Mitch Goldsmith

Torture Across the Species Barrier: How The CIA Torture Program Relied on Experiments on Animals

By, Mitch Goldsmith, Research Associate in the Laboratory Investigations Department at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals


This presentation will critically examine the ways in which the CIA’s torture program presupposed and was borne out of experiments on animals. More specifically, it will describe Martin Seligman’s 1960’s “learned helplessness” experiments on dogs at the University of Pennsylvania and its influence on James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, identified by the Senate as the architects of the U.S. torture program. Contrasting psychological experiments on animals and torture techniques on supposed “terror suspects” will demonstrate the physical and philosophical similarities between the two and the animalizing projections onto the victims necessary to rationalize and justify both. It is my contention that vivisection functions as a form of institutionalized speciesism and that the CIA’s torture program necessitated the animalizing of those tortured to provide some type of justification, however flimsy. This point will be shaped through a close reading of some of Sleigman’s work and his public remarks related to “learned helplessness”, the Senate’s CIA torture report, reporting on the U.S.’s use of torture and more recent vivisectionist’s articles detailing ongoing “learned helplessness” experiments on mice, rats and other animals.

It is my hope that this presentation will provide a more complex and nuanced way to understand the CIA torture program by demonstrating the ways in which experimentation on animals underpins other forms of societal violence, in this case torture.


Mitch Goldsmith is a Research Associate in the Laboratory Investigations Department at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). He is a 2013 graduate of the Gender Studies and Feminist Research graduate program at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.