Detainee Interrogations: American Psychological Association Counters, but Questions Remain

I am writing to correct several inaccurate assertions in the essay, “The American Psychological Association and Detainee Interrogations: Unanswered Questions” (Psychiatric Times, July 2008, page 16), by Kenneth S. Pope, PhD, and Thomas G. Gutheil, MD.

I am writing to correct several inaccurate assertions in the essay, “The American Psychological Association and Detainee Interrogations: Unanswered Questions” (Psychiatric Times, July 2008, page 16), by Kenneth S. Pope, PhD, and Thomas G. Gutheil, MD. I have enormous respect for Drs Gutheil and Pope. I have studied Dr Pope’s writings for many years, and I have had the opportunity to work with Dr Gutheil in Harvard’s Program in Psychiatry and the Law.

The authors are correct in stating that the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association differ on the issue of member involvement in interrogations. According to the American Psychiatric Association, psychiatrists should not be involved in interrogations even if the purpose is “identifying other persons . . . who may be planning to commit acts of violence.” According to the American Psychological Association, it is ethical for psychologists to consult with interrogators to prevent acts of violence. This fundamental difference sets our associations apart on this issue.

In characterizing the psychologists’ position, these authors assert-erroneously-that the American Psychological Association’s prohibition against torture is somehow not enforceable under the American Psychological Association’s Code of Ethics. The American Psychological Association’s Ethics Code absolutely prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and punishment, as the Ethics Committee itself has asserted. Moreover, the American Psychological Association has been public and emphatic that following orders is never a defense of torture. The American Psychological Association’s position is based on Article 2 of the United Nations’ Convention Against Torture and states:

"BE IT RESOLVED" that the American Psychological Association affirms that there are no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether induced by a state of war or threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, that may be invoked as a justification for torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including the invocation of laws, regulations, or orders. . . .

Following orders can never justify or excuse torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. The American Psychological Association has emphasized this point repeatedly in communications to US government officials and to the public.

The authors’ discussion of ethical standard 1.02 is misdirected. The relevant aspect of standard 1.02, on conflicts between ethics and law, was drafted in the fall 2000 and thus has no connection whatsoever to the events of September 11, 2001. Moreover, this standard was written largely in response to conflicts regarding confidentiality, arising most often when courts issue subpoenas for psychologists’ records (eg, psychological test data), usually in custody disputes. The drafters of the Ethics Code revision did not believe psychologists should be caught in a bind between a court and a licensing board or an ethics committee. They therefore concluded that psychologists should be able to follow a valid court order, were the psychologist’s attempts to resolve the conflict unsuccessful. This standard provides no defense to torture.

I would also emphasize that civil disobedience is entirely consistent with ethical standard 1.02. The American Psychological Association’s 2007 resolution-which the Washington Post deemed a “rebuke” of this administration’s interrogation policy -explicitly affirms the prerogative of psychologists to engage in civil disobedience under the American Psychological Association Ethics Code. The resolution then endorses civil disobedience specifically in the context of military interrogations.

BE IT RESOLVED that the American Psychological Association, in recognizing that torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment can result not only from the behavior of individuals but also from the conditions of confinement, expresses grave concern over settings in which detainees are deprived of adequate protection of their human rights, affirms the prerogative of psychologists to refuse to work in such settings, and will explore ways to support psychologists who refuse to work in such settings or who refuse to obey orders that constitute torture [emphasis added].

These aspects of the American Psychological Association’s position are to be read in conjunction with other ethical parameters of psychologists’ involvement in interrogations, such as the duty to intervene to stop torture or abuse, the obligation to report torture or abuse, and the absolute prohibition against mixing the roles of health care provider and consultant to an interrogation.

The authors make no mention whatsoever of psychologists who have used their professional positions to fight abuse. One stellar example is found in The Dark Side, in which author Jane Mayer reports that psychologist Michael Gelles, an American Psychological Association member, took heroic steps to fight abuse at Guantnamo. Another example comes from an unredacted government report (mentioned by the authors) that was recently obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, in which a psychologist is described as intervening to stop an abusive interrogation and calling in medical personnel to evaluate the detainee.

The American Psychological Association’s position is the result of informed and thoughtful debate that has continued for more than 3 years. Our membership has passionate feelings on this issue and the American Psychological Association has ensured that all voices and perspectives have been part of our dialogue. In the final analysis, 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.

Stephen Behnke, JD, PhD
Washington, DC

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 Guantnamo, 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 Guantnamo?

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

Boston