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From torture to de-radicalisation: towards public accountability of secret policies designed to prevent terrorism

To penetrate walls of official secrecy and eddies of highly selective information provision, civil society might use the proposed benchmark of accountability demands to help navigate this difficult area.

British protesters against the American detention centre at Guantanamo Bay stage a protest outside the US Embassy in London's Grosvenor Square, 2009.Fiona Hanson/Press Association. All rights reserved.Governments across liberal democracies maintain that their intelligence agencies and national security services require secrecy from the public to avoid compromising intelligence sources, methods and ultimately, their effectiveness. Such secrecy makes it difficult for civil society – including the press, NGOs, academics and professional organisations – to assess political-intelligence elite claims about the evidence underpinning intelligence and national security policies. In turn, this makes it hard to independently evaluate these policies’ appropriateness and effectiveness.

This is problematic because, in the heat of efforts to prevent terrorism, policies get instituted with no proven track record, and that negatively impact society in terms of social cohesion, trust, professional ethics and human rights norms and compliance. This has been demonstrated in the US Detention and Interrogation Programme, and appears to be happening today in the UK’s CHANNEL Programme.

US Detention and Interrogation Programme

Following 9/11, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) contracted two US military psychologists, Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, to generate an interrogation paradigm to psychologically break down Al-Qa’eda detainees’ resistance to their interrogators. This highly secret Detention and Interrogation Programme comprised detainee isolation (including from their own lawyers); and total environmental control involving indefinite detention at prisons like Guantánamo Bay and secret prisons across the world, as well as a regime of ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’ (EITs, a.k.a. torture) including stress positions, sleep deprivation and waterboarding (mock drowning). It aimed to disrupt detainees’ ontological security, thereby making them more likely to divulge information about whether future attacks were being planned and where future threats might emanate.

Mitchell and Jessen’s interrogation paradigm was based on psychologist Martin Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness, derived from his 1960s experiments involving administering electric shocks to different groups of dogs. When given the chance to avoid pain, dogs that had been able to escape the shocks did so quickly. Those that could not stop the pain did not try to avoid it even when given the chance: they had learned helplessness. Mitchell and Jessen theorised that once detainees were abused/tortured to the point of learned helplessness, their resistance would crumble and they would divulge information. But, as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argue:

No legitimate science backs up this assumption. Research on inducing a sustained state of learned helplessness in humans through abuse, or on the role of learned helplessness in eliciting truthful information, does not exist for the simple reason that it can’t be legally or ethically conducted.

They also note that the Detention and Interrogation Programme violated not only international and US torture prohibitions but also the Nuremburg Code that, since 1947, has banned non-consensual human experimentation. The Detention and Interrogation Programme required experimentation on its human subjects as the psychologists did not know how detainees would react to EITs; whether and how much torture is needed to induce learned helplessness; or whether once detainees’ minds were broken, they would produce truthful information.

The Detention and Interrogation Programme was exposed after publication of leaked photos of detainee torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in Spring 2004. This was followed by press reports in November 2004 of a leaked International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) report alleging that psychologists at Guantánamo had been involved in psychological and physical coercion ‘tantamount to torture’. As the secret policy became publically evidenced, the George W. Bush administration’s political-intelligence elite offered justifications on the grounds of protecting intelligence. Detainee isolation and secrecy were justified as preventing Al-Qa’eda knowing who was captured and altering their plans accordingly; and so that detainees could be exposed to intelligence during interrogations, allowing the CIA to crosscheck information gleaned without information leaks (for instance, via lawyers) getting back to terrorists on the battlefield.

As to whether this policy worked, the Executive Summary declassified in 2014, summarising the US Senate Intelligence Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, evidences how EITs failed to produce good intelligence – a conclusion fiercely disputed by the CIA. In October 2015, ACLU brought a lawsuit against Mitchell and Jessen for commissioning torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, human experimentation and war crimes. In April 2016, a US federal judge allowed the lawsuit to proceed – an unprecedented decision for a lawsuit involving CIA torture.

It appears, then, that an adventurist policy was secretly instituted by a restricted circle of people on minimal evidence in a climate of fear and a desire to ‘do something’: the absence of public peer review meant that the evidence base behind the policy was neither professionally and independently interrogated nor achieved through ethical means.

Following the 2004 leaked Abu Ghraib photos and ICRC report, the American Psychological Association (APA) – a scientific/professional organisation that aims to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people's lives - put in place The Presidential Task Force on Ethics and National Security (PENS). Its 2005 report contained 12 ethical guidelines that the APA Board adopted as official APA ethics policy. These guidelines determined whether and under what circumstances APA psychologists could ethically participate in national security interrogations. These guidelines were condemned ten years later by the APA’s Hoffman report (Independent Review Relating to APA Ethics Guidelines, National Security Interrogations, and Torture) into whether APA officials colluded with the US DoD, CIA, or other government officials across 2005-2008 ‘to support torture’. The Hoffman report found that while there was no hard evidence of collusion with the CIA, plenty of evidence showed PENS colluding with the DoD to enable continued involvement of psychologists in EITs. The Hoffman report asserts that the APA sought to curry favour with the DoD to ensure that the DoD would continue to ‘provide large-scale support to psychology as a profession’.

Following these two Bush-era scandals involving psychologists – the first involving a secret, experimental policy with no evidentiary research base, and that contravened human rights and professional ethics; and the second involving the willingness of key APA staff to compromise professional ethics to retain close links with the DoD; a scandal is now brewing in the UK involving psychologists, the security state and secret evidence.

UK CHANNEL Programme

This concerns the evidence underpinning the British government’s Extremism Risk Guidance 22+ that informs the CHANNEL programme – a key element of PREVENT, the UK government’s multi-agency approach to protecting people at risk from radicalisation. CHANNEL aims to identify individuals at risk of being drawn into terrorism; assess the nature and extent of that risk; and develop a support plan for them. ERG22+ comprises 22 risk factors to help public sector employees spot signs of radicalisation in their students, patients or clients. Such signs include having feelings of grievance and injustice; ‘Them and Us’ thinking; and having knowledge and competencies that could be used to cause harm. Section 21 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 makes it a statutory duty for the public sector to spot these signs.

In 2012 the UK government published the CHANNEL Vulnerability Assessment (CVA) Framework and Channel: Protecting Vulnerable People from being Drawn into Terrorism. A Guide for Local Partnerships that acknowledges that it is based on the 22 risk factors. However, as CAGE’s recent report The Science of Pre-Crime highlights, the research upon which these 22 risk factors is based is classified. CAGE’s investigation indicates that the ERG22+ framework is based on a secret document by HM Government National Offender Management Service (NOMS) called Extremism Risk Guidelines: ERG 22+ Structured Professional Guidelines for Assessing Risk of Extremist Offending. CAGE tracked down a published study by the then NOMS-based psychologists, Monica Lloyd and Christopher Dean, that shed some light on their classified research behind ERG22+. This study shows that their 22 risk factors are derived from a limited, qualitative research base whose data sets remain publically unscrutinised. Even the study’s authors point out that ‘ERG is a work in progress’ and that they ‘came to this work as practitioners with a strong imperative to develop products for correctional and managerial purposes’. In September 2016 the UK’s Royal College of Psychiatry demanded that:

Public policy cannot be based on either no evidence or a lack of transparency about evidence. The evidence underpinning the UK’s Extremism Risk Guidance 22+ (ERG22+; HM Government 2011c), and other data relating to this guidance, should be comprehensively published and readily accessible.

Towards better public accountability

If policies are based on unproven theories and minimal data-sets (as in the Detention and Interrogation Programme and CHANNEL’S ERG22+), while the evidentiary basis is hidden from public scrutiny, how can civil society challenge the efficacy of such policies, still less suggest better alternatives? Even professional bodies cannot necessarily be relied upon to raise these basic questions, given desire to align with the security state (as in the case of APA’s PENS Ethical Guidelines).

Given that secrecy has been used not just to protect intelligence methods and sources from being compromised, but also to justify and retain policies that are unproven to work, or that compromise professional ethical standards and human rights, civil society needs to get better at publically demanding accountability of political-intelligence elites.

I propose a benchmark of public accountability demands in three areas. One concerns the accuracy and value of intelligence (or secret data) used to justify policies. For instance, as CHANNEL’s Vulnerability Assessment Framework has been published since 2012, where were civil society’s demands for evidence that ERG22+ could be expected to work? Secondly, the benchmark concerns accountability demands about whether political responses to intelligence controversies are adequate. While CAGE and the Royal College of Psychiatry are now demanding that political-intelligence elites enable public examination of whether CHANNEL is fit for purpose, are mainstream media giving these demands a platform? Thirdly, the benchmark concerns accountability demands about the ethics, morality and legality of how intelligence is gained or used. With CHANNEL, where is the public discussion assessing the ethics of singling out people as potentially violent extremists on the basis of value judgments of public sector workers like teachers and doctors?

More robust public discourse might encourage political-intelligence elites to be more mindful of eventual public exposure, and less inclined to rush into secret policies ranging from the socially divisive to the illegal, and that no one knows will work.

About the author

Vian Bakir is Professor in Political Communication and Journalism at Bangor University, Wales, UK. She is author of Torture, Intelligence and Sousveillance in the War on Terror: Agenda-Building Struggles (2013) and Sousveillance, Media and Strategic Political Communication: Iraq, USA, UK (2010). She is guest editor of International Journal of Press/Politics (2015) Special Issue on News, Agenda-Building and Intelligence Agencies. She is Principal Investigator on Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Seminar Series (2014-16), DATA - PSST! Debating & Assessing Transparency Arrangements: Privacy, Security, Surveillance, Trust; and Bangor University ESRC Impact Acceleration Account (2016-17), Political-Intelligence Elites: Towards Better Public Accountability through a Co-created Benchmark for Civil Society.

Read On

CAGE's report, 'The science of pre-crime' prompted more than 140 academics and experts to sign an open letter protesting against the lack of transparency and scrutiny of the science that underpins key aspects of the UK government’s domestic counter-terrorism strategy.

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