Recently published book "The Dark Side" by author and New Yorker writer Jane Mayer ties the work of UniversityofPennsylvania professor and psychologist Martin Seligman to interrogation techniques used by the CIA to extract confessions from detainees allegedly linked to al Qaeda.
Seligman, the father of a Summer Pennsylvanian news editor, is known for developing the theory of learned helplessness. The theory is based on experiments he led in which dogs that experienced a random shock that they believed they could not control showed signs of depression and apathy to their situation.
Extrapolated to the human condition, Seligman's theory of learned helplessness predicts that those who believe they have little control over their situation often become passive and apathetic to their state.
Mayer's book alleges that Seligman's research heavily influenced the psychologists that developed CIA interrogation techniques at the Guantanamo Bay military prison. But in a pre-publication review of the book's content, Harper's Magazine writer Scott Horton writes that Seligman "assisted" in the development of their interrogation techniques. This statement has since circulated on several psychology-related blogs and is a claim that Seligman unequivocally denies.
"The allegation that I 'provided assistance in the process' of torture is completely false," Seligman said in a written statement. "I strongly disapprove of torture and have never and would never provide assistance in its process."
According to Mayer's book, Seligman's theory was an inspiration to the two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who worked with the classified military-training Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape program. The program trained U.S. soldiers to survive and resist interrogative methods when in captivity.
Mitchell and Jessen were allegedly contracted by the CIA to reverse these techniques and interrogate allegedly al Qaeda-linked detainees to obtain information about planned terrorist attacks.
Seligman gave an SERE-sponsored lecture at the San Diego Naval Base in May 2002, where both he and Mayer said he spoke about how U.S. soldiers could apply his theories as a protection mechanism while being tortured.
Both Mitchell and Jessen were present at Seligman's lecture, which, Seligman wrote, was attended by about 50 people and lasted about three hours.
There, he says he was told that as a "civilian with no security clearance they could not discuss American methods of interrogation with me." He added that he has "not had contact with SERE since that meeting."
Mayer's book implies that Seligman's speech and prior published work played a large role in Mitchell and Jessen's development of torture techniques. Using Seligman's work, the book alleges, the two tried to break down detainee resistance to facilitate confessions.
According to Mayer, Mitchell "cited the uses of Learned Helplessness" in his work. She later added that Air Force Reserve Colonel and experienced interrogator Steve Kleinman called Mitchell's deliberate use of learned helplessness in interrogations "morally, legally and tactically wrong."
One of the most notorious detainees allegedly interrogated using Seligman's research as interpreted by Mitchell's team was al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah, Mayer wrote. After being captured in Pakistan, Zubaydah was transported to the Guantanamo Bay military prison, where he was interrogated by U.S. forces.
In her book, Mayer quotes sources who said that Mitchell wanted the prisoner treated like a "dog in a cage." U.S. interrogators, who have since come under fire for their treatment of Zubaydah, used techniques like waterboarding to elicitconfessions from him.
"Zubaydah's treatment set the precedent for the abuse of U.S.-held prisoners," Mayer writes.
Mitchell, through a lawyer, has disputed the role that Seligman's work played in developing interrogation techniques.