From Our Readers
Detainee Interrogations: American Psychological Association Counters, but Questions Remain
By Stephen Behnke, JD, PhD
Thomas G. Gutheil, MD
Kenneth S. Pope, PhD, ABPP
September 1, 2008
Stephen Behnke, JD, PhD
Dr Behnke is director of ethics at the American Psychological Association.
With response from Kenneth S. Pope, PhD, AbPP and Thomas G. Gutheil, MD
Dr Gutheil is professor of psychiatry and co-founder of the Program in Psychiatry and Law, Beth Israel Deaconess Department of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, in Boston. He is a nationally known forensic psychiatrist and author of some 250 publications, and was president of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law in 2000 and is current president of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health. He teaches the forensic ethics unit for the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law Board Review course and has written the forensic ethics chapter for a textbook on psychiatric ethics. In addition, he was chair of the Ethics Committee of the American Board of Forensic Psychiatry. He is a recipient of every major award in the forensic field and is listed under forensic psychiatry in the 1994 and 2005/2006 editions of Best Doctors in America.
Dr Pope is a licensed psychologist and diplomate in clinical psychology. He is a recipient of the American Psychological Association (APA) Award for Distinguished Contributions to Public Service and the APA Division 12 Award for Distinguished Contributions to Clinical Psychology, and has chaired the Ethics Committee of the APA and the American Board of Professional Psychology. His most recent book is Ethics in Psychotherapy and Counseling: A Practical Guide, 3rd ed (coauthored with Melba Vasquez). A fellow of 9 APA divisions, he resigned from the APA after 29 years of membership, stating his respectful disagreement with the changes APA had made in its ethical stance that had moved the APA far from its ethical foundation, historic traditions, and basic values, and beyond what he could in good conscience support with his membership.
The authors respond:
We respect Dr Behnke and appreciate his response. However, we respectfully disagree with his claims. We believe it is important to examine all claims in this area in light of the original documents and evidence.
Here are a few points of disagreement. First, Mayer’s work and the government report obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), if read in their entirety, do not seem to support the American Psychological Association’s positive view of psychologists’ involvement in detainee interrogations.
Mayer’s The Dark Side contains accounts of how “[General] Dunlavey soon drafted military psychologists to play direct roles in breaking detainees down. The psychologists were both treating the detainees clinically and advising interrogators on how to manipulate them and exploit their phobias.” Mayer cites classic psychology experiments in which “shocking a dog repeatedly . . . could brutalize it into a state of complete passivity.” Mayer’s other works include accounts of how “psychologists were heavily involved in drawing up and monitoring interrogation plans, which were designed individually for each detainee. . . . Sleep deprivation was such a common technique. . . . Pornography [was used] to manipulate detainees. Detainees were routinely shackled in painful ‘stress positions.’” Mayer cites one source’s description of psychologists who “believed that to get someone to talk ‘you have to hurt that person.’”
Dr Behnke described a government report obtained by the ACLU as providing an example of psychologists fighting abuse. The ACLU headed its news release for the report: “Newly Unredacted Report Confirms Psychologists Supported Illegal Interrogations in Iraq and Afghanistan.” The ACLU had previously informed Dr Behnke: “We do not, however, agree with your conclusion that documents recently obtained by the ACLU . . . demonstrate that the [American Psychological Association’s] ‘policy of engagement served the intended purpose.’. . . Rather, we are deeply concerned by the fact that, viewed in context, these documents warrant the opposite conclusion.”
Such revelations invite reexamination of the American Psychological Association’s assurances that “psychologists knew not to participate in activities that harmed detainees” and that “psychologists all share the same goal: to end torture and abuse, and to safeguard the welfare and human rights of everyone with whom we work,” as well as the data on which these assurances are based.
Second, instances in which individual psychologists attempt to stop abuse are admirable. However, citing them should not substitute for or prevent the careful examination of an organization’s ethical standards and public statements and their relationship to what happened in settings like Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, which was the focus of our article.
Third, the problem with the American Psychological Association’s ethical standard 1.02 is not implicitly allowing civil disobedience but explicitly endorsing the Nuremberg defense of “just following the law.” The Nuremberg courts rejected the notion that defendants could escape accountability for violating ethical responsibilities by claiming that they had adhered to laws, regulations, and other forms of state authority.
Section 1.02, however, was changed after September 11, 2001, to affirm that when “psychologists’ ethical responsibilities” were in unresolvable conflict with governmental authority, “psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority.”
Section 1.02 contains no qualifications or restrictions, appears in the code’s enforceable section, and explicitly permits psychologists to set aside all “ethical responsibilities”—whether they appear elsewhere in the code, in formal policies and resolutions, or in American Psychological Association’s public statements—if they are in irreconcilable conflict with the specified forms of state authority.
Dr Behnke suggests that section 1.02 was “written largely in response to conflicts regarding confidentiality, arising most often when courts issue subpoenas for psychologists’ records.” Rather than provide a blanket endorsement of the Nuremberg defense applicable to all ethical responsibilities, the American Psychological Association might have rewritten the standard on confidentiality to allow psychologists to release records in response to a valid subpoena, a court order, and so on.
What is puzzling is that since 1992, the American Psychological Association Ethics Code already addressed this problem. Both the 1992 code (section 5.05a) and the current 2002 code (section 5.05b) include a statement that allows disclosure of confidential information when mandated or permitted by law: “Psychologists disclose confidential information without the consent of the individual only as mandated by law, or where permitted by law for a valid purpose.”
Finally, it is unfortunate that Dr Behnke did not address the major section of our article, which was reflected in the article’s subtitle: “Unanswered Questions.” We hope that the American Psychological Association will not consider basic questions like those in our original article offlimits. Traditionally, psychology has been a scientific discipline that is empirically grounded and open to questions. Why not disclose the methodology and evidence for its public reassurances over the years to those who are concerned about the interrogations in settings like Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo?
Psychologists are in a strong position to confront these difficult questions. Psychological studies have made us aware of the many cognitive, social, and institutional factors that can blunt an organization’s readiness and ability to rethink years of commitment to a particular approach. They have also taught us to be open to the possibility of harmful outcomes and unintended consequences.
The American Psychological Association’s willingness to provide the methodology and data on which it has based its assurances will enable an informed discussion and open a reexamination of these complex issues.
Kenneth S. Pope, PhD, ABPP
Thomas G. Gutheil, MD