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New article elucidates military psychologists' complicity in detainee abuse and "ethics" coverup

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In a major story published recently simultaneously on Salon and ProPublica, Sheri Fink discusses the conundrum of military psychologists, who claim, with more or less evidence, to have been against SERE-based abusive interrogations while in fact aiding  those interrogations. To the extent that these psychologists’ claims of being against abuse are true, Fink’s story shows that personal opinions are not enough when confronted with a program of state-sponsored abuse. Each of these psychologists put any personal reservations aside and did his duty, carrying out official policy to develop and implement abusive interrogation techniques.

Fink also reports that it was these very same compromised psychologists whom the APA put in charge of forming its “ethics” policy on participation in interrogations. These military psychologists, and their APA enablers, quickly guided the task force to its preordained conclusion, that everything was fine in psychologist participation in interrogations at Guantanamo, the black sites, Bagram, and Iraq. As Fink reports:

The task force found it to be “consistent with the APA Ethics Code” for psychologists to consult with interrogators in the interests of national security. While noting that psychologists do not participate in torture and have a responsibility to report it, and should be committed to the APA ethics code whenever they “encounter conflicts between ethics and law,” the task force decided that “if the conflict cannot be resolved … psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law,” apparently left psychologists free to adhere to the U.S. legal determinations of the time, regardless of their relationship to international treaties such as the Geneva Conventions. “I have long had a sense of frustration with ‘international law,’” then-incoming APA president wrote to the task-force listserv on July 30, 2005. “I have zero interest in entangling APA with the toothless, contradictory and obfuscatory treaties that comprise ‘international law.’ Rather, I prefer to see APA take principled stands on policy isssues where psychology has some scientific basis for doing so.”

The board of the APA, the largest membership organization for psychologists, who are employed in great numbers by the Department of Defense, quickly adopted the task force’s report as the organization’s official policy.

Thus did these particular psychologist-interrogators, and their colleagues, obtain an ethical get-out-of-jail-free card akin to the legal get-out-of-jail-free provided to the torturers by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel “torture memos.”

Fink’s story is also important as with it ProPublica has for the first time made public the listserve of the APA’s PENS [Psychological Ethics and National Security] task force [available as pdf here and in ProPublica's new searchable document browser here].

Readers can now peruse these emails and form their own conclusions about the nature of APA-DoD collusion in this supposedly independent process. Why did the task force accept that its report had to be consistent with DoD policies, one might ask? Why did, with one isolated exception, none of these esteemed military psychologists, intimately familiar as they were with the government’s reverse-engineering of SERE torture techniques think to describe this issue to the task force? And why did they accept without challenge such brazen lies as that of Col. Larry James: “am very proud of the fact, it was psychologists who fixed the problems and not caused it. This is a factual statement! the fact of the matter is that since Jan 2003, where ever we have had psychologists no abuses have been reported,” despite the fact that numerous abuses since Jan 2003 had been reported at Guantanamo?

Thus, the N ew York Times reported in November, 2004 on the Red Cross’ June, 2004 visit:

The report of the June visit said investigators had found a system devised to break the will of the prisoners at Guantánamo, who now number about 550, and make them wholly dependent on their interrogators through ”humiliating acts, solitary confinement, temperature extremes, use of forced positions.” Investigators said that the methods used were increasingly ”more refined and repressive” than learned about on previous visits.

”The construction of such a system, whose stated purpose is the production of intelligence, cannot be considered other than an intentional system of cruel, unusual and degrading treatment and a form of torture,” the report said. It said that in addition to the exposure to loud and persistent noise and music and to prolonged cold, detainees were subjected to ‘’some beatings.”

Since this Times report had been the stimulus for the formation of the PENS task force — to “put out the fires” as a senior APA official described its function to the group –  wouldn’t one think that James’ falsehood would have been challenged?

Of course since then we have learned of numerous systematic abuses at Guantanamo after James and his fellow psychologists cleaned the place up. While James was there, standard operating procedures were created that mandated four weeks of isolation “to enhance and exploit the disorientation and disorganization felt by a newly arrived detainee in the interrogation process.” But, perhaps James and his military psychologist colleagues did not consider such isolation “abuse.” Seventeen-year-old Mohammed Jawad was subjected to isolation while James was present, making sure no abuses occurred. And after his clean-up job, in 2004 Jawad and then 16-year-old Omar Khadr were subjected to the “frequent flyer” sleep deprivation program. But perhaps, as “sleep management” was authorized by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, the “frequent flyer” program wasn’t abuse, in James’ view.  Or perhaps, because it hadn’t been “reported” by June  2005 when James made his statement, it wasn’t relevant.

What is relevant is that several members of the PENS task force knew or should have known about these abuses and kept silent. Also relevant is that the APA leadership, cognizant as they were at that time, of media reporting that psychologists were handmaidens of abuse, should never have appointed these very same psychologists to formulate their “ethics” policy.

 

Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. He was a psychological consultant on two of (more...)
 

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