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Mental Health Professionals in the “Enhanced” Interrogation Room

Mental Health Professionals in the “Enhanced” Interrogation Room

On Monday, August 24, 2009, in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) released a “Top Secret,” highly redacted May 7, 2004, report, Counterterrorism Detention and Interrogation Activities (September 2001 – October 2003).1 The report’s opening pages concede that the activity it divulges “diverges sharply from previous Agency policy and rules that govern interrogation.”

The report outlines “standard interrogation techniques” that “do not incorporate significant physical or psychological pressure,” including “isolation, sleep deprivation not to exceed 72 hours,” and “loud music or white noise.” It also outlines enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) that “do incorporate physical or psychological pressure,” including attention grasp (slapping), walling (slamming a detainee against a wall), stress positions, sleep deprivation beyond 72 hours, and simulated drowning through “waterboarding.” The report describes this last technique in detail:

[T]he individual is bound securely to an inclined bench. . . . Water is then applied to the cloth in a controlled manner. . . . This effort produces the perception of “suffocation and incipient panic,” ie, the perception of drowning.

In addition, the report documents the use of “Specific Unauthorized” techniques. These include the use of a “handgun and power drill” and “mock execution[s].”

The role of health care professionals

Psychologists participated in every stage of the program’s development and implementation.2 First, they assisted in providing its legal justification. The United Nations Convention against Torture and corresponding federal statutes define torture as “an act intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.”3,4 Severe mental pain or suffering is “the prolonged mental harm” caused by the “infliction or the threat of infliction of severe physical pain or suffering.” Psychologists sanctioned all utilized techniques. For example, the report observes that the CIA “informed us that your on-site psychologists, who have extensive experience with the use of waterboard in Navy training, have not encountered any significant long-term mental health consequences from its use.”

Second, those same psychologists sculpted the program’s basic structure. Initially, the CIA retained independent contractor and Air Force psychologist James Mitchell to “research and write a paper on al-Qaeda’s resistance to interrogation techniques.” Then, Mitchell paired with a Department of Defense psychologist and “developed a list of new and more aggressive EITs.”

Third, psychologists crafted individual intake evaluations that assessed mental status and forecast successful techniques. Consider, for example, the psychological profile of al-Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah. The profile observed that his strengths included “ability to focus, goal-directed discipline, intelligence, [and] emotional resilience.” The report predicted interrogation success because Zubaydah “believes [that] the ultimate destiny of Islam is to dominate this world. . . . Thus, there is the chance that he could rationalize that providing information will harm current efforts but represent only a temporary setback.”

Finally, psychologists attended and supervised interrogation sessions. Consider, again, the case of Zubaydah. Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Ali Soufan, who, according to Newsweek, “had a reputation as a shrewd interrogator who could work fluently in both English and Arabic,” conducted the initial interrogation in Guantnamo Bay. Although Soufan’s interrogation was productive, producing information that led to the arrest of Richard Reid, the would-be “shoe bomber,” the CIA brought in Mitchell. Mitchell ratcheted up the interrogation by stripping Zubaydah and barraging him with loud, rock music. When a coffin, apparently for a mock burial, arrived and Soufan objected, the CIA terminated his employment.5

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