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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Many of the harsh interrogation techniques adopted by the U.S. government after 9/11 came from an unlikely source: psychologists who had trained the American military to resist torture. Some of these same psychologists ended up helping the CIA apply those methods to detainees, methods many now believe constitute torture.

Today, we're going to hear from one military psychologist intimate with this community. Bryce Lefever worked with many of the key players for decades. He also worked as a psychologist in Afghanistan's Bagram detention facility in 2002. Lefever agreed to give reporter, Alix Spiegel, a different view of the ongoing torture debate, how these military psychologists viewed and view their role in interrogations.

ALIX SPIEGEL: In early 1990, around 15 military psychologists met in a small conference room at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Though the psychologists worked in different communities across the country, their job was basically the same: they helped torture people. Or 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, psychologically, for capture. The work was part of a larger program. The name of that program was SERE, Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. And though it had been around since the Korean War, according to Bryce Lefever, 1990 was actually the first time the SERE psychologists had ever gathered face-to-face.

Dr. BRYCE LEFEVER (Former SERE Psychologist): And it was merely to meet the other SERE psychologists to talk about mutual problems, to talk about training issues, to get on the same sheet of music with one another.

SPIEGEL: Two of the men in that room, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, are now regularly featured in the many news accounts of harsh interrogation techniques. Because they're the psychologists who originally proposed applying these harsh tactics to people detained by the U.S. government, they're almost universally vilified, decried as people whose work has tarnished the image of America.

But in 1990, says Lefever, they were seen by their colleagues in the SERE program in a very different way.

Dr. LEFEVER: Patriots doing the best possible training for Americans who might face captivity. We all saw ourselves that way. And I think we were all very proud of the SERE curriculums and the SERE schools that we were attached to.

SPIEGEL: Lefever himself had just started work at a SERE program out at the Naval Station in San Diego. Like the other psychologists, he spent his days meeting out physical and psychological abuse - work, he says, he actually came to love.

Dr. LEFEVER: The training was so fascinating to watch. It's always fascinating to watch people in extreme situations, how they grow, how they learn, how they adapt. It was a human laboratory.

SPIEGEL: And says Lefever, to the psychologists working in this human laboratory, there was one thing they felt convinced was absolutely and abundantly clear: these techniques worked, even with people with unflinching inner strength.

Dr. LEFEVER: 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 cope and resist.

SPIEGEL: And according to Lefever, can be forced to give up information, though it should be pointed out that contingent is very much in dispute.

So, there they were, this small group of psychologists involved in a very peculiar kind of work. Then, says Lefever, in 2001, during one of their yearly meetings, which just happened to fall shortly before the 9/11 attack, they got a visit from Joseph Matarazzo, an extremely well-respected former president of the American Psychological Association. This visit, says Lefever, crystallized their sense of mission.

Dr. LEFEVER: He taught us a number of things. One thing that he said was, if I could further the cause of America using my skill as a psychologist, I wouldn't hesitate to do it. And that in a sense became our marching orders, was to help America and use our skills in any way we possible can as a psychologist.

SPIEGEL: Of course, these marching orders took on a whole new color in the wake of September 11th.

Dr. LEFEVER: America's house was broken into on 9/11 and somebody has got to raise their hand to stop it. And at some point, you'd do anything you can to stop the assault. And early on, there was a sense of desperation in intelligence gathering.

SPIEGEL: And so, according to Lefever, it was really only natural for people with this kind of experience to suggest that the techniques be used on detainees. That's the word he used, natural.

Dr. LEFEVER: Anyone could have made those recommendations. I think that Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen were the main players in that, but anyone assigned to those SERE schools would have probably made the same recommendations.

SPIEGEL: He points to one of the techniques that was approved by the Justice Department lawyers. After discovering that one of the detainees had a morbid fear of bugs, interrogators wanted to lock them in, in a small container with an insect.

Dr. LEFEVER: But if you came to me and you said, I had a bug phobia, well, I would prescribe the exact same treatment, which is an exposure treatment. In any phobia, the treatment of choice is exposure. In other words, direct prolonged exposure to the thing you're afraid of and you overcome the fear because you calm down in the presence of this thing that triggers your fear. So, the things that are called, you know, torture or exploitative are also therapy techniques.

SPIEGEL: Now, to be clear on one point, Lefever says he was not involved in any way in organizing or implementing the application of harsh tactics to detainees. He says only a few psychologists were in the loop. But according to Lefever, when it did become clear the techniques were being used, he didn't hear a huge amount of dissent in his circle.

Dr. LEFEVER: The idea that some of these Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners would be pushed and pushed hard and maybe even abused, I don't think a lot of people lost sleep over it early on.

SPIEGEL: Like many of the psychologists who were involved in some way with these interrogations, Lefever now says that he wasn't completely in favor of using the methods. He preferred what's called rapport-building techniques, and thought that the harsher methods, if known, could damage America's image. Still, Lefever says, he feels that the psychologists involved are being unjustly vilified, characterized by the press as unethical in a completely unfair way.

Dr. LEFEVER: The press loves to report something provocative. And psychologists were supposed to be do-gooders. You know, the idea that they would be involved in producing some pain just seems to be, you know, at first blush, something that would be wrong because we do no harm. But the real ethical consideration would say, well, by producing pain or questioning of somebody, if it does the most good for the most people, it's entirely ethical, and to do otherwise would be unethical.

SPIEGEL: Now, let's pause for just a second. This description of ethical obligation is not something you would hear from a civilian psychologist. For a civilian psychologist, the only concern is the patient, the person sitting in front of you. But according to Lefever, this group of military psychologists saw things very differently.

Dr. LEFEVER: The ethical consideration is always to do the most good for the most people. And America happens to be my client. Americans are who I care about. I have no fondness for the enemy, and I don't feel like I need to take care of their mental health needs.

SPIEGEL: Lefever's basic message is this: the motives and actions of psychologists like Mitchell and Jessen have been misrepresented and misunderstood.

Dr. LEFEVER: Anyone who wants to throw stones in this situation really needs to step back and figure out what they would do themselves in these situations, and not just kind of be ivory tower critics, but get down and either get in a situation or really keep their mouths shut. Most of the time, they have no idea what they're talking about.

SPIEGEL: Lefever says the psychologists involved were very conscious of the ethical implications of their work and that he and his colleagues, when faced with difficult decisions, referred to something he called The Front Page Test.

Dr. LEFEVER: Which is, would I be proud of my actions if they were written about or displayed on the front page of the newspaper?

SPIEGEL: Now, of course, the actions of psychologists are on the front page of the newspaper, and says Lefever, he finds absolutely nothing to apologize for.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

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