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One Psychiatrist, Two Psychologists and Torture

May 2, 2009

This was not a proud week for the American mental health profession. On Thursday, ABC News documented the essential role of two $1,000 a day psychologists contracted by the CIA to architect its detainee waterboarding program. And on Friday, Harvard-trained psychiatrist turned right-wing water carrier Charles Krauthammer rationalized the Bush torture regime for his readers in the Washington Post.
In the same article in which ABC briefly acknowledged its role in propagating former CIA agent John Kiriakou's misinformation about the waterboarding of Abu Zubaida, reporter Brian Ross detailed the roles of psychologists Bruce Jessen and Jim Mitchell in reverse engineering the military's SERE program to extract information from terror suspects:

Former U.S. officials say the two men were essentially the architects of the CIA's 10-step interrogation plan that culminated in waterboarding.
Associates say the two made good money doing it, boasting of being paid a $1,000 a day by the CIA to oversee the use of the techniques on top al Qaeda suspects at CIA secret sites...
But it turns out neither Mitchell nor Jessen had any experience in conducting actual interrogations before the CIA hired them. "They went to two individuals who had no interrogation experience," said Col. Kleinman. "They are not interrogators."

Neither, of course, is Charles Krauthammer. But that didn't prevent him from once again justifying both the morality and necessity of torture.
In his disturbing column Friday, Krauthammer proclaimed, "Torture is an impermissible evil. Except under two circumstances." His exceptions that prove the rule are right out of the show, 24:

The first is the ticking time bomb. An innocent's life is at stake. The bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life. He refuses to divulge. In such a case, the choice is easy...
The second exception to the no-torture rule is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives. This case lacks the black-and-white clarity of the ticking time bomb scenario. We know less about the length of the fuse or the nature of the next attack. But we do know the danger is great.

In response, Krauthammer's Washington Post colleague Dan Froomkin offered a devastating point-by-point take-down of the former psychiatrist's tough talk on torture. "When it comes to torture -- to impermissible evil, as Krauthammer himself puts it," Froomkin concluded, "there can be no asterisks." And as Andrew Sullivan noted, Krauthammer's position would not only require the United States to withdraw from the Geneva Conventions, but would constitute a "Krauthammer Slope" that would justify America's inexorable descent into a torture state.
Sullivan was also quick to remind readers that Friday's diatribe wasn't Krauthammer's first effort to defend what Dick Cheney deemed the "dark side." In 2005, Krauthammer deployed the ticking-time bomb scenario to defend the Bush administration, insisting his straw-man produced a "moral duty" to torture terror detainees:

Let's take the textbook case. Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He's not talking. Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it? Now, on most issues regarding torture, I confess tentativeness and uncertainty. But on this issue, there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible to hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.

Of course, it is not a moral duty. The machinations - and rationalizations - of Mitchell, Jessen and Krauthammer cannot obscure that the systematic torture of prisoners held by the United States is illegal, ineffective, counterproductive and unethical.
On that last point, organizations including the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association are quite clear. As the Washington Post reported two weeks ago, medical ethicists and professional groups condemned the participation of physicians and psychologists in brutal interrogations revealed by the OLC torture memos released by President Obama and earlier in Jane Mayer's book, The Dark Side. As Frank Donaghue, chief executive of Physicians for Human Rights, an international advocacy group made up of doctors opposed to torture, put it:

"The health professionals involved in the CIA program broke the law and shame the bedrock ethical traditions of medicine and psychology. All psychologists and physicians found to be involved in the torture of detainees must lose their license and never be allowed to practice again."

As it turns out, one torture apologist long ago left his psychiatric practice long ago of his own accord. As his Washington Post profile and Wikipedia bio each recount, Charles Krauthammer is a Harvard-educated psychiatrist who later was chief resident in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. Before his transformation from Democrat to Republican and physician to propagandist, Krauthammer in 1978 went to Washington to direct planning in psychiatric research for the Carter administration. After his extremist makeover was complete, Charles Krauthammer was named by George W. Bush in 2002 to serve on his President's Council on Bioethics.
All of which explains Krauthammer's final conversion. The Hippocratic Oath he once took proclaimed in a nutshell, "Do no harm." As his despicable defense of the Bush torture team this week showed, Krauthammer has apparently since sworn fealty to the Hypocritic Oath: do no harm, unless the health and safety of the Republican Party is at risk.
UPDATE: In an update to its story, ABC reports that Jessen and Mitchell assured the CIA that waterboarding was safe, despite having no "experience with al Qaeda, Islamic extremists or battlefield interrogations."

One comment on “One Psychiatrist, Two Psychologists and Torture”

  1. It still is not clear if these psycho loco gestapo stooges have lost their State of Washington licences to practice. does anyone know?


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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