Torture and the Research Star

Book's revelations about CIA's use of Penn professor's work intensify debate over how social scientists should help (and not help) interrogations.
July 22, 2008

Many anthropologists were horrified in 2006, when Seymour M. Hersh in The New Yorker explored how the work of the late cultural anthropologist Raphael Patai -- in particular The Arab Mind -- was used by the military officials who set up Abu Ghraib and the humiliations that took place there. By reading about sexual taboos that Patai studied, some in the military were able to come up with what they viewed as ideal ways to dehumanize prisoners. The article was much discussed among anthropologists who ever since have pushed for tighter ethics rules on scholars who work with the military or intelligence agencies.

Two years later, another New Yorker writer, Jane Mayer, has a book out that is shaking up another social science discipline. This time the researcher whose work may have been used (without his permission) to help with torture is very much alive and very prominent in his field -- Martin E.P. Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania. In The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War of Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, just published by Doubleday, Mayer writes that key planners of the American interrogation approaches many view as torture were based in part on Seligman's theories. In addition, Mayer relates the adaption of these theories in part to a talk Seligman gave in 2002 to a Navy group that was organized in part by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Seligman notes that the book also makes clear that his talk was not about how to interrogate prisoners, and he says he never helped the CIA or anyone engage in torture. But in an e-mail interview, Seligman also defended his participation in the 2002 event, and rejected the idea that social scientists need to keep an arm's length from certain government agencies at a time that they are being linked to torture. "All Americans must be prepared to help our nation in time of need. Scientists need to be vigilant for illegal misuse of their work. I was vigilant then and would be vigilant now," he said.

Whether Seligman was vigilant enough is a matter of some debate within the discipline. In part because he is seen as a leader in the field and is a past president of the American Psychological Association, his role -- even if an unwitting one -- is coming in for scrutiny at a time many psychologists say that their association has not done enough to limit scholars' potential assistance with torture.

At the beginning of August -- as a result of a petition drive -- the association will be conducting a national mail election of members on a plan to strengthen its ethics code. And protests are expected at next month's annual meeting of the APA, in Boston, from those who believe that the group is looking the other way at the conduct of some researchers.

The Seligman theory on which the CIA reportedly relied for its interrogation techniques is "learned helplessness." In the 1960s, Seligman did a series of experiments with dogs in which he shocked them repeatedly -- and for no apparent reason related to their behavior, but at random. After a period of time experiencing this terror, dogs that once would have tried to escape their cages no longer did so, Seligman found. This "learned helplessness" has been the basis for extensive research on why people in certain situations don't appear to fight back against those terrorizing them. According to The Dark Side, key officials view this theory as "the paradigm" on which to build interrogation techniques.

In 2002, Seligman spoke for three hours at a forum that was organized by the CIA, Mayer writes, through the military's SERE program (which stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape). Among those who were present were key officials who went on to develop the military's interrogation programs, and who cited what they had picked up about "learned helplessness." Via e-mail, Seligman acknowledged participating in the program, but said his topic was specific: "how American troops and American personnel could use what is known about learned helplessness to resist torture and evade successful interrogation by their captors. This is just what I spoke about."

Seligman noted that he has no security clearance and would not have been able to discuss interrogation methods with military officials even if he wanted to -- which he didn't. "I have never worked under government contract (or any other contract) on any aspect of torture, nor would I be willing to work on torture," he said. "I am grieved and horrified that good science, which has helped so many people overcome depression, may have been used for such bad purposes. Torture is against American and international law and legal remedy is the best recourse we have. Most importantly, I strongly disapprove of torture and have never and would never provide assistance in its process."

In the build-up to the release of The Dark Side, some of the Web commentary focused on Seligman's research in ways that he argued unfairly implied a more active role than he ever played -- or that the book suggests he played. Harper's, for example, has referred to "Seligman's proximity to the torture program," and asked whether that explains "the difficulty that APA has in rejecting it." While Seligman has repeatedly been stating that he never helped torture anyone, and came to the 2002 conference for only a limited purpose, Mayer has since questioned that argument, noting that Seligman has admitted to knowing some of those in the audience, and suggesting that it was improbable that the CIA interest in his work was purely academic.

In a posting on Andrew Sullivan's blog, she writes: "Professor Seligman says he has no idea why he was called in from his academic position in Pennsylvania, to suddenly appear at this CIA event. He just showed up and talked for three hours about how dogs, when exposed to horrible treatment, give up all hope, and become compliant. Why the CIA wanted to know about this at this point, he says he never asked."

A similar critique is being offered by a growing number of psychologists of their scholarly association, the APA. The association, they say, is quick to ban torture, but slow to ask why scholarly experts are being sought out by entities accused of denying the rights of prisoners.

The association not only bars its members from assisting with torture, but last year added 19 specific forms of torture -- including waterboarding, the use of dogs to intimidate, and sexual humiliation -- from which members were barred. At the same time, the association specifically rejected the idea of barring members from helping in any way in interrogations. An FAQ on its policy states the rationale this way: "Based on years of careful and thorough analysis, APA has affirmed that psychology has a vital role to play in promoting the use of ethical interrogations to safeguard the welfare of detainees and facilitate communications with them. By staying engaged, APA is able to work with the many parties, both within and outside of the military, who are dedicated to preventing torture and other forms of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment."

Critics of the policy say that a key flaw is that much of the controversial interrogation authorized by the Bush administration has taken place away from the United States, with U.S. authorities explicitly stating that prisoners do not have standard rights assured by the U.S. Constitution or various international treaties. In such environments, critics say, there is no such thing as ethical interrogation, and when interrogation techniques may include torture, psychologists could be complicit -- just by helping other activities. A group called Psychologists for an Ethical APA has obtained enough petitions to force the association to conduct a rare mail ballot of all members on a proposal to bar any assistance with these kinds of interrogations.

Steven J. Reisner, a member of the group who is running for president of the APA as well, said in an interview that he sees links between the discussion of Seligman's research and the APA policy. "The ethical obligation of a health professional and a social scientist is not only to do no harm, but to try to be responsible in the effect of one's teaching, supervision and research," Reisner said. "One has to ask questions about to whom one is speaking and how work is going to be used."

With the APA banning practices of torture, but not conditions (interrogations outside judicial protections) that encourage torture, Reisner said, the association "creates an environment that permits activity like Dr. Seligman's and others to continue work as they are doing it, and wittingly or unwittingly supporting the use of psychological knowledge in torture." The association should oppose all interrogations in circumstances where basic human rights can't be assured, said Reisner, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the New York University Medical School and an adjunct in psychiatry at Columbia University. The APA has instead "has either looked the other way or defined policies so particularly that there is enough wiggle room for psychologists to be participating in interrogation operations."

While making those comments, Reisner also rejected ideas -- pushed by some social scientists -- that scholars refrain from work that could possibly help torture or rule out any work with the military.

"Dr. Seligman is correct in that one cannot control the uses to which ideas are put. We can't hold psychology to not using research that might possibly be used in an unethical way, if the research itself is not leading to unethical practice," he said. "It would be like saying Einstein shouldn't have done his research if it could have led to nuclear weapons."

As for the idea of discouraging psychologists from all military work, Reisner said that despite his frustration at the APA's standards, he didn't favor too broad a ban. "Psychologists have a legitimate role to play in military environments," he said. "They are therapists for our troops. They may intervene if someone has been hurt or abused, or offer risk profiles when facing terrorism." Under the Bush administration, protections of civil liberties have deteriorated to threaten these roles, he said, but the roles themselves are legitimate ones. Further, he noted that if one counts veterans' facilities, "The military is probably the biggest employer of psychologists in the country."


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