Just in: Military Psychologists Oppose Torture Moratorium

Dropped on:April 2, 2018
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Crossposted at Daily Kos
The battle over the use of torture by U.S. forces is being fought within the psychological profession. Because of the importance of psychologists in the development and implementation of interrogation plans, and of torture techniques, the use of psychologists in interrogation has direct bearing on the ability of the United States to implement torture worldwide.

This diary looks at the latest development within the American Psychological Association, as a portion of the membership is fighting to place a moratorium upon psychologist participation in interrogations of “enemy combatants”, due to the history of abuses perpetrated from Guantanamo Bay to Abu Ghraib. Now, led by the Society for Military Psychology, forces within the APA close to both the Pentagon and the CIA are fighting back to sink the proposed moratorium.

Valtin: Just in: Military Psychologists Oppose Torture Moratorium

Division 19 — the division for Military Psychology within the American Psychological Association (APA)– is one of the initial constituents of the coalition of psychological groups that formed APA some decades ago (along with educational, industrial, research, and clinical psychology). Most people have probably never heard of it. In fact, it is one of the initial constituents of the coalition of various psychology groups that formed the APA some decades ago.

[The] Society for Military Psychology encourages research and the application of psychological research to military problems. Members are military psychologists who serve diverse functions in settings including research activities, management, providing mental health services, teaching, consulting, work with Congressional committees, and advising senior military commands.
First, a little background….

Psychologists Against Torture: The Proposed Moratorium Against Psychologists Participation in Interrogations at Foreign Detention Centers

At their convention in New Orleans last summer, the APA passed a resolution against torture. But someone snuck in some fine print at the last minute that allows for psychologist participation in various dubious interrogation techniques, such as sleep deprivation, isolation, and inducing fear and debility. I wrote about the APA betrayal last August.

The APA leadership denied that their resolution allowed for participation in cruel and unusual punishment — as defined by U.S. law — and took the opportunity of signing a letter drafted by Physicians for Human Rights to McCain warning on ceding the Geneva Convention rules to Bush and the military/CIA. It made opposition to certain interrogation/torture techniques part of APA policy.
Abusive interrogation tactics used by the CIA that must be explicitly prohibited by Congress include prolonged sleep deprivation, induced hypothermia, stress positions, shaking, sensory deprivation and overload, and possibly water-boarding, among other reported techniques.
This all sounds good, and maybe even would do some good if implemented. But notice the language. “Prolonged sleep deprivation.” What is considered “prolonged”? The letter doesn’t say. The new Army field interrogation manual allows for sleep deprivation — allowing only 4 hours of sleep per night for up to 30 days (or more days with further approval) — in certain instances. Sensory deprivation and overload are also condemned, but what constitutes sensory deprivation is also unclear. Again, the Army manual now allows for the placement of goggles and earmuffs on captives for up to 30 days. And the Army says directly it does not practice sensory deprivation.

Also important is what’s not named: the practice of isolation, time disorientation, and the inducement of fear. What about semi-starvation? Oops, they forgot to include that.

To be fair, the letter doesn’t pretend to be inclusive. However, it seems to have left plenty of room for the participation of pscyhologists in special interrogations of foreign “enemy combatants” to continue. And we know from a recently leaked report by the International Committee of the Red Cross that the torture is continuing.

In January 2007, Dr. Neil Altman, the representative of the APA’s Division of Psychoanalysis (Div. 39), presented the draft of a moratorium against participation in interrogations at foreign prisons.
The Issue: That psychologists participating in interrogations of foreign detainees at US detention centers may be working within a framework in which there is inadequate protection of detainee human rights….
Whereas, current interrogation methods at U.S. centers holding “enemy combatants” may include techniques defined as torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment under the 2006 APA Resolution Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment….

Therefore, Be it resolved that APA adopts this resolution calling for a moratorium on all psychologist involvement, either direct or indirect, in any interrogations at U.S. detention centers for foreign detainees. This moratorium is necessary as detainees may be currently denied protections outlined under the Geneva Conventions and interrogations techniques in violation of the 2006 APA Resolution Against
Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment may be considered acceptable practice according to the Military Commissions Bill of 2006…

Opposition Arises from an Unexpected Quarter

Michael Gelles was the chief psychologist for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, stationed at Guantanamo, when he blew the whistle on the unlawful interrogations at that U.S. prison. The charges went almost nowhere: read Jane Mayer’s excellent piece on that episode in The New Yorker, How an internal effort to ban the abuse and torture of detainees was thwarted.

As a result of efforts such as his, and many others in the American Psychological Association (APA), there has been an effort to halt the participation of psychologists in “enemy combatant” interrogations. (See Stephen Soldz’s Letter to the CEO of the APA.) But this campaign has been stymied by APA leadership and the opposition of military psychologists within APA (as we shall see). But not before Gelles himself inserted himself into the controversy a second time.

Gelles wrote a letter opposing the ban to the chief sponsor of the proposed APA Resolution calling for a Moratorium on psychologist involvement in national security “enemy combatant” interrogations. This letter was distributed by APA leadership to its Council of Representatives, while a letter answering Gelles’s remarks was outrageously refused similar distribution. From Dr. Gelles’s letter:
As you well know, there are very different and competing philosophies regarding what methods should be permissible in eliciting information from detainees. Unfortunately, at times in the past, those who have both conducted and consulted to interrogations and who have worked to develop methods for eliciting information have had little or no training, guidance, or oversight. The results have been catastrophic and the collateral damage far reaching. Interrogations left to those who are not properly trained can lead to drift and result in brutality, which is utterly contrary to the competent and effective methods for eliciting accurate and reliable information employed by those who have the appropriate training and experience.
Gelles makes the assertion that without professional guidance by psychologists, interrogations are subject to “emotion and perverse purpose and drift across boundaries”. The results of such recently were “catastrophic and the collateral damage far reaching.”

These allusions to the events at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib repeat the lie that the brutality there was due to unsupervised pranks, and unprofessional operations. But as the recent HBO documentary “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib” makes clear, the torture there was all of a piece with KUBARK style torture: with forced stress positions, humiliation, fear up, etc. The MPs there were instructed on what to do, or watched it modelled for them, by the professionals.

Gelles continues:
…we must not “throw the baby out with the bath water,” but we must rather examine the mistakes that have been made and the abuses that have occurred in interrogation settings, continue to develop guidelines and parameters that direct us professionally, and remain fully engaged with these difficult and complex issues.
My direct experience leads me to conclude that we should remain engaged in interrogations as a persistent voice for the right way to do things.

Critics Answer Back

Over at Psyche, Science and Society, Dr. Uwe Jacobs, Director of the torture victim center, Survivors International, answered Gelles letter, asking for the sorely lacking specifics (emphases mine):
1. Do you believe that the detention of enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay has been a productive practice and that this practice has been preferable to their detention on American soil, with all the relevant legal and constitutional protections?
2. Did you have any sense of unease about following an order to assist with the interrogation of these detainees under the circumstances?….

3. At what point precisely did you find it necessary to report abuses? What were the techniques used that you found objectionable? This is critical to understand.

4. More importantly, what were the techniques used that you did not find objectionable? To cite a few examples, did you believe it was ethical to transport prisoners to Guantanamo under conditions of sensory deprivation, i.e. wearing hoods, goggles, earmuffs, and other devices designed to create sensory deprivation and isolation, along with very restrictive shackling? Did you believe it was ethical to keep prisoners in solitary confinement for very long periods of time? Is it ethical to deprive prisoners of sleep? Is it ethical to subject them to severe heat and cold, constant noises or lights, stress positions, short shackling, screaming abuse etc.? You know the list I am referring to. Do you agree that these techniques have long been proven to produce severe nervous system dysregulation and often lasting psychological damage? Do these techniques not by definition constitute torture, just as stated by the UN?….

6. Did you think that the prisoners’ confinement in the cages we have seen in documentaries and other media was regrettable but sufficiently humane and dignified? Did you think that cruelty was not frequently apparent? In short, did you find that the overall situation you were in was consistent with general practices of correctional confinement in the United States?

We are still awaiting Dr. Gelles’s answer. Which brings us back to the military psychologists, for now their organization has chimed in against Altman’s moratorium.

“…the resolution will not achieve its desired objectives.”

Here’s what they say (edited, of course, with all emphases mine), dated 3/21/2007:
The resolution points out possible ambiguities that psychologists may confront in the context of interrogations of foreign detainees at US Detention Centers…. Such ambiguities relate to perceived inconsistencies between US laws and international treaties, conventions, and standards regarding the treatment of foreign detainees – in this case detainees defined by the US Government as “unlawful enemy combatants.” Any such ambiguities are indeed unfortunate, but it is not at all clear that a resolution to remove military psychologists from such ambiguous situations would serve either the psychologists or the detainees.
The belabored language, with its strangled description of torture “ambiguities” that are “indeed unfortunate”, is bad enough. But it’s the last point, about serving the detainees, that galls me the most. The military contends, as have APA leadership and Michael Gelles, that you need professional behavioral scientists to keep things from getting out of hand in the interrogation room. Such a descent into gross brutality is defined as “behavioral drift”. (Don’t you love intellectual discourse.)
Nor would detainees likely be well served by a moratorium. The ethical and clinical training of psychologists make them more likely to be protective of the detainees’ interests than those who have not had such training. Psychologists are more likely to recognize when interrogations are headed in a direction that would be psychologically harmful to the detainees and are thus more likely to deter interrogations from heading in that direction.
Tell that to Major John Leso, a psychologist with the Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) on Guantanamo detainee #063, Mohammed al-Qahtani. Steven Miles, in a recent article in the American Journal of Bioethics tells the story of one well-documented instance of a psychologist involved in torture, including the transcript of the interrogation.
BSCTs in Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay were chaired by a psychiatrist or psychologist, and advised on how to exploit the prisoners’ emotional and physical vulnerabilities and how to monitor the success of the interrogation (Miles 2006). BSCT personnel suggested how to stress, coerce and offer incentives in order to secure information. These behavioral science clinicians designed a two-pronged approach to break the prisoners down. The first was an attack on the cultural self of the Islamic men…. The second approach aimed at a prisoner’s personal vulnerabilities, sometimes using information from the prisoner’s medical record…
The transcript shows what the psychologist (Leso) and the other interrogators did. You can see that the Division 19 letter opposing the moratorium resolution is basically a pack of lies, mixed in with some nice-sounding statements (emphases mine):
In October 2002, before the time covered by the log, Army investigators found that dogs were brought to the interrogation room to growl, bark and bare their teeth at al-Qahtani. The investigators noted that a BSCT psychologist witnessed the use of the dog, Zeus, during at least one such instance, an incident deemed properly authorized to “exploit individual phobias”….
Major L., a psychologist who chaired the BSCT at Guantanamo, was noted to be present at the start of the interrogation log. On November 27, he suggested putting the prisoner in a swivel chair to prevent him from fixing his eyes on one spot and thereby avoiding the guards….

Many psychological “approaches” or “themes” were repetitively used. These included: “Failure/Worthless,” “Al Qaeda Falling Apart,” “Pride Down,” “Ego Down,” “Futility,” “Guilt/Sin Theme… Al-Qahtani was shown videotapes entitled “Taliban Bodies” and “Die Terrorist Die.” Some scripts aimed at his Islamic identity bore names such as “Good Muslim,” “Bad Muslim,” “Judgment Day,” “God’s Mission” and “Muslim in America”…. He was not allowed to honor prayer times. The Koran was intentionally and disrespectfully placed on a television (an authorized control measure) and a guard “unintentionally” squatted over it while harshly addressing the prisoner.

Transgressions against Islamic and Arab mores for sexual modesty were employed…. He was told that his mother and sister were whores. He was forced to wear a bra, and a woman’s thong was put on his head. He was dressed as a woman and compelled to dance with a male interrogator. He was told that he had homosexual tendencies and that other prisoners knew this. Although continuously monitored, interrogators repeatedly strip-searched him as a “control measure.” On at least one occasion, he was forced to stand naked with women soldiers present. Female interrogators seductively touched the prisoner under the authorized use of approaches called “Invasion of Personal Space” and “Futility.” On one occasion, a female interrogator straddled the prisoner as he was held down on the floor.

Other degrading techniques were logged…. He was leashed (a detail omitted in the log but recorded by investigators) and made to “stay, come, and bark to elevate his social status up to a dog.” He was told to bark like a happy dog at photographs of 9/11 victims and growl at pictures of terrorists. Some psychological routines referred to the 9/11 attacks. He was shown pictures of the attacks, and photographs of victims were affixed to his body. The interrogators held one exorcism (and threatened another) to purge evil Jinns that the disoriented, sleep deprived prisoner claimed were controlling his emotions.

It’s amazing how many of these psychological techniques seem to be straight from Abu Ghraib. (Actually, the direction of technique flowed from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib.) There is much more that could be said about the military position on this issue, especially their (for them) crucial issue of whether they follow ethical or APA dictates, or whether they follow the chain of command. (Diary’s already too long; I save this discussion for later.)

The fight againt the use of psychologists in torture interrogations is crucial. The use of behavioral experts is deemed crucial by the military and CIA. Stopping their participation would be a black eye for the torturers, and make it harder for them to practice their dark arts.

Hopefully, the APA membership will rise up and demand that the moratoruum be passed.


One small point on a claim made at the beginning of this piece. I asserted that “forces within the APA close to both the Pentagon and the CIA are fighting back to sink the proposed moratorium” (emphasis added). While the influence of the Pentagon is manifest, the influence of the CIA is inferred. However I believe such inference derives from a great deal of accumulated evidence, which can be studied in books and articles on the history of psychology.

A few sources, then, for links between the CIA and the APA:

The APA sends some of their science Fellows to the CIA:
2003-2004 APA Science Policy Fellow Starts Work at CIA
APA’s new Science Policy Fellow, Linda Demaine, JD, PhD, has begun her fellowship year at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), working in the Operational Assessment Division’s Research and Analysis Branch. Demaine completed an APA Congressional Fellowship last year with the Senate Judiciary Committee, and she is taking time off from her position as an Associate Policy Analyst for RAND to use both her legal and research expertise in deception at the CIA.

Various workshops and meetings attended by APA staff are funded by the CIA
On June 24th [2004], Science Policy staff attended a day-long meeting designed to forge collaborations between operational staff working in the intelligence community and scientists conducting research on interpersonal deception. Generously funded by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the meeting was held near RAND headquarters in Arlington, VA and was facilitated by RAND policy analyst Scott Gerwehr. Gerwehr provided a conceptual framework for the meeting while Susan Brandon, Assistant Director of Social, Behavioral and Educational Sciences for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and APA Science Policy Director Geoff Mumford concentrated on the logistics of inviting the particpants representing, the FBI, US Secret Service, CIA, DoD, Department of Homeland Security, UK Ministry of Defense, New Scotland Yard, and the UK Home Office as well as a long list of academic institutions.
Gerwehr’s notion was essentially the reverse of a previous workshop conducted as a joint CIA/RAND/APA exercise on the theme of detecting deception as he explains in the concept piece here.

Historical articles make the link between APA and CIA collaboration, as here and here, in this article published in the APA Monitor 30 years ago.

Other organizations in the medical field have also commented upon the role of psychologists and/or APA in intelligence-related interrogations or torture, as in this press release from Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Finally, there is the excellent documentation provided in such classic works as John Marks’s Search for the Manchurian Candidate, Alfred McCoy’s A Question of Torture, and Dominic Streatfeild’s new book, Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control.

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