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Letter to Senate Intelligence Committee: Psychologists out of Abusive Interrogations

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Today I sent the following letter to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on behalf of a broad coalition of psychologists and other mental health professionals -- including Coalition for an Ethical Psychology; Psychologists for Social Responsibility; The Center for Victims of Torture, Minneapolis, MN; Psychologists for an Ethical APA; Withhold APA Dues; Monterey Bay (CA) Psychological Association -- concerned about the roles of psychologists in the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" program and other abusive interrogations. The SSCI is in the process of conducting classified hearings on these issues. On September 25, the Committee had a closed hearing to hear testimony from various sources, including the American Psychological Association. Many of these, but not the APA's, were very moving. I especially recommend the testimony of Allen Keller, MD, Director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture and a Advisory Council member of Physicians for Human Rights. We felt it was critical for the SSCI to hear from psychologists other than the APA.

Here's the Letter:

November 1, 2007

The Honorable Senator Jay Rockefeller
531 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

The Honorable Senator Christopher Bond
274 Russell Senate Office Building.
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senators Rockefeller and Bond:

We are psychologists and other mental health professionals representing a broad array of individuals and organizations concerned with the role of psychologists in abusive interrogations that may violate national and international laws. We are concerned by the clear evidence from multiple sources, including public documents, that psychologists have played a central role in illegal United States torture tactics by the CIA. As teachers, clinicians, and/or psychological researchers we are asking Congress to prohibit abusive tactics and to insure that health providers, including psychologists, are not involved in roles that violate their ethical obligations as health professionals.

Evidence of the Central Role of Psychologists in Abusive Interrogations

Over the last several years, press reports and official documents have highlighted the disturbing roles of health professionals, especially psychologists, in the abusive interrogations that took place at Guantanamo, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at the CIA's so-called "black sites" under the administration's "enhanced interrogations" program. We have learned from this record how the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape [SERE] program, designed to inoculate our troops from being coerced into false confessions if captured by a power that did not respect the Geneva Conventions, was reverse engineered to develop interrogation techniques to "break down" detainees held by the United States, so that they supposedly could no longer resist cooperating with interrogators.

We have learned that the "psychological techniques" of prolonged isolation, sensory deprivation and sensory overload, sleep deprivation, and cultural and sexual humiliation were at the core of this program, with techniques such as simulated drowning or waterboarding, threats with dogs, and threats of being buried alive or even threats to detainees' family members being used in certain instances. These enhanced techniques, we have learned, are based on a fifty-year old paradigm of creating "debility, dread, and dependency" in detainees1. Additionally, according to evidence in the recent report Leave No Marks by Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights First, these techniques cause severe and prolonged mental and physical harm to detainees and subject those who use them to serious risk of criminality2.

We have learned that the former SERE psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen of Mitchell Jessen and Associates (Offices: Spokane, Washington; Alexandria, Virginia) used these SERE-based techniques during interrogations at CIA detention centers in Thailand. We have learned from the Pentagon's Office of the Inspector General [OIG] that active-duty SERE psychologists trained psychologists in the Guantanamo Behavioral Science Consultation Teams [BSCTs] and others in the use of these so-called "counter-resistance" techniques. We have learned from the OIG that SERE psychologists went to both Iraq and Afghanistan to train interrogators in the use of these counter-resistance techniques

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We have further learned that these counter-resistance techniques were used extensively in Guantanamo in 2002-2004, with the participation of BSCT psychologists. We have also learned that BSCT psychologists at this time consulted not only on interrogations, narrowly defined, but on the often abusive conditions of detention under which detainees are kept. The public record is less clear on what has occurred since then, though, as recently as this past April, Amnesty International reported on the extensive use of prolonged isolation with many prisoners in Guantanamo.

This summer the President issued an Executive Order reauthorizing certain of the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" techniques, which, by definition, are "enhanced" because they go beyond those techniques authorized by the Army Field Manual. [We know that certain techniques sanctioned in the Army Field Manual itself, such as isolation for prolonged periods and manipulation of fears of detainee, would be considered unethical according to international codes of ethics, at least for health professionals.] Thus, these techniques almost certainly fall into the legally proscribed categories of torture and/or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

We fear that psychologists are still playing roles in the implementation of these abusive and illegal techniques. We know that during a July 22, 2007 appearance on Meet the Press, National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell stated: "When I was in a situation where I had to sign off, as a member of the process, my name to this executive order, I sat down with those who had been trained to do it, the doctors who monitor it, understanding that no one is subjected to torture. They’re, they’re [sic] treated in a way that they have adequate diet, not exposed to heat or cold. They’re not abused in any way. But I did understand, when exposed to the techniques, how they work and why they work, all under medical supervision." Now we do not know, given the paucity of publicly-available evidence about the CIA's programs, whether psychologists have ever participated in this "medical supervision," but we are concerned that psychologists may have been put in that position as the Surgeon General of the Army described the role of psychologists BSCTs as “safety officers.”3 As it is a further breach of medical ethics for a health professional to certify a detainee’s fitness for abusive interrogation, we feel that is essential for our profession, for this committee, and for the American people to know whether this has been the case.

In this same interview Director McConnell also stated: "I would not want a U.S. citizen to go through the process. But it is not torture, and there would be no permanent damage to that citizen." As psychologists and as citizens, we know that any "process" that Director McConnell would not want a U.S. citizen to go through is a process that no one anywhere should be subjected to and certainly is a process that no American citizen should be administering to others. And we know from extensive clinical work and research studies on the consequences of abusive interrogations that these effects are often long-lasting, in contradiction of Director McConnell's claim2. Thus, despite all suggestions to the contrary, these enhanced techniques appear in many cases to surpass the threshold for a legal definition as "torture" and almost certainly to pass that for "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment." As a result, those operatives, psychologists included, who participate in the use of these techniques are placed at serious risk of committing prosecutable criminal violations. The reputation of the United States on the international stage itself is also at risk. As a violator of international human rights laws, we limit our capacity and legitimacy to intervene when other nations practice torture.

As psychologists we are thoroughly aware that research, as well as the experience of professional interrogators, casts doubt upon the efficacy of these "harsh" techniques. Indeed, FBI investigators have repeatedly challenged the use of abusive SERE-based techniques at both military and CIA facilities. Additionally, on July 31, 2006, 20 former Army interrogators wrote the House Armed Services Committee opposing the use of these techniques as "counter-productive to the intelligence gathering mission."

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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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