Hypocritical Oath: Psychologists and Torture
First, do no harm. This tenet of medicine applies equally to psychologists, yet they are increasingly implicated in abusive interrogations, dare we say torture, at U.S. military detention facilities like Guantanamo. While the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association both have passed resolutions prohibiting members from participating in interrogations, the American Psychological Association refuses to, despite the outrage of many of its members.
Now, with the declassification of a report by the Pentagon’s inspector general detailing psychologists’ role in military interrogations, the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services announced it will investigate.
Dr. Leonard Rubenstein, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights, says such an “investigation into the development of torture techniques by the United States” would be “very significant. ... It should get into ... the use of psychologists in the development of the techniques, what is happening now, and how this can be avoided in the future.”
Two years ago, after a leaked report from the International Committee of the Red Cross criticizing the role of health professionals in U.S. interrogations, the American Psychological Association formed its Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS). There were nine voting members. Six of them were connected to the military. At the time, the identities of the panelists were secret. The PENS panel endorsed the continued participation of psychologists in military interrogations.
Of the three nonmilitary voting members, one, Dr. Michael G. Wessells of Randolph-Macon College, resigned, and another, Dr. Jean Maria Arrigo, recently called for the PENS report to be annulled. “I’m an oral historian, maybe even before a psychologist, and I always take notes. And I was told very sharply by one of the military psychologists not to take notes.” She took notes anyway. She archived the group’s entire e-mail list-serve, including months of e-mails from before and after the sole two-day PENS meeting. She went on: “I came later to realize that the entire report had been orchestrated. I no longer felt bound by that confidentiality agreement.” She recently handed over all her materials to the Senate Armed Services Committee. The third, Dr. Nina Thomas, told me: “I don’t think I was, in fact, critically aware of what Morgan Banks’ role was at the time of the meetings themselves. I knew the outline of his background, but I didn’t know the meaning of his background. So it disturbs me.”
Col. Morgan Banks, as Mark Benjamin of Salon.com first reported, is “the senior Army Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape psychologist, responsible for the training and oversight of all Army SERE psychologists, who include those involved in SERE training. He provides technical support and consultation to all Army psychologists providing interrogation support.” Another task-force member, Capt. Bryce Lefever, served at the Navy SERE school from 1990 to ‘93, then became the “Special Forces Task Force psychologist to Afghanistan in 2002, where he lectured to interrogators and was consulted on various interrogation techniques.”
Also included was R. Scott Shumate, who was the chief operational psychologist for the CIA’s counterterrorism center until 2003. He then became head of the Pentagon Counterintelligence Field Activity’s Behavioral Sciences directorate, overseeing psychologist participation in the interrogation process at Guantanamo.
SERE (pronounced SEER-ee) includes sensory and sleep deprivation, isolation, cultural and sexual humiliation, “stress” positions (like forced standing), extended subjection to light, loud noise, extremes of heat and cold, and “waterboarding,” wherein subjects have their face covered with a cloth that then has water poured over it, giving the feeling of suffocation. The goal of SERE is to train U.S. military members to resist torture they might experience if captured. As first reported by Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, the SERE techniques were “reverse engineered.” In other words, they were used against the prisoners.
The upcoming APA Annual Convention, taking place Aug. 17- 20, promises to be hotly contested. An unknown number of members are withholding dues. Some have quit. Physicians for Human Rights’ Rubenstein summed up:
“Even the army surgeon general’s report ... said it was the role of psychologists to tell interrogators when to increase the pressure, how to exploit vulnerabilities. So I think we really do have to end this as a nation, not just as professional associations. ... We’re talking about ... ending complicity in torture by a profession that has an enormous amount to contribute to the good of humanity and should not be involved in the destruction of people.”