THE BLOG

An End to Psychologists' Role in Interrogation?

08/16/2011 05:00 pm ET | Updated Oct 16, 2011
  • Leonard Rubenstein Senior Scholar, Center for Human Rights and Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

One of the most disturbing legacies of the use of torture against national security detainees in US custody has been participation of psychologists in interrogation. That role has been endorsed by the American Psychological Association, adding a veneer of professionalism to the infliction of horrific abuse on detainees.

But now the very foundation of the APA's position has been undermined with the release this month of its own Specialty Guidelines for Forensic Psychology. Though directed principally toward psychologists who engage in evaluations for courts and administrative bodies, such as for child custody and competency to stand trial, the new guidelines' emphasis on integrity, truthfulness, disclosure, prevention of harm and avoidance of conflicts of interest repudiates central features of psychologists' participation in interrogation.

Psychologists were instrumental in designing and promoting the use of sleep deprivation, isolation, painful and contorted shackling, waterboarding, sensory deprivation, and other forms of torture on detainees in military and CIA custody. They employed these methods to induce anxiety, disorientation, fear, cognitive impairment and feelings of vulnerability -- in the CIA's words, "debility, dependency and dread" -- toward seeking to break the detainee's resistance to yielding intelligence. At Guantanamo Bay, special units of psychologists (and sometimes psychiatrists), called Behavioral Science Consultation Teams, were charged with helping interrogators identify detainee vulnerabilities, advise on strategy before and during the interrogation and tell interrogators when to push the detainee harder to seek intelligence. It is likely that thousands of detainees held in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay suffered acute and enduring pain and suffering as a result.

Even after the Department of Defense repudiated the use of torture, these units have persisted. Current policy assigns psychologists the duty to assess detainees for personal strengths and vulnerabilities and advise interrogators how to exploit those vulnerabilities in interrogation. Psychologists also advise commanders on creating conditions of confinement that they think will maximize intelligence collection. At the same time, psychologists are supposed to exercise another, incompatible role, protecting the safety of the detainee, including stopping "behavioral drift" toward abuse by interrogators.

All medical groups have determined that direct participation in interrogation is unethical, a severe breach of the professional duty to avoid harm. But the APA's 2005 Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS), a majority of whose members were involved in intelligence work, argued that psychologists have a responsibility to advance national security and additionally claimed that they could make interrogation safer. The PENS conclusions have remained APA policy and have been cited by the Pentagon to justify the use of psychologists in interrogation.

The newly released Specialty Guidelines demonstrate why the PENS position is ethically untenable, little more than a shabby rationalization for severe ethical violations. For example, the guidelines require transparency to the person subject to examination: The psychologist must disclose the nature and purpose of examination, explain who will have access to the information, what limits on confidentiality exist, the consequences of participation in the examination, and results of the examination. Department of Defense practice not only eschews transparency but prohibits it. Deception, which is rejected by the guidelines, lies as the heart of the interrogation assessment; the psychologists involved are not even identified as such to the detainee.

The guidelines also render intolerable the conflict of interest at the heart of the psychologists' role -- at once to advance intelligence gathering and to act as a "safety officer." The conflict, moreover, is likely to be resolved in favor of pressing for information, since the psychologists involved are classified as combatants, not clinicians (though they must be licensed to practice), and assigned to an intelligence chain of command. Whereas PENS sought to fudge the conflict by urging a "delicate balance of ethical considerations" the Specialty Guidelines insist on adherence to core obligations of integrity and fairness and avoidance of involvement in roles with conflicts of interest.

Finally, and most critically, the guidelines join the medical community in allowing no room for compromise in exposing individuals to harm, so that typical roles of psychologists in interrogation, such as stimulating stress, anxiety, and fear in the detainee, are impermissible. Their function of weighing harms to the detainee against intelligence needs is grossly inappropriate under the guidelines.

The content of the guidelines should not be surprising, as they are based squarely on core values reflected in the profession's binding code of conduct. The question now is whether the American Psychological Association and Department of Defense are going to recognize the impossibility of any ethical role for psychologists in individual interrogations and end this destructive and conflict-ridden practice.