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RIGHTS-US: Psychologists Under Fire for Role in Interrogations

William Fisher

NEW YORK, May 7 2009 (IPS) - A leading human rights organisation is charging that an American Psychological Association (APA) task force formed to advise the U.S. military on prisoner interrogations was “stacked with Defence Department and [George W.] Bush Administration officials” and “rushed to conclusions that violated the Geneva Convention.”

Newly released internal APA documents indicate that the organisation’s 2005 ethics task force on national security interrogations developed its policy to conform to Pentagon guidelines governing psychologist participation in interrogations, said Physicians for Human Rights (PHR).

PHR is calling for an independent, outside investigation of the APA and a probe by the Defence Department’s Inspector General into whether any federal employees exerted influence over the APA’s Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS).

The director of PHR’s Campaign Against Torture, Nathaniel Raymond, told IPS, “The APA’s ethics task force on national security interrogations produced a report that was rushed, secret, and being driven to already-reached conclusions – conclusions that violated the Geneva Convention.”

“The APA made ethics subservient to law by following guidelines set out by the Pentagon. Members of the task force had long-standing ties to the Pentagon, and the task force was stacked with Defence Department and Bush administration officials. There were clear conflicts of interest,” he said.

“The APA needs to explain how that happened. And the Pentagon’s Inspector General needs to look into how this was allowed to happen,” Raymond added.

The charges of APA conflicts of interest came after a series of task force emails were posted online by and ProPublica, a not-for-profit investigative journalism organisation.

PHR said the emails indicate that the APA’s ethics task force developed its ethics policy to conform to Pentagon guidelines.

“These serious allegations require an independent investigation to determine whether APA leadership engaged in unethical conduct,” said Steven Reisner, Ph.D., PHR Advisor for Psychological Ethics.

“The American public deserves to know if there were inappropriate contacts or conflicts of interest between APA officials and the Pentagon,” he said.

The task force found it to be “consistent with the APA Ethics Code” for psychologists to consult with interrogators in the interests of national security. While noting that psychologists do not participate in torture and have a responsibility to report it, and should be committed to the APA ethics code whenever they “encounter conflicts between ethics and law,” the task force decided that “if the conflict cannot be resolved … psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law.”

PHR has been a longstanding and outspoken critic of the APA’s PENS policy governing psychologist involvement in interrogations, calling for a “bright line” prohibition against health professional participation in interrogations.

Though the APA membership passed a 2008 referendum banning psychologists from facilities that violate U.S. and international human rights law, PHR believes that the PENS policy must be immediately revoked.

Riesner said it was time to “put a psychologist’s ethical obligations to human rights principles ahead of following orders.”

The recently released Senate Armed Services Committee report detailing detainee abuse by the Department of Defence confirms that psychologists rationalised, designed, supervised, and implemented the Bush administration’s torture programme.

“The Senate Armed Services Committee report confirms that psychologists were central to the Bush administration’s use of torture,” said PHR’s Raymond.

“In the context of these revelations, the American public needs to know why a supposedly independent ethics policy was written by some of the very personnel allegedly implicated in detainee abuse,” he said.

Stephen Soldz, a board member and spokesman for another advocacy group, Psychologists for Social Responsibility, said, “These emails show that several of the military psychologists formulating APA ethics policy were giving themselves get-out-of-jail-free cards.”

He charged that their report concluded that it was ethical to follow military policy while the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memos allowing torture were still in effect.”

The memoranda prepared by OLC lawyers provided the rationale for the Bush administration’s assertion that “enhanced interrogation techniques” were legal.

PHR has repeatedly called for an end to the use of the SERE tactics by U.S. personnel, the dismantling of the Behavioural Science Consultation Teams (BSCT) teams, and a full Congressional investigation of the use of psychological torture by the U.S. Government.

SERE, the military’s “Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape” programme, was developed to train U.S. soldiers to cope with torture if captured by the enemy. Its developers warned officials as early as 2002 that “reverse-engineering” SERE techniques for use on detainees could be ineffective and dangerous, a recent Senate Armed Services Committee report revealed.

The report also noted that the same psychologists who helped develop the SERE programme were complicit in the very interrogation policies and practices they warned against.

Dr. Jeffrey Kaye, a San-Francisco-based psychologist who has written extensively on the role played by medical professionals in prisoner treatment, told IPS, “APA’s ties to the Pentagon are long-standing, going back at least to the Cold War.”

He said, “Any inquiry should make the historical connection between the work of CIA and SERE psychologists and the role of coercive interrogation used in psychologically ‘breaking down’ a human being.”

He said that there is a long history of collaboration between psychologists and the military, which includes several former APA presidents. These men were the “institutional godfathers” for a later generation of psychologists who continue to be deeply involved in interrogation techniques, he said.

In an article accompanying ProPublica’s publication of the APA task force’s extensive email exchanges, Sheri Fink of ProPublica posed the question, “Is it possible for psychologists to uphold the ethical tenets of their profession while working within a system of interrogation that violates those tenets? Does it matter if they raised objections to the system of interrogation but cooperated with it anyway?”

The Senate report said that in 2002, a psychiatrist and a psychologist who worked at the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, prepared a list of harsh interrogation techniques that ended up influencing interrogation policy not only at Guantánamo, but also in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In the same memo, they warned that these methods were likely to result in inaccurate tips and could harm detainees. Those warnings disappeared as the memo moved up the chain of command.

The board of the APA, the largest membership organisation for psychologists, who are employed in great numbers by the Department of Defence, quickly adopted the task force’s report as the organisation’s official policy.

But last year, members of the APA successfully petitioned for a vote on whether to ban psychologists from working in detention settings where international law or the U.S. Constitution are violated. The membership passed the proposal.

Some psychologists have filed complaints with the APA and state licensing boards against colleagues who were allegedly involved in abusive interrogations.

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