Psychologists “Devised” and Played “Central Role” in CIA Torture Program


Professional psychologists designed most of the main techniques and strategies and played ongoing, active, central roles in the CIA’s torture of people it was holding in custody, according to the newly released Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report about the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program. The report describes frequent instances of not just detainees but also CIA staff and onlookers being driven into extreme, distraught and disturbed psychological states during the torture activities. Some references are also made in the report to unnamed psychiatrists and the use of psychiatric drugs. The private company that psychologists Dr. Grayson Swigert and Dr. Hammond Dunbar (identified by the New York Times as pseudonyms for James E. Mitchell and Bruce Jessen) founded to do this work had a contract with the CIA “in excess of $180 million.”

“Two contract psychologists devised the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques and played a central role in the operation, assessments, and management of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program,” states the report.

Other excerpts from the approximately 500-page report:

“The CIA contracted with two psychologists to develop, operate, and assess its interrogation operations. The psychologists’ prior experience was at the U.S. Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school. Neither psychologist had any experience as an interrogator, nor did either have specialized knowledge of al-Qa’ida, a background in counterterrorism, or any relevant cultural or linguistic expertise.”

“This report was commissioned by the CIA’s Office of Technical Services (OTS) and drafted by two CIA contractors, Dr. Grayson SWIGERT and Dr. Hammond DUNBAR. Both SWIGERT and DUNBAR had been psychologists with the U.S. Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school, which exposes select U.S. military personnel to, among other things, coercive interrogation techniques that they might be subjected to if taken prisoner by countries that did not adhere to Geneva protections. Neither psychologist had experience as an interrogator, nor did either have specialized knowledge of al-Qa’ida, a background in terrorism, or any relevant regional, cultural, or linguistic expertise. SWIGERT had reviewed research on “learned helplessness,” in which individuals might become passive and depressed in response to adverse or uncontrollable events. He theorized that inducing such a state could encourage a detainee to cooperate and provide information.”

“On the CIA’s behalf, the contract psychologists developed theories of interrogation based on “learned helplessness,” and developed the list of enhanced interrogation techniques that was approved for use against Abu Zubaydah and subsequent CIA detainees. The psychologists personally conducted interrogations of some of the CIA’s most significant detainees using these techniques. They also evaluated whether detainees’ psychological state allowed for the continued use of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, including some detainees whom they were themselves interrogating or had interrogated. The psychologists carried out inherently governmental functions, such as acting as liaison between the CIA and foreign intelligence services, assessing the effectiveness of the interrogation program, and participating in the interrogation of detainees in held in foreign government custody.”

“In 2005, the psychologists formed a company specifically for the purpose of conducting their work with the CIA. Shortly thereafter, the CIA outsourced virtually all aspects of the program. In 2006, the value of the CIA’s base contract with the company formed by the psychologists with all options exercised was in excess of $180 million; the contractors received $81 million prior to the contract’s termination in 2009. In 2007, the CIA provided a multi-year indemnification agreement to protect the company and its employees from legal liability arising out of the program. The CIA has since paid out more than $1 million pursuant to the agreement.”

Panel Faults C.I.A. Over Brutality and Deceit in Terrorism Interrogations (New York Times, December 9, 2014)

CIA Torture Report: Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program


  1. Think they’re working on the ‘superfluous’ population with psych meds, too. The mental torture I and many others have endured (from benzodiazapines in my current experience) seems like straight up torture to me…never have I had the urge to kill myself get so specific and insistent.

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  2. John: Psychologist Stephen Soldz has been trying to bring this subject to the nation’s attention for several years. If you google counterpunch and put APA in the search engine you can get a sense as to how this issue has played over time.

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  3. …more evidence about how human beings and their institutions can go so completely off course…in this case professional “psychologists.” My hope is that we learn from our grave mistakes and never assume that any human institution (religious, governmental, economic etc) is immune from horrible acts of oppression and cruelty…including our current mental health system…

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  4. Sounds like one more legacy of the MK programs. The psychiatry profession has long been developing expertise in torture and brainwashing. The whole punishment-reward paradigm of the behaviorists has been developed to create maximum suffering without leaving external marks. The brainwashing activities of the psychiatrists are employed to increase the power and influence of the profession. Were the doctors who were instrumental in these torture programs psychologists or psychiatrists?

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  5. And what is even more disgusting is that there are so many politicians in Washington who are defending all of this, saying that it was absolutely necessary for the safety of this country. I’ve come to the point that I don’t trust anyone in Washington these days. They will protect everyone who did these terrible things and no one will receive anything but a slap on the wrist and a few words about how badly they behaved by doing all this.

    What is even worse is the number of people in the area where I live who defend everything that was done in the torture chambers. They claim that what was done saved thousands of American lives while the secret reports that were arriving at the CIA headquarters were stating that they were not getting any significant information at all from the people that they were torturing. America has sunk to the depths of depravity and too many are defending all of it. It is truly and totally disgusting, shocking, and frightening.

    What’s interesting is how the authorities are now trying to shield George W. from having to shoulder the blame that he justly deserves for allowing all of this in the first place. The buck stops with him as the president who authorized all of this disgusting stuff in the first place. He and Cheney of course. I find Cheney to be frightening in many ways.

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