell and Jessen after deciding to use coercive interrogation methods, rather, the two played a central role in convincing the CIA to adopt such a harsh interrogation strategy.  The CIA ended up contracting out more than 80 percent of their work to Mitchell and Jessen’s firm. The report also describes a host of conflicting responsibilities afforded to Mitchell and Jessen. They were in charge of simultaneously conducting interrogations, monitoring the health of detainees during interrogations, and assessing the effectiveness of those interrogations. By professional ethical standards, psychological and medical personnel can oversee interrogations and monitor the health of the detainee, but they do not lead interrogations.

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The Senate Intelligence Committee’s descriptions of the use of forceful, coercive methods illustrates in case after case the severe mental and physical deterioration of detainees without producing any significant intelligence gains.

The report notes that seven of the 39 detainees known to have been subjected to enhanced interrogation methods provided no intelligence. Many provided information without being subjected to coercive methods.

Most notably, Al Qaida facilitator Abu Zubaydah, the first detainee to be subjected to the Mitchell-Jessen plan, reportedly provided crucial information to interrogators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) using non-coercive, rapport-building techniques. FBI agents stayed at Zubaydah bedside and helped with his medical care while he was being treated for injuries he attained during his capture. Agents reported they had built a significant rapport and could elicit more information from him before Mitchell and Jessen took over and subjected him to violent, enhanced interrogations. Zubaydah reportedly continued to cooperate but did not disclose any actionable intelligence about specific terrorist plots.

Another detainee, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, exhibited significant signs of distress after years of torture but never offered any actionable intelligence. During his detention, al-Nashiri was subjected to several periods of enhanced interrogation. According to the report, Interrogators stripped him of his clothes and made him stand with his hands shackled above his head for two and a half days. He was blindfolded while a CIA officer held a gun to his head and operated a cordless drill near his body. Interrogators implied that they would arrest his mother and sexually abuse her in front of him. He was waterboarded several times.

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A CIA Headquarters cable expressing concern for the interrogation plan for al-Nashiri. page 71

After a period of enhanced interrogations, his interrogators reported he was compliant and cooperative. They said they did not believe he could provide more information and that further coercive tactics could lead to “permanent mental harm.” Those interrogators were subsequently replaced with a new officer who had a history of anger problems and no interrogation experience.

In January 2003, Jessen evaluated al-Nashiri and recommended interrogators use the full array of coercive techniques at their disposal, which led to the CIA’s chief of interrogations announcing he would retire shortly, writing “This is a train wreak [sic] waiting to happen and I intend to get the hell off the train before it happens.”

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report is not the only review of Bush-era anti-terrorism tactics. Last year, the Institute on Medicine as a Profession and the Open Society Foundations (IMAP/OSF) issued a report detailing how the Department of Defense (DoD) and the CIA required medical and psychological personnel to violate ethical standards. These included disclosing medical and psychological information about detainees so it could be used in interrogations and not reporting medical abuses. The task force made up of 20 ethical, medical, and psychology experts made a number of recommendations calling for a sweeping overhaul of the U.S.’s current protocol for detailing with detainees and instituting a training program on human rights and ethical principles.

In a press conference on Thursday, CIA Director John Brennan called the Senate’s report flawed and largely defended his organization’s use of coercive interrogation tactics including waterboarding. Further, despite President Barack Obama issuing an executive order in 2009 outlawing such methods, Brennan made no assurances that these tactics wouldn’t be employed in the future, saying only “I defer to the policymakers in future times.”