CommunityThe Dissenter

Top US Psychologist Allegedly Met with James Mitchell in Days Before Zubaydah Torture

America 2013: A top U.S. psychologist touting “Positive Psychology” is to be a keynote speaker at a huge Southern California conference on psychotherapy. Other speakers include psychiatry heavies Aaron Beck, Irvin Yalom, as well as Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman, and big media names like James Foley and Alanis Morissette.

The famous psychologist — Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania — has been linked to the CIA’s Bush torture program. The charges lack a smoking gun, but there is lots of circumstantial evidence. What is reported below shows that Seligman wasn’t fully open about his contacts with those accused of waterboarding Abu Zubaydah, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, and torturing various CIA “black site” prisoners circa 2002-2006. Why did he hide this information?

A Forgotten Book

A 2011 book written by Georgetown academic and ethics expert M. Gregg Bloche (currently co-director for the Georgetown-Johns Hopkins Joint Program in Law and Public Health) broke important new ground about the origins of the post-9/11 CIA torture program. Unfortunately, he did so just as the Obama administration’s policy of non-investigation and non-prosecution of those involved in U.S. torture had gained ascendancy among both press and the public.

Bloche described a hitherto unreported meeting between Martin Seligman and James Mitchell during the crucial period when Mitchell, the former Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape program (SERE) psychologist, was involved with both the CIA and the Pentagon in setting up a torture program for prisoners captured in what the U.S. was calling the “war on terror.”

Various reports say that Seligman met Mitchell and Jessen twice before, in December 2001 and May 2002. What hasn’t been reported previously was that Seligman also allegedly met with Mitchell literally days before Mitchell and another CIA psychologist, Kirk Hubbard, were called to fly to Thailand, where the CIA was holding a very special “high-value” prisoner, the terribly injured Abu Zubaydah.

While Seligman has discussed his interactions with Mitchell numerous times before (here’s one such link), he never mentioned this other meeting — in late March or early April 2002 — whose timing was so suspicious. Within days, Mitchell arrived in Thailand to take over Zubaydah’s interrogation from FBI agents and institute his “new” version of “enhanced interrogation” that relied on a theory — “learned helplessness” — associated with Seligman himself.

According to Ali Soufan’s book, The Black Banners, Mitchell (called Boris in Soufan’s book) arrived when Zubaydah was still in the hospital recovering from wounds received during his capture in Pakistan. Scandalously, much of Soufan’s account was censored by the government.

I emailed Seligman to ask him to confirm or deny Bloche’s allegation, and offered him plenty of space in this article to explain himself. I never heard back from him. Meanwhile, the major media, for reasons of their own, passed by this story, even though I know it was offered to them.

[Update, 12/9/13, 8:50am PST: Dr. Seligman has emailed me this morning with a reply to this article. It states, in full:

“Dr. Kaye:  Your allegation is entirely fiction.

“To the best of my knowledge, I have met Mitchell exactly twice. Once at my home in December of 2001, and once at the SERE meeting. There was no other meeting BEFORE or after the SERE meeting.

“Once again, I disapprove of torture. I have never and would never aid or abet it.

“Martin Seligman”]

“Learned Helplessness”

Buried in two chapters towards the end of his book, The Hippocratic Myth, Bloche described a narrative of events surrounding Mitchell and his SERE associate Bruce Jessen. Bloche obtained the new information in a series of email exchanges with a key CIA player in the torture scandal, psychologist Kirk Hubbard, who was Chief of Operations, and later Chief of the Research and Analysis Branch for the CIA’s shadowy Operational Assessment Division (OAD).

(In July 2003, Hubbard would be in charge of putting together a CIA/Rand/American Psychological Association workshop on detecting deception that would investigate new ways to utilize drugs and sensory bombardment techniques to break down prisoners for interrogation. His partner in organizing the event was then-White House senior scientist Susan Brandon. Today, Brandon is head of Obama’s HIG interrogation research program.)

Bloche wrote that Hubbard’s work at the CIA brought him into contact with “an informal network of military and civilian psychologists and psychiatrists with shared interests in psyops, Special Forces selection, resistance training, and the reliability of ‘humint’ (human intelligence)” (p. 135).

Hubbard apparently knew Mitchell from this milieu. (I’ve written before about the military/special ops/SERE/contractor environment Mitchell sprang from.) According to Bloche, “in the weeks after 9/11” Hubbard brought Mitchell to the attention of higher-ups in the CIA (p. 136). Perhaps he introduced Mitchell’s SERE colleague Bruce Jessen at the same time, though Bloche is unclear on this. Hubbard does say, however, he introduced both Mitchell and Jessen to his Agency superiors as “potential assets.”

Mitchell reportedly had long been interested in the behavioral theory of “learned helplessness,” which was associated with the academic work of Martin Seligman. “Learned helplessness” (LH) was an animal model of breakdown via uncontrollable stress which was later used to help understand the clinical manifestation of depression in humans. Mitchell believed using a combination of physical and psychologically extreme pressures would reduce a prisoner to a state of compliance, similar to the helpless state produced by LH. This would make a prisoner or interrogatee extremely dependent on an all-powerful interrogator “god,” someone who could be easily “exploited” by government forces.

The rationale for all this was described in notes Mitchell’s SERE associate, Bruce Jessen, wrote when he and Capt. Michael Kearns, then head of operations for Air Force Intelligence’s Special Survival Training Program, were forming in 1989 a survival class for “Special Mission Units,” i.e., for secret “black” operations personnel. This course, SV-91, meant to help U.S. Special Forces survive torture and captivity by a brutal enemy, became the template for the kinds of techniques Mitchell and Jessen would flip to use now on U.S. prisoners.

Meeting Mitchell

Bloche writes that Seligman admitted being invited by the CIA to speak at a May 2002 SERE conference before an audience that included Mitchell and Jessen. Subsequently, Scott Shane wrote in the New York Times that Mitchell met Seligman in a small meeting at the latter’s house in December 2001.

In an article by Mark Benjamin at, Seligman confirmed the December meeting, describing it as (as Benjamin described it) “a small gathering of professors and law enforcement personnel as well as at least one ‘Israeli intelligence person,’ to conduct an academic discussion about the so-called war on terror.” Seligman told Benjamin the meeting at his house had nothing to do with interrogation. What Mitchell was doing at such a meeting, when he had no academic expertise on the “war on terror” or “Jihad” or moderate Islam, no one has ever said.

Here’s how Bloche described the meeting between Seligman and Mitchell just before the latter left for Thailand.

[Seligman] acknowledged only that he spoke on learned helplessness at a JPRA meeting in May 2002 and that Mitchell and Jessen were in the audience:

I was invited to speak about how American… personnel could use what is known about learned helplessness to resist torture and evade successful interrogation by their captors. This is what I spoke about.

Seligman added:

I have had no professional contact with Jessen and Mitchell since then….

It is important to point out that Seligman here only denies contact with Mitchell and Jessen after May 2002. He doesn’t say anything about contact with them prior to that period. He simply never mentions anything about the late March or early April meeting. Bloche continued:

But sometime in the spring of 2002, according to a CIA source, Seligman met with Mitchell, Jessen, and Hubbard in Philadelphia. “The fact that we had a meeting in Philadelphia,” said the source, a meeting participant [possibly Kirk Hubbard — JK], “means that Mitchell/Jessen were at least thinking about interrogation strategies.” Seligman wanted to help and understood what Mitchell had in mind. But having built his reputation as a clinical pioneer — the man who’d discovered learned helplessness, then transformed depressed people’s lives through “learned optimism” — he didn’t want to be seen as telling CIA operatives how to break people by inducing despair. So he walked a careful line, keeping to the question of what the science did and didn’t support while abstaining from how-to advice. Seligman, said the CIA source, had a “classic approach-avoidance conflict regarding helping us”….

By the time of the Philadelphia meeting, CIA preparations for “enhanced” interrogation had reached high intensity, energized by what looked like an extraordinary opportunity.
[Bloche M.D., M. Gregg (2011-03-15). The Hippocratic Myth: Why Doctors Are Under Pressure to Ration Care, Practice Politics, and Compromise their Promise to Heal (p. 141). Palgrave Macmillan. Kindle Edition. — bold emphases added]

The opportunity was the capture of Abu Zubaydah in a joint U.S.-Pakistan raid on March 28, 2002. Zubaydah had been taken to a hospital with life-threatening wounds, though that didn’t stop FBI interrogators from beginning their interrogation of Zubaydhah while still hospitalized.

According to Bloche, “Months would pass before final Justice Department approval for what Mitchell had in mind. But once approval seemed likely, CIA leadership made the call. Kirk Hubbard answered it, quite literally, on the way back from Philadelphia. “I received a phone call indicating ‘they’ wanted Mitchell to depart that night along with others from CTC [Counter-Terrorism Center],” Hubbard remembers. “Mitchell had about twelve hours’ notice that he was being flown to meet AZ [Zubaydah].” Exactly when Mitchell began his brutish efforts with Zubaydah (and based on what sort of approval) remains a matter of dispute.” (p. 142)

Zubaydah’s Torture

According to Soufan’s account in Black Banners, the abuse began right away, with Zubaydah subjected to nudity, loud music, white noise (a form of sensory deprivation), and sleep deprivation. Weeks later Mitchell stepped up the abuse to the level of full-on physical torture. This was probably in early to mid-May, around the time even Soufan, who’d been playing good-cop to CIA’s bad-cop, left the CIA black site, apparently disgusted with Mitchell’s techniques, though his FBI partner, Special Agent Stephen Gaudin, stayed on for some weeks more, and may have even participated in some of the “enhanced interrogation,” according to a Department of Justice Inspector General report.Hubbard told Bloche that Mitchell and Jessen, who joined the CIA at the Thailand black site after he retired from the Air Force later in the year, were not running a “maverick” operation.

“Jim Mitchell, et al. didn’t take a pee without written approval from headquarters…” Hubbard said. “CIA leadership approved and is responsible for all that occurred” (p. 142). Mitchell’s appointment had been supported by CTC’s director, Cofer Black, and CIA director George Tenet, against some push-back from CTC’s chief operational psychologist, R. Scott Shumate. (Shumate also served at the Thailand black site, leaving supposedly in protest at Mitchell’s EIT program later in the year.)

Bloche’s book also specifically states that James Mitchell was the author of the psychological assessment of Abu Zubaydah that was used to justify the torture techniques to the Office of Legal Counsel. As Bloche put it, Mitchell’s assessment was based on “direct interviews with and observations of the subject,” and “gave the OLC cover to conclude that waterboarding wouldn’t cause Zubaydah ‘severe mental pain or suffering.'” According to the written evaluation, Mitchell relied also on Zubaydah’s written diaries, which were captured with him.

But with the release of Zubaydah’s pre-capture diaries, obtained by Jason Leopold at Al Jazeera America, we know that much of what was written in Mitchell’s psychological report was bogus. Claims of Zubaydah’s massive influence were exaggerated, as the diaries make clear.

In addition, there is no mention of Zubaydah’s serious medical problems and previous neurological injuries, which would have likely disqualified Zubaydah for the “enhanced interrogation” torture, even under the CIA’s morally dubious criteria. Nor was there any mention of Zubaydah’s previous torture, or an assessment of how that affected him. Leopold, who wrote a number of article analyzing the AZ diaries, has written up the story of Zubaydah’s tortureby Pakistani authorities during a pre-9/11 arrest.

How bad was Zubaydah’s torture by the CIA? Zubaydah described it to representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The ICRC report was leaked to Mark Danner in 2010, and the following is a small representative sample of what Mitchell did, using his version of learned-helplessness via “enhanced interrogation”:

After the beating I was then placed in the small box. They placed a cloth or cover over the box to cut out all light and restrict my air supply. As it was not high enough even to sit upright, I had to crouch down. It was very difficult because of my wounds….

I was then dragged from the small box, unable to walk properly and put on what looked like a hospital bed, and strapped down very tightly with belts. A black cloth was then placed over my face and the interrogators used a mineral water bottle to pour water on the cloth so that I could not breathe. After a few minutes the cloth was removed and the bed was rotated into an upright position. The pressure of the straps on my wounds was very painful. I vomited…. I struggled against the straps, trying to breathe, but it was hopeless. I thought I was going to die. I lost control of my urine. Since then I still lose control of my urine when under stress.

A Long Tradition

Breaking down prisoners to make them compliant, to either use them for “exploitation” or to gain information, was a subject of great interest for the CIA going back to the beginning of the Cold War. One of the researchers from decades earlier, Albert Biderman, created a “chart of coercion” which was later taught by SERE associates of Mitchell to interrogators at Guantanamo in December 2002. (To see the actual chart, go to pg. 51 of supporting documentsin the Senate Armed Services 2008 report on detainee abuse.)

There is no evidence that Seligman’s original research on learned helplessness, which made him famous, was associated with the CIA research into torture, even though other prominent behavioral researchers at the time, such as psychiatrist Louis West, and psychologist Harry Harlow (who was also an American Psychological President at one point), had created by the late 1950s a theory of breaking down human beings psychologically by inculcating dependency, debility and dread into them. The CIA incorporated this into their KUBARK manual for interrogation, and a version of these techniques even informs current practicein the Army’s current Field Manual for interrogation. Seligman’s research on LH, which went back to the 1960s, made him famous. In 1997, he was elected president of the American Psychological Association (serving his term a year later).

Whither Psychology? Wither America?

On December 15, 2013 Seligman will be one of a handful of keynote speakers at the Milton H. Erickson Foundation’s “Evolution of Psychotherapy” meeting in Anaheim, California, where he will speak on “Positive Psychology,” his 21st century enthusiasm. His Positive Psychology work garnered Seligman a huge “no-bid” contract with the Department of Defense a few years ago.

There’s been precious little interest in recent years in pushing harder to get to the bottom of the CIA/Pentagon torture scandal.

Many Americans, including those on the left, believe that President Obama ended torture, and on that basis supported his call to ignore the past crimes of the Bush administration, and trusted that the current political regime had eschewed torture and such cruelty forever.

But that’s not true, and disinterest in pursuing investigation into the torture story further has a political agenda at its root, i.e., protecting the Democratic Party’s image as an alternative to the GOP on matters of national security, while also protecting top Pentagon and CIA brass.

While Guantanamo remains an embarrassment for Obama and occasionally makes the press — mostly due to the actions of the prisoners there who have gone on hunger strike over and over again to bring the world’s attention to their plight — there is precious little interest in bringing the former or current torturers to any real accountability. That must change, because the logic and morality of torture calls for its resurrection as needed. Already, the US public has been fooled into believing there is no torture, even as the country’s primary military and intelligence manual allows use of isolation, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, instillation of fear and manipulation of phobias, not to mention use of drugs.

Only an informed and impassioned public can make the difference between the continuing barbarism of torture and the civilized and humane practices that our country pretends to believe in.

Previous post

Late Night: I Called the GOP's Second Shutdown Jones Two Weeks Ago

Next post

Late, Late Night FDL: Happy Christmas (War is Over)

Jeff Kaye

Jeff Kaye

Jeffrey Kaye is a retired psychologist who has worked professionally with torture victims and asylum applicants. Active in the anti-torture movement since 2006, he has his own blog, Invictus, previously wrote regularly for Firedoglake’s The Dissenter, as well as at The Guardian, Truthout, Alternet, and The Public Record. He is the author of Cover-Up at Guantanamo, a new book examining declassified files on treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo detention camp.