July 18th, 2008
At Andrew Sullivan’s blog Jane Mayer, author of The Dark Side, responds to Martin Seligman’s denial of involvement in the development of CIA interrogation tactics:
Mayer on Seligman
Professor Seligman’s disavowal actually adds a rather interesting new fact to the story of how the psychology profession played a role in the CIA’s “special” interrogation program. In “The Dark Side,” I established by interviewing him, that he had personally spoken for three hours at the Navy’s SERE School in San Diego, in April of 2002, at a somewhat mysterious confab organized in part by the head of Behavioral Science at the CIA.
This was a pretty crucial moment in the development of America’s secret interrogation and detention program. Abu Zubayda had been captured just weeks before, and the CIA was trying to come up with ways to make him talk. They had no patience for the slow, rapport-building methods used by the FBI, whose role in the case they had just superceded. But what to do? At this very moment, Professor Seligman, it seems, agreed to participate in what he says was an unexplained private high-level CIA meeting, held on the campus of the part of the Navy that runs a secret program emulating torture – the SERE School in San Diego.
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. But somehow- and this is what is news as far as I know – Professor Seligman does know that in his audience were the two psychologists who soon after became the key advisers to the CIA’s “enhanced” interrogation program: James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. So, Professor Seligman, must have had some contact with them, since he knew they were in his audience. Did he speak with them? What did they talk about?
According to sources close to the FBI, around the same time, one of those psychologists, James Mitchell, showed up where Abu Zubayda was being held, and started talking about Dr. Seligman’s theories of “Learned Helplessness” as shedding useful light on how to coerce Zubayda into talking. Specifically, he spoke of Seligman’s dog experiments, in which random electric shocks broke the dogs’ will to resist. An FBI agent was appalled – pointing out they were dealing with humans, not dogs. But Mitchell said it was “good science” for both.
(Mitchell declined to elaborate on the treatment of Abu Zubayda, when I interviewed him, but admitted he admired Seligman’s work on Learned Helplessness. A lawyer for Mitchell later claimed that he had not tried to apply the theory to detainees. But a colleague, Col. Steve Kleinman, who worked in the SERE program, said Mitchell talked all the time about how Learned Helplessness provided the blueprint for interrogating detainees).
So- did Seligman assist the U.S. Torture program? I am careful not to say so in “The Dark Side,”- I just recount the facts of his odd visit to the SERE school. So- he is not denying anything in my book.
But now that he brings all of this up again, it would be nice if he’d answer a few more questions. What exactly did he think he was doing that day in April of 2002 with the CIA? How did he know who Mitchell and Jessen were, and, what role did he think they were playing at that time? Maybe he was as clueless as he says he was. But, why doesn’t he then tell us know what he thinks of his theories being used in this way? Does he renounce Mitchell and Jessen? Does he think they used psychology immorally? He was the head of the APA- has he ever spoken out about this? Has he ever complained to the CIA about what they did with his science? Time for some more information here…instead of non-denial denials…