Sunday, April 8, 2007

Deconstructing Gelles: A Documentary Record of a Torture Apologist

Crossposted at Daily Kos and NION

In my March 25 [Daily Kos] diary, Just in: Military Psychologists Oppose Torture Moratorium, I noted:

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.

That diary also looked at former Navy CIS psychologist Michael Gelles support for the military's opposition to a moratorium on psychologist participation in coercive interrogations. This diary looks at Gelles's reply to his critics, contrasting Gelles's assertions with a look at the documentary record.

The following letter has been published online now in a number of places. I took the text from Stephen Soldz's Daily Kos diary, Michael Gelles condescends to APA critics. The APA referred to is the American Psychological Association, and as readers should know, or can follow through links throughout, a massive and important political battle around Bush's "war on terror" assault on political liberties, and especially on the use of torture, is taking place in this large and influential organization.

All bolded text is my own, and made for editorial emphasis. The post is longish, and I hope readers will forebear. I felt in the spirit of fairness, Dr. Gelles's letter should be printed in toto.

Michael G. Gelles, Psy.D., ABPP
4 Professional Drive
Suite 120
Gaithersburg, MD 20879
301 346 5177

April 5, 2007

Dr. Neil Altman, PhD Dr. Uwe Jacobs, PhD Dr. Steven Miles, MD

Dear Drs. Altman, Jacobs, and Miles,

Thank you for your correspondence, in response to my letter to Drs. Altman and Moorehead-Slaughter. I appreciate your commitment to this issue and hope that we can find common ground in our approach. It is clear to me that we all seek the same goal: An ethical means of eliciting accurate and reliable information in order to prevent acts of violence and loss of life.

I will switch back and forth from the Gelles letter to appropriate commentary, quotes, and documentary evidence, which will serve as a gloss on Gelles's text. In that spirit, let's hear from social psychologist and CIA contract interrogation specialist, Albert Biderman, from the book of essays by psychologists and psychiatrists he helped edit, The Manipulation of Human Behavior:

There is no question that it is possible for men to alter, impair, or even to destroy the effective psychological functioning of others over whom they exercise power....

In assuming the attitude of the "hard-headed" scientist toward the problem, there is a danger in falling into an equivalent misuse of science....

The conclusions reached do in fact show that many developments can compound tremendously the already almost insuperable difficulties confronting the individual who seeks to resist an interrogator unrestrained by moral or legal scuples....

Several scientists have reported on the possible applications of scientific knowledge that might be made by the most callous interrogator or power. The results of their thinking are available here for anyone to use, including the unscrupulous.

And again, Gelles:

I must say, however, that based upon my extensive work in consulting to law enforcement, police and military around the world, including in Guantanamo Bay, Iraq and Afghanistan, the position you set forth in your letters and the questions you pose rest upon substantial misconceptions about the nature of interrogations, the role of psychologists in national security settings, and the likely impact of APA disengaging from this critical debate and of APA members withdrawing from the practice of interrogations.

Please allow me to begin by emphasizing: Psychologists should not defer to lawyers on the question of what constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.

The CIA manual of interrogation, code-named KUBARK:

A brief summary... may help to pull the major concepts of coercive interrogation together:

1. The principal coercive techniques are arrest, detention, the deprivation of sensory stimuli, threats and fear, debility, pain, heightened suggestibility and hypnosis, and drugs.

2. If a coercive technique is to be used, or if two or more are to be employed jointly, they should be chosen for their effect upon the individual and carefully selected to match his personality.

3. The usual effect of coercion is regression. The interrogatee's mature defenses crumbles as he becomes more childlike. During the process of regression the subject may experience feelings of guilt, and it is usually useful to intensify these.

4. When regression has proceeded far enough so that the subject's desire to yield begins to overbalance his resistance, the interrogator should supply a face-saving rationalization. Like the coercive technique, the rationalization must be carefully chosen to fit the subject's personality.

5. The pressures of duress should be slackened or lifted after compliance has been obtained, so that the interrogatee's voluntary cooperation will not be impeded.

.... In the Western view the goal of the questioning is information; once a sufficient degree of cooperation has been obtained to permit the interrogator access to the information he seeks, he is not ordinarily concerned with the attitudes of the source.


I believe Dr. Altman's resolution is considerably off the mark on this score. I took action when I learned of abusive behaviors. I didn't go through a legal analysis, nor did I consult with attorneys even though many were present and, like me, troubled by what was occurring. I became involved because behaviors that were wrong came to my attention, not because an attorney intervened or a definition in a legal text had been violated. APA should focus on specific behaviors, not on legal definitions.

Moreover, nothing in my experience supports your concern that psychologists will be forced to engage in behaviors they believe to be unethical. I am not aware of any psychologist who has been ordered to support a coercive interrogation or to train interrogators in abusive processes, nor am I aware of any psychologist who has been disciplined for communicating concerns or refusing to participate in a consultation.

From Stephen Miles' article, "Medical Ethics and the Interrogation of Guantanamo 063", in The American Journal of Bioethics, 7(4): 1–7, 2007.

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....

Other degrading techniques were logged. His head and beard were shaved to show the dominance of the interrogators. He was made to stand for the United States national anthem. His situation was compared unfavorably to that of banana rats in the camp. 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.

Back to Gelles:

In the time since I reported concerns to my chain of command -- an action that was followed by a promotion -- ethics has become a focus for psychologists being trained for this role. Current Department of Defense policy makes explicit reference to APA's PENS report and includes the actual report itself. The community of military psychologists, together with civilians who consult to national security and law enforcement, have formed a tight network where didactic seminars and peer consultation on ethics are frequent. Through the PENS Task Force and subsequent Council of Representative actions, APA is playing a critical role in bringing moral clarity to the debate over what constitutes an ethical consultation to an interrogation, as well as science to the practice of interrogations. Removing psychology and psychologists would stop the steady and measurable progress we have made and are making. From my perspective, a moratorium would be to abdicate rather than to embrace our ethical responsibilities.

From an earlier, if recent, diary of mine:

AP is reporting today [3/20/2007] that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is saying that "high-profile" terror detainees held in CIA secret prisons and later transferred to last September to Guantanamo "were kept and questioned under highly abusive conditions"....

The Red Cross said the techniques reported by the 14 prisoners, including sleep deprivation and the use of forced standing and other so-called "stress positions," were particularly harsh when used together....

The CIA's detention methods were designed to soften detainees and make them more likely to talk during interrogation. Human rights organizations say the CIA's extreme conditions of detention and the coercive questioning techniques constitute torture.

More Gelles:

In his thoughtful letter, Dr. Jacobs states that "our professional organization has to protect our own." I wholeheartedly agree. We are a professional association whose members have extensive experience and expertise in a broad range of practice areas-an aspect of APA that is to our decided advantage. If we want to protect psychologists working in detention facilities, let's ask our colleagues who are most familiar with operations in these settings: military psychologists, police psychologists and correctional psychologists. What protection do our colleagues working in these settings and in these areas of practice believe they need? What steps do they think APA can take that will best offer that protection? Does a moratorium offer the protection that military psychologists seek? Let's begin our discussions by respecting the experience and expertise that resides within these communities-in the same manner we would proceed with a complex treatment intervention only after having consulted at length with the psychologist who knows the patient best.

Dr. Jacobs quotes Alberto Mora and asks whether I agree with his statement, "To my mind, there's no moral or practical distinction between cruelty and torture ... cruelty ... destroys the whole notion of individual rights." I have an enormous admiration and respect for Alberto Mora. This quotation captures the essence of what we are talking about: Torture, cruelty and abuse have no role in interrogations. They are wrong. They violate human rights. They increase-not decrease-the long-term likelihood of violence. This is Alberto Mora's position. This is my position. This is APA's position. Let us assert and emphasize that position at every opportunity, in every venue possible, especially where interrogations are taking place.

Michael Gelles

From Dr. Jacob's original letter to Dr. Gelles:

I know that I write on behalf of many colleagues who also do not know what precisely your involvement with the interrogation process was at Guantanamo Bay but who salute you for having honorably reported the human rights abuses you had become aware of. However, we remain unclear about the following:

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? Conversely, were you not ordered to but eager to be of help and do you continue to think that aiding these interrogations was useful?

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?

As Dr. Jacobs noted in a follow-up answer to Michael Gelles's letter herein, Dr. Gelles never answered any of Dr. Jacobs's questions.
In a stinging rebuke to Gelles, psychologist-activist Stephen Soldz answered Gelles's letter himself in a diary at Daily Kos:

...there is not one mention of the terrible human rights violations that have occurred, and are still occurring, at Guantanamo, not to mention the role of psychologists in those abuses. He ignores the evidence that it is precisely his pals, "the community of military psychologists, together with civilians who consult to national security and law enforcement," who are reported by virtually every reporter who has looked into the matter -- Jane Mayer (New Yorker), Mark Benjamin (Salon), Art Levine (Washington Monthly) -- to be one ones who were sent to Guantanamo to develop torture techniques, not to prevent them. Evidently Dr. Gelles considers himself to be one of a tight-knit community with these people, not to mention those psychologists who helped developed the special technique used at the CIA black sites.

I easily could have made this posting much longer. Members of the APA should have no illusion that their association is under danger of becoming completely subordinate to the Pentagon and CIA. It is surely confusing to members when personnel thought to be highly ethical, such as Gelles, turn out to be otherwise. It spreads demoralization and a sense of defeat. This was the case in the Stalinist show trials of the 30s, the McCarthyite investigations of the 50s, and now, in a much lesser but no less sinister episode, in the turn of "moral" psychologists into apologists for torture.

Gelles and his ilk condemn torture out of one side of their mouths, while spinning like crazy a story out of the other side that will hide the truth of what the U.S. is doing in Guantanamo and elsewhere.

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