How Psychologists Aid Torture

Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm. In their professional actions, psychologists seek to safeguard the welfare and rights of those with whom they interact professionally and other affected persons. -- Principle A, Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, 2002

In August, the American Psychological Association (APA) will hold its annual convention in San Francisco. Notably absent from the program: the application of psychology to current world events. War, terror, genocide. "Our War on Terror that has led to the Deaths of Hundreds of Thousands of People" -- how about that for a plenary session? Of course there are divisions inside the APA organizing against the Bush Administration's policies and trying to have an impact on public discourse about the war in Iraq, but they are marginalized and fighting an uphill battle in a professional organization whose adherence to the status quo allows it continued legitimacy and access to power.

Many psychologists have their own mechanisms of denial and self-delusion about their role in society. "We're not political," they'll tell you, "We are just doing what we can in our way to make things better, one person at a time, one research project at a time." Most have no understanding of the collective impact of their profession and no sense that they have any obligation as psychologists to social responsibility. Wars, global poverty, ecological destruction? "That is not in our professional domain," they argue, "though as individual citizens we might get involved in these issues." As a profession, psychologists refuse to ask what the psychological foundations are for the global insanity that manifests in violence, wars, and indifference to the fate of others -- and what, as professionals, our obligation is to address and seek strategies to heal the pain that leads the human race in self-destructive directions. Of course, the majority of psychologists are compassionate, moral people who worry about these issues -- but they believe they must do so as individuals outside the framework of their profession rather than as part of a profession that makes these issues central.

The American Psychological Association is not just another professional association so caught up in the excitement of its own advancements in research that it has become disconnected from our current social reality. Some of its respected members have been actively aiding and abetting torture at illegal detention sites set up by the Bush administration, and the leadership of the APA has actively blocked attempts by its members to ban any and all engagement with interrogation proceedings at sites like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and the secret detention centers set up through the Administration's policy of "extraordinary rendition" ( i.e., outsourcing torture to countries that have no laws against it). In his book A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror, Alfred McCoy documents the CIA's decades-long exploitation of psychological research for the purpose of developing effective methods of psychological torture, which, it was hoped, would render detainees incapable of withholding information. This knowledge was also used to inform elements of the U.S. Military's SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) program, which trains service members and civilians in the art of surviving captivity. The SERE program's chief psychologist, Col. Morgan Banks (who later served on the APA's PENS Ethics Task Force), was involved in training BSCT (or "Biscuit") teams in Guantanamo and served at the Bagram detention center in Afghanistan. According to Human Rights First, the interrogation that led to the death of Iraqi Major General Abed Hamed Mowhoush involved the use of techniques learned in the SERE training program. Internal FBI memos and press reports have pointed to SERE training as the basis for some of the harshest techniques authorized for use on detainees by the Pentagon in 2002 and 2003.

Law and Disorder

It's impossible to understand the APA's role in torture proceedings without taking a look at the truly complex legal environment that the Bush administration has wrought upon Americans and "enemy combatants" alike since waging the War on Terror. The competing ethical codes, changing laws, challenges to the Supreme Court, and Congressional rubber-stamping have made it exceedingly difficult to know what is legal, particularly for psychologists working in the military.

Nearly every country in the world (including the United States) has ratified the Geneva Conventions, and in 1996 the U.S. Congress took the extra step of strengthening the sovereignty of the Geneva Conventions with the passage of the War Crimes Act. The act, which passed with unanimous consent, criminalized breaches of the Geneva Conventions and authorized the U.S. to prosecute war criminals -- including members of the American military. Both the Department of Defense and the military supported the bill because the Geneva Conventions have long been held as the most explicit and far-reaching protection of prisoners of war.

For over 100 years, the Geneva Conventions have provided a very clear moral compass for countries during wartime. Early in the War on Terror it was found that the Bush Administration was violating the Conventions' dictates and would therefore be subject to criminal prosecution. The administration's response was to "reinterpret" the Geneva Conventions in a way that no country has ever done before: they claimed that since their detainees did not represent a nation or an army, the Geneva Conventions simply did not apply to them.

After much national and international uproar at these blatant violations of human rights, the Supreme Court finally ruled five to three in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (June 2006) that the federal government did not have the right to set up special military commissions in Guantanamo Bay, that detainees were subject to the Geneva Conventions, and that the Bush administration was in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (the military's own code of ethics prohibits cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners in interrogations). The ruling implied that the Bush administration would have to try detainees held as part of the War on Terror either by court martial or by civilian federal court. And though it wasn't explicitly stated in the ruling, the Supreme Court's judgment opened up members of the Ad- ministration to prosecution for war crimes.

Instead of complying with the Supreme Court's ruling, the Bush administration pressured members of the House Committee on Armed Services to draft a bill that virtually reversed the Supreme Court's rulings by allowing for ongoing secret military commissions and provided a number of provisions for allowing detainees to remain indefinitely imprisoned without habeas corpus and the basic human rights guaranteed under the Geneva Conventions. The bill later became known as the Military Commissions Act (MCA). It was passed with a majority in both Houses. As a New York Times editorial stated, the MCA "give[s] Mr. Bush the power to jail pretty much anyone he wants for as long as he wants without charging them, to unilaterally reinterpret the Geneva Conventions, to authorize what normal people consider torture, and to deny justice to hundreds of men captured in error."

The APA: Not Taking a Stand for Justice

Now the question for the American Psychological Association is this: if psychologists are members of the APA and yet are also Military Intelligence officers, where are they to turn for legal and ethical guidance? Prior to the War on Terror, psychologists were more or less able to lean on their own Code of Ethics as well as the military's own Code of Justice, since both prohibit cruelty against prisoners as well as information gathered under coercion. With the Geneva Conventions as a basic framework, it wasn' t necessary to "take a stand" on torture because it was universally condemned. In other words, psychologists were not likely to find themselves supporting coercive interrogations in secret and illegal detention centers. Nonetheless, both the APA's (Psychiatric and Psychological) issued a Joint Resolution Against Torture in 1985. No one could have imagined the current situation in which the Military Code of Justice, itself committed to the precepts of the Geneva Conventions, would violate domestic law (as defined by the current Administration) and force those in the military to choose between obeying the President and obeying international law.

For psychologists serving in a military setting since the War on Terror began, the ethical boundaries are even more muddled. It is for this reason that the APA has been under fire for the last several years to adopt a decisive and ethical principle with regard to interrogations taking place at U.S. detention centers. The initial furor arose when both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association declared that any and all engagement with interrogation methods (including in an advisory role) was a transgression of policy and that those found to be serving in such a capacity would be punished. The absence of a similar injunction by the American Psychological Association drew fire and became even more problematic when the Pentagon announced it would simply replace psychiatrists with psychologists. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs William Winkenwerder, Jr. described how psychologists would assess "the character, personality, social interactions and other behavioral characteristics of detainees" and "coach and counsel the interrogator in a way that allows him or her to build a relationship with the detainee." It is important to remember here that one psychologist who performed such "coaching" was Col. Morgan Banks, mentioned earlier, who was one of the founders of the SERE program. Since methods from the SERE program have been widely used to torture detainees, it's not a great leap to imagine that some of this information was passed along by Col. Banks, who served in one capacity or another at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram.

In response to pressure from the public and members of the APA, former APA president Gerald Koocher handpicked a 10-member "Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security" (known as PENS) to write up "general guidelines" concerning whether or not the current Code of Ethics adequately addresses "the ethical dimensions of psychologists' involvement in national security-related activities." the task force report concluded that the current Ethics Code does indeed provide enough guidance and that "it is consistent with the APA Ethics Code for psychologists to serve in consultative roles to interrogation and information-gathering processes for national security-related purposes." He added that, "psychologists are in a unique position to assist in ensuring that these processes are safe and ethical for all participants."

Several elements of the PENS report drew criticism not only from the APA community, but from the psychiatric and medical communities as well . First and foremost was the make-up of the Task Force itself. Comprised of people handpicked by Koocher, no fewer than six of its nine members had close ties to the military. Four of the psychologists on the task force were involved with handling detainee e s at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, or Afghanistan--all places where serious cases of abuse have been documented. One of the Task Force Members was none other than Col. Morgan Banks, co-founder of SERE. Another was Capt. Bryce Lefever who was assigned to the Navy's SERE program in the early 1990s and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2002.

The task force's defense of the report can be better understood in the context of the larger moral framework in which they were operating. In response to a letter of complaint about the APA's stance on interrogation, Koocher stated: "[your] comments focus on an 'archetype of psychologists-as-healers,' failing to acknowledge that many psychologists perform legitimate work in law enforcement or national security unrelated to healing roles." He is referring here to behavioral scientists and "Biscuit teams," who apparently are not bound by the same ethical principles as psychologists. As long as the behavioral scientist does not act as " healer" he cannot be accused of playing a dual role, nor can he be charged with playing a therapeutic role with his "clients."

The Battle Continues

At the 2006 APA convention in New Orleans, the Council of Representatives adopted a "Resolution Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment," which reaffirms that "psychologists shall not knowingly engage in, tolerate, direct, support, advise, or offer training in torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment." Though the Resolution, co-sponsored by the APA's Division for Social Justice, made strides in further clarifying the untenable position of the APA on torture, it fails as an ethical guidepost on many fronts. First, it makes no mention of the word "interrogation," or which methods are deemed unethical; rather it leaves it up to the psychologist to decipher what is "cruel and inhumane." Second, it contains a loophole that makes the whole resolution somewhat meaningless in the face of the Bush administration's legal maneuvering. While prohibiting association with torture, it exempts "pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in, or incidental to lawful sanctions." Currently, domestic law -- and specifically the definition of torture -- is decided secretly by the President (with powers granted him by the Military Commissions Act) and is in direct contradiction to international law. By not specifying that international law supercedes domestic law, or that the Geneva Conventions are the ultimate authority on POW treatment, or what the exact chain of command is when psychologists find themselves in an "atrocity-making situation," the Resolution fails to resolve the problem of psychologists being involved in nebulous illegalities.


Former APA president Philip Zimbardo states that "when psychologists contribute in any way to interrogations in such settings, they violate and erode the most basic ethical standards that have guided our profession for generations." The APA needs to set a policy that unequivocally bars psychologists from playing any part in illegal interrogations and to specify that international law and the Geneva Conventions supercede domestic and military law. But that isn't enough. Without both the incentive of protection and reward for "doing what's right" and the disincentive of punishment for aiding in human rights crimes, there will be no change in policy. As Brigadier General Stephen Xenakis, M.D., states, "Standards without rules do nothing to stop abusive and illegal tactics ongoing as part of U.S. counterterrorism operations."

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