Psychologists to CIA: We condemn torture

In a rebuke of President Bush, the American Psychological Association has resolved to condemn brutal CIA and military interrogations.

Topics: CIA, Torture,

Psychologists to CIA: We condemn torture

The American Psychological Association, the world’s largest professional organization of psychologists, is poised to issue a formal condemnation of a raft of notorious interrogation tactics employed by U.S. authorities against detainees during the so-called war on terror, from simulated drowning to sensory deprivation. The move is expected during the APA’s annual convention in San Francisco this weekend.

The APA’s anti-torture resolution follows a string of revelations in recent months of the key role played by psychologists in the development of brutal interrogation regimes for the CIA and the military. And it comes just weeks after news that the White House may be calling on psychologists once again: On July 20, President Bush signed an executive order restarting a coercive CIA interrogation program at the agency’s “black sites.” Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell has indicated that psychological techniques will be part of the revamped program, but that the interrogations would be subject to careful medical oversight. That oversight is likely to be performed by psychologists.

In fact, given what promises to be the continuing involvement of psychologists in coercive interrogation, there is intense infighting within the organization about whether simply condemning abusive tactics is enough. Some of the APA’s 148,000 members think the anti-torture resolution put forward by APA leadership is too weak, and they are putting intense pressure on the organization’s leadership to go a step further and ban psychologists from participating in detainee interrogations altogether. They have introduced their own resolution proposing a moratorium. “I and others think that a moratorium is essential to try to tell the government that psychologists are not going to participate in the interrogation of enemy combatants,” said Bernice Lott, a member of the Council of Representatives, the APA’s policy-making body. Others oppose the moratorium because they think psychologists must be involved in the interrogations to prevent abuse — and because the government may just choose to use non-APA members for its interrogations, as has already happened.

Whether or not the APA imposes a moratorium at this weekend’s convention, its Council of Representatives is likely to approve the resolution condemning specific interrogation techniques. A draft of the resolution obtained by Salon includes “an absolute prohibition” on psychologists directly or indirectly participating in interrogations that involve a list of coercive measures, including, but not limited to, mock executions; water-boarding; sensory deprivation; “hooding”; forced nudity; sexual humiliation; rape; cultural or religious humiliation; exploitation of phobias or psychopathology; stress positions; dogs; physical assault; slapping and shaking; exposure to extreme heat or cold; induced hypothermia; psychotropic drugs or mind-altering substances; isolation and sleep deprivation; threats of harm or death, or threats to members of an individual’s family.

And even without a moratorium, adopting a resolution condemning specific interrogation techniques — including some allegedly used by the CIA — could be interpreted as a rebuke of the agency and the White House. Stephen Soldz, a faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, supports a moratorium. But he said the new condemnation of specific harsh tactics would in itself be “an advance because it would be a blow to the CIA.” (The military last September disavowed the tactics and embraced a new interrogation field manual that expressly prohibits the coercive methods, but the CIA, under Bush’s new executive order, seems to be going ahead full steam.)

But how much of a rebuke it would be is debatable. “It is somewhat of a rebuke, because it does name some interrogation techniques that have been used or advocated by the White House and the CIA,” said Neil Altman, a former member of the APA’s council. “But it still allows psychologists to continue to be part of a process which overall is cruel, inhuman and degrading,” he added. “There is no due process. It is indefinite detention without being charged. The entire setting is cruel, inhuman and degrading.”

Altman introduced the resolution calling for a moratorium. Last year, the American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association banned doctors and psychiatrists from participating in coercive interrogation of so-called enemy combatants. Some psychologists warn, however, against the effects of following their sister organizations’ example. The argument is that psychologists can make valuable contributions to an ethical, non-coercive interrogation built on establishing rapport with a prisoner. Michael Gelles, the former chief psychologist of the Navy Criminal Investigative Service, who played a key role in forcing the Pentagon to dial back the coercive techniques used at the military’s Guantánamo prison in 2003, said psychologists should still be able to help ethical interrogators do their jobs. “Psychologists can help the interrogator think about how he directs questions in a rapport-based approach to facilitate the most accurate information,” Gelles explained. They can also help determine if a subject is mentally ill, or even lying.

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Gelles said he doesn’t have any problem with condemning coercive interrogation techniques, but he called a moratorium “equivalent to throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

What remains unclear is whether the APA leadership, headed by APA president Sharon Stephens Brehm, will even allow a vote on Altman’s moratorium. That leadership is seen by some psychologists as too chummy with government interests and with the military in particular. Backers of the moratorium are set to meet with APA leadership before next weekend just to negotiate for the opportunity to bring their resolution up for a vote before the council.

And there is another worry. Psychologists interviewed by Salon noted a series of potential loopholes embedded in the resolution condemning CIA tactics. A simple example is the ban on isolation and sleep deprivation, favorite tactics of the CIA. But the resolution from Brehm and the APA leadership only forbids the methods when “used in a manner that adversely affects an individual’s physical or mental health.” There will be efforts in San Francisco to plug those loopholes, and to force a vote on a moratorium.

At least on paper, what happens in San Francisco could make a big difference to the CIA. Mike McConnell told Tim Russert on “Meet the Press” last month that under Bush’s new executive order the CIA was going to continue to mentally pressure detainees, using a “psychological approach to causing someone to have uncertainty and in a situation where they will feel compelled to talk to you about what you’re asking about.” He insisted that the pressure did not amount to torture and there would be no permanent damage to prisoners, but admitted that “I would not want a U.S. citizen to go through the process.”

McConnell assured Russert that the program would be “under medical supervision.” And the executive order Bush signed to continue the CIA interrogation program calls for “effective monitoring of the program, including with respect to medical matters, to ensure the safety of those in the program.”

But since doctors and psychiatrists have ruled themselves out, that leaves psychologists as the last of the medical professionals willing to support the interrogation of so-called high-value detainees. Presumably, what the APA deems unacceptable would make a big difference.

But it is unclear whether an APA resolution will have any effect on real-world interrogations conducted by the CIA. Salon reported in June that two CIA-employed psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, were in the cross hairs of Senate investigators looking into the genesis of the brutal, and very similar, post 9/11 interrogation regimes developed by the CIA and the military.

Mitchell and Jessen are part of a cabal of psychologists associated with the military’s secretive Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape program. The program trains soldiers to resist torture if captured by exposing them to brutal techniques employed by Cold War adversaries who would violate the Geneva Conventions to provoke confessions: water-boarding; forced nudity; stress positions; lengthy isolation; sleep deprivation; sexual humiliation. The plan was to reverse-engineer those techniques for use on real detainees.

The military employed the same game plan at the same time, suggesting high-level government coordination. A previously classified Department of Defense inspector general report released in May detailed efforts in 2002 by the Army Special Operations Command’s Psychological Directorate to reverse-engineer SERE training for use at Guantánamo, including a September 2002 “SERE psychologist conference” at Fort Bragg to brief staff from Guantánamo on the use of SERE tactics.

But Mitchell and Jessen, the psychologists who helped the agency, are not APA members. So a resolution might not matter much to men like them.

Theoretically, a psychologist could lose his state-issued license for violating an APA resolution, regardless of APA membership, which might plant a seed of doubt in a psychologist’s mind when he steps into a CIA interrogation booth. Military psychologists, for example, are required to maintain a state license.

But the CIA might not be so strict. When asked a series of questions on whether the CIA requires psychologists working with that agency to maintain a state license, CIA spokesman George Little responded, “On these questions, I decline to comment.”

Still, psychologists predict that their colleagues — even those employed by the CIA — will be less inclined in the future to participate in harsh interrogations that have been explicitly condemned by the APA. “These are our rules and our professional ethics,” said Brad Olson, president of the Divisions for Social Justice within the APA. “What this whole group of professionals believes does matter. What psychologists say they are willing to do and not willing to do does matter.”

The simmering debate over interrogations inside the APA has been increasingly heating to a boil for several years. In 2005, a group of 10 psychologists drafted new APA ethics guidelines that condemned torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment — but that also noted that psychologists helping interrogators were performing a “valuable and ethical role to assist in protecting our nation, other nations, and innocent civilians from harm.” (Salon reported last summer that six of the 10 psychologists who drafted that policy had close ties to the military, including the chief of the Army Special Operations Command’s Psychological Directorate, Col. Morgan Banks.)

Then last summer, the APA’s council passed a resolution reaffirming a “condemnation of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment wherever it occurs.”

But the positions taken by the APA so far — the ethics principles drafted by those 10 psychologists and the resolution last summer — contain legal vagaries of the flavor repeatedly exploited by the Bush administration to pursue coercive interrogations in one theater or another. The concern among psychologists is that their profession is being dragged along for the ride. And that is what is driving the resolutions the psychologists are wrestling with now, to specifically outlaw individual interrogation techniques or even ban psychologists from interrogations altogether.

In its continued effort to fashion a legal defense of the CIA’s interrogation program, the Bush administration has employed a dexterous strategy: decry international standards that ban detainee abuse as hopelessly “vague.” Demand detailed clarifications from Congress, and then drive loopholes into those clarifications to allow coercive interrogations to continue.

The most recent example is the Military Commissions Act, a law signed by Bush last October that contains a detailed ban on prisoner abuse. Experts in international law have been scouring the bill for loopholes inserted by the Bush administration, including language that could give the administration wiggle room to inflict mental pain on detainees — the specialty of the CIA. An example is a definition, apparently included at the behest of the White House, that seems to outlaw serious mental pain and suffering, but defines it as suffering that must be “serious and non-transitory.”

“If I screw up your brains for two weeks, three weeks, a month, is that non-transitory?” Scott Silliman, a professor at Duke University School of Law who specializes in national security, asked rhetorically. Water-boarding is simulated drowning. It creates sudden, extreme, brief panic. “If I was defending someone in the CIA who was charged with water-boarding, I would make an argument that unless the government can prove that serious mental harm was prolonged and non-transitory — which means permanent — then there has been no offense.” The executive order that Bush signed July 20 to continue the CIA interrogation program was written to comply with the Military Commissions Act.

The CIA will not comment on the future of the agency’s high-value detainee interrogation program, or the possible role of psychologists. Little, the CIA spokesman, would say only that the program had been “implemented lawfully, with great care and close review — including extensive discussion within the executive branch and oversight from Congress.”

But whatever happens, it will be done in secret. Little confirmed that the CIA will not allow officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit the agency’s detention facilities or monitor detainees held by the agency. Simon Schorno, an ICRC spokesman in Washington, said his organization “deplores any form of undisclosed detention and repeats its call to have access to any person who might be detained by the United States.”

He also said his organization remains concerned about people who have been held by the CIA since 9/11 but seem to have disappeared. In June, six human rights groups published the names of 39 such individuals believed to have been held by the CIA in secret locations. Said Schorno, “The ICRC remains gravely concerned by the fate of the persons previously held in the CIA detention program who remain unaccounted for.”

Psychologists now have to decide if they still want to associate themselves with that kind of a program. Or if after six years of brutal interrogations, enough is enough.

“Psychologists have been involved one way or another in supporting the CIA in various forms of psychological torture for years,” said Leonard Rubenstein, president of Physicians for Human Rights. “The issue is coming to a head because there are so many people within the profession who really feel that the whole integrity of the profession is at stake … This is the profession coming to terms with itself.”

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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