Our Turn to Torture - Pacific Standard

Our Turn to Torture

A short reminder of America's long history mixing psychology and war.
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Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie R. Groves statues. (Photo: Jeffrey M. Frank/Shutterstock)

Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie R. Groves statues. (Photo: Jeffrey M. Frank/Shutterstock)

Near the end of 2014 the Senate Intelligence Committee’s release of its so-called “torture report” held no surprises for those who had read, a few weeks earlier, New York Times reporter James Risen’s new book Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, which calls into question the role played by psychologists in the CIA’s interrogation practices. In a November New York Times story, Risen wrote: “Psychologists were involved in developing the enhanced interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects by the Central Intelligence Agency. Later, a number of psychologists, in the military and in the intelligence community, were involved in carrying out and monitoring interrogations.”

In Risen's and other stories, two psychologists emerge as central to the torture issue: James Elmer Mitchell and John “Bruce” Jessen are credited not just with devising the methods of enhanced interrogation that is at the core of the controversy (i.e. water boarding, rectal feeding, death threats) but of implementing the torture as well. And—there’s more—they were asked to rate their own methods. Though studies exist that maintain that information gleaned from torture is rarely valuable, the two contract psychologists insisted otherwise, and from 2005 to 2009, charged $81 million for their services.

After the successful test of the first atomic bomb, Oppenheimer thought of words from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” He had helped give humans the means of their annihilation.

The American Psychological Association (speaking for its 130,000 members) declared on its homepage: “APA is outraged that two psychologists committed such clear and inexcusable violations of their professional ethics. Drs. Mitchell and Jessen are not APA members, they are therefore beyond the reach of our ethics enforcement program but, if the allegations made about them are true, we believe they should be held accountable for violations of human rights and U.S. and international law.”

Looking back over the major stories of the past 12 months is a year-end ritual. But the enhanced interrogation/torture story and the curious relationship it exposes between psychology and warfare needs a longer view, beyond the Bush Administration. In fact, we should look back to the year 1874 when psychology became a separate discipline, first described as “the study of consciousness.” It began in Germany, and quickly spread throughout Europe and to the United States where William James—“the father of American psychology”—signed on to discover “how behavior works to help people live in the environment.” A worthy goal. James died before the first of the 20th century’s two world wars, so wasn’t around to witness how the new science would be shaped by those years of global trauma.

In World War II, psychology and propaganda teamed up to demoralize the enemy through radio programs: Tokyo Rose called out to “G.I. Joe” in American English, taking aim for his vulnerabilities; Lord Haw Haw and Axis Sally taunted Allied troops on a radio program Germany Calling, produced by the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.

Early in the war, the Intelligence Services of both the Reich and Great Britain put their psychologists to work in a more subtle form of warfare: devising tests to reveal which candidates for covert assignments could perform well under stress.

The U.S. came late to the game. Still, even before Pearl Harbor, psychologists flocked to Washington, D.C., to offer their services. Among them was Ruth Tolman, who was 47 in 1940, and who had a doctorate in psychology from the University of California-Berkeley. She had followed her physicist husband, Dr. Richard Tolman, to Washington, where he was vice chairman of the National Defense Research Committee and the scientific advisor on the Manhattan Project—the building of the atomic bomb. Robert Oppenheimer, the man who would lead the effort to build that first great weapon of mass destruction, was a close friend of both Tolmans. Ruth’s connections were prodigious; in her own field was her brother-in-law, Edward Tolman, head of U.C. Berkeley’s psychology department, who also had been summoned to Washington.

"Psychologists were involved in developing the enhanced interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects by the Central Intelligence Agency. Later, a number of psychologists, in the military and in the intelligence community, were involved in carrying out and monitoring interrogations."

Ruth moved quickly from planning studies on public opinions and attitudes, to conducting interviews and interpreting psychological experiments, then designing research methods that would validate or disprove data. She became known for her good judgment.

Meanwhile, William (“Wild Bill”) Donovan of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the national agency responsible for intelligence gathering, espionage, subversion, and psychological warfare, had been sending agents into enemy territory to act as spies, clandestine radio operators, and saboteurs. A significant number had not come back, having suffered what were then labeled “neuropsychiatric breakdowns.” In an attempt to remedy this, the OSS (a forerunner of the CIA) set up three secret “assessment centers” in the nation’s capital, euphemistically called the “Evaluation School for Overseas Personnel.” Places where aspiring spies would undergo tests that would determine their tolerance for frustration, verbal resourcefulness, and emotional stability.

In July of 1944, Donovan requested Ruth Tolman “on loan” from her current assignment at the War Production Board. She reported for duty at OSS Station W, located in a townhouse in the District of Columbia. Her challenge was to instruct the staff on how to administer the tests and questionnaires that she had helped to develop. Her brother-in-law Edward was assigned to the secret “S” station in nearby Fairfax, Virginia. Their job was to save lives by weeding out those candidates likely to fail in the field or, in a spin on William James’ definition of psychology, choose those who could discover the behavior that would help them survive in an enemy environment. After the screenings, the number of agents who experienced “neuropsychiatric breakdowns” decreased dramatically. Ruth could look at her wartime service in the OSS as having saved lives.

The experience served her well after the war, when waves of GIs with debilitating emotional and neurological injuries were coming home with symptoms that ranged from a pounding heart and racing pulse to prolific sweats and terrifying flashbacks. In World War I it was called “shell shock;” in World War II “combat fatigue.” After Vietnam it became post-traumatic stress disorder. In all, some 44,000 veterans returned from World War II with some degree of emotional trauma. The Veterans Administration, established in 1930, was responsible for them, a difficult task given the serious shortage of psychiatrists in the country. Ruth Tolman returned to California and made a career at the V.A. after the war, training other psychologists on how to treat this onslaught of young veterans. Until her death in 1957 she was actively involved in the APA, and became president of its California chapter.

Though 10 years older than Oppenheimer, Ruth remained his close friend; there was, in fact, gossip about their relationship. Though they lived on opposite coasts, they wrote to each other regularly, spoke on the telephone, and saw each other whenever they could. Ruth knew the burden he carried, having been instrumental in delivering the world’s first weapon of mass destruction. He struggled with the moral dilemma and she, being his close confidant, struggled with him.

The moral dilemma facing psychologists today is lesser only in magnitude to the one Oppenheimer endured. After the successful test of the first atomic bomb, Oppenheimer thought of words from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” He had helped give humans the means of their annihilation.

Ruth believed in the field of psychology, and hoped it would become the science that could change human behavior, along the lines of William James’ vision “...to help people live in the environment.” Yet during the war she took part in procedures that produced more effective spies; in enemy hands, we call them agents of terror.

What to think, then, about psychologists James Mitchell and John Jessep, the CIA and the government that encouraged them? If there are any rays of hope in this shocker of a year-end story, it comes first from the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee for releasing enough of its 6,000 page study of the CIA’s Detention and Intelligence Program to alert and inform the public about the agencies of government that encouraged and allowed torture. And next to the APA for being outraged, and for suggesting that if the charges were true, the two psychologists should be held accountable for violations of human rights in courts of law both American and international.

All that outrage, just maybe, will result in a closer look at the duty of psychologists in times of war.

This post is adapted in part from An Atomic Love Story: The Extraordinary Women in Robert Oppenheimer’s Life, by Shirley Streshinsky and Patricia Klaus.

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