For shame…

June 25, 2007

The very first “Sheep Days” post touched on the topic of torture sponsored by the U.S. government. Unfortunately, this topic continues to plague us.

A new twist has come up in the way U.S. armed forces and CIA operatives are torturing our fellow human beings: it has been revealed that they have been using trained and licensed psychologists to help them increase the pressure on their victims.

Mark Benjamin, a reporter for, details the collusion between these psychologists and the torturers:

After the Sept. 11 attacks, [the CIA and the U.S. military] turned to a small cadre of psychologists linked to the military’s secretive Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape program to “reverse-engineer” techniques originally designed to train U.S. soldiers to resist torture if captured, by exposing them to brutal treatment. The military’s use of SERE training for interrogations in the war on terror was revealed in detail in a recently declassified report.

Two psychologists in question, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, apparently specialize in the infliction of psychological stress. The reporter continues,

Isolation in cramped cells is also a key tenet of SERE training, according to soldiers who have completed the training and described it in detail to Salon. The effects of isolation are a specialty of Jessen’s, who taught a class on “coping with isolation in a hostage environment” at a Maui seminar in late 2003, according to a Washington Times article published then. (Defense Department documents from the late 1990s describe Jessen as the “lead psychologist” for the SERE program.) Mitchell also spoke at that conference, according to the article. It described both men as “contracted to Uncle Sam to fight terrorism.”

Mitchell’s name surfaced again many months later. His role in interrogations was referenced briefly in a July 2005 New Yorker article by Jane Mayer, which focused largely on the military’s use of SERE-based tactics at Guantánamo. The article described Mitchell’s participation in a CIA interrogation of a high-value prisoner in March 2002 at an undisclosed location elsewhere — presumably a secret CIA prison known as a “black site” — where Mitchell urged harsh techniques that would break down the prisoner’s psychological defenses, creating a feeling of “helplessness.” But the article did not confirm Mitchell was a CIA employee, and it explored no further the connection between Mitchell’s background with SERE and interrogations being conducted by the CIA.

This reminded me of another collusion between professional scholars and government travesties. During the Vietnam War, our government called on anthropologists to help them make peace (do battle) more effectively in a scheme called “Project Camelot.” One of the United States’s best anthropologists, Marshall Sahlins, condemned this cooperative project as early as 1965 when he addressed the American Anthropological Association. Sahlins declared that the project was,

an example of the corrosion of integrity that must accompany an enlistment of scholars in a gendarmerie relation to the Thrid World. Subversion of mutual trust between field-worker and informant is the predictable next step. The relativism we hold necessary to ethnography can be replaced by cynicism, and the quest for objective knowledge of other peoples replaced by a probe for their political weaknesses.

This is exactly what these shameful psychologists are doing–they are betraying their profession’s high purpose to heal, to comfort, and to hold confessions in confidence. They are preying on weakened men and women supposedly to help win a war. The pastor in me cannot help but point out that this commitment to victory no matter what the method or cost is surely not an American value, much less a Christian one.

I also await the day that the CIA or the Pentagon arrives in my Religious Studies department looking for sick and little men and women who are willing to betray our field’s sensitivity to the religious mores of others so that the torturers can know even better how to flush a Qur’an down the commode.

(Image is “Shame” by Ori Kleiner, 2004)


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