The Biscuit Breaker
by Dan Ephron
October 27, 2008
Before he became a psychologist, Steven Reisner didn't know much about the long history between spies and shrinks. Soft-spoken and cerebral, he'd spent seven years as a theater actor and director, switching to psychology as a profession in 1989. But the ties go back decades, to the early years of the cold war when psychologists helped the CIA experiment on U.S. citizens with mind-altering drugs. The relationship has warmed and cooled over the years, heating up whenever defense or intelligence officials wanted better mind-control methods, ways to direct people's behavior or detect deception. Since 9/11 military and civilian psychologists at Guantánamo Bay and other sites have often watched through the glass when detainees have been interrogated, part of a secret program about which few details have ever emerged.
Reisner first read about the program in a newspaper article in 2004. The 54-year-old psychoanalyst is convinced that some of the techniques used in those interrogations amounted to torture, and he has made it his mission since then to get psychologists out of the business of helping the military as they break down prisoners. Reisner's crusade has been waged largely within the American Psychological Association—in the minutiae of association bylaws and on the pages of internal listservs. Last week, balloting began for a new APA president in what for many is a referendum on the relationship between psychologists and the military. Among five contenders, Reisner has staked his candidacy on the issue.
The APA is the only remaining medical association not to have shunned the contentious interrogations in the years since Guantánamo was opened in 2001. Two civilian psychologists helped introduce techniques like waterboarding into interrogations, drawn from the military's SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) schools where troops are taught to withstand torture. Since 2002 psychologists have observed interrogations and suggested specific ways to exploit the weaknesses of detainees, including Mohammed Jawad, whose disturbing case is now being heard by a military tribunal in Guantánamo. The military claims the psychologists have only helped to make interrogations "safe, legal and effective."
Judging by recent internal votes, APA members have grown uncomfortable with the interrogation business. Reisner has received endorsements from a few big-name psychologists, including Stanford University's Philip Zimbardo. (The four other candidates in the race for president—two clinical psychologists, one professor and a researcher—have mostly campaigned on the bread-and-butter issues of the profession, such as gaining prescription-writing authority for psychologists.) If he wins, Reisner says he will use his authority to expose the precise role individual APA psychologists have played in the interrogations, not only at Guantánamo but at the CIA's "black" sites around the world. He says wrongdoers will be brought before an ethics board; like doctors and other caregivers, psychologists are bound by a do-no-harm principle. But for Reisner the main point is to air the details publicly, in a kind of truth-and-reconciliation process. "The discussions … need to have a public venue so that we can learn the lessons and not let it happen again," he says.
Reisner's passion for this issue is not only professional. He traces his interest in psychology to his parents' reluctance to talk about their experiences in World War II. Both are Holocaust survivors. Reisner found out when he was only 10 from a family friend that his mother had spent time in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. He came to know her full story—she fled a death march in the waning months of the war—when she addressed his high-school class. "I always wanted to know how people went into the darkest places and came out of them," he says.
As a psychoanalyst Reisner says he's attuned to the deeper truths people conceal when they tell their stories (his sparse office in a Chelsea walk-up features an analyst's armchair and a leather couch where the patient, in traditional Freudian fashion, faces away from the psychologist). That instinct led him to believe that there was more to the relationship between psychologists and interrogators than what had appeared in initial media reports. He began collecting documents in a file on the subject that now takes up a large chunk of his computer's hard drive.
One noteworthy document Reisner came by in August of this year is a court filing submitted by the defense in the case of Guantánamo detainee Jawad. It describes how the Afghan youth's mind had begun to unravel in September 2003. Jawad had been through a hellish ordeal in the 10 months since he'd been nabbed at the scene of a grenade attack against American troops at age 17. Afghan police beat him and broke his nose before handing him to U.S. forces. In prison at Bagram Air Base near Kabul, an American guard allegedly hurled him down a flight of stairs, according to a report his attorney filed with military investigators. At Guantánamo, he was kept alone in a cell for much of the time, which can be especially anguishing for a teenager. When an interrogator approached Jawad on Sept. 3 for questioning, he noticed the wiry teen talking to a poster on the wall, according to the court filing.
The interrogator asked a military psychologist to observe the next session with Jawad. Psychologists at Guantánamo are organized into Behavioral Science Consultation Teams, referred to informally as "biscuits." Little is known about the composition of the teams and their precise role. Detainees held at Guantánamo have complained over the years of beatings, isolation and sleep and food deprivation. But few documents detailing the precise role of biscuit psychologists have ever been made public. Col. Larry James, a senior biscuit team member at Guantánamo for about five months in 2003, told NEWSWEEK he and his colleagues mainly helped interrogators build a rapport with the detainees. "We're the ones who made sure prisoners aren't abused," he says.
Reisner says the Jawad case shows how psychologists can stray into ethically complicated territory when they participate in interrogations. The court filing says a biscuit psychologist observed Jawad being interrogated on Sept. 11 and then suggested he be pushed even further. "Based on the BSCT recommendation, Mr. Jawad was moved into isolation the following week," the document says.
The full assessment penned by the psychologist after the interrogation is redacted from the court filing. But NEWSWEEK discovered through two independent sources familiar with the report (who could not be named discussing sensitive material) that the psychologist not only eased interrogators' worries, but also encouraged them to continue to dial up the emotional pressure on Jawad: "He appears to be rather frightened, and it looks as if he could break easily if he were isolated from his support network and made to rely solely on the interrogator," according to an excerpt of the report read to NEWSWEEK. The psychologist recommended that Jawad be moved to a section of the prison where he would be the only Pashto speaker, and be moved again if he somehow began to socialize in his new block. The psychologist also suggested that interrogators emphasize to Jawad that his family appeared to have forgotten him: "Make him as uncomfortable as possible. Work him as hard as possible."
The psychologist's name can be gleaned from a court witness list, but multiple e-mails sent by NEWSWEEK asking for a reaction went unanswered. The court filing goes on to say that two weeks after the start of his isolation, Jawad gave his interrogators a detailed account of the events surrounding the grenade attack (that did not implicate himself). But his mental condition deteriorated further and in late December 2003 he tried to commit suicide. "If the goal was to break him, the psychologist succeeded," says Maj. David Frakt, Jawad's military defense attorney. The chief of prosecution in the Guantánamo trials, Col. Larry Morris, declined to comment. A Pentagon spokesman said, "Our policy is, and always has been, to treat detainees humanely."
There's no indication Jawad was subjected to physical abuse as a result of the psychologist's advice. But Reisner thinks psychologists, military or civilian, should never be put in the position of legitimizing any form of abuse. He believes they can contribute in more general terms to the country's national security and still remain within the profession's ethical framework. "If we have knowledge that says in certain circumstances violence is more likely, we certainly should make that information available," he says. "If we have information that helps interrogators not to get violent or sadistic in their interrogations, we should certainly make that available."
The line, he says, must be drawn at the point where a psychologist's direct actions harm individuals—including suspected terrorists. And since coercive measures have been standard at Guantánamo, he says, psychologists should not be working there at all. Current APA president Alan Kazdin said in response: "APA's position has been clear and loudly articulated; in all instances it is unethical for a psychologist to participate in or assist with any interrogations that involved torture or abuse or place the detainee at risk of injury—physical or psychological."
James, the retired colonel and former Guantánamo psychologist, says Reisner fails to recognize that procedures have evolved at detention centers where terrorist suspects are held. "What bothers me is that these people who criticize the biscuit program have never been there," James said by phone from Ohio, where he is now dean of the school of professional psychology at Wright State University. "Their assumption is that if you work at Guantánamo, you're automatically torturing people."
James arrived at Guantánamo in January 2003. In a book he published this year about his experiences there and at Abu Ghraib, James says he witnessed abuses early on. Peering one night into an interrogation room at Guantánamo through a one-way mirror, James saw an interrogator and three MPs wrestling with a detainee on the floor. "It was an awful sight," James writes in the book. "The detainee was naked except for the pink panties I had seen hanging on the door earlier. He also had lipstick and a wig on. The four men were holding the prisoner down and trying to outfit him with the matching pink nightgown, but he was fighting hard."
James says he put a stop to the abuse and began working with interrogators on getting detainees to talk through more positive inducements.
He claims that no incidents of abuse by either an interrogator or a psychologist have been reported since he arrived at Guantánamo. Asked about the Jawad case specifically, James said in an e-mail: "The psychologist at Gitmo right now told me a few weeks ago that there is a whole lot more information than what was presented in those [court] documents … Me attempting to answer this would not be appropriate because I don't have all the information."
If Reisner loses the APA election (results will be announced in early December) he says he will turn to lobbying Congress and the Pentagon directly. Already his campaign has earned him enemies. Regularly, he says, other psychologists post listserv comments asking him why he cares more about terrorists than American citizens. Occasionally, he encounters biscuit psychologists face to face, as in August 2006, when he sat near James at an APA meeting on torture. Reisner says James was introduced to him as "the man who was sent to clean up Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib." For Reisner and his supporters, those prisons are not clean enough.
With Daniel Stone in Washington
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