Outside Psychologists Shielded US Torture Program, Report Finds

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Originally published at The NYTimes by James Risen on 7/10/15

WASHINGTON — The Central Intelligence Agency’s health professionals repeatedly criticized the agency’s post-Sept. 11 interrogation program, but their protests were rebuffed by prominent outside psychologists who lent credibility to the program, according to a new report.

The 542-page report, which examines the involvement of the nation’s psychologists and their largest professional organization, the American Psychological Association, with the harsh interrogation programs of the Bush era, raises repeated questions about the collaboration between psychologists and officials at both the C.I.A. and the Pentagon.
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The report, completed this month, concludes that some of the association’s top officials, including its ethics director, sought to curry favor with Pentagon officials by seeking to keep the association’s ethics policies in line with the Defense Department’s interrogation policies, while several prominent outside psychologists took actions that aided the C.I.A.’s interrogation program and helped protect it from growing dissent inside the agency.

Psychologists and ‘Enhanced’ Interrogation

A 542-page report concludes that prominent psychologists worked closely with the C.I.A. to blunt dissent inside the agency over an interrogation program that is now known to have included torture. It also finds that officials at the American Psychological Association colluded with the Pentagon to make sure that the association’s ethics policies did not hinder the ability of psychologists to be involved in the interrogation program.

 

Photo of CIA director George Tenet approved waterboarding
and ordered medical staff to be present. Experts say the agency and its doctors violated its own limits on ‘human subject research’. Photograph: Guardian

The association’s ethics office “prioritized the protection of psychologists — even those who might have engaged in unethical behavior — above the protection of the public,” the report said.

Two former presidents of the psychological association were on a C.I.A. advisory committee, the report found. One of them gave the agency an opinion that sleep deprivation did not constitute torture, and later held a small ownership stake in a consulting company founded by two men who oversaw the agency’s interrogation program, it said.

The association’s ethics director, Stephen Behnke, coordinated the group’s public policy statements on interrogations with a top military psychologist, the report said, and then received a Pentagon contract to help train interrogators while he was working at the association, without the knowledge of the association’s board. Mr. Behnke did not respond to a request for comment.

The report, which was obtained by The New York Times and has not previously been made public, is the result of a seven-month investigation by a team led by David Hoffman, a Chicago lawyer with the firm Sidley Austin at the request of the psychology association’s board.

After the Hoffman report was made public on Friday, the American Psychological Association issued an apology.

“The actions, policies and lack of independence from government influence described in the Hoffman report represented a failure to live up to our core values,” Nadine Kaslow, a former president of the organization, said in a statement. “We profoundly regret and apologize for the behavior and the consequences that ensued.”

The association said it was considering proposals to prohibit psychologists from participating in interrogations and to modify its ethics policies, among other changes.

The involvement of psychologists in the interrogation programs has been a source of contention within the profession for years. Another report, issued in April by several critics of the association, came to similar conclusions. But Mr. Hoffman’s report is by far the most detailed look yet into the crucial roles played by behavioral scientists, especially top officials at the American Psychological Association and some of the most prominent figures in the profession, in the interrogation programs. It also shows that the collaboration was much more extensive than was previously known.

A report last December by the Senate Intelligence Committee detailed the brutality of some of the C.I.A.’s interrogation methods, but by focusing on the role of psychologists, Mr. Hoffman’s report provides new details, and can be seen as a companion to the Senate report.

The C.I.A. and the Pentagon both conducted harsh interrogations during the administration of President George W. Bush, although the C.I.A.’s program included more brutal tactics. Some of them, like the simulated drowning technique called waterboarding, are now widely regarded as torture. The agency’s interrogations were done at so-called black site prisons around the world where prisoners were held secretly for years.

The report found that while some prominent psychologists collaborated with C.I.A. officials in ways that aided the agency’s interrogation program, the American Psychological Association and its staff members focused more on working with the Pentagon, with which the association has long had strong ties.

Indeed, the report said that senior officials of the association had “colluded” with senior Defense Department officials to make certain that the association’s ethics rules did not hinder the ability of psychologists to remain involved with the interrogation program.

The report’s most immediate impact will be felt at the association, where it has been presented to the board and its members’ council. The board met last week to discuss the report and is expected to act on its findings soon. The association has since renounced 2005 ethics guidelines that allowed psychologists to stay involved in the harsh interrogations, but several staff members who were named in the report have remained at the organization.

A C.I.A. spokesman said that agency officials had not seen it and so could not comment.

Dissent began building within the C.I.A. against the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques not long after its interrogation program began.

In about late 2002, the head of the C.I.A.’s Office of Medical Services, Terrence DeMay, started to complain about the involvement in the program of James Mitchell, a psychologist and instructor at the Air Force’s SERE (survival, evasion, rescue and escape) program, in which United States military personnel are subjected to simulated torture to gird them for possible capture. Mr. Mitchell had also served as a consultant to the C.I.A. advisory committee that included two former presidents of the psychological association.

One unidentified witness was quoted in the Hoffman report as saying that doctors and psychologists in the C.I.A.’s Office of Medical Services “were not on board with what was going on regarding interrogations, and felt that they were being cut out of the discussion.” One leading C.I.A. psychologist told investigators that Mr. DeMay “was berating Jim Mitchell about being involved in the interrogation program,” and that Mr. DeMay’s objections “related to the involvement of psychologists as professionals adept at human behavior and manipulation.”

Mr. DeMay’s complaints “led to a substantial dispute within the C.I.A.,” according to the report, and prompted the head of the agency’s counterterrorism center to seek an opinion from a prominent outside psychologist on whether it was ethical for psychologists to continue to participate in the C.I.A.’s interrogations.

The C.I.A. chose Mel Gravitz, a prominent psychologist who was also a member of the agency’s advisory committee. In early 2003, Mr. Gravitz wrote an opinion that persuaded the chief of the agency’s counterterrorism center that Mr. Mitchell could continue to participate in and support interrogations, according to the Hoffman report.

Mr. Gravitz’s opinion, which the Hoffman report quotes, noted that “the psychologist has an obligation to (a) group of individuals, such as the nation,” and that the ethics code “must be flexible [sic] applied to the circumstances at hand.”

But ethical concerns persisted at the C.I.A. In March 2004, other agency insiders emailed the psychological association to say they were worried that psychologists were assisting with interrogations in ways that contradicted the association’s ethics code.

One of those who contacted the association was Charles Morgan, a C.I.A. contractor and psychiatrist who had studied military personnel who went through the SERE program’s simulated torture training, research that showed that the techniques used on them could not be used to collect accurate information.

Another, oddly, was Kirk Hubbard, a C.I.A. psychologist who was chairman of the agency advisory committee that included two former association presidents and on which Mr. Mitchell was a consultant. Mr. Hubbard told the Hoffman investigators that he did not have concerns about the participation of psychologists in the interrogation program, but emailed the association because he had been asked to pass on the concerns of other behavioral scientists inside the agency.

The ethical concerns raised by Mr. Morgan and others inside the C.I.A. led to a confidential meeting in July 2004 at the psychological association of about 15 behavioral scientists who worked for national security agencies. This was followed by the creation of an association task force to study the ethics of psychologists’ involvement in interrogations.

But association and government officials filled the task force with national security insiders, and it concluded in 2005 that it was fine for psychologists to remain involved, the report found.

The report provides new details about how Mr. Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, another SERE trainer who would later go into business with Mr. Mitchell, gained entree to the C.I.A.’s counterterrorism center, which hired them to create and run the interrogation program. After Mr. Mitchell worked as a consultant to the C.I.A. advisory committee, Mr. Hubbard introduced Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Jessen to Jim Cotsana, the chief of special missions in the C.I.A.’s counterterrorism center.

Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Jessen were later hired as contractors for the counterterrorism center, where they helped create the interrogation program by adapting the simulated torture techniques from the SERE program, using them against detainees.

Separately, Joseph Matarazzo, a former president of the psychological association who was a member of the C.I.A. advisory committee, was asked by Mr. Hubbard to provide an opinion about whether sleep deprivation constituted torture. Mr. Matarazzo concluded that it was not torture, according to the report.

Later, Mr. Matarazzo became a 1 percent owner of a unit of Mitchell Jessen and Associates, the contracting company Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Jessen created to handle their work with the C.I.A.’s interrogation program. Mr. Matarazzo was also listed as a partner of the company in a 2008 annual report, according to the Hoffman report.

Mr. Matarazzo said he had not read the report and could not comment.

Mr. Hubbard, after he retired from the C.I.A., also did some work for Mitchell Jessen and Associates.

The report reaches unsparing conclusions about the close relationship between some association officials and officials at the Pentagon.

“The evidence supports the conclusion that A.P.A. officials colluded with D.O.D. officials to, at the least, adopt and maintain A.P.A. ethics policies that were not more restrictive than the guidelines that key D.O.D. officials wanted,” the report says, adding, “A.P.A. chose its ethics policy based on its goals of helping D.O.D., managing its P.R., and maximizing the growth of the profession.”