Letters: Military Psychologist

Listeners respond to the story on military psychologist Bryce Lefever and his defense of harsh interrogation tactics. Michele Norris and Robert Siegel read from listeners' e-mails.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now, your letters. Yesterday's story on military psychologist Bryce Lefever and his defense of harsh interrogation tactics sent many of you to your keyboards. Our inbox was flooded this morning. And most of the email agreed with the sentiment expressed by Caroline Fischer(ph) of Annville, Pennsylvania who writes that she found the interview with Bryce Lefever to be chilling.

She goes on to say, psychologists participating in torture seems analogous to physicians participating in executions. The overall impression I had at the end of the interview was one of double speak - an attempt to say that black is white. Some things are always wrong.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Shane Tippit(ph) of Goochland, Virginia had a strong personal reaction to the story. He writes, after many moving driveway moments with NPR, this was my first pounding the steering wheel and roaring with rage moment. Alix Spiegel's reporting was extraordinary. Bryce Lefever's calm, measured suburban father voice describing how it is fascinating to watch people in extreme situations in the human laboratory of SERE school was surreal and infuriating.

My own SERE training was the darkest corner of a 21-year Marine Corp career. By school standards, I suppose, I did well enough. My performance under stress was characterized as arrogant unto death by the chief interrogator. What discouraged me was the knowledge that what was being practiced on me was being planned for others and that the people doing it enjoyed it.

It is heartbreaking to think a love of America is revealed by a psychologist helping plan the torture of a defenseless prisoner. The wickedness of the prisoner is taken for granted. And somehow this is supposed to forgive the wickedness of his jailers. Lefever says America is his client. I want him fired.

SIEGEL: Lefever also had his supporters. Among them, Curtis Potter(ph) of St. Petersburg, Florida. He writes this, Bryce Lefever should be applauded for his conviction and patriotism. It is difficult to imagine the courage it takes to stand up and publicly support the harsh interrogation techniques used on detainees to collect actionable intelligence.

It takes great strength of character to so publicly face the certain wrath of apologists, revisionists and those civil libertarians who so often seem to forget that the very civil liberties they defend were and are paid for with the blood of patriots and innocents alike. Mr. Potter continues, I'm sure ATC and Mr. Lefever will be lambasted in the mailbag by listeners with good intentions, who fortunately have never had to suffer the deprivations of war or physical assault.

I loudly support ATC for routinely airing all sides of nearly every issue and doing so with such good grace and professionalism. I also provide my strongest encouragement to Mr. Lefever for his honesty, integrity, unapologetic devotion to duty and plain old fortitude.

NORRIS: Well, please keep our inbox full, keep the letters coming. Just go to npr.org and click on Contact Us.

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Military Psychologist Says Harsh Tactics Justified

In early 1990, around 15 military psychologists met in a small conference room at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. Though the psychologists worked in different communities across the country, their job was basically the same. They helped torture people.

More specifically, they helped members of the U.S. military inoculate themselves against torture by subjecting them to torture techniques. They spent their days hitting and insulting, isolating and waterboarding, all with the hope that by exposing soldiers to these terrible experiences they might prepare them — physically and psychologically — for capture. The work was a part of a larger training program for military members called Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, or SERE.

Two of the men who were in that room, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, are the psychologists who originally proposed applying the harsh tactics used in SERE training to detainees held by the United States government. Because of this they are almost universally vilified. Many think of them as people whose work has greatly tarnished the image of America.

But Bryce Lefever, a former SERE psychologist who first met Mitchell and Jessen at the 1990 meeting, does not see them this way. Lefever went on to serve as a military psychologist at the detention center at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and he is one of the few psychologists involved in this community who have come forward in the wake of the revelations about harsh interrogation tactics to defend the work of the mental health professionals.

Lefever's message is clear: Mitchell and Jessen and the other psychologists involved in this work should be not reviled but lauded. To Lefever, they are patriots who deserve praise.

"I think the media ought to give us a big ol' thank you for our efforts on behalf of America," Lefever says. "There should be some recognition of the effort — the really extreme effort — that we've gone through to help."

Ethical Standard: The Most Good For The Most People

From Lefever's perspective, the notion that psychologists behaved in an unethical manner is absurd; a product, he believes, of a fundamental misunderstanding of the psychologists' true ethical obligations. Because psychologists are supposed to be do-gooders, Lefever says, "the idea that they would be involved in producing some pain just seems at first blush to be something that would be wrong, because we 'do no harm.' "

But in fact, says Lefever, "the ethical consideration is always to do the most good for the most people."

Under this logic, after the horrors of Sept. 11 it was only natural for the psychologists involved in the SERE training to come forward and propose the application of those techniques to people detained by the U.S. government. The American people, after all, were under threat.

"America's house was broken into on 9/11 and someone had to raise their hand to stop it," says Lefever. "And early on there was a sense of desperation in intelligence-gathering."

In the face of that desperation, says Lefever, psychologists felt a need to act. Though today there is intense controversy around the idea that harsh interrogation tactics produce accurate information, at the time, says Lefever, it was "absolutely clear" to the psychologists in the SERE programs that the harsh interrogation tactics worked.

"You know, the tough nut to crack, if you keep him awake for a week, you torture him, you tie his arms behind him, you have him on the ground — anyone can be brought beyond their ability to resist," says Lefever.

In The Name Of America

And from Lefever's perspective, it would actually have been unethical for them not to suggest the use of these tactics on the few individuals who might be in a position to provide information that could potentially save thousands of American lives.

"America is my client; Americans are who I care about," says Lefever. "I have no fondness for the enemy, and I don't feel like I need to take care of their mental health needs."

Lefever says all of the military psychologists he knew felt this way. Their client was America, and "do no harm" meant that psychologists should work in every way to save the lives of the Americans they had pledged themselves to serve. Civilian psychologists usually interpret "do no harm" in a more narrow way, as an exhortation to protect the life of the individual sitting in front of them.

Lefever says he was not involved in any way in organizing or implementing the application of harsh tactics to detainees. He also says that he personally wasn't in favor of using the harsher methods because he thought that the techniques, if known, might damage America's image. Still, he feels strongly that the psychologists involved should not be unjustly criticized.

"Anyone who wants to throw stones in this situation really needs to step back and figure out what they themselves would do in these situations and not just be 'ivory tower' critics," says Lefever. "Most of the time they have no idea what they're talking about."

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