Opinion Rights

‘Shrinking’ the Legacy of U.S. Torture

Debra Sweet, flickr
Written by Vera Wilde

New Lawsuit Names Psychologists Whose Work Ironically Offers a Better Path Toward Security than Brutality

Tuesday, two former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) detainees and the heirs of a deceased third filed a lawsuit against American psychologists James Elmer Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen. The lawsuit accuses Mitchell and Jessen of collaborating with the CIA to torture the detainees in exchange for over $80 million. Mitchell and Jessen applied American psychologist and $31 million no-bid Army contract beneficiary Marty Seligman’s early research on breaking dogs to human beings, but Seligman is not a target of the current lawsuit.

Building on the Senate’s $40 million investigation, the ACLU sponsored lawsuit is the first to go after private psychologists for their collaboration with the CIA’s torture program. The CIA has repeatedly lied to Congress about its rendition, torture, and domestic civilian interrogation programs, falsely claimed its lawbreaking prevented terrorist attacks, surveilled sitting Senators researching its lawbreaking, and continues seeking to silence its victims who included a twelve-year-old girl.

Security promotes rule of law, when it’s working according to its best principles. Yet, scientific researchers and security professionals have often had an adversarial relationship in the U.S. Our adversarial adversarial criminal justice system is part of the problem. That system tends to place independent scientists at loggerheads with “street-level bureaucrats” like police. Despite those tensions, criminal justice researchers and practitioners increasingly collaborate to address holes in our knowledge about policing in the U.S.

Sometimes, those researcher-practitioner collaborations raise difficult questions about the role of scientists — bound by federal law on ethical human subjects research — in assisting security professionals employed by the government at the local, state, or federal level. Three senior American Psychological Association (APA) officials recently lost their jobs after an independent investigation found the APA complicit in U.S. torture. APA subsequently banned psychologists from participating in national security interrogations.

Earlier this year, the Hoffman report documented how senior APA scientists gave Defense and the CIA operational and other support for torture in exchange for expected, fat government contracts. The APA issued a public apology.

Ironically, one of the scientists shamed in this scandal of collaboration with illegal and inhumane abuse was once a leading light of psychology’s happy orphan subfield, positive psychology. While other subfields of psychology and related fields focus on what’s wrong with people (clinical), why we’re so weird (cognitive), and whether maybe it’s in our wiring (neuro, genetics, epigenetics, endocrine), positive psychology works more from the growth mindset orientation that says we can learn and help learn to improve our well-being. Marty Seligman has published several simple exercises that prove effective at just that.

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Seligman also enjoyed a $31 million no-bid Army contract after aiding U.S. torturers. The early work that secured his academic career involved psychologically breaking dogs by caging and shocking them until they no longer attempted escape given the opportunity. He named the effect “learned helplessness.” The U.S. Government tapped him to induce it in human beings. It’s his work Mitchell and Jessen are accused of building on in the CIA’s experimental torture program in yesterday’s new ACLU lawsuit.

Intentionally harming people breaks the law, degrades the public trust that makes rule of law according to evidence-based procedural justice research, and thus hurts security. So it’s in national security interests for a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address high-level U.S. law-breaking and lying to Congress about it in the context of continuing defunct security programs. One of the things that needs to come out of that Commission is interrogation reform that governs local, state, and federal-level policing. We can never let these terrible human rights abuses happen again.

But focusing on the negative — as positive psychologists like Seligman know — is like watering the weeds instead of the flowers. It’s a good way to depress people into inaction politically, or learned helplessness individually. We need a positive psychology of security — to help motivate researchers and practitioners alike to work for the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Just as Defense ought to wage peace instead of war, so too psychologists ought to offer creative instead of destructive tools to help police promote rule of law.

Here are six ways we can do that (after the page break):

This is a multi-part article


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About the author

Vera Wilde

Reformed Harvard Kennedy Fellow, wondering artist, wandering artist. www.wildethinks.com

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‘Shrinking’ the Legacy of U.S. Torture

by Vera Wilde
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