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Protecting the Torturers: Bad Faith and Distortions From the American Psychological Association

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"A torturing nation uses fear, persuasion, and propaganda to secure the assent to torture from society in general and from members of its legal, academic, journalistic, and medical professions." -- Steven Miles, M.D.,
Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror

Bahraini national al-Dossari has been imprisoned at Guanta'namo Naval Base for over four-and-a-half years. Amnesty International has obtained his account of his treatment in United States care in Afghanistan and in Guanta'namo Naval Base. Here is one excerpt:
"The investigators would also put psychological pressure on me.... Some of the things that happened to me during investigations are: I was threatened with being murdered, tortured and having to spend the rest of my life in jail in Cuba, my daughter Nura would be kidnapped, they would make trouble for my family in Saudi Arabia and they threatened to assassinate me after I am released. They put very strong detergent in the investigation room and poured it all around me until I almost suffocated. They put a music stereo record on very, very loudly, they put very bright torches to my face, they put me in a very, very cold room and reduced the temperature to the lowest temperature for many long hours and did not allow me to have food or drink, go to the toilet or perform my ablutions to pray.

"There were many other things such as they tied my hands to my feet in the ring on the floor of the room. All the investigation rooms have a metal ring fixed in the floor to tie the detainees' feet to it.

"As for sexual assaults, many things happened to me and I will mention some of them here.... One day, on a Saturday - I will tell you the reason for why I remember this date later - the soldiers took me at night for investigation. In the investigation room, they tied my feet to that steel ring and then they left me and went away. I sat alone for a long time. Then the door was opened forcefully and four soldiers wearing black masks and a female investigator came in. The soldiers started terrorising me by raising their voices and one of them had a video camera in his hand that he was taping this with. Then this investigator said to me, 'now we want you to confess that you are with Al Qaeda or that you have some connection to the attacks in America, otherwise tonight we will show you something that you will never ever forget for the rest of your life', and of course, I will never forget what happened for as long as I live. I told her that I had no connection to what she was talking about. They also had extra shackles with them that the soldiers moved in their hands to terrorise and frighten me. They started threatening me and when I realised that something serious was going to happen to me, I started screaming and shouting so that perhaps one of the brothers would hear my screams. However, that was out of the question as all the investigation rooms were soundproof. She said to me, laughing, 'it's Saturday, it's the weekend, it's late at night and there are no officials around'. After one final attempt to threaten me, she ordered the soldiers to start - what they had previously been ordered to do; the soldiers came and took me off the chair. My feet were tied to that ring as I mentioned before. They then laid me out on my back and put the extra shackles on top of my hand shackles and pulled me by them forcefully and brutally in the opposite direction, towards my feet, while I was lying on my back. Then the investigator signalled to a soldier who [had] a pair of scissors in his hand to cut off all my clothes (sic). The soldiers cut off all my clothes, removed them and threw them in a corner of the room. The investigator then started taking off her clothes - the soldier with the camera was filming everything. When she was in her underwear, she stood on top of me. She took off her underpants, she was wearing a sanitary towel, and drops of her menstrual blood fell on me and then she assaulted me. I tried to fight her off but the soldiers held me down with the chains forcefully and ruthlessly so that they almost cut my hands. I spat at her on her face; she put her hand on her dirty menstrual blood that had fallen on my body and wiped it on my chest. This shameless woman was wearing a cross on a chain. The cross had a figure of a crucified man on it. She raised the cross and kissed it, and then she looked at me and said that this cross was a present for you Muslims. She stained her hands with her menstrual blood and wiped my face and beard with it. Then she got up, cleaned herself, put her clothes back on and left the room...then the soldiers took my hands and tied them to my feet on the ground. All the soldiers left once they had taken my clothes from the corner of the room and left me in this state - tied up, naked and smeared with [] menstrual blood... [J]ust before dawn. I was in a hysterical state, I was in a really bad state; I almost went mad because of what had happened, how it had happened and why it had happened."

Al-Dossari's account is far from unique. Treatment such as that described has been routine at Guanta'namo and other United States detention centers in the Global War Against Terrorism.

A significant aspect of the treatment at Guanta'namo constitutes what Physicians for Human Rights has called (in their report Break Them Down: Systematic Use of Psychological Torture by US Forces) "psychological torture." Included under this term are "techniques such as sensory deprivation, forced nudity, forced grooming, isolation, and use of detainees' phobias, such as fear of dogs" (p. 25).

Integral to the interrogations at Guanta'namo, and to the psychological torture that commonly occurred during them, has been the participation of members of the so-called "helping professions," including physicians, nurses, and psychologists. Perhaps most innovative is the existence of Behavioral Science Consultation Teams, or BSCT (pronounced "biscuits" in military jargon) consisting of psychologists and psychiatrists participating in interrogations and consulting on interrogation strategies for particular detainees.

A July 2004 New Yorker article by Jane Mayer presented circumstantial evidence that these BSCT staff received specialized training by psychologists from the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program. This SERE program teaches military officers how to resist torture by subjecting them to a brief period of extreme psychological abuse. At the time of Mayer's article, hard evidence that Guanta'namo interrogators had been trained in SERE techniques was lacking, despite the fact that top SERE staff were kown to have consulted at Guanta'namo. Recently Salon found direct evidence that SERE techniques were indeed taught to Guanta'namo interrogators. The Salon article details some SERE techniques reportedly utilized at Guanta'namo (and at Abu Ghraib): "forced nudity, stress positions, isolation, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation and exhaustion from exercise." Also used were extremely loud music and prolonged cold. Physician and bioethicist Steven Miles has reported the participation of BSCT psychologist Maj. John Leso in the brutal and prolonged interrogation of Mohammed al-Qahtani. (See also the detailed interrogation log on al-Qahtani, referred to as Detainee 063.) During al-Qahtani's interrogation he was subjected to extreme cold to the point where his heart slowed and he was hospitalized (he was then warmed up and again subjected to extreme cold), he was injected with several bags of saline solution while being strapped to a table until he urinated on himself, and he was forced to bark like a dog; we are not told what was done to him to get him to bark.

As the nature of the treatment of detainees at Guanta'namo was revealed, this treatment was condemned as an illegal violation of human rights by numerous international organizations including the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, the United Nations Committee Against Torture, the European Union, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and Amnesty Internationa l.

Al-Dossari described the involvement of psychiatrists, other doctors, and nurses in his interrogation. As a result of repeated accounts like these, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association have barred the participation of psychiatrists and, indeed, all medical doctors in interrogations.

Unlike the medical and psychiatric associations, the American Psychological Association, as I documented in my recent article, A Profession Struggles to Save Its Soul: Psychologists, Guanta'namo and Torture, has steadfastly refused to condemn (mis)use of psychological techniques to break detainees at Guanta'namo or elsewhere and has consistently refused to forbid members to participate in interrogations at these facilities. In fact, the Association leadership has worked persistently to protect the ability of psychologists to participate in "national security" interrogations, even, at times, claiming an ethical obligation to do so to prevent harm to society, presumably from the "terrorists" imprisoned there for the last four-and-a-half years. (See also Olivia Moorehead-Slaughter's report on the Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) she chaired: "as experts in human behavior, psychologists contribute to effective interrogations.")

In recent months the opposition to Association policy from within has strengthened. However, these efforts have been limited in nature and opponents have, in every instance, been outmaneuvered by the Association leadership. In addition to the disturbing events reported in my previous article, more evidence on the smokescreen of manipulations, distortions and downright lies used by the Association raises additional questions as to what the Association leadership is up to.

Ethics Code Exempts Government and Military Employees: Endorsing the Nuremberg Defense
"Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm." -- American Psychological Association Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct

One questionable action concerns the Association ethics code that governs members' professional behavior, which was changed in 2002 so as to exempt psychologists working for the government (including the military) from being bound by the Association code. Thus, the 1992 code had a somewhat ambiguous clause:
"1.02 Relationship of Ethics and Law.

"If psychologists' ethical responsibilities conflict with law, psychologists make known their commitment to the Ethics Code and take steps to resolve the conflict in a responsible manner."

In 2002 this clause was changed to read:
"1.02 Conflicts Between Ethics and Law, Regulations, or Other Governing Legal Authority
"If psychologists' ethical responsibilities conflict with law, regulations, or other governing legal authority, psychologists make known their commitment to the Ethics Code and take steps to resolve the conflict. If the conflict is unresolvable via such means, psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority."

Note that the new wording explicitly exempts psychologists aiding torture or abuse under military or government orders from being charged with ethics violations as long as they can claim they took steps to resolve the conflict. By this change the Association in 2002 would have implicitly endorsed the defense of Lieutenant William Calley (convicted for ordering the My Lai massacre), Adolf Eichmann and other Nazi war criminals, and many others who claimed they were simply following orders, a defense that was rejected by the United States and the world through the Nuremberg and other war crimes trials.

In addition to directly incorporating the Nuremberg Defense into the ethics code, this change also has other harmful effects. By weakening the prohibition against acting in conflict with the ethics code, the Association significantly weakened the standing of any military psychologists desiring to refuse an immoral order or to refuse orders that violate international law. They could no longer call upon the ethics code as requiring refusal. While military personnel are allowed to refuse illegal or immoral orders, they do so at profound risk to themselves. In the case of military psychologists contemplating refusal of orders, the Association has increased this risk tremendously.

This change in the Association's ethics code has the effect of making other Association statements on allowable psychologist behavior largely irrelevant. Thus, statements forbidding psychologists from participating in torture or other abusive behavior have no standing if the psychologists are ordered to participate by a "governing legal authority," e.g., a commanding officer.

As long as Section 1.02 remains in the Association ethics code, efforts to get the Association to adopt statements on torture, coercive interrogations and the like (see next section) are essentially exercises in futility as these statements would not be binding on psychologist members working for the military or other government agencies (e.g., the CIA). Association critics working for such changes should realize that they have been wasting their time for the last several years pursuing what would have been ineffective changes in the ethics code. Some critics have recognized the problem and have tried for years, unsuccessfully, to get Section 1.02 amended to require adherence to international human rights standards when following laws or government orders.

Given the long history of discussion of the "following orders" defense, there is no possibility that the Association "ethics" leadership did not know exactly what they were doing. The only question is why they felt the need to build the Nuremberg Defense directly into the ethics code. Were there particular ethics violations they were aware of and were trying to protect, or did they have a more general goal of allowing free reign to psychologists enlisted in the then-beginning "Global War on Terror?" It is interesting that this revision occurred just as the first information was coming out about the torture occurring at Guanta'namo and in Afghanistan and prior to the public awareness that psychologists were an intimate part of the interrogation apparatus there.

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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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