Psychologists and torture

The Houston Chronicle comments on the American Psychological Association and the recent national meeting regarding psychologists’ role in interrogation.

One of the mental health profession’s strengths is its grasp of ambiguity. Love and hate, rage and attraction, altruism and greed can coexist in the same person, and practitioners help clients accept that.
The Hippocratic oath, on the other hand, is simple. Do no harm. Based on this mandate, American psychologists should have nothing to do with the interrogation of terrorist suspects in prisons such as Guantanamo Bay.
Even when legal, the harsh techniques used in these centers include inflicting mental anguish; the very basis on which these prisoners are held — depriving them of both the protections afforded prisoners of war and the legal rights of criminal suspects — comprises a human rights violation. By helping interrogators in such prisons, psychologists are promoting, not healing, mental distress.
Unfortunately, the American Psychological Association last week concluded otherwise. To its credit, in a closely watched decision at their annual meeting, the group forbade members from “direct or indirect participation” in about 20 extreme interrogation techniques that have been used recently by U.S. military forces and intelligence agencies.
The association singled out waterboarding, exploiting detainees’ phobias and exposure to extreme temperatures.
But the resolution didn’t go far enough. Because psychologists are heavily involved in intelligence work — from giving advice to conducting studies — any ambiguity about their role in inflicting harm has special consequence.
The American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association ban their members from taking any part in prisoner interrogations. According to Leonard Rubenstein of the nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights, medical professionals’ ethics plainly ban them from using their expertise in any situation in which distress is purposely inflicted.
Though the American Psychological Association “unequivocally condemns torture,” its members may still help interrogators at Guantanamo and similar facilities.
Still worse, a number of exposés show that in recent years psychologists have been pivotal in creating some of the most abusive tactics in use since 9/11.
These extreme measures don’t even produce reliable evidence, many mental health and intelligence experts agree. Under duress, prisoners just say what they think interrogators want to hear. Experienced interrogators, on the other hand, build rapport and incentives, which do produce useful information. Psychologists are neither trained, nor necessary, for this non-therapeutic questioning process.
The worst argument for psychologists’ presence at interrogations comes from U.S. Army Col. Larry James, director of the psychology department of a military medical center.
“If we lose psychologists from these facilities, people are going to die,” he said at the APA meeting. Psychologists, James suggested, can rein or report overzealous violators.
Any interrogation system that teeters so close to atrocities needs more than a psychologist. It requires thorough overhaul and specific bans of the most extreme methods. The Department of Defense has listed such prohibitions. The CIA has not.
Torturing prisoners doesn’t produce reliable data. It does, however, violate human rights and strip Americans of the right to protest torture of its own men and women. Above all, it blurs our credibility as a democracy worth defending.
No American psychologist should have a part in an interrogation system with the potential to devolve into murder. No American should.

The failure of the APA is a serious one in my view. I believe the carrot to be the authorization of writing script for medication for the DOD, currently not allowed by any state medical board.

Both the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association have resolutions restricting members participation as a policy. As an institution I believe the American Psychological Association is on the way to crossing a very dangerous line for the profession.

The comments made by readers of the Houston Chronicle were generally opposed to the editorial point of view. Comments?