BSCTs to be expert in “learned helplessness”

A new report by what New York Times reporter James Risen called “a group of dissident health professionals and human rights activists” has provided the best proof yet of collaboration and links between the CIA, Department of Defense, and the American Psychological Association (APA) regarding the government’s interrogation program.

Not noted in the report but revealed here for the first time is the fact that APA’s long-time Ethics Director Steven Behnke worked directly with Department of Defense officials in creating a training curriculum for psychologists working with interrogators at Guantanamo and elsewhere. He has never revealed his role in that.

It has been widely reported, and was the topic of two major Congressional investigations, that both CIA’s and DoD’s interrogation programs involved widespread use of torture. This policy was supported and endorsed at all levels of the Executive Branch, and the programs involved were repeatedly funded by Congress. Indeed, a high-level report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that I obtained recently via FOIA indicated that detainee facilities at Guantanamo’s Camp Delta were built early on via solicitation of emergency contingency funds from the House and Senate intelligence committees.

The new report, All the President’s Psychologists: The American Psychological Association’s Secret Complicity with the White House and US Intelligence Community in Support of the CIA’s ”Enhanced” Interrogation Program (PDF), draws on a cache of over 600 emails from a former RAND employee and presumed CIA contractor, Scott Gerwehr, who died in a mysterious accident in 2008.

The narrative — as constructed by report authors, psychologists Stephen Soldz and Steven Reisner, and Nathaniel Raymond, Director of Harvard’s Signal Program on Human Security and Technology — concentrates on events surrounding three key events: a July 2003 joint APA/CIA/RAND conference on “The Science of Deception”; a July 20, 2004 “confidential meeting between senior APA staff and senior national security psychologists and behavioral research personnel”; and the circumstances surrounding the June 2005 APA Task Force meetings, over a single weekend, to rush out policies on Professional Ethics and National Security, producing a report on the same (PENS).

While there is much that can be discovered from a close reading of the report and its accompanying documentation (one only wishes that more of the emails were released), one of the leading figures throughout the entire APA drama is its Ethics Director, Stephen Behnke.

Behnke Accused

As pointed out in a “Fact Sheet” on Behnke, put out by the Soldz and Reisner-linked Coalition for an Ethical Psychology in February 2011, the APA Ethics Director had been a key player in “the creation and management” of the PENS task force. Behnke kept the membership of the task force secret, even as it later turned out the members were largely drawn from the military and intelligence fields.

Indeed, an important email released in the new Soldz-Reisner-Raymond report describes the Science Policy Director at APA, Geoff Mumford, telling Kirk Hubbard, the chief of the CIA’s Research & Analysis unit at the Operational Assessment Division, Special Activities Division, CIA, that the PENS task force members were “very carefully selected” to represent his views and that of CIA psychiatrist Charles “Andy” Morgan and DoD intelligence official Kirk Kennedy.

The Coalition fact sheet also criticized Behnke with ignoring blatant conflicts of interest among PENS personnel. They specifically sited the selection of Russ Newman, then Director of APA’s Practice Directorate” to be an observer at the PENS meetings. The Coalition continued, “Dr. Newman’s wife was Lt. Col. Debra Dunivin, a member of the Guantanamo Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) — the very form of psychologist involvement that was a primary focus of the PENS Task Force’s ethics deliberations.”

The BSCTs were formed in the very early days of holding “war on terror” prisoners at Guantanamo. Over time, they were exposed as assisting interrogators in ferreting out psychological weaknesses, and even proposing “exploitation” of those weaknesses to interrogators.

But it wasn’t Behnke who sent Newman to PENS. Newman was recommended by then-APA Board of Director liaison, Dr. Barry Anton. Anton is the current President of APA.

As for Dunivin, a 2004 APA Monitor story identifies her as also being a SERE psychologist. SERE is the U.S. military’s program to inoculate soldiers and intelligence officers to the hardships of capture by foreign forces or terrorists. It includes a mock-torture camp experience, the procedures of which were utilized in forming the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” torture program, reportedly devised by former SERE psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen.

Consulting with DoD on the BSCTs

The Coalition noted that after the PENS report was released and approved by the APA, Dunivin “subsequently joined members of the Task Force in revising the BSCT instructions on the basis of the PENS report.” While the Coalition simplifies history a small bit here — they were not simply “revising” BSCT instructions but developing a training curriculum for BSCT members, at the direction of then-Surgeon General Kevin Kiley.

Still, it is true that Dunivin and other PENS members, including Larry James, another Guantanamo BSCT, and Special Forces psychologist Morgan Banks, became advisers to top military officials on the organization of the BSCTs. They all attended a meeting on August 5, 2005, only a month after the public release of the PENS report, with its finding that it was ethically appropriate to work with government interrogators working with detainees in the “war on terror,” a stance which was rejected by both the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association.

It is with some irony that Behnke’s own role working on the new BSCT training was revealed in a 2014 book chapter written by Dunivin and another Special Operations psychologist, Jay Earles.

In an essay entitled “Behavioral Science Consultation to Interrogation and Detention Operations: Policy, Ethics, and Training” (PDF) (Ch. 14 in the book Forensic and Ethical Issues in Military Behavioral Health, Borden Institute, 2014), Dunivin and Earles describe the tasking from Medical Command and the Surgeon General’s office in 2005 to create new BSCT guidelines and procedures.

Then surgeon general of the Army, Lieutenant General Kevin Kiley, convened a group in the summer of 2005 to develop doctrine in this specialized area. He assembled subject matter experts, including several psychologists and psychiatrists who had served as BSCs, a medical ethicist, a military attorney, a master interrogator, and two general officers who trained and educated military medical personnel.

Dunivin and Earles don’t go into more details on the tasking, but on May 24, 2005, Kiley approved the findings of a report by a “Functional Assessment Team” he had sent to Guantanamo and both Iraq and Afghanistan theater of operations to assess medical operations. (It is worth noting that by January 2004, BSCT staffing was only by psychologists.)

The recommendations in the report (long PDF) included this: “DoD should develop well defined doctrine and policy for the use of BSCT personnel. A training program for BSCT personnel should be implemented to address the specific duties.” Some of the development of BSCT operating procedures and organizational definitions and boundaries can be ascertained by comparing an early 2002 version of BSCT Standard Operating Procedures with a DoD 2008 policy statement on BSCTs, which includes a section describing the training program devised back in 2005.

As Dunivin and Earles describe it, military authorities at MEDCOM and the Surgeon General’s office were closely following the debates at medical and psychological associations regarding medical professionals in so-called behavioral consultant roles in interrogation. The military drew on a number of “experts” of their own, including Army, Navy and Air Force psychologists, and other personnel from JSOC, the Counterintelligence Field Activity office, the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations, Joint Personnel Recovery Agency (then parent-command for SERE), the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command, and the Criminal Investigation Task Force.

Consultants also came from the shadowy Intelligence Science Board, which is best known for its 2006 report, Educing Information — Interrogation: Science and Art (large PDF). The members of the board are drawn from the intelligence community, broadly defined. It includes two members of the PENS board, NCIS’s Mike Gelles and CIA’s Scott Shumate, as well as the former Chief of the “Interrogation Control Element” in Guantanamo, David Becker.

Dunivin and Earles singled out Behnke as a significant consultant, though not by name, only title (bold emphasis added):

From the earliest stages, professional ethics and law were significant components of the curriculum development process; APA’s ethics director and staff judge advocates (attorneys) with expertise in law relative to interrogations and detention operations were consulted to ensure concordance with the ethics and the law.”

The APA ethics director then, and still is, Stephen Behnke. I emailed Dr. Behnke and asked for his input, including information on dates he consulted or “any information you deem helpful in understanding or describing your work in this regard.” As of publication, Dr. Behnke had not responded to my request. It seems likely his contribution occurred roughly around the same period as that of Dunivin and Banks, i.e., early August 2005, maybe even that same meeting Morgan Banks mentioned on August 5.

In general, we can only say Behnke’s contribution to DoD most likely came in the summer of 2005, and certainly well before the October 2006 release by MEDCOM of policy guidelines for medical personnel assigned to BSCTs (OTSG/MEDCOM Policy Memo 06-029). The PENS report was “Enclosure 1” to the 2006 MEDCOM guidelines.

There was also an intriguing October 2005 visit by various “delegates from several major health and mental health associations, medical ethicists,” and others to Guantanamo to “learn more about operations and speak with DoD officials and other delegates about appropriate and effective roles of healthcare professionals in detainee operations.”

The BSCTs and “Learned Helplessness”

To understand the egregious nature of Behnke’s contribution, it is important to remember that he never indicated that he had any role in the current construction of the BSCTs, while he continued to be involved in ethics matters related to complaints against former BSCT members, and while he continued to talk and make recommendations regarding APA ethics policy in relation to torture and the BSCTs.

But matters stand even worse when you consider that participation with a BSCT program meant you accepted the authority of the interrogating regime. This meant Behnke had to overlook the human rights violations inherent in the detention of the detainees, especially at Guantanamo, with its emphasis on total control over prisoners, use of isolation, sleep deprivation, and other manipulations of environment, forced injections of drugs, and brutal guard attacks. The insistence that most prisoners’ detentions are in effect indefinite in nature, and that even those the government believes to be innocent or without intelligence value can be held in theory forever, is a gross violation of human rights norms, as well as deleterious to the health of the prisoners involved. (Regarding the latter, see this report by Physicians for Human Rights.)

Also alarming is the fact the training of BSCTs that was developed, and described in MEDCOM’s 2006 policy guidelines, included as a specific recommendation the possession of “professional level expertise” in the “application” of “learned helplessness” as an area of “behavioral science” relevant “to the interrogation/debriefing process.”

Learned helplessness (LH) was originally a theory developed by psychologist Martin Seligman. Seligman was a known consultant to SERE, and had met two or three times with James Mitchell, including at least once at Seligman’s house. The emails revealed by Soldz and his co-authors show that Seligman had also worked for or consulted to the CIA, presumably at Kirk Hubbard’s CIA Operational Assessment Division.

LH was subsequently the theoretical model behind the development of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” torture program, with the idea that use of inescapable shock and fear would break down captives into a state of “learned helplessness” — “learned” in the psychological sense of being conditioned. Indeed, the BSCT curriculum also calls for expertise in use of operant and classical conditioning.

Whether Behnke knew of the inclusion of the “learned helplessness” recommendation is impossible to say with complete certainty. But he should have known. Or he should have known after the fact.

It is now more understandable why APA has refused to call for the closure of Guantanamo, or why they have stalled in implementing an APA-member-derived referendum on pulling psychologists out of human rights violating settings like Guantanamo — one of their chief officers was involved in setting up the regime there, at least as it concerns the use of behavioral consultants.

Torture Program Assists Spread of Endemic Corruption

The meaning of the APA scandal opened up by the Soldz/Reisner/Raymond report, and James Risen’s reporting on same in the New York Times, must be seen in the context of a much larger breakdown in ethical standards by the wider society at large, particularly, though not exclusively, when it comes to the torture scandal.

Most recently, we’ve seen that key figures from the Bush administration torture program have gone on to hold important positions in the Obama administration. A recent New York Times article by Mark Mazzetti and Matt Apuzzo last month showed how CIA officials implicated in the torture program, like former CIA Counterterrorism Center official Michael D’Andrea, who Obama put in charge of the CIA’s drone operations. Meanwhile, former CIA officials from the days of the Bush administration torture program still essentially run the Agency — John Brennan as Director, and Greg Vogel as chief of the Directorate of Operations.

President Obama’s insistence that the nation should move on from the torture scandal, and his refusal to further investigations or prosecutions, is totally self-serving when looked at in the light of recent revelations.

It is worth noting that APA did not operate in a void either. They drew upon a top echelon of behavioral scientists when they worked with CIA or SERE officials, including, as I’ve noted in the past Albert Bandura, Richard Lazaraus, and Charles Speilberger, and more recently we have revelations regarding Seligman and Paul Ekman. As when CIA drew on the cream of behavioral science during the days of MKULTRA, many of these scientists and researchers are unwitting, in that they do not know (or deceive themselves) they are contributing to a torture program. But some of them certainly are very close to the CIA or other government intelligence agencies. Some must work directly for them, covertly.

The APA announced last year they would conduct an “independent” investigation, and hired Chicago attorney (and former mayoral candidate), David Hoffman. Hoffman’s report is supposed to be out in in another month or so. But the entire investigation is riddled with conflicts of interest. Hoffman used to work on the staff of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence with soon-to-be CIA director George Tenet, the very man who led the CIA during the creation of the torture program.

The corruption of the APA is not very different than the corruption of many U.S. societal institutions, especially the police and the prison system, whose full racist and oppressive character is in the news daily lately. But this corruption is not reason for despair, but for further struggle. The actual roles of “experts” like Stephen Behnke need to be exposed, and the real nature of the institutions they serve revealed.

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.