Psychologists’ Involvement in Torture
Two recent events have once again raised the distressing issue of psychologists’ involvement in the Bush Administration torture program and the role of the American Psychological Association in it. A New York Times reporter, James Risen, in his new book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, reveals new information on the APA’s conduct in forming its task force on the role of psychologists in detention settings in 2005. The second and far more publicly discussed development is, of course, the recent release of the Executive Summary of the Senate Select Committee Report on Intelligence. Making public the Executive Summary of the report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is the first public admission by the US government that it has conducted a policy of torture in detention centers around the globe. The report identifies two psychologists who contracted with the CIA to use torture techniques to extract information from detainees. Although the names of the psychologists are pseudonymed, they are known to be James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen.
The release of the Executive Summary is a step toward transparency in an area of US foreign policy that the government has tried to hide from the American people since its inception in 2002. Furthermore, it renewed national attention on our policy of torture, one of the dark episodes of US international relations. For those two reasons, making the summary public is a welcome shift in government policy.
However, there are potentially negative consequences to the release of the report that, although little discussed, need to be a focal point for any effort to uncover the truth about psychologists’ participation in the torture program. While the systematic use of torture at Guantanamo is documented in the published summary of the Senate committee report, the role of psychologists other than Mitchell and Jessen is not mentioned. Although it is possible that other psychologists are identified in the classified report itself that is, apparently, three times as long as the executive summary, the public has been made aware only of Mitchell and Jessen, owners of a Washington based consulting firm. They contracted with the CIA for $181 million to conduct “enhanced interrogations,” $81 million of which was disbursed to their company before the contract was pulled. While Mitchell and Jessen deserve all the public scrutiny and criticism directed to them for teaching, promoting, and using illegal and unethical torture techniques in their so-called “interrogation methods,” the exclusive spotlight on them has the potentially deleterious consequence of diverting attention from the widespread participation of psychologists in consulting on, and in at least one case participating in, torture at Guantanamo and other detention sites.
Disclosures of the involvement of psychologists dates back to 2004 with an article by Neil Lewis in the New York Times that a report of the International Commission of the Red Cross found that American trained psychologists and psychiatrists were consulting on the implementation of torture at Guantanamo Bay. The responses of the two APAs, the American Psychiatric Association APsychiA) and the American Psychological Association (APA), are revealing. Dr. Stephen Sharfstein, then president of the psychiatric association, stated unequivocally that there is no role for psychiatrists in detention centers, and he condemned any use of psychiatry in the Bush administration “enhanced interrogation” program. By contrast, Dr. Stephen Behnke, the head of the APA ethics office, made no such definitive statement. Dr. Behnke said there were many vague areas, such as how much light detainees received was “too much,” and how much heat or cold was “too much.” To this day, the APA is the only relevant professional association that has not taken a definitive stand against its members taking part in interrogations in detention centers.
Meanwhile, evidence of psychologists’ involvement in abusive behavior continued to mount. Time magazine (Zagorin, 2006) published a detailed log of the interrogation of Mohammed Al-Qahtani who was suspected of being the “twentieth hijacker.” The 84 page log, covering a 50 day period in the winter of 2002-03, showed that the interrogators used extreme sleep deprivation, exposure to cold, prolonged standing, denial of bathroom breaks, and a variety of psychological manipulations, all of which are torture under international law, in an effort to extract information from Al-Qahtani. The FBI reported that Al-Qahtani hallucinated and talked to non-existent people, behavior consistent with exposure to extreme psychological stress. The log referred to a “Dr. L.” who both consulted to and was present at the interrogation. Dr. Steven Miles (2006) and two bioethicists, Jonathan Marks and Gregg Bloche (2006), identified “Dr. L.” as Major John Leso, a counseling psychologist.
The 2004 Office of Inspector General’s report, released during the first term of the Obama administration, revealed that psychologists taught reverse engineered SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) techniques at a conference in Fort Bragg in September, 2003, to JT-170 personnel, the staff at Guantanamo. SERE techniques were originally devised during the Korean War to help our soldiers resist torture in case they were captured. The OIG 2004 report states that the purpose of the conference was to teach JT-170 personnel to “reverse engineer” SERE tactics, that is, to deploy the torture techniques that the SERE program was designed to help our soldiers resist, in order to use those techniques at Guantanamo. It was shortly after this conference that those torture techniques were deployed on a regular basis at Guantanamo. The instructors at the Fort Bragg conference were psychologists, and the consultants who advised on how to use reverse engineered SERE techniques at Guantanamo were psychologists. While Mitchell consulted at Guantanamo, other psychologists did so as well. Whereas Mitchell was an independent contractor, other psychologists were military officers deployed at Guantanamo.
New detainees were routinely put in isolation for two to four weeks, a period that constitutes torture under international law. Psychologists were the primary professionals consultants on the management of prisoners. In a Pentagon conference call with reporters, Dr. William Winkenwerder, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, “made it clear that the Defense Department had come to rely more heavily on psychologists at Guantanamo than psychiatrists” (Risen, p. 195). Winkenwereder went to say that the American Psychological Association supports the role of psychologists in interrogations in a way that the American Psychiatric Association does not.
The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (2006) found: (1) widespread abuses of detainees “amounting to torture” in violation of the Geneva Convention; and, (2) the systematic breaching of professional ethics by health care professionals who, it concluded, have been “complicit in abusive treatment of detainees detrimental to their health” (p33). The UN Commission was unambiguous in its statement that health care professionals who use their expertise to assist in ways that may adversely affect the physical or mental health of the detainee are violating professional ethics. Despite these findings, the APA stated definitively that no psychologists were involved without conducting even a minimal investigation. The president of the association at the time, Dr. Gerald Koocher (2006), wrote a scathing editorial condemning anyone who suggested anything to the contrary.
In what has to be one of the darkest moments of professional psychology, another psychologist ordered the torture of a child, Mohammed Jawad, who was 12 years old when incarcerated. Rather than testify before the second war crimes tribunal at Guantanamo, the psychologist took the Fifth Amendment. Jawad was imprisoned for allegedly throwing a grenade at US troops after his home was destroyed in a military battle. He was never charged and after a six year imprisonment was released.
In brief, information from a variety of sources has documented the fact that psychologists played a primary role in the Bush Administration torture program (e.g., IOG, 2004; Bloch & Marks, 2005; McCoy, 2006; Sands, 2008; Miles, 2009). Nonetheless, the response from APA has been to deny that any psychologists were participants in torture until the evidence was incontrovertible, and even then only grudgingly admitted that “a few” psychologists participated in the torture. However, the APA never issued an apology for its previous denials, nor for the denunciation of those who had correctly charged that psychologists were active participants. To this day the APA has never admitted the primary role psychologists played in the Bush administration torture program.
The fact that the Executive Summary of the committee report only identifies Mitchell and Jessen has actually been beneficial to the APA leadership, which points out that Mitchell and Jessen are not APA members, and therefore it cannot take any action against them. While this is true, Dr. Behnke has claimed that the APA has no connection whatsoever with Mitchell and Jessen. However, that statement is belied by the fact that James Mitchell was invited to “invitation only” meetings held by the APA, at time with other organizations. More importantly, as we have seen, Mitchell and Jessen were hardly the only psychologists to participate in the Bush administration torture program, and the spotlight on them has deflected attention away from the fact that the APA has done nothing about the psychologists who are APA members and for whom the evidence of their involvement is substantial in some cases and incontrovertible in others.
The APA has shown no concern for the APA members for whom there is evidence of their participation. In fact, several ethical complaints were filed against the aforementioned Dr. Leso. The APA took approximately seven years and then announced it would not only not take any action on the complaints; it would not even bring the complaints to the full Ethics Committee. The letter refusing to investigate the case, under the signature of Dr. Behnke, stated that the decision was that he did not believe there was sufficient evidence to bring the matter before the full committee. Again, it must be emphasized that three bioethicists, conducting their own investigations, have identified Dr. Leso as the “Dr. L” who participated in the torture of Muhammed al-Qahtani. Neither Leso nor anyone else has ever denied the identification of “Dr. L” as Leso.
And that brings us to the second major recent development: James Risen’s revelations that the APA compromised its integrity by giving the military control over its choice of membership and direction of its key task force on psychologists and national security, the Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) task force. The report gave cover to psychologists who participated in the Bush administration torture program by concluding that it was ethical for psychologists to participate in the interrogation process in detention settings. Risen found emails from the computer of Scott Gerwehr who was copied on the communications between the APA, the CIA, and the Pentagon, that showed the great extent to which the APA’s actions and policies on national security were a function of the wishes of the Pentagon and CIA.
Risen found that after the Abu Ghraib revelations, the APA convened secret meetings with the Pentagon and the CIA on how to cope with the public outcry over the photos of Americans happily torturing and humiliating detainees. Risen notes that the APA looked to the national security apparatus for guidance and consultation rather than its own members. When the APA decided to convene the PENS task force, it appointed military employees to six of the nine voting spots, some of whom participated in the application of torture techniques at Guantanamo. The makeup of the task force was a clear conflict of interest that has been known for many years. It was also known that although the purpose of the task force was supposed to be to study the ethical issues involved in psychologists’ involvement in national security settings, in fact Russ Newman, head of the practice directorate and husband of a military psychologist at Guantanamo, told the group that they had to “put out the fires of controversy.”
What has not been revealed until now is that emails from Geoffrey Mumford, head of the APA science directorate, to Kirk Hubbard, the chief behavioral scientist at the CIA, thanked Hubbard for influencing the PENS process and he assured Hubbard that his views were “well represented by very carefully selected task force members” (Risen, p 200). So, these emails are the smoking gun that shows why the PENS task force was so heavily weighted with those who had a clear conflict of interest. The APA had made sure that the Pentagon’s interests were served by what was supposed to be an impartial investigation of ethical issues. Instead, behavioral scientists from within the national security apparatus of the government played a large role in the composition and shaping of the PENS task force even before it was constituted. APA officials worked behind the scenes with Pentagon officials to determine the direction of the task force so that it would support psychologists’ involvement in the Bush administration “interrogation” program.
In conclusion, I wish to underline the fact that the APA’s behavior for the past ten years has been to protect the right of psychologists to work in illegal detention centers. However, in 2008, a referendum was passed by the membership of APA that prohibits psychologists from working in such settings unless for the specific benefit of the detainee or for an independent third party. That is official APA policy, but the organization has done precious little to implement it. With the revelations from Risen’s book we now have new clarity on the APA agenda. It has been working hand in glove with the Pentagon and the CIA while adopting a policy of benign neglect to the wishes of its own members.
Bloch, G. and Marks, J. (2005). Doctors and Interrogators at Guantanamo Bay. The New England Journal of Medicine 353 (1), pp. 6-8.
Koocher, G. (2006). President’s Column. APA Monitor, Vol. 37, No.2, February, p.5.
McCoy, A. (2006). A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror, New York: Metropolitan.
Miles, S. (2006). Oath Betrayed. New York: Random House.
Office of Inspector General (2004), Report to the US Congress 2004. Washington, DC: The US Government.
Risen, J. (2014). Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War. New York: Houghton-Mifflin.
Sands, P.(2009). The Torture Team. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan.
United Nations Commission on Human Rights (February 15, 2006). The Situation of Detainees at Guantanamo Bay.
Zagorin, A. (2006) One Life Inside Gitmo. Time, March 13.
Zimbardo, P.(2006) Comments on the PENS Task Force Report.