Thursday, July 14, 2016

Bandura, Mitchell and CIA's research on torture to produce double agents

Greg Miller's new article at The Washington Post, How a modest contract for ‘applied research’ morphed into the CIA’s brutal interrogation program, and its associated documentation (see end of this post below), reveal aspects of James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen and the CIA's torture program that I and others have long insisted rested on an illegal program of human experimentation.

Indeed, the contracts for Mitchell, who seems to have been first hired as a contractor for the CIA on August 8, 2001 to "identify reliable and valid methods for conducting cross-cultural psychological assessments," quickly became, as Miller describes, more and more highly paid assignments in conducting research for the benefit of the CIA's Counterintelligence Center (CTC) "debriefing" program. Such "debriefing" was more than simple interviews, as we all know now, and consisted of multiple forms of torture, including profound isolation and use of the waterboard.

I'm sure I and others will have more to say about the research aspects of the CIA program over the next days and weeks, but I want to concentrate on a portion of Miller's article where he notes the contracts' "cryptic reference" to the fact that one of Mitchell’s objectives would be to “adapt and modify the Bandura social cognitive theory for application in operational settings.” By operational, the CIA means in national security or military settings.

Albert Bandura is a professor of psychology at Stanford University. He has been considered for decades a seminal modern theorist of psychological thought. His social learning or social cognitive theory involves a complex view of how people act and learn. When I first read about Bandura's theory as somehow associated with the CIA program, I was confused how about its relevancy. I wondered, as well, if it had anything to do with the fact that both Mitchell and Jessen had hired Bandura, along with some other top psychologists, including CIA-linked psychologist Joseph Matarazzo (who would later be part of their company Mitchell, Jessen & Associates) for a review of SERE's training program in 1996. It was the elements of SERE training at a mock-torture camp for Special Operations forces that was used to construct the techniques of the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" program under the auspices of CIA's Office of Technical Services (the same part of the CIA that ran its MKULTRA program).

Miller, himself, in his Washington Post article merely refers to the idea that Bandura's theory is "that learning is largely driven by rewards and punishments." But it is much more than that.

In fact, as we shall see, the reference to Bandura -- who we have no evidence was associated with the CIA program in any way -- is a veiled reference to the goal of "exploitation" of "war on terror" prisoners, especially those in the CIA's rendition and interrogation torture program. The "exploitation" envisioned by use of Bandura's concepts are likely those associated with recruiting double agents from among the CIA's prisoners. Indeed, many prisoners released from Guantanamo or from CIA custody have said they were asked to work as double agents by their U.S. captors.

According to experts on "operational psychology," Bandura's theory helps "security agencies better understand the complex interplay of motivations and personality when individuals commit espionage."

How does it do that? Military and national security experts writing in a book chapter on "Operational Psychology," as part of The Oxford Handbook of Military Psychology (Oxford Univ. Press, 2012), cite Bandura's concepts of "moral disengagement" and "cognitive reconstrual." The authors of this essay -- Thomas J. Williams, James J. Picano, Robert R. Roland, and Paul Bartone -- describe a process whereby the normal ways a person regulates their moral conduct, their sense of right and wrong, is changed.

The authors of the book chapter have some relevant connections and experiences. Bartone, for instance, is a former president of the APA's Division 19, Society for Military Psychology, and today is Senior Research Fellow at National Defense University. Col. Thomas J. Williams is another former Div. 19 president, and is currently Senior Scientist, Behavioral Health and Performance, Behavioral Health Program, NASA. During the Iraq War, Col. Williams was part of Joint Special Operations Task Force, North, Iraq. Roland states he was a clinical-operational psychologist for the Army and Special Forces for over 30 years, while Picano is Senior Operational Psychologist for NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Both Col. Williams and Col. Bartone were "top 10" choices from American Psychological Association (APA) Ethics chief, Stephen Behnke, to serve on the controversial PENS committee, which attempted to subordinate the demands of psychological ethics to the needs of national security and military psychology, according to the Hoffman-Sidley Austin "independent review" of APA collusion with government agencies on torture.

According to the book chapter by Williams, et al., "effective counterintelligence operations focus on building a relationship that allows an individual to disengage from their moral standards (e.g. in a manner equivalent to a married partner engaged in an extra-marital affair, they may have to lie about their motivations) through a process of "cognitive reconstrual," which can occur through unconscious cognitive processes and/or through intentional training." (bold emphasis added) What types of "intentional training" remain unsaid, but it must include attempts to assess subjects for relevant vulnerabilities, and a behavioral-based program to change a person's allegiances. [Author note: the link above seems broken. Those interested can reference the book at Amazon, and search inside for "moral disengagement" to find the relevant passages.]

Williams, et. al. give as an example how the Soviet double agent Aldrich Ames was broken from his own personal loyalties, and estranged or disengaged and alienated from the CIA and U.S. society as a whole, switched loyalties to his KGB handlers, who, he said, "stuck with me, and protected me and I think... developed a genuine warmth and friendship with me."

In Bandura's terms, Ames underwent a process of moral disengagement from his CIA and national loyalties, and via a process of cognitive reconstrual changed his sense of moral conduct and right and wrong. (It is no small irony that the theories of moral disengagement and cognitive reconstual have also been used by Bandura and others to describe the processes that make terrorism acceptable to the would-be terrorist. Or that one example of using intentional training to remold ethical decision making processes is via military training.)

When the CIA emphasized they want to "Adapt and modify the Bandura social cognitive theory for application in operational settings" and "Refine variables of interest to assess in order to apply [this] model to specific individuals", I believe they are talking about interrogating and torturing "war on terror" prisoners -- whether they are actual terrorists or not -- to become double agents working for the CIA, Department of Defense, or other U.S. intelligence agencies.

In a sense, this is exactly the kind of "brainwashing" the U.S. used to accuse the Soviets, Chinese, and North Koreans of during the Cold War, i.e., using psychological techniques to change men's loyalties and make them secret agents or "Manchurian candidates." (Whether the Soviets, et al. actually did this is another story.) In addition, we can better understand how the emphasis on "research" in the terms of Mitchell and Jessen's CIA contract language was about studying ways to understand an individual's degree of "moral disengagement" or alienation, as well as assess the degree to which an individual's "cognitive reconstrual" or new alignment with U.S. government aims has taken place.

How successful the CIA was in doing this is unknown. My educated guess, as a psychologist, is that they had some successes (remember Morten Storm), and some failures (Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi).

The use of torture to "exploit" prisoners, including to "flip" them and make them work for the incarcerating power, is not unknown at all. In the case of the United States, former Guantanamo detainee David Hicks told journalist Jason Leopold about it in an February 2011 interview:
There was one time in 2003 when we were all asked if we would work for the US government performing secret operations off the island, somewhere abroad. Nearly every detainee laughed at this question and word quickly spread so we knew we weren’t alone. Apparently the proposition was a part of their profiling system. Interrogators worked around the clock to break us. Once broken, detainees were asked to agree to anything by interrogators, to repeat after them, to sign confessions, to be false witnesses, or to sow discord amongst detainees.
Michael Kearns, a former SERE official who knew CIA torture "consultant" Bruce Jessen, and worked with him training soldiers and U.S. agents to withstand torture years before Jessen worked for the CIA, explained in a March 2011 interview at Truthout the various ways torture seeks to "exploit" captured prisoners (bold added for emphasis):
The CIA/DoD torture program appears to have the same goals as the terrorist organizations or enemy governments for which SV-91 and other SERE courses were created to defend against: the full exploitation of the prisoner in his intelligence, propaganda, or other needs held by the detaining power, such as the recruitment of informers and double agents. Those aspects of the US detainee program have not generally been discussed as part of the torture story in the American press.
What is important is that we now have direct evidence that the CIA's torture program, and likely that of DoD as well, was not largely about gathering workable intelligence for the safety and operations of U.S. personnel or the U.S. population as a whole, but to recruit double agents for counterintelligence and operations purposes, i.e., for sabotage, assassination, and general espionage. These latter may have had the aim of protecting the "homeland," but at the cost of a "moral disengagement" and level of illegality (kidnapping, torture) that is startling.

Read the CIA contracts for James E. Mitchell

Read the CIA contracts for John B. Jessen

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