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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 5/17/09

APA ethics policy-maker clarifies defense of torture; reveals American Psychological Association - Pentagon collusion

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The recently public posting on the Propublica web site of the listserv from the American Psychological Association's secretive 2005 PENS [Psychological Ethics and National Security] task force has again focused attention on the nature of this task force and on potential collusion between the APA and the Pentagon to provide "ethical" cover for psychologists aiding Bush administration interrogations at Guantanamo, the CIA's "black sites," and  in in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One piece of evidence supporting a claim of collusion is that, in a highly unusual step, the task force membership was kept confidential from both the APA membership and the press and public. Salon reporter Mark Benjamin had to go to Congressional sources to get the names a year later, though it turned out that they had been available on an obscure website, if one had known to look there. APA members learned from Benjamin that a majority of members were from the military-intelligence establishment. Five of these members had aided Bush-era interrogations, with four from chains of command accused of abuses; among other ethical problems with the task force composition, these members were giving themselves get-out-of-jail-free cards by pronouncing these interrogations "ethical."

Not long after the listserv release psychologist and PENS member Bryce Lefever was featured on NPR's All Things Considered, defending CIA torture psychologists Mitchell and Jessen and the reverse-engineering of the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape [SERE] techniques. Lefever revealed in that interview that he saw no ethical problems with Bush administration interrogation tactics, based as they were on the techniques used on US service members in the SERE school where Lefever had served as a psychologist monitoring trainees for possible harm.

The Lefever NPR interview created quite a stir among psychologists, including members of the APA's Council of Representatives, as it revealed the questionable ethical reasoning of those chosen to form policy for the APA in this critical area. Reportedly, a major figure in the APA military psychology division wrote a letter distancing the division from Lefever's extreme views, as depicted on NPR. In response to the criticism, Lefever has issued an Open Letter to military psychologists in which he taken exception to this criticism, and to the NPR interview, claiming major distortions of his views by NPR. In addition to clarifying and defending his views, in this Open Letter Lefever incidentally provides additional evidence of APA-Pentagon collusion in forming the PENS task force.

Before examining his Open Letter, it is useful to understand that this NPR interview was not the first time Lefever made the arguments supporting US interrogation tactics. In an article on the NPR interview, I quoted material from the PENS listserv indicating that he made many of the same arguments to the task force, and was largely ignored, but met with no objection from other members. Further, in August 2007, Lefever defended the SERE-based abuse [torture] of Jose Padilla to a Christian Science Monitor reporter:

" 'There's something to be said for sending the message that the gloves are coming off,' says Capt. Bryce Lefever, a Navy psychologist and former SERE school instructor. 'You don't take a knife to a gunfight.'

Captain Lefever says it is unfair to compare US antiterror interrogations with Soviet interrogation techniques. 'Their abuse was a systematic practice to conceal the truth,' he says. 'If Padilla was abused, then it was for a righteous purpose – to reveal the truth.'

Lefever opposes the use of torture because in most instances it is ineffective. But sometimes, harsh and brutal tactics can produce results, he adds. The key is that interrogators must be careful in their questions not to telegraph an agenda to the subject, because if the technique is coercive enough, the subject will say anything to make it stop.' "

Here is the Lefever Open Letter:

"Open Letter to Military Psychology

To Bill Strickland, Eve Weber and members of the military psychology community:

Over the years, I have granted interviews to various publications on matters pertaining to clinical psychology.  I have done so with the intention to inform, educate and persuade both the professional and lay community on matters that I believe are important to the practice of psychology and to the defense of our nation.  I believe that it is the responsible obligation of citizens to debate matters that affect policy, health, freedom, as well as US and world opinion.   I also believe that free, open and honest expression, in pursuit of the truth, is the only way in which any idea can mature or truly progress.  Actions based on ignorance, if they succeed, will do so on dumb luck.  Clarity in our terms, philosophies and ideas will lead to informed decisions.

When I have spoken to the press, I have done so judiciously and have maintained, in every instance, that I speak as a private citizen.  I have never desired or pretended to speak for another person.  And, I have insisted that I do not speak for the Navy, the Department of Defense, or military psychology.  Until recently, this admonition has been largely respected.

There has been a strong reaction to the interview and accompanying article on NPR All Things Considered.  Much of the negative reaction has come from the military psychology community.  This has caused me considerable anguish-particularly because those colleagues critical of the interview condemned it, me, my participation, etc. without first contacting me or seeking to understand.  The Strickland letter immediately sought to distance the military community from what were assumed to be my views.  In the material that follows, I will address a few of the particulars in where and how NPR misrepresented my views.  Now you might ask how, within a recorded interview, my stated views could be twisted or misrepresented.  Let me provide a few examples:

1.    The correspondent, Alix Spiegel, promised that the story would be mine, that she would be in the background and that I would be able to lay out the thesis.  Now, I am not as naïve as some of you would think.  I am aware of NPR's reputation.  However, with the various assurances, and that my statements would be recorded verbatim, I agreed to the interview.  Hindsight is perfect, however, going in, I had no particular reason to suspect that she would lie, twist and manipulate so egregiously.

2.    The title:  "Military Psychologist Says Harsh Tactics Justified."  If you believe in the honesty of NPR's reporting, and logic, you would assume that the rest of the interview would support that headline.  However, I never made such a statement.  In fact, the article quoted me as saying I was opposed to torture and advocated only slow, rapport-building techniques.  When Strickland's letter stated: "...we strongly disagree with the assertions attributed to Dr. Lefever,"  I was quite taken aback.  I thought that he believed the "hit piece," didn't read the story, and disagreed with my position opposing torture.  It is important that we not twist and mischaracterize or misrepresent each other's positions.

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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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