In December 2001, a small group of professors and law enforcement and intelligence officers gathered outside Philadelphia at the home of a prominent psychologist, Martin E. P. Seligman, to brainstorm about Muslim extremism. Among them was Dr. Mitchell, who attended with a C.I.A. psychologist, Kirk M. Hubbard.
During a break, Dr. Mitchell introduced himself to Dr. Seligman and said how much he admired the older man’s writing on “learned helplessness.” Dr. Seligman was so struck by Dr. Mitchell’s unreserved praise, he recalled in an interview, that he mentioned it to his wife that night. Later, he said, he was “grieved and horrified” to learn that his work had been cited to justify brutal interrogations.
Dr. Seligman had discovered in the 1960s that dogs that learned they could do nothing to avoid small electric shocks would become listless and simply whine and endure the shocks even after being given a chance to escape.
Helplessness, which later became an influential concept in the treatment of human depression, was also much discussed in military survival training. Instructors tried to stop short of producing helplessness in trainees, since their goal was to strengthen the spirit of service members in enemy hands.
Dr. Mitchell, colleagues said, believed that producing learned helplessness in a Qaeda interrogation subject might ensure that he would comply with his captor’s demands. Many experienced interrogators disagreed, asserting that a prisoner so demoralized would say whatever he thought the interrogator expected.
Which, as we know, is pretty much what happened. But Jessen and Mitchell were rewarded handsomely for their work:
The business plans of Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen, meanwhile, were working out beautifully. They were paid $1,000 to $2,000 a day apiece, one official said. They had permanent desks in the Counterterrorist Center, and could now claim genuine experience in interrogating high-level Qaeda operatives.
The company’s C.I.A. contracts are classified, but their total was well into the millions of dollars. In 2007 in a suburb of Tampa, Fla., Dr. Mitchell built a house with a swimming pool, now valued at $800,000.
When asked to comment, Mitchell responded with this:
In a brief e-mail exchange in June, Dr. Mitchell said his nondisclosure agreement with the C.I.A. prevented him from commenting. He suggested that his work had been mischaracterized.
“Ask around,” Dr. Mitchell wrote, “and I’m sure you will find all manner of ‘experts’ who will be willing to make up what you’d like to hear on the spot and unrestrained by reality.”
The irony is unintentional, I'm sure.