Page 2 of 3   <       >

Interrogation Memos Detail Psychologists' Involvement; Ethicists Outraged

The American Psychological Association has condemned any participation by its members in interrogations involving torture, but critics of the organization faulted it for failing to censure members involved in harsh interrogations.

The ICRC, which conducted the first independent interviews of CIA detainees in 2006, said the prisoners were told they would not be killed during interrogations, though one was warned that he would be brought to "the verge of death and back again," according to a confidential ICRC report leaked to the New York Review of Books last month.

"The interrogation process is contrary to international law and the participation of health personnel in such a process is contrary to international standards of medical ethics," the ICRC report concluded.

The newly released Justice Department memos place medical officials at the scene of the earliest CIA interrogations. At least one psychologist was present -- and others were frequently consulted -- during the interrogation of Abu Zubaida, the nom de guerre of Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, a Palestinian who was captured by CIA and Pakistani intelligence officers in March 2002, the Justice documents state.

An Aug. 1, 2002, memo said the CIA relied on its "on-site psychologists" for help in designing an interrogation program for Abu Zubaida and ultimately came up with a list of 10 methods drawn from a U.S. military training program known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, or SERE. That program, used to help prepare pilots to endure torture in the event they are captured, is loosely based on techniques that were used by the Communist Chinese to torture American prisoners of war.

The role played by psychologists in adapting SERE methods for interrogation has been described in books and news articles, including some in The Washington Post. Author Jane Mayer and journalist Katherine Eban separately identified as key figures James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, two psychologists in Washington state who worked as CIA contractors after 2001 and had extensive experience in SERE training. Mitchell, reached by telephone, declined to comment, and Jessen could not be reached yesterday.

The CIA psychologists had personal experience with SERE and helped convince CIA officials that harsh tactics would coerce confessions from Abu Zubaida without inflicting permanent harm. Waterboarding was touted as particularly useful because it was "reported to be almost 100 percent effective in producing cooperation," the memo said.

The agency then used a psychological assessment of Abu Zubaida to find his vulnerable points. One of them, it turns out, was a severe aversion to bugs.

"He appears to have a fear of insects," states the memo, which describes a plan to place a caterpillar or similar creature inside a tiny wooden crate in which Abu Zubaida was confined. CIA officials say the plan was never carried out.

Former intelligence officials contend that Abu Zubaida was found to have played a less important role in al-Qaeda than initially believed and that under harsh interrogation he provided little useful information about the organization's plans.

The memos acknowledge that the presence of medical professionals posed an ethical dilemma. But they contend that the CIA's use of doctors in interrogations was morally distinct from the practices of other countries that the United States has accused of committing torture. One memo notes that doctors who observed interrogations were empowered to stop them "if in their professional judgment the detainee may suffer severe physical or mental pain or suffering." In one instance, the CIA chose not to subject a detainee to waterboarding due to a "medical contraindication," according to a May 10, 2005, memo.

Yet some doctors and ethicists insist that any participation by physicians was tantamount to complicity in torture.


<       2        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company