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Psychologists, Guantánamo, and Torture: A Profession Struggles to Save Its Soul

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For years, the varied mental health professions in the United States have been fighting turf wars. Psychiatrists tried to keep psychologists from being able to conduct therapy or, more recently, from prescribing psychotropic medications. Psychologists fought for rights to conduct these treatments. Psychologists, in turn, fought the attempts of their Masters-level colleagues for professional recognition. Social workers, mental health counselors, and psychoanalysts each fight for recognition against opposition from others.

These battles are fought out through traditional legislative lobbying and pressure. They are, however, also fought through showing one group's value in furthering the interests of the powerful and through organized representatives of each profession maintaining access to non-legislative corridors of power. Thus, keeping in favor with the powerful and not alienating them can be a central aspect of a profession's strategy of advancement.

In this decades-long struggle, the profession of psychology has tried to distinguish itself in various ways. One of these ways is through emphasizing its scientific character. Thus, representatives of organized psychology have been at pains to demonstrate the value of the "science of psychology" to the powerful in industry and in government, including the military and the national security establishment. In addition, psychology's value to the education establishment has been emphasized, as has its value in industrial relations and marketing. World War II provided many opportunities for psychology to demonstrate its value to the war effort including through the screening of soldiers, the development of propaganda techniques to motivate the home front and to undermine enemy morale, the use of human factors engineering to improve airplanes, and the treatment of psychological casualties from the war.

The post-World War II development of a militarized national security state provided many further opportunities for psychology to garner attention to its contributions to the art of propaganda and the development of useable high-tech weapons through human factors engineering, among numerous others.

One particularly disturbing area where psychologists were attempting to demonstrate their value was in the development of sophisticated techniques of interrogation that could obtain information from unwilling captives through the application of behavior modification techniques based on psychological science. Historian Alfred W. McCoy has shed light in this area in his recent book A Question of Torture and in numerous articles and interviews. He documents the decades-long CIA effort to utilized psychological expertise to develop forms of torture that could break down the personality of detainees, rendering them, it was hoped, incapable of withholding desired information. Many of these technique were utilized during the Vietnam conflict and in the various brutal U.S.-supported counterinsurgency campaigns in Latin American in the 1970s and 1980s.

Such applications of psychological knowledge posed thorny issues for organized psychology, always on the lookout for new ways of demonstrating psychology's value to the powerful. While their morally objectionable quality made direct endorsement impossible, to straightforwardly condemn these applications would run the risk of alienating precisely those decision-makers who might be impressed with the potential contributions of psychology as a science and as a profession. Thus, silence about such abuses of psychology is what one would expect from the American Psychological Association, the country's largest representative of organized psychology and silence is what was observed.

The Global War on Terror, launched after 9-11, provided yet another opportunity to experiment with these behavioral science-based torture techniques. The establishment of a detention center at Guanta'namo for those detained during the Afghanistan war and other battles in the "Global War on Terrorism" provided a particularly favorable environment. A total institution was created who inmates, the detainees, have, at least in the administration's opinion, absolutely no rights and where all aspects of their daily life can be monitored and controlled. The administration's legal doctrine emphasized that essentially anything short of direct murder was legally acceptable.

Various "behavioral scientists" from psychology and psychiatry were brought in to help the development of this total institution devoted to complete destruction of the personality. In 2005 it was revealed by the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and the New York Times that mental health professionals were serving as consultants on Behavioral Science Consultation Teams, BSCT (colloquially referred to as "biscuit" teams) at Guanta'namo, designed to advise interrogators. These teams consult in every aspect of interrogation. As the New Yorker's Jane Mayer told Democracy Now!, one psychiatrist determined that a particular inmate would be allowed seven toilet paper squares a day, while another inmate who was afraid of the dark was deliberately kept almost totally in the dark. Another consultant behavioral scientist, psychologist James Mitchell, recommended that interrogators treat a detainee in such a way as to generate a form of helplessness known as "learned helplessness."

Authors M. Gregg Bloche and Jonathan H. Marks noted in their 2005 NEJM article that interrogations at Guanta'namo are often designed to increase stress by means verging on, or even constituting torture:

"Military interrogators at Guanta'namo Bay have used aggressive counter-resistance measures in systematic fashion to pressure detainees to cooperate. These measures have reportedly included sleep deprivation, prolonged isolation, painful body positions, feigned suffocation, and beatings. Other stress-inducing tactics have allegedly included sexual provocation and displays of contempt for Islamic symbols."

They go on to note that:

"Since late 2002, psychiatrists and psychologists have been part of a strategy that employs extreme stress, combined with behavior-shaping rewards, to extract actionable intelligence from resistant captives."

Recently, the United Nations Committee against Torture went further and stated that "detaining persons indefinitely without charge, constitutes per se a violation of the Convention" Against Torture. Thus, according to this official body, the existence of Guanta'namo in its present form is itself illegal. They went on to join the many organizations and institutions, including most recently, the European Parliament, to call for Guanta'namo's closing.

[More information on the interrogation techniques used by American forces at Guanta'namo and elsewhere, as well as on their effects on the psychological well-being of those subjected to them, can be found in the Physicians for Human Rights report: Break Them Down: Systematic Use of Psychological Torture by US Forces]

Even leaving aside the general issue of whether interrogations of the kind conducted at Guanta'namo are ever morally acceptable, the participation of mental health professionals in them is potentially in conflict with the ethics codes governing the psychiatric and psychological professions, those of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association. The Abu Ghraib scandal with its graphic photographic evidence shone a bright spotlight on the abuses that occurred in American detention facilities in this Global War, and after the horrors occurring at Guanta'namo and the role of mental health professionals in them were widely reported on, silence by the psychological Association became more difficult to maintain. Pressure mounted for both the Psychological and Psychiatric Associations to do something about psychologists and psychiatrists aiding the torturous interrogations occurring at Guanta'namo.

After an extended period of discussion and debate, on May 22, 2006, the American Psychiatric Association endorsed a policy statement that unambiguously stated that under no circumstances should psychiatrists take part in interrogations, at Guanta'namo or elsewhere. The crucial section states:

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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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