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Dissident Members Challenge American Psychological Association on Role in CIA Interrogation, Torture

StoryAugust 17, 2007
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Democracy Now! broadcasts from San Francisco, where the American Psychological Association is set to hold a historic vote at its annual convention. Following a string of exposes revealing that psychologists have played a key role in designing the CIA’s torture tactics, outraged APA members have introduced a moratorium calling for an outright ban on psychologist involvement in detainee interrogations. We speak with two psychologists at the forefront of the campaign for an interrogation ban, Dr. Stephen Soldz of the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis and Dr. Steven Reisner of New York University. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are here in San Francisco, where a group of psychologists are planning to hold a protest today over the refusal of the American Psychological Association to bar its members from participating in interrogations at military and CIA prisons. The protest is occurring on the opening day of the 115th annual APA convention.

Unlike the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association allows its members to participate in detainee interrogations. APA representatives argue the presence of psychologists keeps interrogations safe and prevents abuse. But in recent months, a string of exposes in Salon.com, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker have revealed that psychologists have played a key role in designing the CIA’s torture tactics.

Outraged APA members have introduced a moratorium resolution to be voted on this weekend. It calls for an outright ban on psychologist involvement in detainee interrogations. Dr. Stephen Soldz and Dr. Steven Reisner have been at the forefront of this effort. They are both members of the Coalition for an Ethical APA. They co-wrote an open letter to APA President Sharon Brehm in June of this year, urging her to support the moratorium resolution.

Dr. Stephen Soldz is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and professor at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He’s founder of Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice and maintains the Psyche, Science, and Society blog.

Dr. Steven Reisner is a faculty member at New York University Medical School and a faculty adviser at the International Trauma Studies Program at Columbia University.

We invited the APA on the program. They declined our request.

So we welcome our guests here in San Francisco, just before you head out to APA convention. You’ll both be participated in debates this weekend.

Dr. Stephen Soldz, talk about how we have gotten to this point. And there is a growing pressure on the APA. What is the background of this story?

DR. STEPHEN SOLDZ: OK, well, let me try and tell you in brief, because we could go on for hours on it. But I know you’ve provided great coverage over the years, which we really appreciate. Going back since the days — was it, three, four years ago — when we started getting hints in the press that conditions in American detention facilities were not quite ideal, that abuse, that treatment that probably meets the legal definition of torture was occurring in many of them, there started to be increasing numbers of reports that health professionals, psychologists among them, were participating in those abusive interrogations and the other abuse that’s non-interrogation-related abuse at these facilities. As a result, the professional associations — the American Medical, the American Psychiatric, the American Psychological — were under pressure to do something. The two medical associations eventually, though somewhat belatedly, adopted policies that said that their members do not belong in interrogations. As health professionals, their obligation is to help and do no harm.

The American Psychological Association has not done that. They appointed a presidential task force on ethics and national security, the so-called PENS Task Force, in 2005. When their report came out, it was not signed by the members of the committee. However, it later was revealed that six of the nine members of this committee, investigating — forming policy on the ethics of involvement in interrogations, were themselves from the military and intelligence communities, most with direct ties to interrogations. In other words, these were precisely the people whose behavior was potentially being reported upon in the press as being problematic, were those who the APA chose to formulate its policy. And then they had them not sign their report. Since when does one hear a report where you can’t read a list of the members? I’ve never seen such a thing.

And since then, the pressure on the APA has grown intensely to change its policy. They maintain this — psychologists’ involvement in interrogations will make them safe, legal, ethical and effective. This mantra has been repeated by every APA leader over and over again, and yet the evidence is, as you said, in those articles, in many other articles going back now a number of years, is just — and perhaps most critically from the Department of Defense itself, where in May they declassified a report by the Office of the Inspector General, the OIG report, that explicitly said that military psychologists from the military SERE program — Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape — that trains U.S. soldiers to resist torture if they’re captured by countries which torture, that these techniques were reverse-engineered to develop the interrogation techniques used by the CIA, by the military at Guantanamo and elsewhere in Iraq and Afghanistan. The OIG report is conclusive evidence from the military itself that the psychologists were central to this whole business.

Over the years, the APA has not said one single word of concern about the role of psychologists, the role of psychology in abusive interrogations, in torture. They passed resolutions: “Psychologists do not torture,” you know, and, “Of course, everyone’s against — President Bush is against torture. Alberto Gonzales is against torture. The APA is against torture.” But like President Bush and Alberto Gonzales, the APA has never seen torture. They have never acknowledged psychologists’ role in torture. They have never acknowledged that the torture is occurring. So, again — so that’s the background. They seem to be feeling incredible pressure this year, and there is a lot of parliamentary maneuvering going on. And we can get into the details there, but that’s the background there.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we wanted to host a debate this morning on the moratorium resolution, but the APA declined our invitation. The director of ethics at the APA is Dr. Stephen Behnke. He was unable to join us, he said. But this is an excerpt from a debate that he had yesterday with our other guest, with Dr. Steven Reisner, on the San Francisco public radio station KQED.

DR. STEPHEN BEHNKE: We feel it is very clear for the American Psychological Association to be absolutely clear on what is an ethical interrogation and what is not an ethical interrogation. And if one takes a look at the current debate in the administration, there is a debate over whether harsh techniques are ethical or effective. The American Psychological Association’s position is clear: Harsh interrogation techniques are neither ethical nor are they effective. We believe that it’s very important to have that message very clear, wherever interrogations take place.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Steven Reisner, you were the one in the debate with Dr. Behnke yesterday on KQED. Your response?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, there are two aspects of it: whether harsh techniques are ethical and whether harsh techniques are effective, and what the APA’s position has actually been on both of those aspects. The trouble is, as Stephen Soldz said, the APA has stated over and over again that they are against torture, they’re against harsh techniques. They have a new campaign in favor of rapport-building interrogations and rapport-building interrogations which do not coerce, which do not torture. The trouble is that they have yet to articulate ethical principles which prohibit interrogations that are harmful, that are coercive, that are abusive. And so, they change the subject and make the claim that the APA is against these things, but when you read the ethical protocols and when you read the resolutions, there are so many loopholes and there are so many openings —

AMY GOODMAN: Like what?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, let’s take the — right now the APA is offering a substitute resolution to the moratorium, and in it, they do something which I think is a major step forward: They ban 14 of the harshest techniques. They come out against any psychologist participating in an interrogation in fourteen of the harshest techniques, as established by Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights First. And that is a major step forward.

However, what is left out is the fact that psychologists are not only guiding and supervising interrogations at sites like Guantanamo, they also consult on the conditions that detainees are kept in. The interview with Jose Padilla’s lawyer showed so clearly what the effect of the conditions is on a detainee, not only how the interrogation is handled. So what the APA does not prohibit in its ethical principles or in the board’s substitute resolution is a psychologist recommending isolation over an extended period of time for a detainee as a way of, you know, breaking him down for an interrogation. They don’t prohibit sensory deprivation in the general circumstances that the detainee is held in, only in terms of an active interrogation. So the loopholes are tremendous.

They also don’t say that you cannot do other abusive or enhanced techniques, apart from the 14. They just mention 14 that cannot be done. They don’t align with a higher principle, the Geneva Conventions, the U.N. principles of human rights. So that’s why I’m saying that Stephen Behnke can argue that the APA opposes abuse, but they haven’t put it in writing and made it clear.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me play another excerpt. This is of the interview we did with Dr. Angela Hegarty yesterday, the forensic psychiatrist who examined Jose Padilla after he was released from military detention last year. And I asked her about the difference between the positions of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association on the question of participating in coercive interrogations.

DR. ANGELA HEGARTY: Well, the American Psychiatric Association principles of ethics essentially follow the AMA’s, which is —

AMY GOODMAN: American Medical Association.

DR. ANGELA HEGARTY: American Medical Association, yes — is, no psychiatrist is involved in torture ever under any circumstances. Period. Torture — there is no caveat that opens up the possibility by mentioning the Bush administration’s qualifications on the definition of “torture.”

That the psychologists are protesting and debating this is great news. Clinicians — our entire professional identity is clinicians. And if psychologists — psychologists certainly see themselves as clinicians, people who care for people. Our entire professional identity as people who help people is obviated by such involvement. And I entirely disagree with any caveat that would allow a clinician to be involved in torture at any time.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the argument that those who don’t want the moratorium are making, and especially high-level staff of the American Psychological Association, that for psychologists to be there is to bring ethics to the situation, to explain what is going too far?

DR. ANGELA HEGARTY: Well, you know, I asked Mr. Padilla about that. He’d said that there were some decent people that he had come in contact with, you know, over the — especially in the latter part of his stay at the brig. And I asked him, I said, “You know, if I were in a situation like this as a clinician and I abhor what’s being done to you, would you want me to stay, knowing that there’s somebody who cares about you, who’s ideally, hopefully, ethical? Or would you — albeit powerless — or would you want me to leave?” And he actually gave me one of the first and only immediate and straightforward and direct answers: He would want me to leave. He would not want me there, because for him my presence endorses what’s going on, even though, as I said, in my scenario I would be powerless to do anything to change it.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Angela Hegarty, the forensic psychiatrist who interviewed Jose Padilla for 22 hours. Dr. Reisner, your response?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, I think there are two issues here. One is the clinical issue, whether psychologists in a setting like the brig or Guantanamo can or should offer therapeutic aid to the detainees, when their very presence seems to support the existence of such places. And the other side of the issue is whether psychologists in such places should participate in the action of interrogation or the purposes — the governmental purposes, the military purposes — of those sites.

I think, without any question, it is clear that if a psychologist participates in the interrogations or supervises the interrogations or supervises the conditions in an arena where there are no human rights and no due process, that that psychologist is contributing to the violation of human rights. And so, there should be an absolute prohibition.

On the other hand, whether a psychologist should or should not offer therapeutic aid is a complex ethical decision, and you have to weigh whether the aid offered outweighs the support — the possibility of being perceived as supporting the circumstance.

But the APA is not really addressing that. We’re trying to address the second contingency of whether psychologists should be actively participating in the military and intelligence aims and intentions in breaking down these prisoners or interrogating these prisoners at those sites. And we are saying that that is, in effect, a violation of human rights, no matter how ethically you ostensibly do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that the debate is changing this weekend at the APA, the American Psychological Association? And why also is the staff of the APA so committed to continuing what the AMA and the American Psychiatric Association have said no to?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, I think that the debate is changing, because a year ago we had rumors that psychologists were involved. It seemed logical. Psychologists were involved in the SERE program. The techniques were SERE techniques. It seemed likely that psychologists could be doing this, and we wanted ethical principles that prohibited it. Between last year and this year, it’s not a question of a likelihood. It’s a question of revelations that these things have been going on and psychologists have been behind it from the beginning in the CIA, as Katherine Eban revealed in Vanity Fair. Mitchell and Jessen, with the obvious approval of people higher than they are, because it continued for a long time, used SERE tactics to torture detainees.

AMY GOODMAN: These are two psychologists.

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Two psychologists. And then after that, the DOD got into the act. Psychologists were brought in — SERE psychologists were brought in to train other psychologists to use the same methods, to use SERE methods to interrogate. The Department of Defense itself has acknowledged this. We know that this has happened. Psychologists have been responsible for the abusive interrogations. So the membership is much clearer in what’s going on and what we have to change. So the debate has changed very significantly.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break, but we’re going to come back. We’re talking with Dr. Steven Reisner and Dr. Stephen Soldz. They are both involved with Psychologists for an Ethical APA. We’re here in San Francisco at the annual gathering of the American Psychological Association, with debates culminating on Sunday, with one or two votes around the issue possibly of a moratorium on psychologists involved in detainee interrogations or with some kind of amendment to the previous resolution on this issue. We’ll talk more about it in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting today and on Monday from San Francisco to be at the American Psychological Association annual meeting, a real showdown happening this weekend. Today at 4:00 there’s going to be a protest against psychologists’ involvement in abusive interrogations and torture. On Sunday, major votes taking place by members of the APA. We will cover that and bring it to you Monday.

I want to play an excerpt of an older interview that we did with Dr. Stephen Behnke, the director of the APA’s ethics office. He appeared on Democracy Now! two years ago, shortly before the APA convention of 2005. I asked Dr. Behnke whether the reports of psychologists’ involvement in detainee abuse at Bagram, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, had led him to question whether psychologists should participate in interrogations.

DR. STEPHEN BEHNKE: I would say that for us, the question is not whether psychologists may be involved. We believe that there is an ethical role for psychologists to play. The question is, what are the ethical boundaries within which psychologists must remain when they are engaged in these activities?

AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Dr. Steven Reisner and Dr. Stephen Soldz. They’re both with Psychologists for an Ethical APA. Dr. Soldz, respond.

DR. STEPHEN SOLDZ: Well, notice, you asked him about concrete reports that abuses were occurring. He has nothing to say. He, you know, not — he will — again, no one from the APA will ever say, “This is horrible. Psychologists have done horrible things. We need to do something about it.” All he says is, “We will set rules that say they shouldn’t do this.” Well, they don’t follow these rules.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Koocher, the former head of the APA was also on Democracy Now! And he said, “Give me some names.” Talk about someone, for example, like John Leso.

DR. STEPHEN SOLDZ: Well, John Leso is a psychologist at Guantanamo, one of these behavioral science consultation teams that are called “biscuits” — Major Leso. It’s been documented that he participated in the torture of a detainee, Mr. al-Khatani, that occurred in fall of 2002 and early 2003. Time magazine obtained the interrogation log, about 80 pages, of this interrogation, or partial log. There’s a log kept. I mean, that’s part of — this is a very bureaucratic torture regime. Every 15 minutes, there is a notation of what was done to the person. “Maj. L,” as he’s often referred to, is in that log. He was present in the torture room. This is documented.

So after this business about names, at least four people have filed ethics complaints against Dr. Leso, four that I’m aware of, going back to last August. I still looked. Dr. Leso is still a member of the APA a year later. So if these ethics — whatever these processes are, they seem to take forever and ever and ever, if there’s ever going to be any resolution. Of course, they’re all in secret, so that — which, you know, for individual ethics business, this is protection.

But it’s not so much around individuals. It’s about policy. That’s one of the tricks that Dr. Koocher and Dr. Behnke use, is to turn it into individuals. “Give us the name of individuals.” This is classified activity. This is deliberately secret. Yes, we occasionally get a name here or there. But when we raise a name and raise concerns, we’re accused of being unethical, because we don’t have total evidence. It’s about policy.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read from the Spokesman Review in Spokane, very interesting piece, “Expert Has Stake in Cryptic Local Firm: Consultants Tied to CIA Interrogations.” It says, “The former president of the American Psychological Association is a partner in a Spokane-based firm linked to the CIA’s reported use of harsh interrogation techniques on suspected terrorists at secret detention centers around the world.

“Joseph Dominic Matarazzo, an 81-year-old former psychology professor at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, said in a statement Friday that he serves on the board of Mitchell Jessen & Associates and owns 1 percent of the firm.

“According to public records, Matarazzo is one of five 'governing people' in the Mitchell Jessen firm, which does secret interrogation consulting work for the CIA.

“Matarazzo refused repeated interview requests but said in an e-mailed statement that he 'is not and never has been involved in the company's operational decisions,’ and that he only 'attends brief and infrequent company meetings.' […]

“The statement was relayed by a spokesman at the Portland medical school where Matarazzo taught behavioral neuroscience for 50 years before his retirement in June.”

Dr. Steven Reisner?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, here is an example of — the APA has tried many ways of deflecting the issue of psychologists participating, organizing, running these abusive and torture regimes. And the APA’s response has been, “Well, they’re not members of the APA.” And the APA’s response has been, “Give us names of members so we can bring them up on charges.”

Now we have an implication of a former president of the APA, who owns 1 percent of a company of two psychologists who are clearly implicated in the torture of detainees, and the APA’s response has been, “Well, we don’t really — we’re not concerned about what Dr. Matarazzo does outside of APA administrative positions or politics.”

So the APA has managed to avoid taking a responsible position on where psychologists ought to be in terms of the ethical principles of torture, abuse, what psychologists have done, what our standards are, and done an accounting for all psychologists.

AMY GOODMAN: What would it say to President Bush if the American Psychological Association said no to participation in detainee interrogations?

DR. STEPHEN SOLDZ: I think that it would be a very strong public statement, especially after the American Medical and the American Psychiatric, the American Nursing Association, the American Anthropological Association, the American Ethnomusicological Association have all made — and just last week the American Translator Association, have all made very strong statements. If the American Psychological Association, the largest mental health organization in the world, said, “No, this is not right. We will not participate,” I think it would be a message that will be heard. Whether the Bush administration would hear it, you never know, but I think Congress would hear it, the press would hear it, and we know, after the psychiatrist and medical associations said no, that the military said, “From now on, we prefer psychologists for our behavioral science consultation teams. We prefer psychologists to psychiatrists, because of the positions of their respective associations.” So we know the military listens to this.


AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Reisner.

DR. STEVEN REISNER: What the American Psychological Association would be doing would be acknowledging that the torture has been primarily psychological torture and that this would be an abuse of the principles of psychology. The Association of Ethnomusicologists has come out against the use of music as torture. But the American Psychological Association hasn’t yet come out and acknowledged that psychology has been perverted into an instrument of torture and has finally said that that would be against the ethical principles of this American Psychological Association, and it would call into question the complete regime of abuse and torture of the detainees.

AMY GOODMAN: Does the American Psychological Association give these interrogations cover? Does it legitimatize them? Could they go on if psychologists weren’t there?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Could they go on? They could go on, because there are professional interrogators. Why psychologists have tried so hard to position themselves in the field of interrogation is a question that I think ought to be investigated and ought to be questioned.

DR. STEPHEN SOLDZ: Jane Mayer, on your show a couple weeks ago, I think, put it very clearly. There’s two parts of this. One is the supposed expertise of the SERE program, which is bogus, because SERE was designed to help people from breaking, not from giving information, but from becoming collaborators. You know —

AMY GOODMAN: How to keep American soldiers strong if they’re captured —


AMY GOODMAN: — and if they’re tortured.

DR. STEPHEN SOLDZ: And so, it’s not about — so they didn’t — but it’s partly about that, but the other thing is that the administration, from the beginning, has known that their activities are illegal, and they’ve been concerned about the possibility of future war crimes trials. One way to avoid — they reinterpreted “torture,” that basically you could do anything, as long as the intent wasn’t to harm, you know, as long as the intent — so to have a psychologist say, “This is a good way to get information” gives the prestige of the profession of psychology to say that this — that, yes, we can use these techniques, because this is what science says how we can get information.

AMY GOODMAN: I just wanted to talk about the schedule of this weekend and the track that’s going to be happening, as, Dr. Reisner, you’re going to go right off from this show to participate in the first session, “What are psychologists doing in U.S. military detention centers?” a track of the APA weekend. But I notice that more than half of these, it seems, will be taking place during or after the vote on Sunday. Can you explain how that works?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, we have not gotten the impression that the APA board and administration has wanted there to be such full coverage of the mini convention on psychologist participation in interrogations. We asked them to put a brochure out and let the membership know. It arrived maybe a day before members were leaving for the convention, so that they had already made their schedules for it. The town meeting to discuss members’ feelings about and opinions about this participation is after the vote. Half of the meetings are after the vote. And this is supposed to be an education for the council members in order to help them vote. In fact, the board wanted the vote to take place on Thursday’s meeting, yesterday’s meeting, before any of this took place. We fought them and fought them and fought them. But I believe that there is enough, especially with the coverage that it’s been getting here and elsewhere and with the rally, I think that there will be enough opportunity for the council members to be educated.

AMY GOODMAN: Where will the rally take place today at 4:00?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: At the Buena Vista Gardens? No, Yerba Buena Gardens, the Stone Stage, today at 4:00.

AMY GOODMAN: Here in San Francisco.

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Here in San Francisco.

AMY GOODMAN: And just to clarify, as we wrap up, do you expect there to be or are you demanding a vote on moratorium on psychologist participation in torture on Sunday?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: We are demanding a vote on both. We want there to be an up-or-down vote on the moratorium so that psychologists go on record, you know, whether they are supporting or not supporting psychologist presence in these sites. And we would like a vote on the board’s resolution, because it adds important caveats to the entire issue.

I just also want to say that the events are listed on the website ethicalapa.com, and a lot of the issues are laid out more clearly on that website.

AMY GOODMAN: Are an increasing number of psychologists withholding dues from the APA?


AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to continue this story on Monday. Last comment, 10 seconds, Stephen Soldz.

DR. STEPHEN SOLDZ: This is a very important chance for the APA to finally do the right thing, and I hope that they do so.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. Thank you both, Dr. Steven Reisner, Dr. Stephen Soldz, with Psychologists for an Ethical APA.

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