Amazon’s The Report: Torture Through Positive Psychology

In a shady room, locked with piles of files of the Central Intelligence Agency, Dan Jones (portrayed by Adam Driver) reads on how Abu Zubayda is stripped naked, blasted with water, while loud music is played in the background. This diabolical technique was designed by two former Air Force psychologists, James Mitchell (Douglas Hodge) and Bruce Jessen (T. Ryder Smith), who collaborated with the CIA during the George W. Bush administration and their “War on Terror.” In a country that was bent on “catching the terrorists,” the CIA established a torture program that becomes the centerpiece for the “Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture” (released in 2014) and the Amazon Prime movie, The Report (Scott Z. Burns, 2019).

Torture, Psychologists and The Report

The Viewing Experience

The cinematic achievement of The Report is superficial to me. But, as a casual viewer that was able to see the movie this past December, one can catch the strong points of the movie. First, it touches a dark period of the United States. After the attack on 9/11, the country and the intelligence agencies vowed to defeat terrorism and redeem the blunder of the Bush administration.

Earlier on, The Report showcases the crude techniques that the CIA was open to employing in their interrogations. Mitchell and Jessen are portraited as the lying, psychopathic frauds that they are. Having no experience whatsoever in counter-terrorism, but proposing hellish techniques disguised as “science.” Dan Jones, portraited by the Oscar-nominated actor Adam Driver, showcases “a reliably strong performance… the kind of overworked, idealistic, low-profile staffer on whose labor Washington actually runs.” Finally, the film does solid work on not letting off the hook the Obama administration, who did not want to have the torture report going public. The New Republic summarized it best:

“The Report may be the first major feature film to make the Obama administration look bad. While the widely beloved former president is not portrayed by an actor and only briefly appears in archival news footage, Burns’s script makes clear that Obama had little interest in holding his predecessor accountable, and that he and other top officials like Hillary Clinton nixed their own investigation in favor of a Senate report they hoped would never see the light of day.”

From Positive Psychology to Dark Psychology

That’s for the cinematic analysis. Now, for science. What was all that talk about “learned helplessness?” and Who’s Martin Seligman?

The movie captures Mitchell and Jessen in the CIA headquarters talking to a staff of intelligence officers about “experiments with dogs” in which it was shown that one could get the minds of captured enemies to tell their interrogators their secrets. It was based on the experiments done by former APA President, Martin Seligman. The professor of the University of Pennsylvania developed experiments in which “dogs were given a large number of electric shocks and no way to escape from them.” As science historian Anne Harrington tells us in her monumental book, Mind Fixers (Norton, 2019):

“Seligman found that after a while, they ceased to struggle and passively accepted their fate. Their state of “learned hopelessness” persisted not only in the original experimental setting but also in new settings where their struggles might have been more effective. In other words, they had learned (wrongly) that things were always hopeless and they were always helpless.”

For Seligman, this wasn’t the end of the experiments. In fact, most of their fruitful results came after these discoveries were made. He inquired what could be done to reverse such a state in dogs. Maria Konnikova explains the other side of the coin:

“But Seligman didn’t stop his research there. He had told his supervisor that he didn’t believe in causing suffering unless it had some inherent value that would lead to bettering lives, both canine and human. So he and Maier set out to figure out a way to reverse the effect of learned helplessness in the dogs. What they found was that one simple tweak could stop the passivity from developing. When the researchers first put all the dogs in the shuttle box, where the shock was controllable by a jump, and, only then, into the inescapable harness, the effect of the harness was broken: now, even though the dogs were being bombarded by shocks, they didn’t give up. They kept trying to control the situation, pressing the panels despite the lack of feedback. And when they were again put into the box, they didn’t cower. Instead, they immediately reclaimed their ability to avoid shocks.

“That was what Seligman had been after. If dogs could be inured to learned helplessness, then, potentially, so could people.”

Is this piece of information that made Seligman (alongside the development of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) a household name. He was the new face of psychology – “Positive Psychology”- in the late 1990s. He published numerous popular science books that became bestsellers, was appointed president of the American Psychological Association, and featured in interviews and TED Talks.

It was in 2002 that Seligman “was invited to speak to a Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) conference in San Diego about learned helplessness.” In this conference, the villains of The Report, Mitchell and Jessen, were among the audience. As Seligman later recalls, he was asked: “How the research on learned helplessness could help captured Americans resist and evade torture and interrogation.” Seligman argues in an article to clear his name after the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program (the work in which The Report‘s plot develops) and The Hoffman Report (an independent report by the APA):

“My reaction to 9/11 was typical of most Americans. It was the first frontal attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor and I worried that it was the opening shot of full scale war. What could I do to help my country? I had no high government or military contacts, nor did I know much about Islam or about terrorism, but I did have good convening power among academics. I called my friend and donor, Jim Hovey, and asked whether he would underwrite by convening a group of academics to make recommendations to the White House about how to counter Islamic Jihad extremism. Jim agreed readily.”

In his apologetic article, Seligman claims that he never had any contact with the CIA after a 1980’s meeting on “analyzing the speeches of world leaders for optimism and pessimism.” Yet, he does admit a meeting in his house on “15–16 December 2001,” in which present were “Steven Band and Steven Etter from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and Kirk Hubbard and James Mitchell from the CIA.” This wave of contradictions permeates Seligman’s account on the torture issue. Many writers, like The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer, The NY Review of Book‘s Tamsin Shaw, and Jeff Kaye, noted the inconsistency of Seligman’s account and the pseudo-innocence of his thinking when the CIA became interested after 9/11 on “learned helplessness”.

Enhanced Interrogation

Still, Seligman’s wishful thinking is less problematic when you consider the role of Mitchell and Jessen. These individuals took “Positive Psychology” and transformed it into dark psychology. The term Positive Psychology is described by Harvard Medical School as “a broad one, encompassing a variety of techniques that encourage people to identify and further develop their own positive emotions, experiences, and character traits. In many ways, positive psychology builds on key tenets of humanistic psychology.” In other words, Positive Psychology concentrates on virtues and strengths on the human aspect, instead of their failures.

What Jessen and Mitchell did to their detainees is beyond horrific. Here’s how real-life Daniel Jones in the Torture Report writes of the psychologists’ methods in Guantánamo Bay:

“Beginning with the CIA’s first detainee, Abu Zubaydah, and continuing with numerous others, the CIA applied its enhanced interrogation techniques with significant repetition for days or weeks at a time. Interrogation techniques such as slaps and ‘wallings’ (slamming detainees against a wall) were used in combination, frequently concurrent with sleep deprivation and nudity. Records do not support CIA representations that the CIA initially used an ‘an open, nonthreatening approach,’ or that interrogations began with the ‘least coercive technique possible’ and escalated to more coercive techniques only as necessary.

“The waterboarding technique was physically harmful, inducing convulsions and vomiting. Abu Zubaydah, for example, became ‘completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth.’ Internal CIA records describe the waterboarding of Khalid Shaykh Mohammad as evolving into a ‘series of near drownings.’

Sleep deprivation involved keeping detainees awake for up to 180 hours, usually standing or in stress positions, at times with their hands shackled above their heads. At least five detainees experienced disturbing hallucinations during prolonged sleep deprivation and, in at least two of those cases, the CIA nonetheless continued the sleep deprivation.” 

The topping on the cake is the following paragraph by Jones:

“At least five CIA detainees were subjected to ‘rectal rehydration’ or rectal feeding without documented medical necessity. The CIA placed detainees in ice water ‘baths.’ The CIA led several detainees to believe they would never be allowed to leave CIA custody alive, suggesting to one detainee that he would only leave in a coffin-shaped box. One interrogator told another detainee that he would never go to court, because ‘we can never let the world know what I have done to you.’ CIA officers also threatened at least three detainees with harm to their families— to include threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to “cut [a detainee’s] mother’s throat.”

These methods were done to break the will of the detainees and having them surrender what they know in a state of “learned helplessness”. As Seligman’s dog, the depressive methods of torture done by the psychologists were expected to find the detainees in a state of mind where hope is lost. Yet, even Martin Seligman found this line of thinking contradictory:

“My view is that learned helplessness was not relevant to what they did. As described in the press enhanced interrogation involved beatings, sleep deprivation, water-boarding, and a host of cruel techniques. This is old-fashioned brutality, and brutality is not the same thing as learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is about bad (or good) events that continue regardless of what you do; its defining feature is that nothing you do matters. The bad events continue regardless of what you do. In contrast, the implicit bargain in such interrogation is that if the prisoners told the truth, the brutality would stop and this is exactly the bargain that Mitchell described in his book.”

In his memoir, Enhanced Interrogation (Crown Forum, 2016), Mitchell “concluded that it would be immoral and unethical to ignore my obligation to use what I knew to defend our citizens and our way of life against enemies who themselves had initiated the conflict and whose stated goal was to destroy us…”. In fact, as The Report and Daniel Jones (on-screen and in real life) state, these methods didn’t prevent the next big terrorist attack. “The CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees,” writes Jones in the official Report.  Moreover, most of the information was junk information, since some of the prisoners didn’t have what the CIA was looking for. They would invent confessions to stop the torture.

After The Report

The bleak view in the last minutes of Amazon’s The Report shows a CIA that had impunity in their crimes. Moreover, some of the CIA officials involved in “enhanced interrogation” were promoted, one of them being Donald Trump’s CIA director, Gina Haspel (she gets a pseudonym in the film). But not everyone is having impunity. Mitchell and his colleague now face pre-trial hearings on their role in Guantánamo Bay and the use of “enhanced interrogation.” The Guardian reported: “…both men have insisted they did nothing wrong, arguing they were asked to do things that were declared legal by the George W Bush administration, and that they had to prevent the worst excesses of other interrogators.” In 2015 they were “sued [by the American Civil Liberties Union] … on behalf of two former detainees, as well as the family of another prisoner who died in custody at a black site.” This case was settled in 2017, with the settlement being kept confidential. The APA condemned the role of the psychologists in the torture programs, implying that “Mitchell’s alleged conduct with respect to interrogation techniques would have been sufficient to expel him from membership, had he been a member.”

Mitchell and Jensen’s alliance with the CIA cost the tax-payer $81 million dollars. It was run from 2002 to 2009.  “During that time, the psychologists personally conducted interrogations, trained interrogators, participated in debriefings, and observed interrogations,” said Margot Williams of The Intercept. To this day, many conservatives and members of the intelligence community defend the methods. Mitchell finds no shame on the barbaric techniques that he presented in his book. For many of them, torture was a necessary evil to stop Muslim extremists and fight terrorism.

One finds himself remembering the words of the late Christopher Hitchens, an ex-Marxist who became a staunch defender of the Iraqi war and of the Bush administration, who went deep into hill country in North Carolina to try and get waterboarded. Hitchens knew that his torturers would not let him die and he had a signal to stop the waterboarding. And yet, he did not last too many seconds. Hitch found himself looking for air – and not finding it – and quickly gave the signal to his torturers to stop the technique. Hitchens later recalled that many had told him “that it ‘simulates’ the feeling of drowning,” but that in reality: “This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure.” In his memorable essay for Vanity Fair, Hitchens, who had changed allies from leftists to neocons in Washington; who advocated for the disaster in Irak; who talked about the dangers of “Islamist fascism;” had only one logical title for his essay on the experience of enhanced interrogation: “Believe Me, It’s Torture“.

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