Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Center of the Storm: Fight to Expose the Torture Planners

Previously I described the new Vanity Fair article by Katherine Eban, which details how CIA and SERE psychologists directly implemented and spread torture at U.S. government bases and prisons abroad. (See Vanity Fair Article Links CIA/SERE Psychologists to Torture.) I noted that

From afar, this all looks like a crazy trip through a double looking glass. The insanity of even discussing the "right" way to conduct illegal interrogations in the "war on terror" belies a moral and political bankruptcy so profound that it may take us an entire political and social epoch to extirpate it.

Now, in the wake of the VF revelations, Psychologists for an Ethical APA (PEAPA) have released a press statement calling for a fundamental overhaul of the premier psychological organization in the United States, and an investigation of its leading members, as the tentacles of the U.S. torture apparatus have reached deep down into American civil and academic society.

The Politics of Torture

From the PEAPA statement, dated July 17, 2007 (Emphases are added in bold and not in original):

Today’s deeply disturbing revelations in Vanity Fair show the essential role US psychologists played in the torture of detainees in CIA and Department of Defense (DoD) custody, heightening the urgent need for the American Psychological Association (APA) to issue clear ethical guidelines prohibiting psychologists in the military or intelligence services from violating basic human rights as part of interrogation processes, the Coalition for an Ethical APA stated.... When read in conjunction with the recently declassified Defense Department investigation which revealed that psychologists re-engineered counter-terrorist training techniques as mechanisms for detainee abuse at Guantánamo, in Afghanistan and in Iraq, this article is an indictment not only of participating psychologists, but of the Association which refuses to condemn these practices.

As will be clear, much of the press release concerns the politics around a fight within the APA to stop psychologist participation in coercive interrogations. That psychologists and other health care workers have participated in such is irrefutable, as evidenced by the VF article, and in such documentary works by others, including myself.

The politics of the fight within APA now centers around a proposal by dissident psychologists to pass a moratorium resolution this August, coincident in time with the 2007 APA Convention in San Francisco, calling for APA to ban psychologist participation in national security interrogations in the "war on terror" as historically and inherently abusive. The APA leadership, for their part, maintain that psychologist presence at such interrogations actually facilitates their supposedly non-abusive character.

The APA has posted the response of their division for Military Psychology (Division 19, the Society for Military Psychology) to the proposed moratorium:

... military psychologists believe they are performing a valuable service by being included in the interrogation process....

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.

Hmmm... Well, let's keep that in mind when we consider this quote from Eban's VF article. (For those who don't know, the SERE acronym refers to the Pentagon's Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape program, which is supposed to "stress inoculate" U.S. soldiers against the POW experience. JTF-GTMO refers to Joint Task Force Guantanamo. BSCT refers to Behavioral Science Consultation Team.)

On December 2, 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld granted JTF-GTMO 170's request to apply coercive tactics in interrogations. The only techniques he rejected were waterboarding and death threats. Within a week, the task force had drafted a five-page, typo-ridden document entitled "JTF GTMO 'SERE' Interrogation Standard Operating Procedure."

The document, which has never before been made public, states, "The premise behind this is that the interrogation tactics used at US military SERE schools are appropriate for use in real-world interrogations" and "can be used to break real detainees."

The document is divided into four categories: "Degradation," "Physical Debilitation," "Isolation and Monopoliztion [sic] of Perception," and "Demonstrated Omnipotence." The tactics include "slaps," "forceful removal of detainees' clothing," "stress positions," "hooding," "manhandling," and "walling," which entails grabbing the detainee by his shirt and hoisting him against a specially constructed wall.

PEAPA Presses On

In early 2005, the APA appointed a Presidential Task Force to form ethics policy that was dominated by psychologists from the military and intelligence establishment, some of whom were involved in the very interrogation chains of command now shown to have facilitated abuse. The ethics policy of the APA and the report of the APA’s Presidential Task Force, taken together, currently allow psychologists to participate in national security interrogations, unlike physicians and psychiatrists, and even permits contravening the ethics code when faced with a conflicting “lawful order” from a governing authority....

The Vanity Fair article reports the role of psychologists in developing the CIA’s regime of abusive interrogations (”torture”). The article states “that psychologists weren’t merely complicit in America’s aggressive new interrogation regime. Psychologists, working in secrecy, had actually designed the tactics and trained interrogators in them while on contract to the CIA.” Psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen of the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) program were brought in by the CIA to use SERE techniques, developed to help our soldiers resist collaboration if captured, to break down detainees.

While Mitchell and Jessen used so-called “enhanced” techniques such as waterboarding (i.e., simulated drowning), most of their techniques became staples of interrogation tactics toward detainees in the war on terror and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The article quotes one source as describing the Mitchell and Jessen approach as being to “break down [the detainees] through isolation, [use] white noise, completely take away their ability to predict the future, [and] create dependence on interrogators.” The description of these techniques matches those techniques described by former interrogator Tony Lagouranis in his new book, Fear Up Harsh as being used by numerous interrogators in Iraq.

The PEAPA statement goes on to describe how the propagation of these abusive coercive techniquest -- of torture plain and simple -- was facilitated by the respectable cover of the scientific respectability of the psychological profession and of science in general.

I spoke out strongly against this latter role of modern "scientific" psychology over a year ago, in a diary at Daily Kos:

In [Alfred] McCoy's A Question of Torture, McCoy notes that a July 2005 survey of detainee medical care found the BSCT teams lacked clear guidelines, and "recommended the Army stop using psychiatrists and physicians to assist in interrogation". McCoy's narrative continues (p. 184):

Rejecting these recommendations... Lieutenant General Kevin C. Kiley, the Army's surgeon general, said they found, "no evidence of systemic problems in detainee medical care," praised the military's worldwide treatment for detainees, and deferred assessment of the BSCT teams to "more studies." In defense of his position that the role of these behavioral teams is "safe, legal and ethical," Kiley cited the APA task force report (PDF), noting that it reminded members to maintain "an ethical view of their duties. But it doesn't prohibit them from assisting in interrogations."

Thus do APA internal documents and resolutions make themselves into the very heart of Pentagon policy-making.

Action Against APA's Interrogation Position Becomes a Crucial Front Against Bush's War/Torture Policy

The PEAPA release continues:

In June, the Coalition for an Ethical APA sent an Open Letter to the President of the APA, Dr. Sharon Brehm, demanding swift and comprehensive changes in APA policy. In six weeks, the number of signatories to the letter has risen to over 650. The APA leadership has yet to respond to this letter. Soon afterwards, 58 psychologists from the National Consortium of Torture Treatment Programs issued an additional letter expressing outrage over the failure of the APA to adequately respond to the growing evidence of psychologist involvement in torture. Numerous individual psychologists have written additional letters of protest, and a group of APA members has organized a campaign to withhold their dues until the APA changes its ethical policy to prohibit such abuses.

While you should read the entire statement, PEAPA concludes with a strong call for action in cleaning up one of the United States's largest and most prestigious professional, scientific societies, one that has become over the years an adjunct to Pentagon misdeeds and imperialistic foreign policy:

The group urgently recommends the following:

1. The President of the APA must immediately acknowledge errors and abuses committed by its leadership, and substantively reaffirm its commitment to promoting adherence by all psychologists to international human rights standards.

2. The APA Board of Directors and Ethics Committee must endorse the APA Moratorium on psychologist participation in interrogations of foreign detainees, to be voted upon at the August convention.

3. The APA Board of Directors must encourage, support, and cooperate with ongoing Senate investigations into the role of psychologist’s utilization of SERE techniques in developing the US regime of psychological torture used at Guantanamo, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the CIA Black Sites, and elsewhere.

4. The APA Board of Directors must commence a neutral third-party investigation of its own involvement, and that of APA staff, in APA-military conflicts of interest. Among the issues this investigation must examine are:

a) the numerous procedural irregularities alleged to have occurred during the PENS process;

b) the role of the military and intelligence agencies in the formation and functioning of the PENS Task Force;

c) the reasons the APA and its leadership have systematically ignored the accumulating evidence that psychologists participating in interrogations are contributing to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, rather than helping to prevent it;

d) the overall nexus of close ties between the APA staff/leadership and the military and intelligence agencies, ties that may have contributed to a climate that permits undo influence of military and intelligence agencies in the creation of these policies and that encourages turning a blind eye to abuse;

e) the transformation of the APA Ethics Code, from one that protects psychologists’ ethical conduct when such conduct conflicts with law and military regulations to one that protects psychologists who follow unethical law and military regulations.

The Coalition for an Ethical APA calls on all concerned APA members and other psychologists to join them by signing the Open Letter to APA President Sharon Brehm at, to participate actively in mini-convention sessions on ethics and interrogation at the APA Convention in San Francisco beginning this August 18th, and to join the demonstrations planned for this Convention [information available at].


This has been a long article, but I cannot overemphasize the importance of the issues herein. As Congress reveals itself more and more to be a toothless lion when it comes to opposition to the Bush Administration's assault on civil liberties, and its everlasting war drive, assisted by torturers and military apologists and profiteers, the American people must stand up in their everyday institutions, at unions, at churches, in professional societies, if and where the opportunity arises.

Today, for better or worse, psychologists have a unique opportunity to both strike a blow against an illegal and immoral war and interrogation policy, and to save their own organization from calumny and ignominy as a handmaiden to barbaric treatment and callous indifference to the sufferings of the weak and the helpless.

Today, the center of the storm is moving incongruously over Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco, where next month a battle will be fought over the soul of an organization, and maybe, over the soul of a country. Will you be there?

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