Almost Addicted

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Failing Ethics: Psychologists, Torture, and the US Military

Scant ethics instruction despite psychologist participation in interrogations

American psychologists designed and oversaw the brutal regime of interrogation used on detainees in U.S. military custody at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, and elsewhere during the U.S. war on terror.  To date, the American Psychological Association (APA) has not reprimanded or otherwise held accountable any psychologist who participated in torture.

The ties between psychologists, the American Psychological Association, and the U.S. military are longstanding. The APA directly recruited psychologists into military service during World Wars I and II, where they evaluated new recruits, assisted in the treatment of soldiers with “shell shock,” and offered advice about captured enemy soldiers in order to make interrogations more effective, among other assistance. There are many facets of their longstanding relationship, but suffice it to say that today the Department of Defense (DOD) is the single biggest provider of psychology internships in the country and that 7 percent of all psychologists are employed by the DOD.

After the involvement of health care professionals in the CIA’s abusive detention and interrogation practices came to light in 2004, the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association issued statements prohibiting participation in interrogations as a violation of medical ethics. In stark contrast, when it approved a special report in 2005, the APA allowed psychologists to participate in interrogations, including those that meet the definition of torture under international law. This report was repealed last year but the APA still allows psychologists to participate in interrogations.

Why did psychologists allow a report to be passed condoning participating in torture in the first place? And why did it take eight years to rescind it?

Colleagues and I wanted to find out whether psychology graduate students were aware of their professional obligations during military service as outlined in the Geneva Conventions – the most widely cited set of international standards, so we surveyed psychology students about their knowledge on these matters. 

In surveying 185 students at 20 different graduate program, we found that 74 percent of psychology students had received less than one hour of instruction about military medical ethics. Even though 75 percent claimed to be familiar with the Geneva Conventions, the majority gave incorrect answers when tested on specific points. For example:

-               Only 37 percent could correctly identify that the Geneva Conventions apply irrespective of whether war has formally been declared.

-               43 percent did not know that the Geneva Conventions state that physicians should "treat the sickest first, regardless of nationality”

-               Half of the students did not know that the Geneva Conventions prohibit ever threatening or demeaning prisoners as well as depriving them of food or water for any length of time

-               48 percent could not state when they would be required by the Geneva Conventions to disobey an unethical order from a superior

Based on these findings, my co-authors and I surmise that not only do psychology students learn little about the professional standards that constrain unlawful and unethical practices, but they also have a false sense of complacency about their knowledge of such matters.  (The complete findings of our research were recently published in the International Journal of Health Services.) This is a troubling finding, given that psychologists lacking an understanding of their ethical obligations are less prepared to disobey, let alone protest, unethical orders, and are more likely to be compliant when told to assist interrogators in ways that violate international standards.            

Despite measures taken last year, the APA still allows psychologists to serve as adjuncts to national security by allowing them to participate in interrogations under certain circumstances. Given the APA’s lack of moral clarity and flouting of international law, it is imperative that psychology students receive more education in military medical ethics in order to prevent a repeat of psychologist participation in abusive interrogations and torture. 

The fact that the detention center at Guantánamo ever opened – much less is still in operation and continues to abuse detainees, most recently by force-feeding hunger strikers – will likely go down as one of our country’s most egregious ethical lapses. Psychologists need to be educated about the Geneva Conventions and other international codes of ethics to ensure they do not become pawns of the U.S. military establishment – inadvertently or otherwise.

APA members need to demand that their organization does not take positions that are contrary to international law and to ensure that psychologists who have committed crimes in the name of patriotism are held accountable for their actions.

Wes Boyd is on faculty at Harvard Medical School and is an Attending Psychiatrist at Cambridge Health Alliance and Children’s Hospital Boston.

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