One interesting nugget found in newly released CIA documents related to the destruction of 92 torture tapes concerns the unreported existence of psychologist’s notes as a standard part of the interrogation protocol.
In a “top secret” paper (undated) entitled “The CIA Interrogation of Abu Zubaydah, March 2001 – January 2003,” in a section that, though heavily redacted, describes the review of the tapes by a CIA attorney from the Office of General Counsel, “interrogation materials” are described as consisting of “videotapes, logbook, notebook, and psychologist’s notes.“
(The “March 2001” date on the report is surely incorrect, and should say March 2002, when Zubaydah was captured and brought into the CIA interrogation process. There are many errors and outright lies in the report. One of them concerns the affirmative statement that Zubaydah was “the author of a seminal Al Qaeda manual on resistance to interrogation methods.” This is a step beyond the conditional language used to assert the same claim in other CIA documents. The al-Qaeda manual’s authorship is considered unknown. It was discovered in May 2000 on a computer drive belonging to Anas al-Liby in Manchester, England. Al-Liby was reportedly working then with purported double or triple agent, FBI informant and former US Special Forces member, Ali Mohamed. Al-Liby himself, was, according to a November 2002 story in the UK Guardian, a member of a Libyan al-Qaeda cell that was paid by British intelligence in 1996 to attempt an assassination of Muammar Gaddafi.)
Uncompromised, uncompromising news
Get reliable, independent news and commentary delivered to your inbox every day.
The content of those psychologist notes, should they become available, will indicate to what end CIA interrogators and/or behavioral scientists were measuring the responses of Zubaydah or other prisoners to variations in the interrogation techniques’ application. Variables of interest to CIA psychologists might include head movements and hand movements, facial expressions or microexpressions, used in detecting deception or behavioral manifestations of stress. These types of observation are synonymous with computer analysis and argue for the use of a digital video system or the transfer of analog video into data stored on magnetic or optical media. The same release of documents to the ACLU that contained the “The CIA Interrogation of Abu Zubaydah,” also described CIA officials asking for “instructions” regarding the “disposition of hard drives and magnetic media” associated with the torture of Zubaydah.
In his or her notes, the CIA psychologist-analyst also would be describing mood; affect (appropriate or not, what it was); observed variations in consciousness, including instances of possible dissociation; and particularly unusual behaviors (e.g., urinating on oneself, or continually masturbating, as Zubaydah was reported to do as a soothing activity for a person highly stressed and regressed).
The examination of psychological variables, such as could be determined upon videotape review, does not rule out other forms of data that could be drawn from the prisoner interrogations. The CIA has noted that it took preliminary medical examinations of prisoners, and that while they were subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” they were medically and psychologically monitored daily. Such medical forms of monitoring would include variables associated with the experience of “uncontrollable stress.”
Studying “Uncontrollable Stress” and “Learned Helplessness“
In a number of professional studies, the terms “uncontrollable stress” and “learned helplessness” are used interchangeably, as in this example. The term learned helplessness itself was fashioned by psychologist, researcher and former American Psychological (APA) President Martin Seligman. The theory was taken up by military psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen to describe the kinds of effects on prisoners the enhanced interrogation techniques were meant to produce. While Seligman spoke to a SERE meeting in 2002 on the subject of learned helplessness, he denies he had any connection with the formation of the Bush-era torture program. Last August, Scott Shane of The New York Times reported that Mitchell visited Seligman’s home, accompanied by CIA psychologist Kirk Hubbard, where “a small group of professors and law enforcement and intelligence officers gathered … to brainstorm about Muslim extremism.”
CIA and Department of Defense (DoD) researchers are known to have experimented (including upon SERE mock torture trainees) with the use of a number of techniques to measure such uncontrollable stress, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), acoustic startle eye-blink response (ASER), heart rate variability (HRV), testosterone and neuroendrocrine sampling, particularly of cortisol and neuropeptide-Y (NPY).
Psychologist’s notes might also include preliminary hypotheses in relation to these reactions and the psychological theories of learned helplessness that were driving the interrogations. Perhaps – and this would be even more important – we would discover evidence that the psychologist(s) were conjuring suggestions about ways to manipulate the situation on a day-by-day basis.
From what is known or speculated about a second taping system used in the interrogation of Zubaydah, it seems likely that psychologist notes were also an integral part of the process involved in the use of those tapes.
The specific use of psychologist’s notes corroborates earlier information that ongoing psychological and medical observations were playing a key role in the CIA interrogation process. This was clearly revealed in the various Office of Legal Counsel memos released last year. According to a report by Sheri Fink at ProPublica in May 2009, descriptions of CIA cables released to the ACLU at that time (see PDFs here and here) showed that “medical update[s]” and “behavioral comments” regarding the interrogation of Zubaydah were sent from CIA personnel in the “field” to CIA headquarters on a daily basis. Fink elaborates:
On five occasions between Aug. 4 and Aug. 9,  an additional cable was sent containing “medical information” along with such information as the strategies for interrogation sessions, raw intelligence, the use of interrogation techniques to elicit information, and the reactions to those techniques. The fact that medical information was included in these cables hints that Abu Zubaydah was medically monitored during or after being subjected to those techniques. Both professional organizations and human rights groups have rejected as unethical any monitoring role for medical personnel.
A number of psychologists have been associated with the CIA interrogation program, either directly through participation in the planning and implementation of the torture, or by supporting the presence of psychologists in the interrogation process. The latter issue embroiled the APA in a controversy that led to the exodus of many members. A number of the presidents and other prominent members of the APA have been connected in one way or another to the CIA and DoD interrogation programs, in clear violation of the organization’s own ethical standards.
Last August, Physicians for Human Rights released a white paper that raised the question of medical collaboration with the CIA in constructing its torture interrogation program.
“The [CIA] Inspector General’s report confirms much of what had been reported about the essential role played by health professionals in designing, deploying, monitoring and legitimizing the program of torture, but also raises disturbing new questions which require further investigation,” stated the study “Aiding Torture: Health Professionals’ Ethics and Human Rights Violations Demonstrated in the May 2004 CIA Inspector General’s Report.”
“The possibility that health professionals monitored techniques to assess and improve their effectiveness, constituting possible unethical human experimentation, urgently needs to be thoroughly investigated.”