American Psychological Association Supports Torture

americanpsychologicalassoci.jpgBy Stephen Soldz | Since 2005, the American Psychological Association (APA) has steadfastly asserted that psychologists participating in detainee interrogations protects detainees by helping to keep these interrogations “safe, legal, ethical, and effective.” Last week, the APA’s Ethics Director Stephen Behnke seized upon newly released portions of an official investigation of US detainee abuse, called the Church Report, as an opportunity to reinvigorate support for the APA policy of psychologist participation in interrogations.

In a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), The APA’s Dr. Behnke stated:

“In carefully reviewing the documents, we note that according to the information obtained by the ACLU, psychologists supporting interrogations ’emphasized their separation from detainee medical care’, and that a psychologist who suspected abuse ‘recommended the interrogation not proceed and brought in medical personnel to evaluate the detainee.’ According to these documents, APA’s policy of engagement served the intended purpose: to stop interrogations that cross the bounds of ethical propriety.”

To give Dr. Behnke credit, he did acknowledge the abuses described in the newly released material as “abhorrent.” However, any unbiased “careful review” of the documents falls far short of supporting Dr. Behnke’s conclusion. Quite the contrary, the report raises new concerns about the roles of psychologists in US interrogations.

Dr. Behnke’s letter to the ACLU was widely distributed within the APA as a defense of the association’s long-contested policy. It therefore important to carefully examine his claims in the context of what is known about interrogation abuses in Iraq. In a separate article, Trudy Bond responded to Dr. Behnke’s claims in the same letter, questioning his assertions that the APA is willing to adjudicate reports of psychologists participating in detainee abuse. I will focus instead here on examining Dr. Behnke’s claim that the Church Report supports the APA’s policy of participation in detainee interrogations. In this process I briefly revisit previous justifications for APA policy.

Newly Released Church Report Materials

On May 30, 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced the release, under the Freedom of Information Act, of previously redacted portions of the Church Report on US military detainee abuses. This material contains numerous reports of physical and mental abuse, including several detainee deaths. The report makes clear that:

“[M]edical personnel often have exposure to the circumstances of detainee treatment.”

In discussing a number of these deaths the report states:

“We do not know if medical personnel reported suspicions of detainee abuse in this case, but the circumstances probably should have led them to consider detainee abuse.”

Although the language is sanitized, this statement nevertheless strongly points to the failure of medical personnel to take appropriate action in the face of likely interrogation abuse. Yet, in only one of eight deaths judged “suspicious for abuse” is there evidence that an Army physician reported the abuse. Thus, even in the face of potential homicide, medical personnel, for the most part, appear to have remained silent.

With regard to psychologists, the report stated:

“In Iraq, we interviewed two military personnel and one civilian serving in this capacity. All three emphasized their separation from detainee medical care. Only one believed he had observed or suspected detainee abuse. No details were offered, except that, when this occurred, he recommended the interrogation not proceed and brought in medical personnel to evaluate the detainee.”

The newly released material also reports that interrogation techniques [authorized by a September 2003 memorandum from commanding General Ricardo Sanchez] continued to be widely used until at least July 2004, well after some techniques were retracted in October 2003. Other techniques were banned in May 2004 [in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal]. These included:

” Isolation.”

” Environmental Manipulation: Altering the environment to create moderate discomfort (e.g. adjusting temperature or introducing an unpleasant smell)…. [Caution: Based on court cases in other countries, some nations may view application of this technique in certain circumstances to be inhumane. Consideration of these views should be given prior to use of this technique.]”

” Presence of Military Working Dog: Exploits Arab fear of dogs while maintaining security during interrogations.”

” Yelling, Loud Music, and Light Control: Used to create fear, disorient detainee and prolong capture shock.”

” Sleep Management: Detainee provided minimum 4 hours of sleep per 24 hour period, not to exceed 72 continuous hours.”

” Stress Positions: Use of physical postures (sitting, standing, kneeling, prone, ect.) for no more than 1 hour per use. Use of technique(s) will not exceed 4 hours and adequate rest between use of each position will be provided.”

As was confirmed by the just released Justice Department Inspector General report on FBI involvement in abusive interrogations, these techniques were derived from the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) program to train US military personnel how to resist breaking under torture. As the Defense Department Inspector General reported, these techniques were “reverse engineered” by military and intelligence psychologists into US interrogation techniques. Authorization to use these techniques was hidden as, even after the Abu Ghraib scandal, the administration refused to release the Sanchez memo for nearly a year. These techniques, according to the Church Report, continued in widespread use long after their use had been retracted.

Special Forces

According to accounts by individuals like former Iraq Army interrogator Tony Lagouranis, these SERE techniques were regularly used by Special Forces in Iraq. Other interrogators learned of them, directly or indirectly, from Special Forces and attempted to imitate the techniques used by these revered units. Abuses by the Navy SEALS, a Special Forces unit, were reported by Lagouranis:

“They would actually have the detainee stripped nude, laying on the floor, pouring ice water over his body. They were taking his temperature with a rectal thermometer. We had one guy who had been burned by the navy SEALs. He looked like he had a lighter held up to his legs. One guy’s feet were like huge and black and blue, his toes were obviously all broken, he couldn’t walk.”

Further reports of abuse by Special Forces include the New York Times’s March 19, 2006 article chillingly entitled “In Secret Unit’s ‘Black Room,’ a Grim Portrait of U.S. Abuse”:
“American soldiers made one of the former Iraqi government’s torture chambers into their own interrogation cell. They named it the Black Room.
In the windowless, jet-black garage-size room, some soldiers beat prisoners with rifle butts, yelled and spit in their faces and, in a nearby area, used detainees for target practice in a game of jailer paintball….
Placards posted by soldiers at the detention area advised, “NO BLOOD, NO FOUL.” The slogan, as one Defense Department official explained, reflected an adage adopted by Task Force 6-26: ‘If you don’t make them bleed, they can’t prosecute for it.’ ”
This unit combined elements from throughout the Special Forces:
“The task force was a melting pot of military and civilian units. It drew on elite troops from the Joint Special Operations Command, whose elements include the Army unit Delta Force, Navy’s Seal Team 6 and the 75th Ranger Regiment.”
There are numerous other reports of pervasive abuse by troops across Iraq. Thus Capt. Ian Fishback and two other members of the 82nd Airborne Division told Human Rights Watch in 2005 that the abuse in their unit was routine. As reported in the New York Times:
“In separate statements to the human rights organization, Captain Fishback and two sergeants described systematic abuses of Iraqi prisoners, including beatings, exposure to extremes of hot and cold, stacking in human pyramids and sleep deprivation at Camp Mercury, a forward operating base near Falluja.”
Capt. Fishback also quoted an Army Ranger, a Special Forces unit, as saying (after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in April 2004):
“I talked to an officer in the Ranger regiment and his response was, he wouldn’t tell me exactly what he witnessed but he said “I witnessed things that were more intense than what you witnessed,” but it wasn’t anything that exceeded what I had heard about at SERE school”
Military Intelligence
Military Intelligence units in Iraq were also involved in much of the detainee abuse. Thus, the International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC] inspected detention facilities across the country and, in a leaked February 2004 report, described systematic abuse by military intelligence throughout Iraq. It states:
“persons deprived of their liberty under supervision of the Military Intelligence were at high risk of being subjected to a variety of harsh treatments ranging from insults, threats and humiliations to both physical and psychological coercion, which in some cases was tantamount to torture, in order to force cooperation with their interrogators” (p. 3-4).

The ICRC further reported:

“In certain cases such as in Abu Ghraib military intelligence section, methods of physical and psychological coercion used by the interrogators appeared to be part of the standard operating procedures by military intelligence personnel to obtain confessions and extract information. Several military intelligence officers confirmed to the ICRC that it was part of the military intelligence process to hold a person deprived of his liberty naked in a completely dark and empty cell for a prolonged period to use inhumane and degrading treatment, including physical and psychological coercion” (p. 11).

It is important to note that no one was prosecuted or convicted at Abu Ghraib for isolating or humiliating prisoners, or for putting prisoners in ‘stress positions.’ These were considered standard operating procedures by the prosecution. The convictions were handed down for taking the infamous photographs or when there was evidence of physical abuse that went beyond these techniques.

The Church Report

It is relevant to understand that the Church Report is widely viewed as an attempt to whitewash detainee abuse through sidestepping the extent to which abuse was standard operating procedure and thus reducing command responsibility for that abuse. Thus Human Rights Watch characterizes the Church Report as a partial cover-up containing patent falsehoods:

“The Church report was supposed to be the definitive report on the development of interrogation techniques and detainee abuse in the “global war on terror” but the unclassified summary suggests a careful attempt – months after the Schlesinger and Fay/Jones report put the Pentagon on the defensive – to present a version of the facts that would not cause any trouble for the hierarchy. Time and again, the summary goes out of its way to rebut any inference that government policy was to blame, to the point of straining credibility and flatly contradicting the earlier reports. The report concluded that there was ‘no single, overarching explanation’ for the ‘few’ cases in which detainees had not been treated humanely.

Although Secretary Rumsfeld and General Sanchez both approved the use of guard dogs to strike fear in detainees, and although guard dogs were featured prominently in the Abu Ghraib photos, the Church executive summary states that ‘it is clear that none of the pictured abuses at Abu Ghraib bear any resemblance to approved policies at any level, in any theater.’ Indeed, the only mention of dogs in the entire summary is the patently false statement that in Afghanistan and Iraq ‘interrogators clearly understood that abusive practices and techniques – such as … terrorizing detainees with unmuzzled dogs … – were at all times prohibited.’ ”

Given the nature of this report, it should be taken as a statement of what cannot be denied, and not as a definitive account of the nature or the extent of detainee abuse.

Previous APA Policy Justifications

The APA has utilized many questionable arguments and deceptive tactics to justify psychologists’ participation in interrogations. In 2005, the APA appointed a Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS). This Task Force was given the mandate to determine APA policy on psychologists’ participation in detainee interrogations. The majority of the Task Force membership, it turns out, consisted of military and intelligence psychologists who played roles in post 9/11 interrogations at Guantánamo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the CIA’s “black site” torture centers. Not surprisingly, this task force emphasized psychologists important role is aiding national security by participating in these interrogations.

In support of its policy the APA has highlighted every available report of psychologists resisting interrogation abuses. While finding small pockets of resistance would hardly defend the policy, the APA has been able to offer only three incidents of psychologists ostensibly opposing the abusive interrogation policy. This despite the central role of psychologists in interrogations at Guantánamo and the CIA black sites and their participation in interrogations in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The most noteworthy example offered thus far has been that of Michael Gelles, a Navy Criminal Investigative Service psychologist. Gelles forcefully opposed opposed some of the worst abuses committed at Guantánamo and reported them to his commander, leading to policy changes. While Dr. Gelles acted honorably and may have helped change policies, one should remember that, long after these interventions the ICRC found conditions at Guantánamo continued to be abusive. As the New York Times described the ICRC findings during their June 2004 visit:

“[I]nvestigators had found a system devised to break the will of the prisoners at Guantánamo, who now number about 550, and make them wholly dependent on their interrogators through ‘humiliating acts, solitary confinement, temperature extremes, use of forced positions.’ Investigators said that the methods used were increasingly ‘more refined and repressive’ than learned about on previous visits.

”The construction of such a system, whose stated purpose is the production of intelligence, cannot be considered other than an intentional system of cruel, unusual and degrading treatment and a form of torture,’ the report said. It said that in addition to the exposure to loud and persistent noise and music and to prolonged cold, detainees were subjected to ‘some beatings.’ The report did not say how many of the detainees were subjected to such treatment.”

Thus, whatever successes Dr. Gelles’ achieved, they did little to dismantle the abusive system, described in the ICRC report as “tantamount to torture.” Even Dr. Gelles’ valiant attempt to oppose these interrogation techniques did little, in the end, to keep interrogations “safe, legal, ethical, and effective.”

The APA has also at times pointed to Col. Larry James as an example of a psychologist successfully opposing torture. But there is simply no evidence to support this claim. Col. James was the Chief Psychologist on the Joint Intelligence Task Force in charge of the Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) at Guantánamo in early 2003. As the Red Cross noted when they returned to Guantánamo a year after col. James’ departure, conditions had only become increasingly “more refined and repressive” since Col. James was stationed there. Additionally, during Col. James’ tour at Guantánamo, the Camp Delta Standard Operating Procedures were adopted mandating a minimum of four weeks isolation for all new detainees:

“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.”

The Joint Intelligence Task Force, of which Col. James was the Chief Psychologist, was in fact assigned the role of deciding when a detainee had been sufficiently disoriented, disorganized, and dependent on his interrogator enough to be released from this isolation. When this policy was described in Harpers online, Dr. Behnke, the APA’s Ethics wrote a letter agreeing that this use of isolation was unethical for psychologists:

“With the recent posting on the Internet of what has been identified as the U.S. military’s 2003 operating manual for the Guantánamo detention center, attention has been directed to the use of isolation and sensory deprivation as interrogation procedures. APA policy specifically prohibits using any such technique, alone or in combination with other techniques for the purpose of breaking down a detainee.”

Nonetheless, even after this information became public, APA officials have continued to cite Col. James to audiences as an anti-torture hero.

APA and the Newly-Released Materials

Contained in the newly released sections of the Church Report is an official acknowledgement that psychologists in so-called Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs) functioned in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But what had not been clear before is that these BSCTs are “mostly within Special Operations, where they provide direct support to military operations.” That is, the BSCT psychologists were, as described above, within the units especially known for using brutal means for dealing with detainees (Arrigo & Bennett, 2007).

Given this context, it is especially misleading that the APA’s Ethics Director points to two vague sentences in the report to argue that this material supports the APA’s policy of “engagement” with the Bush administration’s interrogation regime. Here are the relevant sentences from the Church report:

“In Iraq, we interviewed two military personnel and one civilian serving in this capacity. All three emphasized their separation from detainee medical care. Only one believed he had observed or suspected detainee abuse. No details were offered, except that, when this occurred, he recommended the interrogation not proceed and brought in medical personnel to evaluate the detainee.”

Given that these BSCT psychologists are “mostly within Special Operations” and are assigned to military intelligence, a curious reader might wonder about the routine nature of interrogations witnessed or participated in by the BSCT psychologists. These routine interrogations likely included techniques approved by the September 2003 memorandum from Gen. Sanchez which the very same Church Report materials document were still in widespread use through at least July 2004. Given this background, there is a more plausible reading of these sentences. It is most likely that what was “abuse” to a BSCT psychologist were interrogation tactics that went beyond those authorized by the September 2003 memo as ‘standard operating procedure.’ That is, given the “No Blood, No Foul” attitude of many Special Forces units, “abuse” would very likely be tactics that led to serious and visible physical harm. The fact that the BSCT “brought in medical personnel to evaluate the detainee” also supports such an interpretation. In years of reading and writing about detainee abuse in Iraq and elsewhere, I have never seen accounts of medical personnel being brought in to examine victims exposed “merely” to psychological abuse such as isolation, stress positions, sleep deprivation, or exposure to loud noises or freezing temperatures. It is unlikely that this sole report of a psychologist reporting abuse was referring to these widespread, but standard, abuses.

Can I prove my interpretation of this passage is the correct one? No. The wording is ambiguous and “no details were offered.” But Dr. Behnke’s claim that these newly released materials provide evidence that “APA’s policy of engagement served the intended purpose — to stop interrogations that cross the bounds of ethical propriety” — is totally unsupported. In contrast, my interpretation is grounded in knowledge about detainee abuse in Iraq and about the Church report. Dr. Behnke’s “careful” review of these documents does not attempt to understand the role of psychologists in abuse of detainees but, like U.S. “intelligence” about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, fixes the data around established APA policy.

Arrigo, Jean Maria, & Bennett, Ray. (2007). Organizational Supports for Abusive Interrogations in “The War on Terror.” In Torture Is for Amateurs, special issue of Peace and Conflict, 13 (4): 411-421.