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The CIA’s Torture Teachers: Psychologists Helped the CIA Exploit a Secret Military Program to Develop Brutal Interrogation Tactics

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Last month, the Pentagon inspector general declassified a report that provided concrete evidence that methods developed by the U.S. military for withstanding torture were being used to develop interrogation techniques against prisoners. Investigative journalist Mark Benjamin reveals that two psychologists who worked as contractors for the CIA since 9/11 were at the center of the program. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “The CIA’s torture teachers: Psychologists [helped] the CIA exploit a secret military program to develop brutal interrogation tactics.” That’s the beginning of a new article by Salon.com Mark Benjamin. Last month, the Pentagon inspector general declassified a report that provided concrete evidence that methods developed by the U.S. military for withstanding torture are being used to develop interrogation techniques against prisoners.

Investigative journalist Mark Benjamin uncovers a new twist to the story: the CIA’s use of similar tactics as the military interrogators. He also points to the high-level coordination between the CIA and the U.S. military in developing the interrogation methods. Benjamin also reveals that two psychologists who worked as contractors for the CIA since 9/11 are at the center of the program. Both men are currently under investigation.

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon.com. He joins us from Washington, D.C. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Mark.

MARK BENJAMIN: Thank you so much for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you have discovered.

MARK BENJAMIN: Well, what we’ve learned is that there is a special school, a secretive school, called Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. And that’s where we train elite troops to resist, if captured by an enemy who ignores the Geneva Conventions, things like waterboarding, stress positions, sexual humiliation, isolation, that sort of thing. And reporters, including myself, have been working for years now to try to show that it looks like the Pentagon sort of reverse-engineered those tactics to use to interrogate real prisoners. The Pentagon said, “No, no, no,” until last month. You mentioned an inspector general report that came out and said, well, yes, in fact, the Pentagon did do that. What we’ve learned now is that it appears that the CIA, working very closely with the Pentagon, did the same thing very early in the war on terror, relying on psychologists very close to this program. And because both agencies turned to this program they call the SERE program early in the war on terror, it suggests very high-level coordination in the Bush administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain just what the SERE program is.

MARK BENJAMIN: The SERE program is a Cold War-era program, where we literally set up mock prisons at places like Fort Bragg, North Carolina, which is where we have sort of the flagship program, where elite soldiers — for example, Special Forces soldiers — are subject to brutal mock interrogations. As I mentioned, waterboarding is just one of the things that they face — isolation in very, very small pens, hooding, that kind of thing, stress positions. And it is intended to teach those soldiers to resist those illegal tactics if they are captured.

And that raises an obvious problem. If you’re going to take that training, which is designed to get people to resist illegal interrogations, and flip it around to interrogation tactics, which is now what we’re learning the Pentagon and the CIA both did, you’re very likely, obviously, to come up with tactics that are violations of the Geneva Conventions. That’s a problem for the Bush administration, which has been saying that their tactics are safe, effective and legal. SERE training is not designed to be safe, effective or legal.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about two CIA-employed psychologists who are under investigation right now. Explain who they are.

MARK BENJAMIN: The two psychologists are named James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, and these are psychologists who have been affiliated with this training program — again, called the SERE program — for years. What we have learned is that the Senate Armed Services Committee — this is a committee run by Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan — is now looking into the activities of these two psychologists, in particular.

What our sources on Capitol Hill and, in fact, some of Mitchell and Jessen’s own colleagues say is that these guys, these psychologists who are affiliated with the military’s SERE training, were then employed by the CIA as contractors to do the same thing that the military was doing, which was to flip these tactics around and use them on real terrorists. And, in fact, Jane Mayer from The New Yorker, who’s done some wonderful reporting also on this issue, put one of these guys, James Mitchell, in the room with a high-level CIA detainee in early 2002, and, according to Mayer, he was urging some very rough stuff.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is investigating them?

MARK BENJAMIN: The Senate Armed Services Committee is looking into these guys, and, in fact, based on Carl Levin’s request, the Department of Defense has ordered anybody associated with the Department of Defense, in a memo to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and others, that any document that has the name of these two guys, Bruce Jessen or James Mitchell, has to be preserved, and nobody can destroy documents associated with those two guys, because they’re part of this Senate investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the letter that psychologists have written to the American Psychological Association and the controversy that’s brewing within this organization of close to 150,000 psychologists?

MARK BENJAMIN: There is a major rift in the American Psychological Association, a professional association for psychologists. In 2005, the American Psychological Association came up with ethics guidelines that essentially say that a psychologist can help participate in a military interrogation. This is a big deal, because the American Psychiatric Association for psychiatrists said, no, we won’t have any part of it. It turns out that six of the 10 individual psychologists who helped draft those ethics guidelines for the American Psychological Association were affiliated with the military. And, in fact, several of them were affiliated with this SERE school.

This issue has been really tearing apart the American Psychological Association for years now, and there is an expanding group of psychologists who are very, very concerned that the American Psychological Association’s own ethical guidelines are allowing psychologists, like these guys Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, to reverse-engineer training tactics into really brutal interrogation techniques. And there’s a bunch of letter writing back and forth, frankly, to the head of — the president of the American Psychological Association, objecting to these ethic guidelines and perhaps the use of these tactics.

AMY GOODMAN: You write about the dozens of psychologists who made public a joint letter to the American Psychological Association President Sharon Brehm, fingering another CIA-employed psychologist. He was one of the ten on that committee in 2005 that was convened to look at psychologists’ involvement in these interrogations. Explain who he is.

MARK BENJAMIN: That’s a guy whose last name is Shumate. He’s a psychologist for the Counter Terrorism Center at the CIA. This is the center that reported — at the time of 9/11 was a guy named Cofer Black was in charge of that unit. You may recall Cofer Black is very well known for going up to Congress early in the war on terror and saying, you know, “There’s a before-after-9/11 and there’s an after-9/11; after 9/11 the gloves come off.”

What the psychologists are concerned about is that their fellow psychologists who are associated with that center, the Counter Terrorism Center, seem to be also, you know, crucial in reverse-engineering these tactics, these training tactics in the brutal interrogation techniques, or at least that’s the concern among these psychologists. And what they’re doing is alerting their organization that there could be a real problem here.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, Cofer Black now involved with Blackwater, the private security company based in North Carolina, and an offshoot of that around intelligence. Now, R. Scott Shumate was one of the ten people involved in this PENS Task Force, this advisory task force that ultimately advised that the psychologists could continue in these military interrogations, despite the fact that three of the members — we had two of them on on Democracy Now! — have expressed great concern about them, one of these members handing over all of her notes leading up to the meeting and afterwards, the email listservs, over to the Senate Armed Services Committee, as they conduct their investigation.

MARK BENJAMIN: That’s right. And some of the psychologists, as you mentioned, these civilian psychologists, sort of feel like they were railroaded or misled or, you know, in other words, the military folks who were on that panel which came up with these ethics guidelines sort of ran the show. I think that’s sort of what you’re referring to there. And, yes, there’s very serious concern about these psychologists, that their own fellow professionals may have played a vital role in flipping these techniques around, both at the Pentagon and, now we’ve learned, also at the CIA, into some really brutal interrogation techniques.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the issue of “jointness,” Mark Benjamin?

MARK BENJAMIN: Yeah, “jointness” is a term — if you talk to people in the military, it’s a term that refers to a high-level decision made by — for example, made at the White House — for the CIA and the military to work hand in hand on a high-level project. In this case, it would be interrogations. What happened in this particular case is we have jointness with respect to interrogations. Very early in the war on terror, the CIA and the Pentagon worked very closely together to develop these interrogation techniques based on this sort of brutal training of our own troops. Again, it’s referred to as “jointness.” So what you’ll have — that will explain a lot of things. It would explain why in interrogation rooms you may have a bunch of CIA people and then you may have, you know, an elite Special Forces soldier or a Delta Force soldier participating in these interrogations. So what you’ve got is our most elite troops working very, very closely with the CIA on some very tough interrogations.

AMY GOODMAN: The issue of isolation and one of these two psychologists’ key role in that?

MARK BENJAMIN: Yeah, one of the psychologists is a guy named Bruce Jessen, who is apparently an expert on isolation. The reason why that’s interesting is last month the Council of Europe, a human rights agency, came out with a new report sort of explaining what was happening to these CIA detainees when they were in these black sites, as what the president calls them or what they’ve been called. And one of the things that happens with these folks is they’re put into a room with no sound, a low white light, air coming in through a hole in the ceiling, and virtually no interaction with other human beings for 120 days. The research seems to show that if that happens, you start to lose your sense of identity, you hallucinate, you hear things, you see things that don’t exist, and you breakdown psychologically. It is a form of abuse that leaves no marks. And I think the concern is that because the CIA apparently employed those tactics, that some of these psychologists may have played a role in helping the CIA and the military learn how to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: When we had the psychologists on, two of the 10 people who ran this task force for the American Psychological Association, nine of them voting members, six of them military, Nina Thomas, psychologist based in New York who was a part of that, said, though she knew about the military connection, she didn’t realize how involved some of the members were in this presidential task force, who was making their recommendation to the APA, how involved they were in the SERE program and in the interrogations. Among those she talked about was Colonel Morgan Banks.

MARK BENJAMIN: That’s right. Morgan Banks is a guy who’s affiliated with the Special Operations Command’s Psychological Directorate, so these are the top psychologists associated with the special operations units in the military. What we learned last month, the Department of Defense inspector general declassified a report that showed that that department, the Special Operations Command’s Psychological Applications Directorate, early in the war came up with a plan specifically to do this. In other words, when I say “this,” I mean take these training tactics, these brutal mock interrogations, and flip them around into real interrogation techniques. Because this guy, Morgan Banks, was in charge of that portion of Special Operations, it certainly seems to strongly suggest — it doesn’t say Morgan Banks by name, but it says his organization did this. So if you’ve got a guy who is involved and who is part of the original planning to turn these techniques into real interrogation tactics and then he’s sitting on a task force at the American Psychological Association drawing up ethics guidelines that say that can be done, I think that’s raising some real alarm bells among psychologists.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll certainly continue to follow this issue. The APA meeting, the American Psychological Association meeting, annual conference, will be taking place in San Francisco in mid-August. I know that there are many who are withholding their dues, many psychologists, some have quit over this. We’ll continue to follow this, as some new exposes are expected to come out in the next few weeks.

And I thank you, Mark Benjamin, for joining us. Mark Benjamin, national correspondent at Salon.com.

Mark, finally, on Friday, I went over to Yeshiva University here in New York, which had a 50th anniversary conference called “War, Torture and Terror: The Role of Psychology.” Michael Gelles spoke. He was one of those members on that task force at the APA. He defended the position of the psychologists’ involvement in military interrogations. Afterwards, a number of psychologists seriously questioned him from the audience.

MARK BENJAMIN: Yes, and the argument from people like Gelles, who did sit on this panel, is that having a psychologist in the room or near the room when there’s an interrogation going on, it allows that psychologist to be sort of like a safety officer. In other words, let’s at least have psychologists nearby, so they can set some limits. The flip side of that, of course, is that psychologists are — as medical professionals, they know how to push people’s buttons. And there are interrogation transcripts, including this guy, the 20th hijacker Qahtani, that show psychologists at Guantanamo telling interrogators this is how you crank up the pressure, not acting as safety officers during interrogations, but as telling interrogators essentially how to be more coercive. And that’s at the crux of the matter.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark Benjamin of Salon.com. We will link to his piece at democracynow.org, as well as our previous discussion with the psychologists involved with this advisory group that recommended that psychologists can continue with these military interrogations.

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