The reluctant enablers of torture  *A Senate report shows that during the
Bush administration's War on Terror, mental health professionals raised
questions about harsh interrogations -- but helped design interrogation
programs anyway.*

*By Sheri Fink*

*Editor's note: Sheri Fink is a reporter for
an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in
the public interest.*

May. 05, 2009 |

The recent Senate Armed Services Committee report on the treatment of
detainees captured during the Bush administration's War on Terror revealed
that several American military officers acted to stop harsh interrogations
of prisoners. Likewise, the Senate report showed that 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. What has been little noticed in the report 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? If not,
then should the psychologists, however well-meaning, be held to account for
their possible role in torture? 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 would serve 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.

The Senate report says that when James contacted him in 2002, Banks was 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

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." Two psychologists, retired Air Force
SERE psychologist Dr. James Mitchell and then-senior JPRA SERE psychologist
Dr. John "Bruce" Jessen, led the effort to put the JPRA's expertise to use
in intelligence gathering, according to interviews by the Senate committee
and news reports<>,
including Salon <>.
(Mitchell and Jessen declined our request to speak with them.)

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 the two psychologists and some JPRA officers saw both a need and an
opportunity to promote their expertise. In early 2002, the JPRA, which had
"no training or experience in intelligence collection," the Senate report
said, ran "crash" courses on interrogations for intelligence personnel
rotating into the field, likely including CIA

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 let the behavioral
science team at Guantánamo know by e-mail that the JPRA was willing to
modify its interrogation training sessions for the BSCT team. (Though other
individuals associated with SERE had already become involved in the Bush
administration's interrogation program, we do not know what practices Banks
had been involved in prior to this e-mail.) 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

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

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 international Torture Convention
was written vaguely. "It is basically subject to perception. If the detainee
dies you're doing it wrong."

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
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

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
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
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" 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

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 <>was
obtained by ProPublica. Writing to his colleagues on the listserv,
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.

Of course, 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<>,
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.

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

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
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
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," apparently left
psychologists free to adhere to the U.S. legal determinations of the time,
regardless of their relationship to international treaties such as the
Geneva Conventions. "I have long had a sense of frustration with
'international law,'" then-incoming APA president wrote to the task-force
listserv on July 30, 2005. "I have zero interest in entangling APA with the
toothless, contradictory and obfuscatory treaties that comprise
'international law.' Rather, I prefer to see APA take principled stands on
policy isssues where psychology has some scientific basis for doing so."

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 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. "When
professional organizations do not hold members accountable for acts that are
in violation of international law, in my opinion it makes a mockery of the
professional organization," she told ProPublica.

To her knowledge, none of her complaints have been investigated. She
recently took the Louisiana State Board of Examiners to
dismissing her complaint against James. The Louisiana board, in a
filing, wrote: "the truth of the allegations contained in said complaint
[against James] are denied for a lack of sufficient information."

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. Do the
allegations that health professionals participated in abuses have grounds,
or are they inaccurate or circumstantial, as James insists? To that
question, the organization Physicians for Human Rights has an
Allow a nonpartisan U.S. 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.