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As Senate Confirms Psychologists Helped Devise Military Interrogation Techniques, APA Presidential Candidate Steven Reisner Condemns Role of Psychologists in Torture

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The Senate investigation confirmed the Pentagon sought the help of military psychologists as early as 2002 to devise so-called aggressive interrogation techniques. Dr. Steven Reisner is a psychoanalyst and a leading critic of the American Psychological Association’s policy governing the role of psychologists in interrogations. He is running for president of the APA and has received more nominating votes than any other candidate. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Senate investigation confirmed the Pentagon sought the help of military psychologists as early as 2002 to devise so-called aggressive interrogation techniques. According to the Senate report, the Pentagon’s then-general counsel William Haynes sent a memo in June 2002 inquiring about a military program known as SERE — Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. The program was originally designed to train Army soldiers how to survive enemy interrogations, but the US military reverse-engineered the program and used it on prisoners held overseas.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Steven Reisner is a psychoanalyst and a leading critic of the American Psychological Association’s policy governing the role of psychologists in interrogations. He is running for president of the American Psychological Association and has received more nominating votes than any other candidate. The actual vote will take place in October. He joins us now in our firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Dr. Steven Reisner. What did you learn?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, what I learned is that — what we had suspected. We had suspected — we had had bits of evidence coming from many different sources that the psychologists, military psychologists, intelligence psychologists, had been intimately and integrally involved in the government’s program of abuse of prisoners and detainees.

And what Carl Levin and the committee was able to do was to bring all of those bits of data together and expose the role of psychologists in justifying the techniques, by having health professionals present, so the legal rationale was — the cover rationale was supported, that it’s not torture if you have a health professional present; the training process, by using psychologists trained in SERE techniques to reverse-engineer processes that were originally created to protect our own soldiers as part of the processes of abuse, that psychologists were supervising and training. And unfortunately — unfortunately for the profession of psychology, Senator Levin laid it all out so clearly and so tragically.

AMY GOODMAN: So what’s happening right now in the APA? I mean, this is a raging battle. You were one of the chief dissidents, and now you’re running for president. You got the most nominating votes. How significant is this hearing in this? And is this a debate that’s happening among the top five candidates that are running?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, I haven’t seen any literature, or very little literature, from the other candidates about this issue. The APA leadership and the other candidates are hoping that what the APA has done thus far will make a significant change in the perception of psychologists and the actual behavior of psychologists in these areas. But I believe and the psychologists that support me believe that the APA has not yet gone far enough and that given these revelations, it shows how much further the APA and psychology has to go.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You know, to me, one of the heartening results of all of these investigations of torture is the number of military, career military people, both in the legal areas of the military, as well as officers, who raised questions or objected to these developments. Did you find any kind of — any examples of psychologists who were employed by the military, who stood up and said, “Hey, this is wrong”?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Yes, there’s one. I mean, I’m glad to say there was at least one, and that was Michael Gelles, who worked with Alberto Mora, and he spoke out against these techniques. He was not a part of the biscuit interrogation — he wasn’t part of their command; he was working for the Navy. He’s a civilian employed by the military.

But to date, I have yet to hear of a single intelligence or interrogating psychologist who spoke out against these techniques and against the rationale for these techniques and tried to change that. During the time they were being used or even now, there is not yet one who calls for an investigation of the use of psychology for abusive purposes.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, to be clear, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association both ban their members for participating in coercive interrogations?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: That’s right.


DR. STEVEN REISNER: APA has continued to this day to assert that psychologists have an important role to play in military and intelligence interrogations, even if those interrogations take place at sites where the Geneva Conventions don’t apply, where international human rights laws don’t apply, where — black sites, where even the names of the detainees are not released, cite the — American Psychological Association’s position so far is that psychologists should be able to [inaudible] —-

AMY GOODMAN: We wanted to have a debate among the five of you presidential candidates, the American Psychological Association. We asked the other four candidates to come on today. Dr. Jack Kitaeff, one of the five, said, “I see this as an internal APA policy matter, not the subject of a radio show, but thanks for thinking of me.” We asked Dr. Ronald Rozensky to join us; he declined. Dr. Robert McGrath, he declined.

But I wanted to ask you about Dr. Carol Goodheart’s position. She sent this statement to us, though she didn’t come on. She said, “I support the recent APA Council of Representatives’ amendment that strengthens APA’s ‘no torture, no exceptions’ policy. The amended resolution makes it clear all harsh interrogation techniques, including so-called ‘enhanced’ methods or ‘no touch’ torture or ‘torture lite,’ constitute torture and are always prohibited.” Dr. Reisner?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: Well, I agree with Dr. Goodheart. I think that the resolution -— actually, it was an amended resolution that was passed by the council. It amended the resolution passed last summer, which didn’t really have any teeth in it and had tremendous loopholes. But this one did absolutely prohibit the use of nineteen interrogation techniques in any interrogation.

It doesn’t clearly prohibit such techniques as part of the conditions of confinement. It doesn’t prohibit psychologists from overseeing and supervising the conditions of confinement in sites that are considered illegal internationally. It doesn’t prohibit psychologists from instituting behavior modification programs for detainees. It doesn’t — you know, reward-and-punishment programs, which psychologists have been doing.

So there is a — it was a very good step, but I think Dr. Goodheart — and I wish the other candidates would speak to how far we still have to go. BUt so far, they have not been willing to engage in a debate about that issue.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And if it is eventually judged that these were war crimes that occurred in some of these torture incidents throughout — under American jurisdiction and there were psychologists that were present at the time, would it be your view that they also participated in these war crimes?

DR. STEVEN REISNER: I actually spoke with the UN rapporteur on torture about that very question. And he said that being part of an operation where the operation commits a war crime makes the person part of the operation guilty of the war crime. One of the reasons that I’m running for president of the APA and one of the reasons we support changes in the APA policy is to protect our psychologists from being brought up on war criminal charges. And it’s one of the reasons that we want to change the APA ethics code, which at this moment permits a psychologist to follow the law or military regulations even when those regulations violate our own ethics code.

AMY GOODMAN: I should also say that the candidate for president, Robert McGrath, said, “I’m categorically opposed to the use of degrading and threatening techniques in interrogation,” and went on from there.

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