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Dissident Voices: Ex-Task Force Member Dr. Michael Wessells Speaks Out on Psychologists and Torture

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Dr. Michael Wessells is a former member of the PENS Task Force. He is a professor of clinical population and family health at Columbia University and a professor of psychology at Randolph-Macon College. He also advises widely within the U.N. system on issues of child protection and protection from human rights violations. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined in studio by Dr. Michael Wessells, also a member of that task force, one of the three of the nine members, three civilian members. He’s a professor of clinical population and family health at Columbia University and a professor of psychology at Randolph-Macon College. He also advises widely within the U.N. system on issues of child protection and protection from human rights violations.

Dr. Wessells, joining us now, you were a part of that meeting of nine people. Did you know before you went into it who were the other members?

DR. MICHAEL WESSELLS: When I was invited to join the task force, I was told by Steve Behnke, who coordinates — who heads up the APA Ethics Office, that he could not disclose the names of the other psychologists. He assured me that there was a diversity in their point of view, but that use of the secrecy tactic, of course, makes it very easy to hide from public view and from any public discourse, and it reduces accountability everything that goes on. And so, you know, it was really quite disturbing.

When I got inside the room, it became clear that this was predominantly a national security establishment operation and that this was not going to be a representative dialogue that accurately represented and included the voices of people from across the association. And then, as Jean Maria has pointed out, there were basically mind guards and officials of the American Psychological Association, such as President-elect Gerald Koocher, who made it very clear that he didn’t want to take international human rights standards and international law as the very foundation of our discussion. For me, that was highly problematic. The basis of any professional code of ethics must be international human rights standards.

Unfortunately, the American Psychological Association Code of Ethics has a huge loophole. It says that if there is a conflict between an ethics code, the professional ethics code, and a law or a military regulation, that a psychologist — it is within the purview of the psychologist to actually adhere to the law. Well, that means that leaders such as Saddam Hussein and tyrants can construct laws and basically say, “We don’t adhere to international human rights standards. Our law trumps international human rights.” So, for me, it was very troubling that right in the APA ethics code itself there was this loophole, and there was an unwillingness to address it.

In addition, the PENS Task Force refused to speak out in a concerted manner against human rights abuses. We knew that there was the use of specifically psychological methods: the hoodings, stress positions, sexual and other humiliations, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation. There was a complete unwillingness to denounce the use of those techniques or to provide the adequate guidance that was necessary to prevent psychologists from doing harm.

And I think at the end of the day, there was a self-serving bias, and the argument ran like this: Having psychologists involved in course of interrogations is a good thing, because psychologists are whistleblowers. Well, there are some psychologists, such as Dr. Mike Gelles, who have acted as whistleblowers. But psychologists are human beings, Amy, and they are not immune from the very laws that they discover. And one of the laws that we’ve discovered is the power of the situation. Normal human beings, when subjected to very powerful situational influences, can engage in evil. And here, we had a situation where the president of the United States, the commander-in-chief, was basically legitimating the use of methods known to cause harm, and all up and down the command chain there were tremendous pressures for actionable intelligence. And at the same time, there were very strong peer pressures to try to treat guys tough, to take their gloves off, so to speak. And so, the end result was that the power of the situation of the system was to produce wrongdoing and the PENS report did very little to address that.

AMY GOODMAN: You quit the PENS Task Force?

DR. MICHAEL WESSELLS: I did. I was very upset, because it was treated as a standalone kind of operation, when it was never intended as such. I had hoped that the association would follow up with several things: a ringing denunciation of the use of specifically psychological methods of causing harm; a delineation of the things that psychologists could not do; a denunciation of the horrendous human rights atrocities at Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think this weekend that the APA should have passed a moratorium on psychologist involvement in these [inaudible] interrogations?

DR. MICHAEL WESSELLS: I do. I think the resolution was a step in the right direction, because it banned the use of some specifically damaging psychological methods, but it didn’t go far enough. Now, at present, it is still legal and ethical for a psychologist to participate in sites such as Guantanamo or in the CIA black sites. Those operate outside the Geneva Conventions. It is an abrogation of human rights to detain people indefinitely and illegally, but this resolution makes it possible for psychologists to continue. So that means that psychologists are going to continue violating international human rights standards.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Michael Wessells.

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