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American psychologists participated in torture against al Qaeda prisoners

American psychologists participated in torture against al Qaeda prisoners

May 3, 2024

Recently information has come to light about some members of the American Psychological Association (APA for its acronym in English) endorsed and legitimized torture programs to extract information from some detainees after 9/11 .

Specifically, the members of the APA involved legitimized certain tortures towards the detainees that allowed the US government. legalize these activities. Among some entities participating in the event we find the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), senior Pentagon officials and the White House, with the then president of the United States George W. Bush .


This is especially serious considering that, currently, the APA is one of the largest organizations linked to the world of psychology worldwide. In addition, it has 150,000 associates and has an annual budget of 70 million dollars. Not in vain his system of bibliographic citations is one of the most used in the world.

The APA asks for forgiveness

Fourteen long years have had to happen so that the APA, after successive denunciations on the part of high positions of the world of the psychology, has apologized in relation to the close cooperation in military interrogations. He has done it after the publication of the Hoffman report, a document of 524 pages where the participation of these psychologists in what they called reinforced interrogation techniques is explicitly related , a euphemism for what has always been described as torture.


The Hoffman report is transcending in a remarkable way. There are already four senior APA officials who have either been expelled from the association, or have come of their own accord suddenly. Among them are the director of the Ethics Office Stephen Behnke, the executive director Norman Anderson, the deputy executive director Michael Honaker and the communications manager Rhea Farberman.

What type of torture was used in the interrogations?

In the interrogations ruthless and cruel procedures were used. One of them was to play music at full volume to prevent the detainees from falling asleep. They also forced the suspects to walk every fifteen minutes throughout the night so that they would not rest.

Another type of torture used was what was called waterboarding or drowned drowning . This technique consists of immobilizing the individual and spilling water on his nose and mouth so that he does not actually choke but if he feels suffocated.


Finally, it should also be noted that some CIA agents threatened to attack and violently attack the close relatives of the detainees.

What role did psychologists play in torture?

The psychologists analyzed the detainees and reported on their mental state, looking for their weak points (phobias, etc.) to later use them against them.

Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, two retired US military psychologists, played a key role in torturing suspects belonging to the al Qaeda terrorist group.

Learned helplessness as a technique to extract information from prisoners

Specifically, these psychologists proposed the theory of learned helplessness as a starting point to get the information they wanted. This theory was formulated and developed by Martin E. P. Seligman During the 70s, he studied the effects that occurred when applying electric shocks on animals. Seligman observed that these animals manifested behaviors related to depression. He also stressed that such behaviors only occurred when the animal lost all hope, that is, when it came to thinking that it could not change its unfortunate situation.

The use of this theory in the interrogations was aimed at reaching a point at which the detainee lost all hope, as happened in Seligman's experiments, and in this way acceded to the demands of the agents.

Stephen Soldz, a prestigious Boston psychoanalyst who had been denouncing the APA for a decade, explains that the CIA agents excused themselves alleging that they only followed the recommendations that the psychologists proposed to them .

The thin line between the ethical and the illicit

This whole issue leads me to reflect on what the profession of the psychologist entails. We know theories and we master concepts that can influence human beings but that does not give us any power to use them incorrectly.

All professionals belonging to this sector should have a clear line between the ethical and the illicit. Above all, in the dangerous field of military psychology .


'Enhanced interrogation': Guantanamo detainee sues CIA contractors over torture (May 2024).


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