Global Policy Forum

Psychologists Warned on Role in Detentions


By Neil A. Lewis

New York Times
July 6, 2005

The American Psychological Association, responding to reports that some of its members may have advised officials on how to conduct harsh interrogations of detainees, issued a report Tuesday telling its members of the ethical dangers of such activities. The report by a group convened to study the ethical boundaries for psychologists at places like the detainment center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, concluded that it was acceptable to act as behavioral consultants to interrogators of the prisoners from Afghanistan who are held there.

The report said the psychologists should not use a detainee's medical information "to the detriment and safety of an individual's well-being." It also said that psychologists serving as consultants to interrogations involving national security should be "mindful of factors unique to these roles and contexts that require special ethical consideration." The report thus appears to avoid explicit answers to questions as to whether psychologists may advise interrogators on how to increase stress on detainees to make them more cooperative if the advice is not based on medical files but only on observation of the detainees.

The report comes after accounts from former interrogators at Guantánamo who said that doctors had advised them on how to "break" the detainees and make them more cooperative. In an article in The New York Times last month, former interrogators said in interviews that doctors, who may have been either psychiatrists or psychologists, counseled them on how to use a detainee's fears and longings to increase distress. One example was taking advantage of a prisoner's fear of the dark, which was known from his medical records. The report, which has been formally adopted by the organization, comes as some American lawyers who are representing detainees have begun to gather the names of the military doctors who have served as part of Behavioral Science Consultation Teams at Guantánamo. The teams, which are known informally as biscuit teams, were typically composed of a psychologist, a psychiatrist and a medical assistant. The purpose of finding out the doctors' names, the lawyers say, is to bring ethics complaints against them before civilian professional ethics boards in their home states.

The task force that produced the report by the American Psychological Association included military psychologists, among them an officer who helps run the Army's psychological warfare program at Fort Bragg, N.C. The report was prepared when the group's officials said they realized that their ethics codes did not explicitly address the issue. At the same time, officials of the American Psychiatric Association said there was no doubt that its members may not ethically engage in the kind of behavior described by the former interrogators.

The report said that psychologists may not engage in torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. But in seeming to refer to the situations reported at Guantánamo, which might fall short of torture or cruel treatment, it said only that they "require special ethical consideration." Leonard S. Rubenstein, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights, said the report is not explicit enough in setting ethical boundaries. "It says psychologists shouldn't engage in torture, but we know that rhetoric like that is not effective," he said. "In view of what has happened at places like Guantánamo, we need clarity, and what's lacking here is an explicit commitment not to participate in coercive interrogations."

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