Psychologists of Torture: CCHR Says the Alliance Between Psychology, Psychiatry & Government is Nothing New

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Mental health watchdog, Citizens Commission on Human Rights, has released a new article on the recent Senate report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program and points out that this relationship between psychology, psychiatry and the government is nothing new and details the history of psychologists’ and psychiatrists’ involvement in torture programs.

The UN Convention against Torture defines torture as ‘any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person’ for specific purposes and carried out by or with the consent of a public official.

Leading mental health watchdog, Citizens Commission on Human Rights, in its newest release, says that members of the mental health community are named as being behind the torture in the recent Senate Intelligence Committee Report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with psychology and psychiatry’s historic role in torture and human rights violations.

CCHR’s article points out that psychologists have developed and participated in the use of torture in Chile and in Cuba, and Uruguayan psychologists trained torturers and used psychological methods “to induce fear, disorientation, depressions, and nervous breakdowns in political prisoners.”[1] Psychologists were also involved in torturing political prisoners during apartheid South Africa, using a range of psychological threats, solitary confinement, sleep deprivation and forced standing.[2]

CCHR says that the profession’s involvement in devising interrogation tactics in the U.S. dates back to the 1950s, when the work of government-sponsored researchers, such as American Psychological Association president Donald Hebb, was incorporated into CIA practice, according to a Mother Jones investigative report.[3] The interrogation methods devised and utilized by the CIA’s psychologists, James E. Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, include sleep deprivation, cold, physical blows and hard surfaces.[4]

“The attempts at behavior modification on post 9/11 detainees are in violation of the United Nations’ Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment of which the U.S. is a signatory,” says CCHR. Yet, historically, psychological and psychiatric treatments have been offered to and utilized by the U.S. government and other world powers, including:

  •     The former Soviet Union where political dissidents were incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals, punished with drugs and electric shock or sentenced to concentration and labor work camps.[5]
  •     Falun Gong members in China have been subjected to electroconvulsive therapy, painful forms of electrical acupuncture, forced drugs, binding with rope in stress positions, and prolonged sleep, food and light deprivation in order to force “confessions” or “renunciations.” As of 2009, at least 2,000 Falun Gong adherents—alleged political dissidents—have been tortured to death.[6]
  •     There are also the CIA’s 1950s mind control programs such as MKULTRA and BLUEBIRD. Psychiatrists and psychologists carried out experiments with the intention of identifying and developing drugs and procedures to be used in interrogations.[7]

The U.N.’s Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, defines torture, in part, as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” for specific purposes and carried out by or with the consent of a public official. CCHR states that it’s easy to determine that the psychologists’ methods of “near drowning” waterboarding, “rectal rehydration,” also known as rectal feeding, extended sleep deprivation, and naked dragging and slapping, meets the standard of torture.

CCHR says, “The historical record consistently reveals both psychiatry’s participation in human rights violations and CIA psychologists’ use of torture. Psychologists Mitchell and Jessen are just the latest example in a long line of psychologists and psychiatrists dangerously aligned with government entities for political purposes.”

Read the full article here.

About Citizens Commission on Human Rights: CCHR is a non-profit, non-political, non-religious mental health watchdog. Its mission is to eradicate abuses committed under the guise of mental health and enact patient and consumer protections. CCHR has helped to enact more than 150 laws protecting individuals from abusive or coercive mental health practices.


[1] Anthony J. W. Taylor, Justice as a Basic Human Need, (Nova Science Publishers, Inc., New York, 2006), pp. 139-140,

[2] Padraig O’Malley, “The Use of Torture in Detention (refers to Rooi Rus Swanepoel),”,

[3] David Goodman, “The Enablers,” Mother Jones, Mar. 1, 2008,

[4] Joseph Tanfani and W.J. Hennigan, “Two psychologists’ role in CIA torture program comes into focus,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 14, 2014,; Unclassified, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program, Declassification Revisions Dec. 3, 2014,

[5] Veronica English, Jessica Gardner, Gillian Romano-Critchley and Ann Sommerville, Medical Ethics Department, British Medical Association, "Ethics briefings: New evidence of political abuse of psychiatry," Journal of Medical Ethics, 2001, Vol. 27, pp. 135-136,

[6] Daniel Wiser, "China Commits More Dissidents to Psychiatric Detention, Soviet-era practice also revived in Russia," The Washington Free Beacon, Sept. 19, 2014,

[7] Colin A. Ross, M.D., The C.I.A. Doctors: Human Rights Violations by American Psychiatrists, (Greenleaf Book Group, 2006),

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