Using Psychology Against Terrorism: Guantanamo

In every war, even in ancient times, psychology has been used to fight the enemy. However, Guantanamo is a step backward because, even when the authorities allow it, psychology gave way to brutality.
Using Psychology Against Terrorism: Guantanamo
Gema Sánchez Cuevas

Written and verified by the psychologist Gema Sánchez Cuevas.

Last update: 21 February, 2022

When psychologist James E. Mitchell’s testified in a military court about Guantanamo, many people worried. There had been talks about using psychology against terrorism and Mitchell not only admitted he used his knowledge to torture prisoners but said he’d do it again.

Let’s take a stroll down memory lane and remember how popular the fight against terrorism got after the 9/11 attacks. These attacks were a declaration of war, particularly against irregular armed groups in the Middle East.

This situation developed into the United States invasion of Afghanistan, among other facts. The members of these groups were arrested and sent to the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. First, through Wikileaks, and later on through several other media, the public found out about the tortures endured by the prisoners in Guantanamo, with the help of psychologists.

“You can chain me, you can torture me, you can even destroy this body, but you’ll never imprison my mind.”


Guantanamo psychologists, Mitchell and Jessen, using psychology against terrorism.

Two psychologists in Guantanamo

Everything started with the infamous The Manchester Manual. This was a guide for Al Qaeda followers that told many things such as, for example, how to lie during an interrogation. Psychologists James E. Mitchell and Bruce Jessen analyzed this document and sent it to the American authorities.

Everything suggests that they made a case about their ability to deal with Al Qaeda’s methods of interrogation. Then, they both worked as psychologists and instructors in the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape program, also known as SERE, of the US Air Force.

They taught American soldiers to resist torture if they were made prisoners in an armed conflict. In contrast, after analyzing “The Manchester Manual”, their job changed. Now, they had to use psychology against terrorism to question prisoners.

A woman on trial.

Indecent use of psychology against terrorism

Mitchell and Jessen are expert psychologists behind the tortures at Guantanamo Bay. However, if you look closely enough, they used ancient barbaric methods to justify their psychological theory.

According to them, they used the theory of learned helplessness. This theory, presented in 1967 by psychologist Martin Seligman, refers to the continuing punishment that makes a person learn how to be submissive against an aggressor. In short, the learned behavior that they’re no match to their attacker.

Mitchell and Jessen did their interpretation of this theory and created, what they called, enhanced interrogation techniques These techniques consisted of systematic physical abuse, keeping the prisoner isolated and not letting them sleep or eat. Everything meant to break their will. This wasn’t seen as innovative but sadistic.

A man with a tight fist about to commit an act of human violence.

A dangerous precedent

These two psychologists didn’t speak the prisoners’ languages, but they were personally involved in the torture. They did procedures such as drownings and blows to the head for several hours. The most appalling thing is that they didn’t get what they wanted. Many prisoners resisted and didn’t speak.

In the ongoing Guantanamo case trial against five prisoners, Mitchell was called to testify as a witness but isn’t accused of anything. He, along with his colleague Jessen, earned more than $81 million for their work. They both have a clause in their contracts that protects them with $5 million against possible trials against them. However, these trials won’t happen because the Guantanamo case is shrouded in total impunity.

It’s a dangerous thing that the world’s biggest powers stimulate and encourage this type of brutal practices. Moreover, there’s one more dangerous thing about the Guantanamo case: using psychology to inflict torture.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Pérez Gónzalez, M., & Rodríguez-Villasante y Prieto, J. L. (2002). El caso de los detenidos de Guantánamo ante el derecho internacional humanitario y de los derechos humanos. Revista Española de Derecho Internacional, 11-40.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.