Seeking Answers from Social and Personality Psychologists: 10 Research Questions in the Torture/Interrogation Debate

Bradley Olson

As someone trained in personality and social psychology—and now also working as a community psychologist—it’s clear to me that social and personality theory and research make essential contributions to understanding social justice issues.

I’ve long been an activist on the American Psychological Association (APA) torture issue and a member of Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR). This led to an invitation to participate in a session chaired by Chris Crandall at the 2009 Society for Experimental Social Psychology conference in Portland, Maine. The session involved presentations of several excellent studies related to U.S. torture and interrogation. My role was to act as a discussant and to suggest what other areas, as an activist, I thought should be studied empirically.

For several decades, the horrors of WWII and the racism that led to the civil rights movement inspired the work of U.S. social and personality psychologists. As several participants mentioned at the session in Portland, the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and Guantanamo can have similar influences on the discipline in the years ahead. I agree. From my perspective as an activist, here are 10 questions I would love social and personality researchers to help answer:

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Shocking New Report: The CIA Performed Human Experiments on Prisoners Under Bush

Stephen Soldz

Over the last year there have been an increasing number of accounts suggesting that, along with the CIA’s "enhanced interrogation" torture program, there was a related program experimenting with and researching the application of the torture.

For example, in the seven paragraphs released by a British court summarizing observations by British counterintelligence agents of the treatment of Binyan Mohamed by the CIA, the first two of these paragraphs stated:

    It was reported that a new series of interviews was conducted by the United States authorities prior to 17 May 2002 as part of a new strategy designed by an expert interviewer….

    BM had been intentionally subjected to continuous sleep deprivation. The effects of the sleep deprivation were carefully observed. [emphasis added]

The suggestion was that a new strategy was being tested and the results carefully examined. Several detainees have provided similar accounts, expressing their belief that their interrogations were being carefully studied, apparently so that the techniques could be modified based on the results. Such research would violate established laws and ethical rules governing research.

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The Seven Paragraphs: Released Binyan Mohamed Abuse Evidence Poses Problems for Both British and U.S. Governments

Stephen Soldz

In a major development in the struggle to curb the abuses committed as part of the War on Terror, the British government last month released under court order previously redacted information on the abuse of Binyan Mohamed by US interrogators. Here are the seven paragraphs that were released which summarize intelligence information which both the British and US governments fought hard to suppress:

It was reported that a new series of interviews was conducted by the United States authorities prior to 17 May 2002 as part of a new strategy designed by an expert interviewer.

v) It was reported that at some stage during that further interview process by the United States authorities, BM had been intentionally subjected to continuous sleep deprivation. The effects of the sleep deprivation were carefully observed.

vi) It was reported that combined with the sleep deprivation, threats and inducements were made to him. His fears of being removed from United States custody and “disappearing” were played upon.

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The “Ethical Interrogation”: The Myth of Michael Gelles and the al-Qahtani Interrogation

Stephen Soldz

Several public accounts of abusive interrogations at Guantanamo have praised psychologist Dr. Michael Gelles for his opposition to these abuses. Similarly, the American Psychological Association (APA) has repeatedly pointed to actions of Dr. Gelles to instantiate their claim that psychologists played a crucial role in opposing abuses and protecting detainees. Gelles also has been a regular public presence, discussing the errors at Guantanamo while advocating for the APA’s “policy of participation” in interrogations. The APA policy encourages psychologists to aid interrogations to keep them “safe, legal, ethical, and effective.” But a recently released Defense Department document challenges Dr. Gelles’s role as an exemplar of psychological ethics in interrogations.

As reported by Bill Dedman, Phillipe Sands, and Jane Mayer, Gelles objected to the “harsh” interrogation tactics being used at Guantanamo. In particular, he strenuously objected to the plans to “reverse engineer” the tactics used by the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program to inculcate strategies for resistance to torture in US service members at high risk for capture.

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John Brennan and the Administration Stalling on Bush Torture Memos

Stephen Soldz

gitmo

Back in November we opposed former CIA official John Brennan for CIA Director. Our Open Letter was credited with playing a role in Brennan’s withdrawal (see also Rachel Maddow). Despite what some believed, we never claimed that Brennan played a key role in the Bush administration torture program. Rather, we were concerned that he had, when it mattered, never taken any position critical of that program. We needed someone who did not have such an equivocal history, we argued.

Afterward there was considerable criticism of those of us who opposed Brennan. We didn’t realize that Brennan was really opposed to the policies he could never get himself to publicly criticize, we were told.

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