Psychologists Dispute Claim In Interrogation Memos

In one of the interrogation memos released last week by the Obama administration, former Justice Department assistant attorney general Jay Bybee makes a startlingly broad and bold assertion.

The Bush-era memos described "enhanced interrogation techniques" CIA interrogators were allowed to use on some terrorism detainees.

The techniques described in the memo, Bybee argued at the time, will not produce long-term psychological harm. The waterboarding, the stress positions, the sleep deprivation — none of these things, he writes, pose a threat to the long-term mental health of a detainee.

The memo goes on to explain the basis for this assertion. According to Bybee, the government is confident that these techniques are safe for one very simple reason.

For a number of decades, Bybee writes, the government has been systematically using almost all of these techniques against more than 26,000 of our own people: soldiers participating in a program intended to teach them how to survive capture by a hostile enemy. Only a very small portion of those soldiers, the memo goes on to say, experienced any negative psychological repercussions.

The message is clear: Because American soldiers didn't suffer from these techniques, they pose no threat to enemy detainees and should not be considered torture.

In statements to NPR on Tuesday, several research scientists who studied the soldiers in the context of psychological research, said the arguments made in the memos — which compared U.S. soldiers to individuals involuntarily detained — were "scientifically inappropriate."

Survival, Evasion, Resistance And Escape

The Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training program that the memos cite to justify waterboarding and other interrogation techniques was first introduced in the United States many decades ago. The goal of the program was to train military personnel to withstand torture and interrogation.

Basically the idea is to inoculate soldiers against the psychological effects of torture by giving them firsthand experience with the techniques they are likely to face. Soldiers are subjected to sleep deprivation and face slapping and the other techniques described in the Justice Department memos.

But Gary Hazlett, a research scientist who spent many years studying stress among soldiers who were going through these programs, says it is not possible to compare the soldiers to a population of people who have been involuntarily detained.

"One group has a lot of control and can say no and stop the process at any point along the way, but that really doesn't hold for the detainee group," he said in an interview. Several other scientists contacted by NPR said the same, but declined to go on record at this time.

In fact, dozens of studies have shown that when people are exposed to trauma and perceive that they have no control over events, they are at increased risk for prolonged psychological harm, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

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