Monday, June 25, 2007

Torture Wars: Dispatch from the Front

So much is happening right now in the battle to stop U.S. torture that it is hard to get a handle on things. The Washington Post has an important new article out on how Cheney and his office have been pushing coercive interrogation policy since at least January 2002. Meanwhile, Mark Benjamin over at has another important article on CIA and Pentagon collaboration on torture techniques at Guantanamo and elsewhere. This latter article touches upon the links between the military's SERE program and alleged use of psychologists in implementing torture and/or abusive interrogation techniques at U.S. military and secret CIA prisons abroad.

Meanwhile, one major battle front in the struggle to end torture centers around a proposition by an opposition within the American Psychological Association (APA) to enact a moratorium on psychologist participation in national security interrogations because of the abundant evidence accrued that shows torture and abusive interrogations in such settings, as well as the participation of military and/or CIA psychologists in the planning or implementation of such abuse.

A Sally by the Opposition: Issuance of an Open Letter

This campaign has heated up significantly since the declassification of an Army Inspector General report detailing instances of detainee abuse, and explaining some of the relations between the SERE program and Behavioral Consultant Consultation Teams (BSCTs) at Guantanamo prison, where hundreds of detainees are held in isolation and with no recourse to habeas corpus. These revelations led to the drafting of an Open Letter to the APA president by moratorium proponents, which has now been signed by around 500 psychologists. Physicians for Human Rights has similarly written to the APA. These organizations are asking for a change in APA policy, supporting the moratorium position and calling for investigations into past APA policies and commissions.

Every report of horrific abuses occurring at Guantánamo and elsewhere has not only cast doubt upon this basic premise of APA policy, these reports have repeatedly highlighted psychologists' abuse of psychological knowledge for purposes of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Yet the APA has never made any public attempt to investigate such reports....

It is time for the APA to acknowledge that the central premise of its years-long policy of condoning and encouraging psychologist participation in interrogations is Wrong....

It is critical that APA take immediate steps to remedy the damage done to the reputation of the organization, to our ethical standards, to the field of psychology, and to human rights in this age where they are under concerted attack.

As could be expected -- after all, we are talking about a major component of the U.S. state apparatus, meaning it's ability to control and interrogate, even torture, the prisoners it holds -- a backlash has taken shape over the campaign to stop psychologist participation in torture. Its vanguard are the military psychologists. Michael Gelles began this, with a letter he wrote defending APA policy and the general role of psychologists at interrogations, whose letter I both quote and deconstruct in an older posting on this blog.

A Military Psychologist Returns Fire

Now, Colonel Larry James, a member of an APA task force that last year came up with a recommendation that psychologists participate in the "war on terror" interrogations, has called foul for being named in the Open Letter referenced above.

I strongly object to, have never used, and will never use torture, cruel, or abusive treatment or punishment of any kind, for any reason, in any setting....

I do not use nor have I ever used ‘SERE’ techniques in any aspect of my work related to interrogations. Dr. Morgan Banks has emphasized repeatedly that in addition to being unethical, using a ‘SERE’ approach in an interrogation would be counterproductive to obtaining useful information. I strongly suspect that using a ‘SERE’ approach to an interrogation would yield data worthless for investigative and destructive for adjudicatory purposes.

What's very strange is that no one ever accused Colonel James, a psychologist who was the Chief Psychologist for the Joint Intelligence Group at Guantanamo, Cuba in 2003, and Director of the Behavioral Science Unit, Joint Interrogation and Debriefing Center at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004, of ever using any torture or cruel and unusual and abusive treatment or punishment himself.

As the authors of the Open Letter wrote in reply to Col. James's strenuous protest:

To be clear, the Open Letter simply reproduces information that has long been on the public record. Principally, we drew upon the Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General [OIG] revelations that BSCT psychologists were involved in SERE-based interrogation methods at Guantánamo, and on other government documents, that Colonel James, reporting to Major General Geoffrey Miller, had command responsibility for the BSCTs during the period documented in the OIG’s report (Review of DoD-Directed Investigations of Detainee Abuse).

These facts, which Colonel James did not refute in his letter, raise serious and valid questions about the role of psychology and psychologists in abusive interrogations.... It would indeed be irresponsible for those of us in the APA to leave these and many other questions unanswered. As the open letter acknowledges, we do not know precisely what role(s) Colonel James or other military/intelligence psychologists played in the abusive interrogation regime documented by numerous sources over the past half decade, and which, we cannot emphasize enough, have now been definitively confirmed by the Department of Defense’s own Inspector General based on years of internal Pentagon investigations.

Military Defenders Circle the Wagons

Despite such clear words and intentions, allies of Col. James and other military psychologists within APA have taken up the cudgels for their embattled brethren. An ex-APA president has taken the Open Letter authors to task, as more likely all associated with the battle against pro-interrogation forces, for not following internal APA procedures for confronting unethical members and then filing charges with appropriate APA bodies. This ex-president -- and I will not give his name, nor quote directly from his email, for reasons soon to be obvious -- is critical of those who make charges on the Internet and private listservs, and reminds his opponents that legal charges could be brought against them for making defamatory remarks about individuals.

Except... no defamatory remarks have been made!

But this offensive by an APA bigwig is not the only evidence of backlash. Leaders of APA's Division 45, the Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issues, has run to James's defense, deriding criticisms of their colleague, and assuring their readers that APAs policies are actually making things safer and less abusive in the world of military interrogations. I guess Division 45 leadership never read the AP article last March reporting the International Red Cross's conclusion as of at least late 2006, Guantanamo detainees were still being held "under highly abusive conditions".

What is one to make of all this?

Stop Torture Interrogations Now!

There are other matters pressing upon the overall situation outlined above. Not least was the recent White House tease about closing Guantanamo outright, which was was gone over with a fine-tooth comb over at Unbossed. Then you could add in the prospect of Senate hearings on the SERE-psychologist-Guantanamo torture links, and the revelation that the CIA is about to declassify its "crown jewels" -- years of documents on dirty tricks, illegal activities, and the like -- and you have a veritable political tsunami threatening to sweep away the political landscape as we know it.

Will this mean movement at last on impeachment hearings for Cheney, Gonzales, and Bush? Will this mean organizations like the APA are about to see decades-long modus operandi shattered by constituent upheaval? One thing is for sure: the use of torture by a supposedly free society has acted like an acid on all political institutions and relationships. The battle has been engaged, and in war it's always difficult to foresee the outcome.

By the way, if you are a psychologist and reading this, don't forget to go over to this website to read the complete text of the Open Letter to the APA President and to become an official signatory of this important document.


student said...

Thanks for your work, and posting this, especially including the letters from objecting psychologists. I am finishing an undergraduate in psych, and hope to go to grad school in neuro/clinical. (can't make up my mind yet)
I had been doing the fresh-faced thing, get into Psi Chi, get into APA...the la-la land of ostrich politics. This sickens me in the pit of my stomach.

Valtin said...

student, I wish you all the best in your studies. I wish I could say go into APA and see if you can change things. The next month will go a long way towards seeing if that's possible. But from my personal standpoint, much of that organization is now too blinded by organizational and pure guild concerns to grapple with the history of their own organization, much less make the needed changes to bring APA in line with other major medical associations, and its current status as a NGO at the U.N.

Search for Info/News on Torture

Google Custom Search
Add to Google ">View blog reactions

This site can contain copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. I am making such material available in my effort to advance understanding of political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. I believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.