Water boarding. Stress positions. Sleep deprivation. Being slammed against walls, placed under hoods, or locked in coffin-sized boxes.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, US officials authorized the use of these and other harsh measures to extract intelligence information from prisoners – methods known as “enhanced interrogation techniques” to their proponents and torture to critics.
Such harsh interrogation methods, begun during the George W. Bush administration, were officially halted when President Obama took office.
But a continuing part of the debate over harsh interrogation (reported to have led to the death of some prisoners) was the extent to which mental health professionals participated in setting policy and overseeing its implementation at such places as the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, and the US detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
In effect, did psychologists – they’re not bound by the physicians’ Hippocratic Oath (which originally read, “First do no harm”) – collaborate in torture?
A report this week alleges that the American Psychological Association (APA) secretly worked with the Bush administration to morally and ethically justify the administration’s harsh interrogation policies.
"The APA secretly coordinated with officials from the CIA, White House, and the Department of Defense to create an APA ethics policy on national security interrogations, which comported with then-classified legal guidance authorizing the CIA torture program," states the report, written by six health professionals and human rights activists. "Despite substantial contact between the APA, the White House and CIA officials, including the over 600 emails noted in this report, there is no evidence that any APA official expressed concern over the mounting reports of psychologist involvement in detainee abuse during four years of direct email communications with senior members of the U.S. intelligence community.”
The report is based on 638 e-mails between 2003 and 2006.
The lead authors of the report are psychologist Dr. Stephen Soldz, an adviser for the Physicians for Human Rights organization, Nathaniel Raymond, a director at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and Dr. Steven Reisner, a psychological ethics adviser for Physicians for Human Rights.
The bottom line for the Bush administration was that the APA’s cooperation helped justify the interrogation program, allowing the US Department of Justice to assert that the program was legal because it was overseen by health professionals.
Investigative reporting by James Risen of The New York Times resulted in his 2014 book “Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War,” in which he details similar charges regarding the APA and torture. Mr. Risen also wrote this week’s Times article about the APA.
The APA denies the allegations in Risen’s book and article, which were based in part on the 638 e-mails cited in his work and subsequently analyzed by the authors of this week’s report.
There “has never been any coordination between APA and the Bush administration on how APA responded to the controversies about the role of psychologists in the interrogations program,” association spokeswoman Rhea Farberman told the Times.
In response to Risen’s book, the APA in November announced “an independent review of whether there is any factual support for the assertion that APA engaged in activity that would constitute collusion with the Bush administration to promote, support or facilitate the use of ‘enhanced’ interrogation techniques by the United States in the war on terror.” That review has yet to be completed.
In December, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued an unclassified summary of its 6,700-page report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s detention and interrogation program. Among other things, the report found that when subjected to these torture techniques, detainees said whatever their captors wanted to hear. This meant faulty intelligence and wasted time for US intelligence officers tracking down false leads.
Interrogations of detainees “were brutal and far worse” than the CIA claimed, the Senate reported. This, coupled with extended solitary confinement, inflicted extreme harm on people, including “hallucinations, paranoia, insomnia, and attempts at self-harm and self-mutilation,” the report concluded. “Multiple psychologists identified the lack of human contact experienced by detainees as a cause of psychiatric problems.”
In response to this week’s report on the APA, Physicians for Human Rights called for a Justice Department investigation.
“This calculated undermining of professional ethics is unprecedented in the history of US medical practice and shows how the CIA torture program corrupted other institutions in our society," Donna McKay, the organization's executive director, said in a statement. “Psychologists must never use their knowledge of human behavior to harm or undermine individuals. The Justice Department must look into any crimes or violations that may have been committed. It’s equally critical for psychologists to reclaim the principles of their profession and to reassert the values of human rights in psychology.”