Psychologists Say No to Torture
Sometimes the good guys do win. That’s what happened on August 8th in San Francisco when the Council of Representatives of the American Psychological Association (APA) decided to extend a policy keeping its members out of the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The APA’s decision is important — and not just symbolically. Today we have a president who has promised to bring back torture and “load up” Guantánamo “with some bad dudes.” When healing professionals refuse to work there, they are standing up for human rights and against torture.
It wasn’t always so. In the early days of Guantánamo, military psychologists contributed to detainee interrogations there. It was for Guantánamo that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved multiple torture methods, including among others excruciating stress positions, prolonged isolation, sensory deprivation, and enforced nudity. Military psychologists advised on which techniques would take advantage of the weaknesses of individual detainees. And it was two psychologists, one an APA member, who designed the CIA’s whole “enhanced interrogation program.”
Here’s a disclaimer of sorts: ever since I witnessed the effects of U.S. torture policy firsthand in Central America in the 1980s, I’ve had a deep personal interest in American torture practices. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, I wrote two books focused on the subject, the latest being American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes.
For a year and a half, I also served on a special ethics commission established by the APA after ugly revelations came out about how that organization’s officials had, in the Bush years, maneuvered to allow its members to collude with the U.S. government in settings where torture was used. In fact, an independent review it commissioned in 2015 concluded that “some of the association’s top officials, including its ethics director, sought to curry favor with Pentagon officials by seeking to keep the association’s ethics policies in line with the Defense Department’s interrogation policies.” Indeed, those leaders colluded “with important DoD officials to have [the] APA issue loose, high-level ethical guidelines that did not constrain [the] DoD in any greater fashion than existing DoD interrogation guidelines.”
In the wake of that independent review, the APA’s Council of Representatives voted that same year to keep psychologists out of national security interrogation settings.
It’s modestly encouraging that this August two-thirds of its governing body voted against a resolution that would have returned psychologists to sites like Gitmo.
What makes the new vote less than completely satisfying, however, is this: the 2015 vote establishing that policy was 157-to-1. This year, a third of the council was ready to send psychologists back to Guantánamo. Like much of the rest of Donald Trump’s United States, the APA seems to be in the process of backsliding on torture.
The details of the parliamentary wrangling at the August meeting are undoubtedly of little interest to outsiders. The actual motion under consideration was important, however, because it would have rescinded part of the organization’s historic 2015 decision, prohibiting its members from providing psychological treatment, as it put it,
“at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, ‘black sites,’ vessels in international waters, or sites where detainees are interrogated under foreign jurisdiction unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights or providing treatment to military personnel.”
Proponents of the new motion argued that keeping psychologists out of places like Guantánamo deprives detainees of much needed psychological treatment. If the association really cared about detainees, they claimed, it would not deny them the treatment they need.
Opponents argued that allowing psychologists to work at Guantánamo gives ethical cover to an illegal detention site where detainees are still being tortured with painful forced feedings, solitary confinement, and the hopelessness induced by indefinite detention without charges. It’s worth noting that the military still refuses to allow the U.N.’s special rapporteur on torture to speak privately with detainees at Gitmo. In addition, at such a detention and interrogation site, any psychologist who was a member of, or employed by, the U.S. military would face an inevitable conflict of interest between the desires of his or her employers and the needs of detainee clients.
The 2015 resolution also prevented APA members from participating in national security interrogations, declaring that they
“shall not conduct, supervise, be in the presence of, or otherwise assist any national security interrogations for any military or intelligence entities, including private contractors working on their behalf, nor advise on conditions of confinement insofar as these might facilitate such an interrogation.”
Military psychologists within the APA were not happy in 2015 about being shut out of national security interrogations and they’d still like to see psychologists back in the interrogation business. This time around, they strategically chose to focus their rhetoric on treatment rather than interrogation. However, the long-term goals are clear. Indeed, in response to a request from those military psychologists, the APA’s Committee on Legal Issues recommended to the board of directors “broadening” the resolution “to allow psychologists to be involved in the practice and policy of humane interrogation.” The board declined — this time, anyway.
Here’s the problem with “humane interrogation”: no one ever admits to using inhumane methods. Unfortunately, there’s a recent and sordid history of U.S. officials claiming that torture is actually humane — albeit “enhanced” — interrogation. In the George W. Bush administration, John Woo and Jay Bybee, who worked in the Justice Department’s Office ofLegal Counsel, were among those who wrote memos justifying torture. As Bybee explained in an August 2002 memo to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, “real” physicaltorture must involve pain similar to that experienced during “serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” And the effects of psychological interrogation must last “months or even years” to constitute mental torture — obviously an impossible standard to meet, since no one knows for sure what will happen in the future. In that way, they essentially redefined any form of cruelty, including waterboarding, in any of the CIA’s black sites then scattered around the world or at Guantánamo, as anything but torture.
As it happened, even as defined by the Bush administration, much of what was done in those years would have qualified as torture. Certainly, isolating people, depriving them of sleep, bombarding them with heat, cold, light, and endless loud noise, beating them, and providing them with no hope of eventual release were not exactly acts conducive to long-term mental health. In fact, in 2016 the New York Times interviewed several freed Guantánamo detainees, who reported that the effects of their abuse had indeed lasted “months or even years.”
A Bit of History
The role of American psychologists in designing torture programs goes back at least to the 1950s, as historian Alfred McCoy documented so graphically in his book A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror. At that time, research psychologists at elite universities in the U.S. and Canada experimented on unwitting subjects — including mental patients — in an effort to develop techniques to produce a condition of compliancy in future prisoners, a condition that the CIA called “DDD” (for debility, dependency, and dread).
Much of this research culminated in that Agency’s now-infamous 1963 KUBARK manual on interrogation, which the United States used to train the police and military forces of client states. That manual would be resurrected in 1983 and used in the CIA’s training of the U.S.-backed Contras in Nicaragua’s civil war. Many of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” that became so familiar to us in the George W. Bush years — sensory bombardment, sleep deprivation, exposure to extremes of heat and cold, sexual humiliation — were first laid out in that manual. But the CIA evidently misplaced it somewhere in their voluminous files because, after 9/11, instead of hauling it out yet again, they paid $80 million to two psychologists to reinvent the torture wheel. Those two, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, repackaged DDD as “learned helplessness” (borrowing a concept developed by another psychologist, Martin Seligman).
Seligman’s role in developing the CIA torture program has been in dispute ever since. At most, he seems to have willingly discussed his theories with CIA personnel. In December 2001, he met at his home with both James Mitchell and Kirk Hubbard, who was then the chief of research and analysis in the CIA’s Operational Division, among others. In 2002, at the invitation of CIA personnel, he lectured on learned helplessness at the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape school where U.S. military are trained to resist torture. Seligman claims he had no idea how his work was being used until “years later,” when he read a New Yorker article byJane Mayer (perhaps this one) about CIA torture practices in the post-9/11 era. “If I had known about the methods employed,” says Seligman, “I would not have discussed learned helplessness with” Agency officials.
Mitchell and Jessen, however, had no such compunctions. They cheerfully designed an interrogation program for the CIA that included such “enhanced techniques” as slamming detainees against walls and locking them in tiny boxes. As no one is likely to forget, they also retrieved waterboarding from history. This practice had bluntly been called “the water torture” in Medieval Europe and American soldiers were using it in the Philippines, where it was referred to ironically as “the water cure,” as the twentieth century began. To waterboard is essentially to drown a prisoner to the point of unconsciousness, a “technique” the CIA used 83 times on one man (who didn’t even turn out to be an al-Qaeda leader). The whole program was implemented at CIA black sites in Afghanistan, Thailand, Poland, and Romania, among other places.
For part of this time, Mitchell was a member of the APA and so presumably subject to its code of ethics, which, theoretically at least, prohibited involvement in interrogations involving torture. When concerned APA members tried to bring an ethics claim against him to the group (whose only real sanction would have been to publicly expel him), they got nowhere. Eventually, Mitchell quietly resigned from the association.
Meanwhile, military psychologists were also working on interrogation matters for the Department of Defense. At Guantánamo, they participated in behavioral science control teams (BSCTs, pronounced “biscuits”). Despite the homey-sounding name, those BSCTs were anything but benign. Staffed by psychologists and psychiatrists, the teams, according to a 2005 New England Journal of Medicine op-ed by knowledgeable insiders, “prepared psychological profiles for use by interrogators; they also sat in on some interrogations, observed others from behind one-way mirrors, and offered feedback to interrogators.”
Guantánamo’s BSCTs, the Journal piece continues, favored an approach to behavioral control taught at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center, which “builds on the premise that acute, uncontrollable stress erodes established behavior (e.g., resistance to questioning), creating opportunities to reshape behavior.” This was to be achieved by introducing “stressors tailored to the psychological and cultural vulnerabilities of individual detainees (e.g., phobias, personality features, and religious beliefs).”
But where did the BSCTs get their information about the vulnerabilities of those individual detainees? The International Committee of the Red Cross discovered that it came from their medical records at the detention center, which, according to generalmedical ethics and the Geneva Conventions, are supposed to be kept confidential.
Those APA members who continue to argue for bringing military psychologists back to Guantánamo insist that it’s possible to keep a firewall between their work as clinicians and the role of interrogator. But how realistic is this, especially within an organization like the military, where obedience and hierarchical loyalty are key values? As the New England Journal of Medicine concludes,
“[The] proximity of health professionals to interrogation settings, even when they act as caregivers, carries risk. It may invite interrogators to be more aggressive, because they imagine that these professionals will set needed limits. The logic of caregiver involvement as a safeguard also risks pulling health professionals in ever more deeply. Once caregivers share information with interrogators, why should they refrain from giving advice about how to best use the data? Won’t such advice better protect detainees, while furthering the intelligence-gathering mission? And if so, why not oversee isolation and sleep deprivation or monitor beatings to make sure nothing terrible happens?”
Who Cares What the American Psychological Association Does?
When it comes to torture, why should the internal politics of one professional association with relatively little power matter? The answer is: because what happens there offers a vivid illustration of how organizations (or even entire nations) can be deformed once torture gains an institutional home.
And as in the APA, in the United States, too, the fight over torture has not ended. On the first day of his presidency, Barack Obama issued two executive orders. One de-authorized the use of those “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and closed the CIA’s black sites. The other was meant to shut Guantánamo as well (but the fervent opposition of most congressional Republicans ultimately prevented this).
Obama also argued that nothing would be “gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.” He couldn’t have been more mistaken. Had America’s elected officials spent their time and energy that way, those in George W. Bush’s administration who authorized widespread acts of torture and those who committed them might have been held legally responsible — which is exactly what the U.N. Convention Against Torture (of which the U.S. is a signatory) requires. As a nation, minimally we would have gotten a much fuller accounting of the many cruel and illegal acts committed in our names by top officials, intelligence agencies, and the military after September 11, 2001.
And had all of that happened, we might not be backsliding on torture the way we are. It’s just possible that this country might not have elected a man who campaigned on the promise that he would bring back “waterboarding and a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” and who, on entering the Oval Office, signed an executive order keeping Guantánamo open.
In addition, the Senate would probably not have approved Gina Haspel who oversaw a CIA black site in Thailand (where acts of torture did take place) to run the Agency. She might have been prosecuted, not promoted to CIA director. And perhaps the president wouldn’t have nominated a Supreme Court justice, Brett Kavanaugh, who worked as staff secretary in the George W. Bush White House and was involved in detainee policy. The Washington Post reports that he attended more than one meeting on the treatment of detainees, suggested that they weren’t entitled to legal counsel and strategized about how to keep the Supreme Court from granting them habeas corpus rights. Now, President Trump, citing “executive privilege,” is even withholding 100,000 pages of records from Kavanaugh’s service in the Bush White House — and who knows what they might contain on the subject.
How Did They Do It?
What happened at the APA convention recently also matters because it illustrates the power of organized ethical action. Association members who were determined to keep psychologists out of the torture business formed the APA Watch: Alliance for an Ethical APA. They consulted thoughtfully with each other and allies (including Veterans for Peace), developed and distributed materials aimed at persuading APA members in general, and made personal phone calls to most of the 170 members of the association’s governing Council of Representatives. They combined the wisdom and values of their profession — including the all-important Hippocratic injunction not to harm one’s patients — with energetic, organized action.
It’s an encouraging example for the rest of us, as we enter this crucial election cycle. When we’re smart, committed, and organized, the good guys can win.