Science Isn't Golden

Matters of the mind and heart

Psychologists Participate in Torture of Illegal Detainees

Unethical Involvement of Psychologists in Violent Interrogations Must End

Once I had gotten my Ph.D. in psychology in 1973 and had subsequently become a licensed clinical psychologist, I joined the American Psychological Association. At the time, it seemed an obvious thing to do. Certainly it did not seem controversial.

For awhile, I was proud to be a member of that organization, because it took progressive stands about a number of important subjects – including but by no means limited to hate crimes, sexual orientation, and other important topics.

Starting in the mid-1980s, as I learned about the shockingly irresponsible ways that “the other APA,” the American Psychiatric Association created, falsely advertised, and profited from its manual of (alleged) mental disorders, from time to time I contrasted the two APAs and concluded that the psychologists’ association was far superior to the other. Then, in 2006, the psychiatrists’ APA ruled that its members would commit a serious breach of ethics if they participated in any way in what those in the federal government often called “interrogation” but which would more accurately be called “torture” in President George W. Bush’s “war on terror” As a firm believer in giving credit where it is due, despite having so often criticized the psychiatrists’ APA because of its diagnostic manual, I praised it for taking this stand, which its representatives described as related to the Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm,” to which psychiatrists, as medical doctors, are expected to adhere.

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We psychologists are not bound by the Hippocratic Oath, but it never entered my mind that the American Psychological Association would condone less ethical conduct than their psychiatric counterpart, especially given our organization’s history of taking progressive stands about many subjects. The news that the psychological association refused to state that its members could not participate in “interrogations” was stunning. So was the news that three military psychologists had played important roles in formulating the American Psychological Association’s policy that allowed that participation to psychologists on the grounds that they needed to be there to make sure that interrogations would be kept “safe, legal, ethical, and effective.” Of course, to be present during torture, especially if one does not then make public what one witnessed and try to keep it from happening again, is to participate in torture, even if the psychological association wants to claim that psychologists should be there to stop torture from going too far. If it is torture, then it is always going too far, contravening international law and going against what ought to be the conscience of this nation and certainly of psychologists, who hold themselves out as those who help ease suffering.

When the psychological association formulated that policy, which appeared in what is called the PENS Report (the APA’s Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security), the Task Force had nine voting members. Six of the nine were on the U.S. military and/or intelligence agency payrolls, and five of those “served in chains of command that had been accused of the kinds of abuses that led to the creation of the Task Force.” The reported abuses included illegal detentions, suspension of the right of habeas corpus (the right to challenge their very imprisonment), physical assaults, and homicides. The American Psychological Association does not declare it unethical for psychologists to be both present and involved in what happens in places like the Guantanamo Detention Center and the detention center at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, although what happens there “clearly violate[s] international legal standards for the treatment of detainees.”

Of the six Task Force members with glaring conflicts of interest, three were psychologists Colonel Morgan Banks, Captain Bryce Lefever, and Colonel Larry James. In an important article, Trudy Bond, Roy Eidelson, Brad Olson, and Stephen Soldz — who presented a compelling report about this subject at the recent Psychologists for Social Responsibility conference — describe some of what these three psychologists did. All were deeply involved in the interrogations of illegal detainees. And James described in his own book, Fixing Hell, that in Afghanistan, he oversaw the loading onto a plane for a 20-hour flight “three juveniles who had been forcibly and arbitrarily detained at Bagram” and whom he described “the most fragile children [he] had ever met. These children were “bound [and] blindfolded” for the trip. No psychologist in good conscience should work in such a place.

Many of us resigned from the American Psychological Association because of its failure to prohibit psychologists from participating in torture, and the struggle to persuade that organization to adopt a moral, responsible, and legal policy continues: At www.ethicalpsychology.org/pens, there is a petition calling for the annulment of the PENS report. Those who have signed include Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, bioethicist Dr. Steven Miles, Daniel Ellsberg, Noam Chomsky, “attorneys who have represented Guantanamo detainees; eminent veterans of the intelligence community; and many other psychologists and human rights advocates.”

Incidentally, I also resigned, because I objected strongly to the American Psychological Association’s relentless push – and expenditure of the organization’s funds – to win the right in one state after another for psychologists to prescribe psychotropic drugs. Although I am aware of some of the arguments that psychologists have made for wanting prescription privileges, I am alarmed by the prospect of at least tens of thousands more people writing out prescriptions for these chemicals.

I had already been concerned about this when I read investigative journalist Katherine Eban’s important article, “Rorschach and Awe” (Vanity Fair, July 17, 2007), which included information not only about psychologists’ participation in interrogation of detainees but also about a possible connection between that and prescription privileges. Eban repors: “One theory was that the A.P.A. had given its stamp of approval to military interrogations as part of a quid pro quo,” in which the Pentagon helped allow psychologists (who, as she points out, unlike psychiatrists, are not medical doctors) to prescribe drugs, which could mean a substantial increase in their income. She writes that the military has in fact “funded a prescription-drug training program for military psychologists.” The APA leaders denied that they had any secret deals of this kind with the military, according to Eban’s article, but I find the very fact that the military funded the drug training program for psychologists to be troubling, whether or not there are more connections to be discovered.

Eban reports other frightening information, and I have been surprised to see how little play her article has received in the more than five years since it was published. For instance, she writes that two psychologists, James Elmer Mitchell and Bruce Jensen, who are not APA members and did not serve on the PENS Task Force, worked in the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance Escape) program, which trains soldiers for being captured by the enemy and to get through the captivity. Mitchell and Jensen “reverse-engineered” SERE tactics, for use on detainees, and Eban says that “The C.I.A. put them in charge of training interrogators in the brutal techniques, including ‘waterboarding.’” Interestingly, Eban says that the CIA “had famously little experience in conducting interrogations or eliciting ‘ticking time bomb’ information from detainees” but “remarkably,” turned to Mitchell and Jensen, “who were equally inexperienced and had no proof of their tactics’ effectiveness, say several of their former colleagues.” I do not find that remarkable. Rather, it is consistent with the way that, in many arenas, people – with a wide variety of motives – readily accept what psychologists say, solely on the grounds that they are psychologists who presumably understand human behavior.

More than four decades of being a psychologist, learning what both clinicians and researchers say, seeing that many of their claims are totally unfounded, has sometimes led me to despair about how easy it is to persuade some people of anything just by telling them a psychologist says it’s so. Knowing that the APA allows psychologists to participate in torture only intensifies my concern.

Note added September 12, 2012: Psychology ethics expert Dr. Ken S. Pope's important article about his subject has been published in the journal *Zeitschrift fur Psychologie / Journal of Psychology* and is called "Are the American Psychological Association's Detainee Interrogation Policies Ethical and Effective? Key Claims, Documents, and Results." The article appears on pages 150-158 of volume 219(3).

It has been viewed by tens of thousands of people online, and a copy of the final version of the article appears on Dr. Pope's website at:
<http://bit.ly/APADetaineeInterrogationPolicies

©2012 by Paula J. Caplan                                                            All rights reserved

 

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D., a clinical and research psychologist, is an Associate at Harvard University's DuBois Institute and former Fellow in Harvard Kennedy School's Women and Public Policy Program. more...

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