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|Clinicians Digest Sept/Oct 2008 - Page 7|
This June, the publication of Jane Mayer's new book, The Dark Side, brought renewed attention to the role psychologists have played in developing the CIA's program of "enhanced interrogation" used against terrorists. For some time, critics of the American Psychological Association (APA) have attacked the organization's insistence on allowing psychologists to remain involved in assisting such interrogations, in contrast to the position taken by other medical and mental health organizations, such as the American Psychiatric Association. Mayer's book sparked further controversy by raising questions about the influence the work of one of the country's leading psychologists, former APA president Martin Seligman, had on the techniques developed for extracting information from high-value suspected terrorists.
Because of his landmark work on learned helplessness and depression, the CIA asked Seligman to give a three-hour talk to the Navy's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School (SERE) in San Diego in 2002, just as the CIA was trying to figure out how to question Abu Zubayda, believed to be one of the planners of 9/11. According to Seligman, the only purpose of his talk was to explain how American Navy pilots who might be captured and tortured could resist being psychologically broken.
Shortly afterwards, however, the techniques Seligman talked about resisting were instituted, and used regularly and systematically, on Zubayda and other detainees at Guantanamo and interrogation centers around the world. In addition to physical torture, detainees were forced to wear dog collars (an echo of Seligman's own learned-helplessness experiments in which he repeatedly shocked dogs through electric collars to break their spirit) and endure other humiliations
In an interview on the website of Harper's magazine, Mayer says that "Seligman's theories were cited admiringly soon after [his talk at SERE] by James Mitchell, the psychologist whom the CIA put on contract to advise on its secret interrogation protocols." In response to accusations first fueled by Mayer in a New Yorker article on the CIA's use of torture that later appeared in her book, Seligman released a statement defending his actions. "I have not worked under government contract (or any other contract) on any aspect of interrogation or any aspect of torture," he said. "Most importantly, I strongly disapprove of torture and have never and would never provide assistance in its process."
Although Mayer hasn't accused Seligman of direct involvement in the torture program, she's still posing several questions. Did he really believe that the CIA had invited him to speak merely for the purpose of helping protect American pilots? With only about 50 people in the audience, did he know who Mitchell was and what his role might be? Why hasn't Seligman publicly protested the use of his theories in the development of a torture program and more vigorously urged the APA to take a stance against psychologists' involvement at Guantanamo?
After releasing his statement, Seligman announced he wouldn't discuss these matters further. But pressed in an e-mail later posted on his website by journalist Michael Otterman, author of American Torture, he reiterated the innocence of his actions. "My life work has been devoted to the issues of undoing learned helplessness, not about inducing it in other human beings," he said. When Otterman queried him about the use of his research by others for nefarious purposes, Seligman replied: "Good science always runs the risk of immoral application. It goes with the territory of discovery."
Fog of War: Time (June 16, 2008): 38-42.
End-of-Life Decisions: Journal of the American Medical Association 299, no. 22 (June 11, 2008): 2667-78.
When a Spouse Comes Out: online support: http://www.straightspouse.org/Allied.shtml; American Journal of Family Therapy 36, no. 1 (January 2008): 30-47.
Alcohol Buzz: Psychology of Addictive Behaviors 22, no. 2 (June 2008): 168-75.
"Call 911": Psychiatric Times 25, no. 2 (February 2008).