Wednesday, January 2, 2008

"Battlefield of the Mind": U.S. Behavioral Specialists to "Deprogram" Iraqi Prisoners

(Also posted at Invictus)

This article details how U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies organize counterinsurgency operations against Iraqi prisoners, now numbering in the tens of thousands. No matter how they label and package it, it's counterinsurgency operations that are being described. And it was the special place of "behavioral specialists" in this plan that caught my attention. So please pardon this prefatory diversion into the world of science politics.

Psychologists at the American Psychological Association (APA) have been fighting for their place at the governmental funding table for decades now. A good part of what passes for politics in the field of behavioral sciences concerns the contest between psychologists and their institutional rivals (psychiatrists, and other types of behavioral "specialists"), most recently over the spoils of the lavishly-funded post-9/11 "war on terror". The internal split within APA over how or if psychologists should participate in CIA "black site" interrogations, and other such collaboration with U.S. torture, has roiled that organization.

An article over at the Psi Chi website, originally written in 2000, rehashes the issue of masters-level training for psychologists (Psi Chi being the honor society for psychologists), noting, in passing:

..."The master's degree in psychology continues to be the subject of considerable controversy".... Trent's (1993) opening statement in a more recent article followed the same vein when he said, "When the topic of master's-level training in psychology is broached, controversy abounds ..." (p. 586) and, citing Woods (1971), that "... Wilhelm Wundt raised questions about subdoctoral training even as psychology was establishing itself as a scientific discipline" (p. 586).

The American Psychological Association (APA) does not actively discourage pursuing the master's degree. APA, instead, tends to ignore it. For example, whereas APA's publication Getting In: A Step-By-Step Plan for Gaining Admission to Graduate School (1993) does discuss some pros and cons of a master's degree, there are only two pages of text devoted to the topic in this 221-page book.

Even more recently, the school psychologists of APA's Division 16 were shocked to find that APA's hierarchy, in the course of rewriting their Model Licensure Act (designed to guide states in the drafting of legislation and policies related to psychological licensure), planned to strip master's level practitioners in educational settings of the "psychologist" label, even though they have held this distinction for decades now. (You can read Division 16's Oct. 2007 reply to APA here).

Bitva over Plennies (apologies to A. Burgess)

Why is this discussion about masters-level practitioners relevant here? Well, if you have a well-attuned sense of irony, then you can appreciate the bitter humor that lurks among the larger atrocity that is U.S. treatment of its Iraqi detainees, and the role of medical and behavioral professionals in assisting the military and the intelligence agencies in this crime. What follows is from a Dec. 23 article in the Washington Post, "Deprogramming" Iraqi Detainees, by Walter Pincus. Bold emphases are mine.
Marine Maj. Gen. Douglas M. Stone, the commanding general in charge of detainee operations in Iraq, is seeking reinforcements from a contractor as he continues to maneuver on what he has called "the battlefield of the mind" and win over the roughly 25,000 Iraqi prisoners under his control.

In a proposal put out for bid Dec. 15, the Joint Contracting Command is seeking a team of professionals, including "teachers, religious and behavioral science counselors," who will "execute a program that effectively reintegrates [into Iraqi society] detainees, particularly those disposed to violent, radical ideology through education and counseling," according to the statement of work.

Part of the program will involve small detainee groups, possibly led by an Iraqi cleric and a behavioral scientist, "undergoing enlightenment, deprogramming and de-radicalization sessions" for six weeks.

The U.S. is looking for a contractor -- are you listening Blackwater? Or CACI International? Or Titan? -- to assemble the team, to be led by an American with managerial experience, and a "secret" level security clearance. Besides some years experience analyzing Middle Eastern affairs, this team leader should hopefully have, in addition, a master's degree in psychology or behavioral science. Why is this? Let us wait and see.

The No. 2 in the group is to be a "lead analyst" who must also be a U.S. citizen, have a secret-level clearance and have management experience. This person must also have five years of background in intelligence gathering and interrogation.

Looking for a Few Good Brainwashers

The emphasis on intelligence gathering and interrogation belies the programs purpose as one of "deprogramming and de-radicalization". But it makes sense when you realize one of the main non-enlightenment purposes of the Team is assembling "comprehensive individual assessments" of juvenile and adult prisoners, which could be used to "enable prudent decision-making on release or continued detention of detainees."

The third person in the proposed "leadership team" is supposed to be an an Iraqi cleric or some other person with a formal Islamic education, and an Arabic-speaker, as they will serve as the front man -- I mean, the "lead trainer/counselor for the deprogramming and de-radicalization efforts." And to make sure the Islamic specialist doesn't get too far off the enlightenment path, he will be assisted "by a 'psychological enlightenment' specialist who must have a master's degree in behavioral science. This assistant has the privilege of interviewing

"radicalized detainees to collect information about their motivations and pathways to radicalization" in order to "identify openings for change."

If that weren't enough, this battle for the Iraqi mind will include Iraqi social workers, teachers, and a cleric counselor, not to mention a specialists in "juvenile psychological enlightenment" (with the requisite master's degree in behavioral science, naturally).

The New Thought Reform

It seems the U.S. government is going to try and reprogram Iraqi prisoners, including children, using the same level of expertise used at your typical U.S. public mental health service. And APA, who has sworn to work with the National Security government, as their best handmaidens, gets to see its precious jobs go to non-doctoral workers. APA, as an advocacy group for its membership, has long posited the special role doctoral-level psychologists can play in society at large, and for the military in particular. (See their 2006 book, Psychology in the Service of National Security, edited by A. David Mangelsdorff.) But, here's the U.S. government placing a major new initiative on detainees and interrogation in the hands of -- gasp -- non-doctoral behavioral "specialists".

That's the "irony" part. The more substantive point is that once again the U.S. government is going to use these behavioral "specialists" in a mass campaign of interrogation and "re-education", of the sort that was decried when the Chinese did it in the 1940s and 1950s. Robert Jay Lifton described it as "thought reform and the psychology of totalism". The CIA paid journalists to label it "brainwashing". Now, the U.S. wants to call it "deprogramming", "deradicalization", and even more sinisterly, "enlightenment." Major General Stone refers to it generically as "the battlefield of the mind", channelling perhaps British psychiatrist William Sargant's 1957 classic of interrogation "science", Battle for the Mind: A Physiology of Conversion and Brain-washing. The choice of words is likely coincidental, but isn't Maj. Gen. Stone looking for something like this, when he thinks of his new "team", deprogramming Iraqi detainees. Perhaps, like many religions, a "confession" will be involved. And Dr. Sargant happened to have a word or two to say about that battle over the mind:

To elicit confessions, one must try to create feelings of anxiety and guilt, and induce states of mental conflict if these are not already present. Even if the accused person is genuinely guilty, the normal functioning of his brain must be disturbed so that judgment becomes impaired. If possible he must be made to feel a preference for punishment -- especially if combined with a hope for salvation when it is over rather than a continuation of the mental tension already present, or now being induced by the examiner. (pp. 203-204, Malor Books, 1997)

Now, I ask any member of the Council of Representatives of the American Psychological Association, do you want masters-level psychologists taking on this level of work? Of course, the real question is, why would any organization of behavioral professionals even endorse the intent and goals of such abhorrent procedures as proposed by Sargant, or in whatever form the Marines' new counterinsurgency program is taking in Iraq today?

However you want to portray Maj. Gen. Stone's new "team" of behavioral specialists, interrogators, intelligence agents, social workers, and clerics, it represents a particularly sick form of imperialist intervention, and one that any mental health advocacy group, such as APA, should denounce forthwith, if it had any healthy bones left in its corrupted body.

Oh, and for those interested:

Bids for the three-year program must be submitted by Jan. 8. The contracting agency has capped the cost at $210 million, with a minimum offer of $5 million.

(H/T on this item goes to "skywriter". Thanks.)