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."