The Interrogation Psychologists Come Home to Roost


The Freudian Interrogators. Image: JSC and AI Art Generator.

Roy Eidelson’s Doing Harm: How the World’s Largest Psychological Association Lost Its Way in the War on Terror is essential reading for understanding the cultural and political world we now inhabit. Eidelson writes from the perspective of an outraged psychologist, who expected much better from his profession than support for a detention and interrogation program that had torture at its core. He provides detailed documentation of the efforts of his fellow psychologist “dissidents” to bring accountability to the American Psychological Association (APA). Full disclosure: As a former president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, I am one of these dissidents. The APA cultivates a benevolent image in general yet is obliged to please the military and intelligence community to maintain much of its power, influence, prestige and wealth relative to other social sciences (and even some natural sciences).

Eidelson provides a comprehensive and highly readable background story to APA’s accommodative stance toward the priorities of the Department of Defense and the CIA at a time when both agencies were clearly reconciled to indefinitely detaining and abusing—and often torturing—hundreds of detainees. And almost all of these detainees were detained in the first place thanks to highly dubious evidence—or no evidence at all—linking them to Al Qaeda.

Eidelson also notes how years of pressure from the psychology dissidents, with help from key journalists and human rights organizations, eventually led to serious changes in policy at the APA from the early War on Terror days. His account gives particular emphasis to the sharpest reversal in APA policy—in 2015—forbidding psychologists from consulting on ongoing national security interrogations or being present at detention settings where they are not representing the detained or an international organization committed to the human rights of the same. Eidelson also details the significant institutional backsliding since this mea culpa moment at the APA, and he charts the dangers that lie ahead, particularly about the APA’s recent legitimization of the Orwellianly-named “operational psychology.”

A book like Eidelson’s is long overdue. The story of the APA’s Faustian bargain with the U.S. military and intelligence establishments, in a way that offered legal protection to the latter as they abused and tortured hundreds of mostly innocent detainees of color, is a suspiciously undertold story. It is especially undertold given (a) how many U.S. undergraduates major in psychology (including, e.g., Mark Zuckerberg), (b) how much psychology has shaped American culture and media, and even the contemporary contours of capitalism itself, for over a century and (c) how abhorrent it is for a profession with the cuddly public image of psychology to be involved in something so heinous.

Eidelson thankfully has a calm and grounded narrative voice to help settle the nerves as the reader wades through the details of this very disturbing history. And there is an occasional glint of wry humor in the narrative too. Some of the more comically relieving parts of the book quote APA officials condemning the dissidents, typically in absurdly overblown terms. My personal favorite is a remark that then APA President Carol Goodheart made comparing “those who ‘strain the collegiality within APA’ to the Dementors of Harry Potter fame—frightening cloaked figures who feed on human happiness” (p. 97).

You may be thinking you’ve already heard this story before, perhaps because you watched Scott Burns’ film The Report, saw media about the controversial Senate report it was based on (you can read the summary online, but the full report is still classified), or encountered one of many other exposees of military-psychologists-turned-CIA-consultants James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen.  But the Mitchell and Jessen story, when told at all, is usually told incompletely, without noting the APA connection to these architects of the “enhanced interrogation” torture program. Eidelson details these connections thoroughly, connections the APA went out of their way to deny once Mitchell and Jessen made the media’s radar.

Eidelson’s book is best read together with former NCIS investigator Mark Fallon’s Unjustifiable Means: The Inside Story of How the CIA, Pentagon, and US Government Conspired to Torture. Fallon’s book provides more of an inside-view-from-Guantanamo context on the role played by key interrogation psychologists given prominent mention in Eidelson’s book. These psychologists include current and former APA members Larry James, John Leso, Diane Zierhoffer, and Morgan Banks.

Fallon dwells more on the evidence—largely avoided by Eidelson, perhaps because it is too inflammatory—that one of the plausible motivations to bring on psychologists to replace trained interrogators in the first place (to design and implement torture protocols for mostly innocent-of-Al-Qaeda-affiliations detainees) involved a desire to elicit convincing claims of links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.  Since these alleged links were one of the lies told to push the United States into war, specifically the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that is sobering.

That war, as most people know, was based on lies, but less well known is that it was based in significant part on tortured lies. Sidelining trained experts (like Fallon) and bringing on interrogation-inexperienced psychologists (like John Leso, see below) to legally legitimize torture protocols and practices, with assistance from the Office of Legal Counsel “torture memos,” is a mysterious thing to do. At least it is mysterious if the goal was to obtain actionable life-saving information to prevent future attacks. It makes a lot more sense, though, if the goals included lying the country into war based on coerced HUMINT statements. And Fallon tells the inside story of his growing suspicions after 9/11 that some very powerful people wanted torture for some very dubious reasons.

Fallon, not a hysteric or conspiracy-monger, acknowledges that linking Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda was just one plausible motivation among several to support torture (and he notes some torture-boosters genuinely hoped to prevent future attacks). Still, as a motivation in the mix, it is a highly disturbing one, and Fallon’s claims are corroborated in a 2008 Senate Armed Services Committee Report. I recommend searching that report for the Guantanamo Behavioral Science Consultation Team psychiatrist Paul Burney who speaks relatively candidly, and whose name is not redacted in the report.  Page 72 is where Burney gives up the goods:

[T]his is my opinion, even though they were giving information and some of it was useful, while we were there a large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between AI Qaeda and Iraq and we were not being successful in establishing a link between AI Qaeda and Iraq. The more frustrated people got in not being able to establish this link …, there was more and more pressure to resort to measures that might produce more immediate results.

Note also that Burney, a psychiatrist, is linked to a former APA member psychologist, John Leso, who receives special attention in both Eidelson’s and Fallon’s accounts. Leso worked with Burney in developing some of the harsh and coercive protocols at Guantanamo that then spread to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and then later, more infamously, to Abu Ghraib in Iraq.  The protocols Leso and Burney developed were for a “high value” detainee—Mohammed al-Qahtani—whom the head of the military commissions in 2008 determined was unable to receive a fair trial because he had been tortured. [Note: John Leso’s name is blacked out in print copies and rendered as XXXX XXXX in the ebook version of Fallon’s work, due to heavy-handed redaction standards for works written by US government employees.]

Even to the extent the Bush Administration torture program was just a desperate and ill-considered attempt to create an effective bureaucratic legally-protected apparatus of medicalized abuse and torture to “save American lives”, the details of the program’s more shameful horrors have weighed down any benevolent intentions the program may once have had (or not). These details include health professionals subjecting minor children to “enhanced interrogation”, the occasional homicide-by-torture, calculated sexual humiliation and abuse, and even the systematic infliction of medical rape—with forced enemas, “rectal feeding”, and “rectal rehydration” on the menu of medically unnecessary traumatizing procedures to be used as “control measures.”

In terms of the big picture, the two books—Eidelson’s and Fallon’s—read in close succession, generate another possible explanation for the inauguration of the “post-truth” era. That era, as we all know, has nurtured alternafact-spouting, fascism-promoting political horror shows like Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis. Trump was a big torture-booster on the 2016 campaign trail and sought to escalate brutality in the execution of War on Terror practices once in office, as well as pardoning war criminals. DeSantis was formerly an atrocity-overlooking JAG lawyer stationed at Guantanamo, remembered with disgust by detainees there for his pretty-faced indifference to their tortured suffering. The rise to political power of such individuals reflects a relatively direct link between the practice and promotion of torture and the embrace of fascist sympathies among the elites (a theme further explored in another book: Spencer Ackerman’s Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump).

Another more unsettling factor in the rise of fascist sympathies among both elites and the general public is the cultural-ideological dislocation in American life. But torture may well be a small part of this story too, as such dislocation arguably results from the sullying of morality-associated inclinations like genteel liberalism and religious intensity around matters like torture and war. The American Psychological Association is more on the genteel liberalism side of things, and in fact, is a prototypically “establishment liberal” professional organization.

The torture collusion scandal notwithstanding, APA does not otherwise emit signals of being a conservative right-wing organization. To its credit, neither Bannonite insurrectionists nor neoconservative champions of a “war is the answer!” mentality would feel welcome there. It is not exactly a progressive left-wing egalitarian peacenik organization either, though it makes some member-assuaging gestures in this direction from time to time. In largest part, the APA embodies professionalized corporate liberalism with a warm and reassuring smile. As such, it is the kind of organization we all secretly know must have something off about it, but it is still a dislocating shock to discover exactly what.

Eidelson references and makes comprehensible all the publicly-available documentary evidence that this otherwise milquetoast corporate liberal professional organization was a key pillar in the architecture of systematically executed abuse of War on Terror detainees. What made the APA so important to that apparatus was its ethical endorsement (in 2005) of the government’s post-9/11 practice of employing psychologists in extralegal detention and interrogation settings to assist with those interrogations.  Without the APA’s legitimization of interrogation psychologists, there may never have been a systematic, bureaucratized torture regime, as would-be torturers would have felt deprived of the legal cover that health professional presence and assistance provided.

Especially given the evidence emphasized by Fallon—that bureaucratized torture was associated with seeking links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda—the APA leadership’s ethical legitimization of interrogation psychology appears extremely unheimlich (to use an uncannily undiscredited Freudian term). A liberal humanitarian-looking NGO with a lot of progressive flourishes in its resolutions and public relations performances should not be an invaluable structural aid to a conservative administration’s push for torture (and thereby sovereign nation-invading aggressor war). And yet somehow, unconsciously, that’s not far from what we would expect it to be [Freudian shudder].

The American Psychological Association is analogous to the corporate Democratic Party in this regard. When an institution that once lulled you into thinking it was sufficiently decent and benevolent mixes its labor with something that is clearly abhorrent, even morally nauseating, this can be strongly dislocating. In the wake of such dislocation, many people may lose the ability to be properly alarmed by more potent and overt evils (like, say, the turn to overt fascism in the Republican Party, up to and including pandering to Nazis and neo-Nazis).

This massive loss of capacity for moral discernment and appropriate activation of human alarm systems was a vacuum that Trump opportunistically walked into in 2016. And the Trump movement—despite overtly championing torture on the campaign trail—ironically took on some Trump-minimizing fellow travelers who had previously been figures of opposition to torture and war. Alex Jones is an example of a torture-opposing War on Terror critic turned Trump booster on the unhinged paleoconservative/conspiracy theorist side. Glenn Greenwald is a parallel case of transformation to Trump softpedaler and fellow traveler (not booster exactly) from a more culturally left-libertarian origin point.

It seems like we read every few months about some anti-war, anti-CIA, or even pro-human rights figure who has suddenly or slowly become fascist-adjacent in this way—presumably related to so many fascists taking up the anti-war, anti-CIA, political rights-protecting narrative and poisoning it. I am, as you might guess, partway through Naomi Klein’s recent Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World—which directly explores these jarring cognitive-ideological transformations as part of the unheimlich dimensions of contemporary American political life. Her eerie take on the trajectory of our culture is influencing my take on the big picture, but, I think, appropriately. The norm among those disturbed by such developments is to condemn the far-rightward-transforming individuals themselves for their moral turpitude, but once there are enough such condemnable individuals, it starts to look like something more gestalt-like is afoot.

Moreover, the far-right drifts and conversions in the wake of unheimlich dislocations are not the only disturbing ones. The shift of many other otherwise liberal-left types towards sanguinity about the CIA, the FBI, massive military solutions to emergent global problems, and tech bro-run surveillance economy is a different kind of “problematic” from becoming a fascism-booster or fascism-softpedaler, but still significantly problematic.

My point, though, is just that establishment corporate liberal professional organizations letting themselves be used by violent government agencies to provide legal cover for torturing detainees of color (based on flimsy or no evidence of involvement with terrorism) is the kind of thing that can set in motion various kinds of ominous ideological scramblings and dislocations. If such assaults by the morally unheimlich are repeated often enough in diverse enough domains to foment ideological scramblings of the kind we’re seeing all the time now, most of the scrambled seem doomed to end up even further from grounded benevolence than they started out, narcissistically screaming outrage at each other in a moral one-upping battle-to-the-death.

Sure, tech bros monetizing “engagement” while constructing the soul-colonizing apparatus of surveillance capitalism is a big part of this balkanized mass rage story too.  A curious feature of this balkanized rage, though, is that much of the outraged engagement magnified for tech bro profit is often grounded in events that do not actually deserve outrage (like, um, people being transgender). The outrage also commonly references events that either did not occur as troll communities portray them, or did not occur at all (like, um, “white genocide”).

Nevertheless, the dislocations caused by genuinely unheimlich historical developments that actually happened—while a relatively small proportion of social media avalanches of bile—may still have had a potent influence on the contemporary trajectory of performative rage culture.  Such reality-based dislocations probably manifest as subtler, more subterranean influences. The very failure of these genuinely outraging true stories to enter the echo chamber may be part of the “sense-it-but-can’t-say-it” uncanniness that is the background hum accompanying our ongoing American unraveling.

The story of the American Psychological Association having been used as a tool for dubiously motivated, and sickeningly executed, torture is a relatively unknown one among ordinary people. You won’t find that story getting hundreds of thousands of likes in your X/Twitter feed.  But others closer to the centers of power presumably know this story very well, and many other stories like it. And when the elites are dislocated and scrambled, the masses will presumably follow (though with a muddier sense of the origins of their own scrambling). The fish, in other words, probably continues to rot from the head.

So if you want to better understand the inside out upside down world we have come to inherit, Doing Harm is essential reading. It is a detailed exploration of how the powerful make monsters behind the scenes of hollow performances of slick benevolence. And, in this regard, the APA isn’t just the American Psychological Association. It’s an ominous synecdoche of the uncannily glitching duality of the United States itself.

Hopefully spreading the news of this and other undertold true horror stories, and grappling with them en masse, will lead us to a clearer place, where instead of the terrifying unheimlich stalking us unspoken, we can discern it as a deadly serious, but solvable, human problem.

Ian Hansen, Ph. D., is an associate professor of psychology at York College (CUNY) and a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

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