Monday, May 4, 2009

SERE Psychologist ("Master of the Mind F*ck") Interviewed on NPR

Alix Spiegel at NPR's All Things Considered scored a coup by getting an interview with SERE psychologist Bryce Lefever, who also served on APA's PENS task force on interrogations. Lefever offers an apologia for the torture interrogations that are now famously linked to SERE psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. Lefever describes his experience with teaching military recruits how to withstand torture "fascinating... a human laboratory."

According to Lefever, at a yearly meeting shortly before 9/11, statements by former APA President Joseph Matarazzo to the SERE meeting helped "crystallize" for him that SERE psychologists must use their skills to help their country. Now he feels that Mitchell and Jessen are being unfairly vilified, their motives and actions misunderstood.

Stephen Soldz caught the story and made the links to Lefever's participation with the American Psychological Association's Psychological Ethics of National Security (PENS) task force:
Lefever explicitly renounces the quaint psychologist ethics code with its “Do No Harm” standard. If causing pain will reduce the total harm in the world, then it is the only ethical way to go, Lefever told NPR listeners.

Lefever’s ethical attitudes are especially interesting as he was a member of the American Psychological Association’s task force on Psychological Ethics and National Security.

One might think that APA officials PENS members would be surprised by Lefever’s pro-torture positions. But that would be naive. For Lefever expressed exactly these opinions on the PENS listserve....
In fact the PENS meeting was a steep learning curve for me in that it was a far more political process than I anticipated and I had hoped that we would have worked out our positions via intellectual or philosophical debate. When I brought up the idea of harm, and what is harm, it fell on deaf ears. I pointed out that behavioral and psychological techniques used in training our high-risk-of-capture students in Survival Schools [SERE] are viewed as vital, necessary, good, and for the greater good. Psychologists are strong proponents of these techniques even though they inflict psychological and physical pain. Yet the very same behaviors are proscribed by the Department of Defense and viewed as harmful when applied to America’s prisoners.
Notice that Lefever appears here to be acknowledging that SERE-based techniques were indeed being used on US detainees, a fact conveniently ignored by the more politically savvy members of the task force....

Lefever also told the task force that the pursuit of “human rights” was, by definition, unethical [emphasis added]:
These words –- morals and ethics -– do not mean “the ways of the individual” or individual rights. Any time the rights of the individual are placed above what is best for the community, it is, by definition, unethical or immoral. The discussion of individual rights is the domain of “human rights” organizations (like ACLU).
As Psychologists for Social Responsibility, bioethicist Steven Miles, and others have said recently, we urgently need an independent investigation of psychologists’ aid to abusive interrogations. Such an investigation must examine the role of the APA and its leadership in providing ethical cover for this torture program.
Notice how Lefever's words echo those of former APA President Gerald Koocher from another portion of the PENS listserv material, which I quoted last week (H/T Gregg Levine) (emphasis added):
May 6, 2005: “In many of the circumstances we will discuss when we meet the psychologist’s role may bear on people who are not ‘clients’ in the traditional sense. Example, the psychologist employed by the CIA, Secret Service, FBI, etc., who helps formulate profiles for risk prevention, negotiation strategy, destabilization, etc., or the psychologist asked to assist interrogators in eliciting data or detecting dissimulation with the intent of preventing harm to many other people. In this case the client is the agency, government, and ultimately the people of the nation (at risk). The goal of such psychologists’ work will ultimately be the protection of others (i.e., innocents) by contributing to the incarceration, debilitation, or even death of the potential perpetrator, who will often remain unaware of the psychologists’ involvement.”
Spencer Ackerman at Firedoglake captures some of the absurdity and hubris of Lefever's panegyric to a torturer's "ethics":
Still, some people don't believe in inviolable rights, or will see a goal so overwhelmingly important that it allows for desperate measures. Here it's necessary to remember that Ali Soufan of the FBI was exactly what Jessen and Mitchell and this gentleman Lefever isn't, which is to say a trained interrogator. His testimony -- both what's out now and what's forthcoming -- is about how the inexperienced interrogators moved toward brutality out of ignorance. Lefever, in other words, is in no position to know what he's stipulating, which is that "the most good for the most people" required torture.
Lefever is certainly being honest when he says he believes that what he says is the position of most SERE psychologists. Whether it is or not, I can't say. But his attitude fits the "cowboy" reputation of a certain element at Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, the parent department of SERE at DoD, where ex-Special Forces personnel, careerist military officers, and poorly trained and educated psychologists fashioned a culture of inviolability and anti-intellectual superiority, best caught in their self-proclaimed moniker (as one source that wishes to remain anonymous with some knowledge of the individuals involved told me): "Masters of the Mind Fuck"!

Well, MOMF they may be, but they are also in a heap of trouble, and it can't be making those who have a better semblance of understanding of the legal jeopardy they are in happy to see one of these "cowboys" spouting off. But for the rest of us, it's an eye-opening peek at the kinds of people who helped construct the interrogation program that tortured in America's name.


Anonymous said...

I am surprised there are no comments - I went searching for some reviews of that NPR interview, I was amazed by it, it was disgusting that this was done "in our names" supposedly. I am glad I found your website and wil plan to read it regularly now.

Valtin said...

Thanks for wanting to be a regular. I think the lack of comments is due to this site not having established a vibrant comments community, yet. I think the bulk of the discussion on this was taking place at sites like Daily Kos and Firedoglake, and some others.

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