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Robert Jay Lifton, Author of “The Nazi Doctors”: Psychologists Who Aided Torture Should Be Charged

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Robert Jay Lifton, the prominent psychiatrist famous for his study of the doctors who aided Nazi war crimes, speaks out on the role of the American Psychological Association in aiding government-sanctioned torture under President George W. Bush. A new report alleges the APA, the world’s largest group of psychologists, secretly coordinated with government officials to align its ethics policy with the operational needs of the CIA’s torture program. “What the APA did was a scandal within a scandal,” Lifton says. “[This] is something we have to confront as a nation.”

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: New details have emerged on how the American Psychological Association, the world’s largest group of psychologists, aided government-sanctioned torture under President George W. Bush. A group of dissident psychologists have just published a 60-page report alleging the APA secretly coordinated with officials from the CIA, White House and the Pentagon to change the APA ethics policy to align it with the operational needs of the CIA’s torture program. The report also reveals a behavioral science researcher working for President Bush secretly drafted language that the APA inserted into its ethics policy on interrogations.

AMY GOODMAN: Much of the report is based on hundreds of newly released internal APA emails from 2003 to 2006 that show top officials were in direct communication with the CIA. In 2004, for example, the APA secretly took part in a meeting with officials from the CIA and other intelligence agencies to discuss ethics and national security.

Still with us, Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, leading American psychiatrist who has spoken out against the APA’s practices. So, the American Psychological Association has about 150,000 members, the largest association in the world. That’s the APA. The little APA is the American Psychiatric Association, which I assume you’re a part of. Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, your thoughts on what the APA did?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: What the APA did—and I read that report—is what I call a scandal within a scandal. That is, I have been much concerned with the behavior of professionals and their ethics, not just in terms of how they conduct their everyday profession—that’s important enough—but their relationship to the world ethically. I became interested in this in working with veterans of the Vietnam War. And in that war, military psychiatrists would be in a position, when examining a soldier who was brought to them with anxiety and a sense of outrage at what was going on—would be in the position of helping that soldier to be strong enough to return to duty, which meant daily atrocities. And I asked myself, how did a psychiatrist find himself in that situation? And it had to do with a military structure of medicine and with the psychiatrist entering into what I called an atrocity-producing situation. In my work with Nazi doctors, it was even, of course, much more extreme, probably the most extreme example of any profession of any country engaging in extremely immoral behavior, engaging directly in killing, because Nazi physicians were in charge of the killing in Auschwitz. And that’s what I studied in that research. But, you know—

AMY GOODMAN: What’s interesting, both Nermeen and I saw you speak last night on a very different issue, on the Armenian genocide, and you talked about the significance of Dr. Josef Mengele dying without acknowledging what he did.

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Yes, when Mengele, who was a notorious fanatical Nazi, quite unusual in that way among doctors, was found to be dead in a lake in Argentina, survivors of Auschwitz were upset that there wasn’t the opportunity to bring him to the dock so that he could confront his crimes. It wasn’t so much a desire for revenge as it was for justice. So I mentioned that survivors of holocaust or genocide, or survivors in general, are what can be called collectors of justice. They need a sense of justice for their own healing.

But now, here we have American psychologists. There were psychiatrists involved early also in the enhanced interrogation, which spilled over into torture in American use. Fortunately, American Psychiatric Association had slightly more enlightened leadership, and we had the advantage of doctors’ Hippocratic Oath, which is “do no harm,” and there could be developed a resolution prohibiting any physician, any psychiatrist, from being in the interrogation room. The American Psychological Association took an opposite tendency. It’s one thing—and there were a couple of psychologists, who are well known, who helped create the torture and the whole psychological regimen for the torture, crudely and very unscientifically, but with the claim of psychological science. It’s still another level when the professional organization supports torture by meeting with the administration and those people who were looking for some legitimation coming from a professional group for torture. And that’s what the American Psychological Association did.

And that’s all too reminiscent of what the Nazis called Gleichschaltung. I’m not saying they’re Nazis. We’re not Nazis. We’re still a sufficiently open society to confront this, criticize it and do something about it. But with the Nazis, there was this process of Gleichschaltung, meaning reordering or re-gearing all professional organizations, not destroying them, but breaking them down and reconstructing them to serve the Nazi project. That’s the kind of thing we must and can confront and avoid here.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, last December, psychologist James Mitchell, who was contracted by the CIA while still a member of the American Psychological Association to design its interrogation program, appeared on Fox News to talk about his role in the waterboarding of Abu Zubaydah. He was interviewed by Megyn Kelly.

MEGYN KELLY: So you—were you the one actually conducting the techniques on Abu Zubaydah, or were you in more of a sort of background role?

JAMES MITCHELL: It depends on when you’re talking about. Initially, I was in a background role. Then, after we shut down and the enhanced interrogations were approved, I was in an administration role.

MEGYN KELLY: OK, so did you personally waterboard him?


MEGYN KELLY: We’re going to get to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a minute, but sticking with Abu Zubaydah for now, were all of the methods that were cited in the Senate report employed, like nudity, standing sleep deprivation, the attention grab, the insult slap? Were those all used?

JAMES MITCHELL: The ones you mentioned were used.

MEGYN KELLY: The facial grab, the abdominal slap, the kneeling stress position, walling?

JAMES MITCHELL: Walling was used. The others—if they showed up on the list, they were used. We didn’t typically use a lot of those stress positions. We didn’t use any stress positions with Abu Zubaydah, because he had an injury.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was psychologist James Mitchell speaking on Fox News last December. He was the psychologist who was asked by the CIA to design its interrogation program. Could you talk about that, Dr. Lifton? And in particular, in the context of what you called earlier an atrocity-producing situation, what enabled this to occur?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Professionals are as prone to being socialized to the norm of a group, including being socialized to evil, as are any other groups in American society. What that means is that psychologists, in this case—and there are others from other professions—internalize what is considered to be acceptable and appropriate for them in carrying out their profession. So, torture exists. There is the nod from the administration: Go ahead with torture. And psychologists then adapt to that and, in this case, become not just participants in torture, but the creators of the methods of torture.

That’s a shocking clip because it shows him kind of slightly reluctantly admitting that they do all those things. Of course, it’s denied that they’re torture, and that’s absurd. They’re out-and-out torture. But the fact that they’ll come on a network program and describe it as something legitimate is another level of scandal. After all, torture has been conducted, you know, from the time of the beginning of history. It’s always been seen, and especially in recent centuries, as something evil. You can judge a society as to whether it engages in torture. You condemn a society that engages in torture.

In our case, looking at the sequence, one can praise the Obama administration for ending that torture, but one must criticize the Obama administration for blocking any examination or confrontation of our role in torture. You showed an interesting clip about the city of Chicago confronting and at least recognizing that the police had engaged in torture of certain suspects. Well, that doesn’t undo what they did, but it’s a step toward some kind of ethical advance. And for the United States to have engaged in torture on such a widespread dimension, to have legitimated it among professionals like psychologists, for psychologists and others to have created and participated in it, is something that we have to confront, as a nation, to move ahead in something like an ethical way.

AMY GOODMAN: And when you talk about confronting, what exactly do you mean? You’ve just given a psychological, sociological explanation, understanding. For example, James Mitchell, or Mitchell and Jessen, the company of two psychologists that Pentagon funneled money into, not to mention other psychologists who didn’t even work for them, working at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, but should they be brought up on charges?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: Of course they should. There are many situations that I can probe psychologically, or psychohistorically, as we say, but have to be approached politically for some kind of resolution, and this is an example of that. A proper confrontation of what we did would mean a real investigation that didn’t stop as we got to the top. Yes, of course, the order for torture being acceptable and advised comes from above, comes from the highest sources in the administration. That has to be uncovered by an investigation, and there has to be a legal context. Whether or not everybody who participated in torture is in some way condemned and put to jail, I don’t know. But at minimum, there must be a confrontation and revelation of what was done, who did it, what the consequences were and how to prevent it in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of this comment by CIA psychologist—former CIA psychologist Kirk Hubbard, who served as the CIA’s chief of operations of the Operational Assessment Division before he joined Mitchell Jessen and Associates? In 2012, Hubbard told the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment, quote, “Detainees are not patients nor are they being 'treated' by the psychologists. Therefore the ethical guidelines for clinicians do not apply, in my opinion. Psychologists can play many different roles and should not be forced into a narrow doctor-patient role.” Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, your response?

ROBERT JAY LIFTON: What you’ve heard, what you just recited, is a rationalization for torture and for destructive behavior on the part of professionals. All professions require some sort of ethical code, as I said before, not just in everyday practice, but in what they do in society. And to weasel out of any such ethical requirement because one is dealing not with patients, but with prisoners—and, of course, that administration didn’t even give them prisoner rights, according to Geneva Conventions—to do that is simply a rationalization for destructive or even evil behavior.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a leading American psychiatrist, author of many books, including Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir. We’ll be back with him, talking about a number of issues, including another of his books, Who Owns Death?: Capital Punishment, the American Conscience, and the End of Executions—Prosecutors, Judges, Jurors, Wardens, and the American Public in Conflict. Stay with us.

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The Socialization of Evil: Robert Jay Lifton on the Death Penalty, the Holocaust & Armenian Genocide

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