Skip to main content

This diary will give you a rare look into the internal politics of the mainstream psychological associations, as it details the political struggle over how much the mental health establishment will serve Bush's torture policy.

The New York Times reports today that the Pentagon will:

... try to use only psychologists, and not psychiatrists, to help interrogators devise strategies to get information from detainees at places like Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

The new policy follows by little more than two weeks an overwhelming vote by the American Psychiatric Association discouraging its members from participating in those efforts.

But the officers over at the American Psychological Association (APA) refuse to do the same, and revolt is brewing in the ranks. At stake... how and to what degree doctors and mental health professionals will participate in Bush's "war on terror", with its secret prisons, renditions, and use of torture. (Read on...)

What an embarrassment for the APA! Their psychiatrist colleagues have decisively rejected participation in Bush's war on terror internment camps, most particularly at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The American Psychiatric Association President, Steven Sharfstein, M.D., told the association's annual meeting in Toronto last month that no psychiatrists would be allowed to serve the government at its interrogations and questioning of internees at places like Guantanamo. And -- this will be key -- won't be allowed to advise on techniques of interrogation or advise how to question internees.

The latter is vital because it speaks to the contortions of language and policy that the government and its non-governmental professional allies, like the American Psychological Association, are using to use torture in interrogations, and to utilize psychological and medical expertise in the pursuit of that aim. As one blogger wrote over at Bioethics and Politics:

Stephen Behnke, director of ethics for the [APA]... said psychologists knew not to participate in activities that harmed detainees. But Dr. Behnke also said the group believed that helping military interrogators made a valuable contribution because it was part of an effort to prevent terrorism.

The writer goes on to quote a widely read Jane Mayer piece at The New Yorker last July. Mayer goes right to the heart of the government's loophole, and we'll see how the APA dives right through that hole into a morass of unethical, if not criminal, behavior.

In June [2004], the Pentagon released a new set of formal ethical guidelines, titled "Medical Program Principles and Procedures for the Protection and Treatment of Detainees in the Custody of the Armed Forces of the United States." The document, which was issued by Dr. William Winkenwerder, Jr., the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, stresses the importance of upholding "the humane treatment of detainees." It states that "health-care personnel charged with the medical care of detainees" cannot participate in interrogations. In this phrase is embedded a troubling loophole, however: scientific and medical personnel who are not directly responsible for a patient's care may take part in interrogations.

This is the kind of legal maneuvering that Abu Gonzales, John Yoo, and the whole Administration and bought-academics crowd are famous for. It depends on the meaning of "health-care personnel", as defined (or what "is" is).

Because the APA states very forthrightly that it is against torture, and the participation of psychologists in torture. Olivia Moorehead-Slaughter chaired the APA Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS), which issued their report last in July 2005. (Moorehead-Slaughter is also current chair of the APA Ethics Committee.) She gave the APA an update on actions "regarding the PENS report", published in the Feb. 2006 Monitor:

In 1985, APA issued a joint resolution against torture with the American Psychiatric Association, and, in 1986, APA issued a second resolution against torture.

The PENS Task Force believed it necessary to go beyond confining its ethical prohibition to torture. The task force looked to international human rights documents, such as the 1987 U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment....

"Psychologists do not engage in, direct, support, facilitate or offer training in torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment."

The PENS Task Force believed that a simple prohibition against these acts was not enough and added an ethical obligation, that psychologists must report any such behavior to appropriate authorities. The second statement in the task force report therefore is: "Psychologists are alert to acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and have an ethical responsibility to report these acts to the appropriate authorities" (emphasis added). I note that a member of the PENS Task Force fulfilled this ethical obligation at a significant risk to his career, as has been reported in several media accounts.

Moorehead-Slaughter is NOT talking about James Mitchell, a psychologist who worked as an interrogator for "Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape" or the SERE program at the Pentagon.

Jane Mayer writes, Mitchell:

...appeared inside an interrogation room where the C.I.A. was holding a "high-value" Al Qaeda suspect. (The interrogation took place at an undisclosed location.) Mitchell worked for years as a sere administrator. In an interview, he said that he is now a private contractor and does not currently work with the Department of Defense. Asked if he has worked with the C.I.A., conducting interrogations, he said, "If that was true, I couldn't say anything about it." (A press officer at the C.I.A. also declined to comment on Mitchell.)

According to a counter-terrorism expert familiar with the interrogation of the Al Qaeda suspect, Mitchell announced that the suspect needed to be subjected to rougher methods. The man should be treated like the dogs in a classic behavioral-psychology experiment, he said, referring to studies performed in the nineteen-sixties by Martin Seligman [who, by the way, was a recent president of the APA] and other graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania. The dogs were placed in harnesses and given electric shocks that they could not avoid; they were then released into pens and shocked again, but this time they were given a chance to escape the punishment. Most of them, Seligman observed, passively accepted the shocks. They had lapsed into a condition that he called "learned helplessness." The suspect's resistance, Mitchell was apparently saying, could be overcome by inducing a similar sense of futility. (Seligman, now a psychology professor at Penn, has spoken at a SERE school about his dog research.)

....Research in social psychology has shown that a person's capacity for "self-regulation"--the ability to moderate or control his own behavior--can be substantially undermined in situations of high anxiety. If, for instance, a prisoner of war is trying to avoid revealing secrets to enemy interrogators, he is much less likely to succeed if he has been deprived of sleep or is struggling to ignore intense pain.

One example of the APA's perfidy was the inclusion of SERE consultant/admiinstrator and Army psychologist Col. Louie Banks as a member of the PENS task force! Here's Col. Banks in The New Yorker article:

In an interview, Banks said, "I do go down to Guantánamo occasionally. I have provided assistance." He said that he saw no problem with psychologists helping in interrogations, "as long as they don't break the law." Asked to provide details of his consulting work, he said, "I just don't remember any particular cases. I just consulted generally on what approaches to take. It was about what human behavior in captivity is like."

This all has been too much for some of the APA rank and file. Two months ago, the presidents of two of APA's divisions shot off letters to the APA house organ, the Monitor, after APA President Dr. Gerald Koocher railed against:

A number of opportunistic commentators masquerading as scholars have continued to report on alleged abuses by mental health professionals. However, when solicited in person to provide APA with names and circumstances in support of such claims, no data have been forthcoming from these same critics and no APA members have been linked to unprofessional behaviors.

Recognizing the falseness of a position that formally eschews collaboration in torture, and then relies on loopholes, such as the idea that one is only consulting about methods, or conducting research (!), in order to allow psychologists to act as high-level guides for the use of torture and interrogation methods that fall short of the legalistic definition of "torture", President Marybeth Shinn, Ph.D. (Div. 9) and President Linda Woolf, Ph.D. (Div. 48) fired back: They complained of Kootcher's labeling of "opportunistic commentators", and reminded Dr. Kootcher:

Dr. Mike Wessells, who served on the PENS Task Force, recently resigned from it because, in his words, "continuing work with the task force tacitly legitimates the wider silence and inaction of the APA on the crucial issues at hand. At the highest levels, the APA has not made a strong, concerted, comprehensive, public and internal response of the kind warranted by the severe human rights violations at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay."

A private letter written by some Bay Area psychologists to Stephen Behnke -- one of whose signatories was a primary author of the "Istanbul Protocol" (The Manual on Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment) -- was more specific. A copy has come into my hands. The letter states:

This problem originated in credible media reports of psychologist involvement in the systematic abuse of prisoners at military detention facilities. We do not believe it is defensible for the current APA President to dismiss these reports in their entirety as irresponsible speculation and innuendo, regardless of the actual facts that may be proven or disproven in the future. To do so is ill-advised as it will be perceived as defensive rather than affirmative of ethical principles, and potentially protective of colleagues who may have done harm....

... Psychologists are committed to do no harm. This includes any type of assistance in the interrogation of prisoners which violates basic principles of human rights. The specific allegations made in the press concerning the assistance from mental health experts included, for example, sensory and sleep deprivation, the prolonged exposure to noxious stimuli, systematic humiliations that exploited cultural taboos, and the exploitations of phobias in the service of inducing severe mental distress. These practices constitute psychological torture. For psychological ethics it is irrelevant whether or not such abuse is considered torture by any particular government official or military personnel. Assistance to such interrogation practices is irreconcilable with APA's stated intent of assisting in interrogations in order to assure that interrogations are safe and humane and must be strictly prohibited....

...we recommend that APA fully apply, clarify and amend the Ethical Principles of Psychologists sufficiently to prohibit any participation by psychologists in human rights violations, even if requested or ordered by government, military or intelligence authorities.

The Monitor printed another letter, with that of Shinn and Woolf, from a New Jersey psychologist:

I am concerned that our APA finds it ethically permissible for psychologists to consult for the CIA's interrogation program at Abu Ghraib, provided they do not actually participate in the interrogations, i.e. torture. The president of the other APA stated unequivocally that psychiatrists could not ethically participate in any facet of this program.

The New York Times article today made the APA's position clear:

Stephen Behnke, director of ethics for the organization, said psychologists knew not to participate in activities that harmed detainees. But Dr. Behnke also said the group believed that helping military interrogators made a valuable contribution because it was part of an effort to prevent terrorism.

Finally, in the heat of the initial controversy last summer over the APA's insufficient response to allegations of participating in torture, Democracy Now sponsored a debate with with the director of ethics at the APA Stephen Behnke, British medical ethicist Michael Wilks, and well-known psychiatrist and scholar Robert Jay Lifton. (See transcript here.) Lifton, who wrote The Nazi Doctors, spoke eloquently of the dangers of involving oneself in the government's dark arts:

It's very dangerous to allow yourself as a physician or psychologist to engage in destructive behavior in the name of a, quote, "higher cause." Of course, I studied Nazi doctors, and when I invoke them now, it's in no way to equate American doctors with Nazi doctors -- that would be wrong -- but rather to look at an extreme violation of all views of medical ethics and human behavior, in general, which the Nazis manifested, and to see what we can learn about that extreme violation in connection with relatively lesser violations, but still very disturbing ones.

And central to Nazi doctors' behavior was what I called socialization to atrocity. It's the state policy. You embrace the state policy, in general terms, as a Nazi doctor, even if you don't believe in all the details, and you then give your medical knowledge to the service of the state policy, which in the Nazi case included doctors' leading role in the killing process, not just experiments. Here, it's a parallel atrocity-producing situation, as I call it, and that really means that it's a situation that is so constructed militarily and psychologically that an ordinary person, no better or worse than you or me, can enter into that environment and participate in atrocities. Doctors are particularly vulnerable and psychologists, too, because we are part of what I call the shamanistic legacy. We are the descendants of witch doctors and shamans and are perceived as having some magical influence over life and death that's very tempting for despotic regimes to embrace and make use of in order to harm people, carry through its purposes and control reality.

Dr. Lifton had much, much more to say, but this diary has already gotten too long.

This August, the liberal APA (they're campaigning, for instance, against the Hate Amendment) is holding its convention in New Orleans. A discussion, "Inside the Interrogation Room" is planned. So is an invited symposium on "Ethical Dilemmas for Psychologists Dealing With War, Terrorism, Torture, and Coercion". Two other similar symposiums by other divisions within APA are planned.

It remains to be seen how much the often staid crowd at APA conventions will push for any political action. Psychologists have been implicated in the use of coercion and illegal interrogation and psychological black ops since the early days of the Cold War. I wrote a diary, Shocking Documents on U.S. Torture Tactics -- 1992 Cheney connection, that documents some of this history, particularly the use of psychology to orient the practice of torture by CIA personnel, as described in the famous KUBARK protocol.

It will be a terrible blot upon the profession of psychology if psychologists cannot, like their colleagues in the psychiatric establishment, stand up and demand their professional organizations ban and punish those members who work with the practice and organization of torture, as the latter is defined by most human rights organizations, and is clinically defined in the Istanbul Protocol and elsewhere.

I hope that any psychologists or their patients reading this contact the APA with their protest regarding their policy.

Originally posted to Valtin on Wed Jun 07, 2006 at 09:09 PM PDT.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site