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Tomgram: Rebecca Gordon, Psychologists Say No to Torture

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

I offer you this guarantee: there's an anniversary coming on October 7th that no one in this country is going to celebrate or, I suspect, even think about. Seventeen years ago, less than a month after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration launched the air campaign that began the invasion of Afghanistan. It would prove anything but a policing action to take out Osama bin Laden, our former ally in the Afghan anti-Soviet war of the 1980s, and his relatively modest organization, al-Qaeda. It focused instead on destroying the Taliban, then ruling most of Afghanistan, "liberating" that country, and launching what was already being called the war on terror. At the time, top Bush administration officials were thinking ahead to a similarly successful strike that would take out Iraqi autocrat (and former ally) Saddam Hussein. Victory came with remarkable speed in Afghanistan and then the conflict there just went right on. Almost 17 years later, the 16th U.S. commander, General John Nicholson, who once claimed that Washington had "turned the corner" in that country, has just left the scene, saying with a certain pathos, "It is time for this war in Afghanistan to end." The 17th U.S. commander, General Scott Miller, has just arrived to pursue, like so many commanders before him, a truly winning strategy. So it's understandable if no anniversary festivities are in order.

While the war on terror continues to rage in that country and across a significant swath of the rest of the planet and terror groups multiply and spread, this January another anniversary looms -- and I think I can offer you assurances that it, too, will be widely ignored here. Almost 16 years ago, in January 2002, the Bush administration began to build a detention camp at Guanta'namo Bay, Cuba, to hold prisoners from the soon-to-be-successful war on terror. It was to be the crown jewel in what I long ago termed a global "Bermuda Triangle of injustice," including a series of CIA "black sites" being set up around the world (and a CIA kidnapping campaign being launched to snatch terrorists from the streets of major cities and the backlands of the planet), all of which was to rid us of (Islamist) terrorists. Guanta'namo and its smaller siblings would also sit conveniently offshore of American justice, so that anything could be done to detainees there to get the information the Bush administration so desperately sought without fear of legal consequences. Those who ran Guanta'namo, which would eventually hold almost 800 prisoners and today has only 40 left, instituted a system of indefinite detention without charges, often under conditions that could only be called torture, and even started a fashion craze, the orange jumpsuit, grimly and mockingly picked up by various terror groups for their own prisoners.

Like the wars it was to help end, Guanta'namo is still there. Who could forget that, during his election campaign, Donald Trump threatened to refill that prison and on entering the Oval Office soon signed an executive order to keep it open. His administration is now reportedly contemplating repopulating it with former ISIS fighters being held in the Middle East. And honestly, so many years later, what could possibly go wrong with such a plan? Given that we also have a president who has threatened to "bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding," a recent decision by the American Psychological Association, when it comes to torture, matters. But let TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon, an expert on the subject and the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes, explain. Tom

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Holding the Line on Torture
One Organization at a Time
By Rebecca Gordon

Sometimes the good guys do win. That's what happened on August 8th in San Francisco when the Council of Representatives of the American Psychological Association (APA) decided to extend a policy keeping its members out of the U.S. detention center at Guanta'namo Bay, Cuba.

The APA's decision is important -- and not just symbolically. Today we have a president who has promised to bring back torture and "load up" Guanta'namo "with some bad dudes." When healing professionals refuse to work there, they are standing up for human rights and against torture.

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It wasn't always so. In the early days of Guanta'namo, military psychologists contributed to detainee interrogations there. It was for Guanta'namo that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved multiple torture methods, including among others excruciating stress positions, prolonged isolation, sensory deprivation, and enforced nudity. Military psychologists advised on which techniques would take advantage of the weaknesses of individual detainees. And it was two psychologists, one an APA member, who designed the CIA's whole "enhanced interrogation program."

Here's a disclaimer of sorts: ever since I witnessed the effects of U.S. torture policy firsthand in Central America in the 1980s, I've had a deep personal interest in American torture practices. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, I wrote two books focused on the subject, the latest being American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes.

For a year and a half, I also served on a special ethics commission established by the APA after ugly revelations came out about how that organization's officials had, in the Bush years, maneuvered to allow its members to collude with the U.S. government in settings where torture was used. In fact, an independent review it commissioned in 2015 concluded that "some of the association's top officials, including its ethics director, sought to curry favor with Pentagon officials by seeking to keep the association's ethics policies in line with the Defense Department's interrogation policies." Indeed, those leaders colluded "with important DoD officials to have [the] APA issue loose, high-level ethical guidelines that did not constrain [the] DoD in any greater fashion than existing DoD interrogation guidelines."

In the wake of that independent review, the APA's Council of Representatives voted that same year to keep psychologists out of national security interrogation settings.

It's modestly encouraging that this August two-thirds of its governing body voted against a resolution that would have returned psychologists to sites like Gitmo.

What makes the new vote less than completely satisfying, however, is this: the 2015 vote establishing that policy was 157-to-1. This year, a third of the council was ready to send psychologists back to Guanta'namo. Like much of the rest of Donald Trump's United States, the APA seems to be in the process of backsliding on torture.

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The details of the parliamentary wrangling at the August meeting are undoubtedly of little interest to outsiders. The actual motion under consideration was important, however, because it would have rescinded part of the organization's historic 2015 decision, prohibiting its members from providing psychological treatment, as it put it,

"at the Guanta'namo Bay detention facility, 'black sites,' vessels in international waters, or sites where detainees are interrogated under foreign jurisdiction unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights or providing treatment to military personnel."

Proponents of the new motion argued that keeping psychologists out of places like Guanta'namo deprives detainees of much needed psychological treatment. If the association really cared about detainees, they claimed, it would not deny them the treatment they need.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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