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The Facts be Damned! Psychologists' President Defends Psychologist Participation in Detainee Interrogations

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Last Friday American Psychological Association President, and Indiana University professor, Sharon Brehm discussed the APA's policies supporting psychologist participation in national security interrogations with faculty and students at her university. The Indiana Daily Student has an account of the meeting.

While the entire article is well worth reading, a few of Dr. Brehm's comments as cited there are especially worth commenting upon. Either they reflect an unacceptable level of ignorance of the basic facts about psychologists' roles in American torture or they are simply willful falsehoods. For example, Dr. Brehm stated:

"Brehm said psychologists only acted in an advisory role during questionings, working with interrogators to develop effective strategies that will elicit “accurate information.”"

There is now overwhelming evidence from reporters and government documents that this statement is not simply false, but almost the exact opposite of the truth. Thus, three major journalists (Jane Mayer at the New Yorker, Katherine Eban at Vanity Fair, and Mark Benjamin at Salon) have reported that the basic torture techniques used by the CIA in its black sites were initially developed and implemented by psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. This role is far from Brehm's "…psychologists only acted in an advisory role during questionings, working with interrogators to develop effective strategies that will elicit 'accurate information.' " On the contrary, as Eban reported In Vanity Fair:

"psychologists weren't merely complicit in America''s aggressive new interrogation regime. Psychologists, working in secrecy, had actually designed the tactics and trained interrogators in them while on contract to the C.I.A..”

Thus, Dr. Brehm's "effective strategies" include months of total isolation, freezing, being chained up in painful positions for hours and days on end, and it seems, waterboarding.

The Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General (OIG), in a report declassified last May, documented the central role of psychologists, including those from the military's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program in the development of what the OIG itself saw as abusive. [See our summary of the OIG report and in pdf format.] The OIG report documents how SERE psychologists trained Guantanamopsychologists in the use of SERE-based torture techniques. The OIG report also documents how SERE and Guantanamostaff went to Iraq to train US soldiers there in abusive SERE-based "counter-resistance" techniques. The OIG report made clear that these techniques were, in the OIG's opinion, abusive.

Just last month the Guantanamo Camp Delta Standard Operating Procedures manual was leaked. As I wrote, this document details the systematic use of a month of isolation on all new detainees "to foster dependence on interrogators and 'enhance and exploit the disorientation and disorganization felt by a newly arrived detainee in the interrogation process.' " The decision about how long a detainee would be held in isolation, the SOP states, was to be made by the GTMO Joint Intelligence Group (JIG). The Chief Psychologist for the JIG at the time the SOP was issued was Col. Larry James. The APA appointed Col. James, along with five others with military or intelligence ties (including the head SERE psychologist), to its Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security to formulate "ethics" to decide if it was "ethical" for psychologists to participate in national security interrogations. Further, the APA selected Col. James to present its "anti-torture" policy to the 2007 Convention.

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To this extensive record that psychologists were active and central participants in some of the worst of the Bush administration's abuses, Dr. Brehm contrasts her faith:

"“We have great confidence that at least most of our members are really good people and that they would not do bad things,” Brehm said, adding her belief that psychologists had the ability to be heroes in fighting against torture."

Given the historical record, Dr. Brehm's belief only makes sense if the words "heroes," "against," and "torture" no longer mean what they used to mean.

Another of Dr. Brehm's statements is similarly astounding, given that she is a social psychologist:

"“All of our ethical policies are based on individual responsibility,” Brehm said. “If you violate the behaviors that are prescribed then, if it is a serious violation, we’ll kick you out of the association and you may not be able to make a living anymore. It is that basic.”"

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Social psychologists are taught from the first day that the social environment often overrules individual behavioral tendencies. Those in abuse-generating situations are likely to participate in abuse. . Social psychologists routinely study why "good" people do "bad" things. There is no evidence that psychologists are uniquely able to resist these pressures Indeed, at the APA Convention last August, Craig Haney, a social psychologist who studies the US criminal justice system, stated that in 30 years of research in prisons, he knew of not a single instance in which a psychologist stopped existing abuse.

Dr. Brehm, like the rest of the APA leadership, ignores that we live in a country which, at this time, is committed to detainee abuse as national policy. Those aiding interrogations in that system are, at best, complicit in the numerous abuses we know are occurring, the kidnapping of detainees from around the world, the purchase of detainees, the lack of any legal rights, the removal of the centuries-old right to habeas corpus, not to mention the abusive interrogations. Rather than denouncing this organized regime, the APA talks obsessively about "influencing policy" through engagement, but has precious little to show for it. The CIA still tortures, using the techniques that were designed by psychologists. We all know it. The press reports on it. But the APA has yet to utter a word condemning these misuses of psychological knowledge and expertise.

Jane Mayer, in an august 8, 2007 Democracy Now! interview pointed out that not only the knowledge and expertise but the prestige of psychology was central to the Bush administration's torture regime. The administration figures ordering torture hoped psychologist participation would prove to be a "get out of jail free" card, in the event of future investigation of and trial for their crimes:

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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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