Psychologists, the Military & Torture

According to Saturday’s New York Times, the American Psychological Association (APA), which has already taken a strong stand against psychologists participating in torture, “is considering whether to make any involvement in military interrogations a violation of its code of ethics.”

In looking at the actual resolution currently being voted on by APA members, however, I am surprised at the Times’ characterization.  The resolution is far more specific than that, mentioning Guantanamo, CIA “black sites” and the use of psychologists in interrogations resulting in torture at these sites, then stating:

Be it resolved that psychologists may not work in settings where persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law (e.g., the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the US Constitution (where appropriate), unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights[7].

This resolution is not “considering whether to make any involvement in military interrogations a violation of [the APA’s] code of ethics,” only those interrogations taking place is places where the prisoners are held (according to the Bush administration) outside of or, rather, in violation of, international law or the U.S. Constitution.

An unnamed psychologist’s involvement in the decision to confine Guantanamo detainee Mohammed Jawad, a teenager at the time, to isolation, and the young man’s subsequent suicide attempt are cited in the article.  The psychologist involved “invoked Article 31 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the military’s equivalent of the Fifth Amendment.”

According to Amnesty International’s summary of their report on Mohammed Jawad, he was captured on December 17, 2002 in Kabul, then, after four hours of interrogation, transferred to Bagram air base. Over the next seven weeks he “was allegedly subjected to isolation, sleep deprivation, cruel use of restraints, hooding, force standing, stress positions, and physical assaults as part of the interrogation process.”

After Mohammed Jawad’s transfer to Guantanamo in early February 2003, he was interrogated repeatedly without counsel, then placed in isolation for 30 days.  AI reports that Jawad received another 30 days of isolation in September to October 2003 “on the recommendation of a psychologist with Guantanamo’s Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) who suggested that he was feigning homesickness and depression as a technique to resist interrogations.”

Mohammed Jawad attempted suicide in December 2003. Yet, “[d]espite his delicate mental well-being, in May 2004 he was subjected to sleep disruption and deprivation in the form of the euphemistically named ‘frequent flyer program’ – moved from cell to cell every few hours, day and night, over a 14 day period.”

The psychologist’s involvement is very disturbing and unethical.  He (or she) not only ignores the torture done to this young man, but sends him off to more cruel treatment in isolation, claiming he must be faking his depression, which is obviously caused by the torture in the first place.

According to the Times, the APA’s “most recent ethics amendments strongly condemn coercive techniques adopted in the Bush administration’s antiterrorism campaign.”  Actually, the APA refers to those techniques, such as “waterboarding” or the use of hoods, as torture, as does AI, not the euphemistic “coercive techniques” of the New York Times article. 

Current APA guidelines quoted by the Times as saying “. . . ‘it is consistent with the A.P.A. ethics code for psychologists to serve in consultative roles to interrogation and information-gathering processes for national-security-related purposes,’ as long as they do not participate in any of 19 coercive procedures. . .”

Note where some of these torture methods came from, and the disturbing use of the “coercive techniques” even in referring to torture used to obtain false confessions from captured U.S. soldiers during the Korean War:

How these guidelines shape behavior during interrogations is not well understood. Documents from Guantánamo made public in June suggested that at least some of the coercive methods the military has used were derived from SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, a program based on Chinese techniques used in the 1950s that produced false confessions from American prisoners.

These techniques included “prolonged constraint,” “exposure” and “sleep deprivation,” known informally as the frequent flier program.

In this kind of environment, “health professionals, bound by strong ethical imperatives to do no harm, may become calibrators of harm,” said Nathaniel Raymond of Physicians for Human Rights, which has been strongly critical of the psychological association’s position.

Physicians for Human Rights has issued a report, available online, “Break Them Down: Systematic Use of Psychological Torture by U.S. Forces”.

Other psychologists are claiming they’re doing good by being there:

Some psychologists, though appalled by these techniques, emphasize that there is a danger in opting out as well.

“There’s no doubt that the psychologist’s presence can be abused,” said Robert W. Resnick, who is in private practice in Santa Monica, Calif., “but if there’s no presence at all, then there’s no accountability, and you walk away feeling noble and righteous, but you haven’t done a damned thing.”

Ahh, safer torture, err, “coercive techniques”. . .

Let’s hope ethics win out in the end.

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