Psychologists involved in torture: The Guantanamo Experiment

In July 2005 the New Yorker published this article by Jane Mayer, describing the involvement of psychologists in the process of interrogations at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre. It is an alarming read, especially considering the apparent complicity of professional psychologists engaged in what may be considered as the torture of inmates.

The article reports that since 2002, following a period of limited success at gathering intelligence through interrogations, psychologists and psychiatrists have worked as consultants in a “Behavioral Science Consultation Team“, developing psychologically-informed strategies to assist with the productivity of the interrogations. These “psychologically-informed” methods have included “reverse-engineered” components of a program (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape:SERE) designed to help military personel withstand torture if they are captured. The New Yorker article describes a number of the abuses of prisoners at Guantanamo that appear to be applications of the same coercive techniques that SERE candidates are exposed to, such as waterboarding (video), starvation, exposure to extreme temperatures, disruption to sleep patterns, exposure to taped loops of cacophanous sounds, and witnessing the desecration of religious symbols. These coercive techniques are designed to stimulate acute anxiety, which can reduce a person’s capacity for self-regulation (e.g., maintaing silence about secrets is more difficult in interrogations if you are sleep-deprived or coping with intense pain). The article also describes allegations of a psychologist providing consultation to CIA interrogators, suggesting that a prisoner receive “rougher methods” in order to produce the condition of learned helplessness. Finally, there are examples reported of psychologists allegedly using knowledge of prisoners’ mental health histories to assist interrogation methods (e.g., advising on keeping a prisoner in darkness as he had a fear of the dark).

Is the involvement of psychologists in these acts considered unethical by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Code of Ethics? The APA produced a concensus report (Psychological Ethics & National Security: PENS) designed to clarify the ethical issues in June 2005, however this report has resulted in controversy and dissent within the APA. Prominent members, such as Philip Zimbardo (pdf), have voiced their concerns regarding the process of drafting the concensus report, as well as the recommendations. In July 2006 online magazine Salon described the backlash within the membership of the APA to the PENS report (the APA has responded to this article).

Critically, the PENS report proposes that psychologists not “violate basic principles of human rights”, but then describes that this definition of human rights is determined by the laws of the United States rather than international laws or standards (such as the Geneva Convention). Considering that the Bush Administration has changed the definition of torture, and worked to suspend habeas corpus for detainees, this potentially means that US psychologists operate within an ethical and legal framework that is different from that proscribed by international law. The US definitions of human rights and torture can potentially result in difficult ethical dilemmas for psychologists, as it may be that the abusive treatment of prisoners may never be defined as “torture”.

It appears that the position taken by the APA PENS report has resulted in a preference for the use of psychologists compared to psychiatrists by the US military (reported in the New York Times in June 2006), as the American Psychiatric Association has unequivocally stated that psychiatrists should not be involved in military interrogations.

These are challenging times for professional psychology in the United States, as the political use of an unending “war on terror” results in changes in the legal status of coercive methods, detention without trial, and infringements on human rights. If the ethical framework is also unclear for the role that psychologists may play in interrogations, then it is my belief that we are likely to see more abuses of prisoners along the lines of those that have been reported.


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Filed under Clinical Psychology, Mental Health, Politics, Psychology

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