Monday, April 7, 2008

Submissions to APA Ethics Casebook on Interrogation

The tireless activists at Coalition for an Ethical Psychology (CEP) have answered the call of the American Psychological Association for contributions to a proposed ethics casebook, which would examine critical or contentious issues that could arise for psychologists working for the military or CIA in Bush's "war on terror".

Of course, psychologists shouldn't be working at sites such as Guantanamo or CIA "black site" prisons, where basic human rights are limited, and psychological methods of torture are routine. Taking the latter as a touchstone of basic ethical practice, the submissions of CEP point out the absurdity of mixing "ethics" with illegal detention and torture.

I applaud the excellent job done by those who constructed the scenarios. Yet, I remain unconvinced that any actual reform of the process of national security interrogation can take place under the current political and military structure, into which APA has slowly been incorporated over many years. Even if reform were possible, it is inconsistent with the strategic and tactical pressures of trying to enforce a foreign policy that aims to dominate internationally by force.

While there are some at APA who sincerely hope that an ethical compromise can be achieved, and something short of a full withdrawal of psychologists from Guantanamo and elsewhere can still allow for ethical participation, I just don't see it happening. Others believe that the casebook process allows an excellent opportunity to polemicize and educate, and intend to keep pushing APA for a full moratorium on psychologist participation in interrogations. I publish this in the hopes of educating the wider populace in the ways behavioral "specialists", including psychologists, have been used by the national security apparatus for purposes of abuse and torture.

APA's call for contributions is as follows:

The Ethics Committee seeks critical incidents/vignettes concerning the casebook/commentary on psychological ethics and national security. The goal of the casebook/commentary is to provide ethical guidance to psychologists advising or consulting to national security-related interrogations.
I've been given permission to reproduce the following by a leading member of CEP. All critical incidentes/vignettes have been represented to me as official submissions to APA. I am making them public here, with no editorial changes of any sort, except for readability, in the spirit of APA's own stated determination that the process of developing this casebook be open and transparent.

According to international instruments and their accompanying jurisprudence, “disappearance,” i.e., the capture and transport of a human being to a place of detention without acknowledgement of the capture or detention, is a form of torture. It is a form of torture directed at both the detainee’s family and the detainee himself or herself. Detainees held at CIA black sites are considered “disappeared” according to the UN definition (i.e., the detainee, “by being subjected to prolonged incommunicado detention in an unknown location, is the victim of torture and cruel and inhuman treatment,” El-Megreisi v Libya, Report of the United Nations Human Rights Committee). The Inter-American Court of Human Rights states that, “prolonged isolation and deprivation of communication are themselves cruel and inhuman treatment, harmful to the psychological and moral integrity of the person.”

May a psychologist at a CIA black site supervise the interrogation of a detainee kept in such conditions? Or must the psychologist follow the 2006 resolution, which asserts that “should torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment evolve during a procedure where a psychologist is present, the psychologist shall attempt to intervene to stop such behavior, and failing that exit the procedure”?

Sources: The U.N. Human Rights Committee, the European Court of Human Rights, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have all issued decisions on individual petitions that deal with the issue of "disappearances" amounting to possible acts of torture. For example, Mojica v. Dominican Republic ("the disappearance of persons is inseparably linked to treatment that amounts to a violation of Article 7") (449/1991, para 5.7). The European Court of Human Rights has also held that the extreme pain and suffering inflicted on the mother of the "disappeared" person is a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Kurt v. Turkey, Eur. Ct. Hum. Rts, Case No.15/1997/799/1002, 25 May 1998, para.134). Similarly, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, in the well-known case of Velásquez Rodríguez, held that "the mere subjugation of an individual to prolonged isolation and deprivation of communication is in itself cruel and inhuman treatment" (Inter-American Court H.R., Velásquez Rodríguez case, Judgment of July 29, 1988. Series C Nº 4, para.187).


In 2003, the CIA acknowledged that it had kidnapped two children of a suspected terrorist, ages 7 and 9, and held them at a CIA ‘black site.’ Before their father was captured, the children were interrogated so that the CIA might discover from them their father’s whereabouts. After their father was captured, the detained children were held as hostages to pressure their father into giving up information.

By one account, the two children were pressured into giving up information by having insects put on their legs to scare them. [Testimony of Ali Khan, father of Guantánamo prisoner Majid Khan, submitted to the Combatant Status Review Tribunal at Guantánamo in March 2007.]

CIA interrogators stated at the time that, “We have child psychologists on hand at all times and they are given the best of care."

Is it ethical for a child psychologist to offer care in such a circumstance?
Is it ethical for a child psychologist to permit his or her treatment of these children to be the basis of a propaganda statement for the U.S. government? For instance, how can it be said that children who have been kidnapped and are being held as hostages, away from home and family, in order to facilitate the interrogation of their father, be considered are held under “the best of care”?
Is it ethical for the child psychologist to allow the dissemination of such a statement to legitimize the governmental use of children for coercive purposes?



A psychologist is sent to Guantánamo to be Chief Psychologist of the Joint Intelligence Group in order to put operating procedures in place for detainees.

During the four months he or she is there and responsible for supervising the psychologists that advise on the conditions of detention, the following operating procedures are written and instituted:

4-20. Behavior Management Plan
a. Phase One Behavior Management Plan (First thirty days or as directed by JIG). The purpose of the Behavior Management Plan is to enhance and exploit the disorientation and disorganization felt by a newly arrived detainee in the interrogation process. It concentrates on isolating the detainee and fostering dependence of the detainee on his interrogator. During the first two weeks at Camp Delta, classify the detainees as Level 5 and house in a Maximum Security Unit (MSU) Block. During this time, the following conditions will apply: …Restricted contact: No ICRC [Red Cross] or Chaplain contact... No Koran, prayer beads, prayer cap.
b. Phase Two Behavior Management Plan. The two-week period following Phase 1 will continue the process of isolating the detainee and fostering dependence on the interrogator. Until the JIG Commander changes his classification, the detainee will remain a Level 5 with the following: ...Continued MSU....Koran, prayer beads and prayer cap distributed by interrogator...

Would it be ethical for a psychologist to write such procedures?
Would it be ethical for a psychologist to institute such procedures?
Would it be ethical for a psychologist to supervise psychologists or others instituting such procedures?
Would it be ethical for a Chief Psychologist to claim that he/she did not know that such things were written, instituted and/or practiced by psychologists under his/her command?

Source: Camp Delta Standard Operating Procedures (SOP). 28 March 2003


Two psychologists are interrogating a prisoner using techniques which include isolation, humiliation, forced nakedness, and waterboarding. Their supervisor, also a psychologist, enters the room, sees what the two are doing, and leaves in disgust. The supervisor takes no further action and the interrogation techniques continue.

What ethical violations, if any, have been committed by the supervisor?

Source: Vanity Fair, Rorschach and Awe []


A prisoner is held in a cell that measures nine feet by seven feet. The windows are covered over... No pillow is given. There is no sheet. No clock. No calendar. No radio. No television. No telephone calls. No visitors. He is fed through a slot in the door. If prison staff enter the cell, their identifying information is covered. The detainee has been held in these conditions for two years, during which time the detainee was prevented from seeing his/her lawyers. In preparation for trial, a psychologist evaluates the prisoner through a rectangular slot in his isolation cell for two minutes. The psychologist concludes, based on that interview and the reports of the guards, that there are no signs of “distress” or “lethality” and there have been no significant changes since a previous assessment two years earlier. This report is offered as testimony that the prisoner is competent to stand trial.

Is it ethical for the psychologist to neglect to report the isolation and sensory deprivation?
Is it ethical to make any form of assessment based on such minimal information?
Is it ethical for the psychologist to support the sensory deprivation plan by not entering the room and by not identifying him or herself?

Source: USA Today,


According to draft instructions written for military intelligence psychologists at detainee sites, including Guantánamo, operational psychologists supervising interrogations and detention conditions, “assist in helping make sure that the environment maximizes effective detainee operations. The psychologist can assist in making sure that everything that a detainee sees, hears, and experiences is a part of the overall interrogation plan.”

However, according to a report issued by the United Nations Human Rights Commission, “the general conditions of detention [at Guantánamo], in particular the uncertainty about the length of detention and prolonged solitary confinement, amount to inhuman treatment and to a violation of the right to health as well as a violation of the right of detainees under article 10, paragraph 1, of ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] to be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person." Another report by the U.N. Committee on Torture stated that "The Committee, noting that detaining persons indefinitely without charge, constitutes per se a violation of the Convention [The U.N. Convention on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment], is concerned that detainees are held for protracted periods at Guantánamo Bay, without sufficient legal safeguards and without judicial assessment of the justification for their detention."

Must operational psychologists at sites such as Guantánamo, where, according to reports by Human Rights First and Amnesty International, a majority of detainees continue to be held in indefinite detention and prolonged isolation, follow the requirements of the 2006 APA resolution, which asserts that “should torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment evolve during a procedure where a psychologist is present, the psychologist shall attempt to intervene to stop such behavior, and failing that exit the procedure”?

Do APA ethical principles and standards require operational psychologists (at sites where such conditions are chronic) to request a transfer?

How does the APA ethics committee assess a psychologist’s “willful ignorance” of such circumstances? For example, is it acceptable for a chief psychologists working at a site where a majority of detainees are held in conditions that the UN deems “inhuman treatment” to state, “I learned a long, long time ago, if I'm going to be successful in the intel community, I'm meticulously - in a very, very dedicated way - going to stay in my lane…So if I don't have a specific need to know about something, I don't want to know about it. I don't ask about it."? Is such willful ignorance ethical?

Sources: International Herald Tribune,

Human Rights First,

CBS News and Associated Press,

Amnesty International,
Cruel and Inhuman: Conditions of isolation for detainees at Guantánamo Bay

United Nations Committee on Torture,

United Nations Human Rights Commission,
Also posted at American Torture

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