No Comment — November 18, 2007, 9:08 am

The Psychologists and Gitmo

Of all the major professional organizations addressing the torture and prisoner abuse issue, one has an unbroken record of clear ethical evasion. It has adopted a new professional mantra, it seems: hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

Just a few days ago Major General Geoffrey Miller’s operations manual for Guantánamo was posted on the internet. It got a lot of attention because it contained provisions making clear that certain detainees were not to be identified to or permitted access to the Red Cross. That was, of course, a criminal act. And why was the Red Cross being kept away? The circumstances make the answer to that question readily apparent: they were being tortured, and the Bush Administration was extremely eager to conceal that fact as long as it could.

But this manual contains a number of less dramatic, but still extremely important disclosures. And among them is the use of isolation and sensory deprivation techniques as a means of “preparing” detainees. It’s been clear for some time that the CIA favors this over the truly “rough stuff.” And legal scholars and ethicists have also been clear that these practices may also constitute torture over sustained periods, and certainly constitute cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Now psychologist Dr. Stephen Soldz has taken a close look at the manual, and applied it retroactively to the debate inside of the American Psychological Association. And it provides further information suggesting that the organization’s leadership, which is filled with individuals with unmistakable financial and business ties to the U.S. Government, has misled the membership in an effort to protect the Bush Administration and its torture practices.

Here are some of the key elements of Dr. Soldz’s conclusions:

The Guantanmo SOP now provides official documentation that, at the time of the Rumsfeld memo and despite its warnings regarding the techniques’ potential illegality and physical and psychological dangers, isolation was routinely used by the Defense Department at Guantanamo on all new detainees. The Rumsfeld memo complements the SOP in that it documents the central role of “medical and psychological review,” and, thus, medical and psychological personnel in the administration of this technique.

Isolation is as damaging as other, more prominent, abusive interrogation techniques. The recent Physicians for Human Rights-Human Rights First report, Leave No Marks: Enhanced Interrogation Techniques and the Risk of Criminality, details the negative effects of isolation and sensory deprivation:

“People who are exposed to isolation for the first time develop a group of symptoms that include ‘bewilderment, anxiety, frustration, dejection, boredom, obsessive thoughts or ruminations, depression, and, in some cases, hallucination’….

Prolonged isolation has been demonstrated to result in increased stress, abnormal neuroendocrine function, changes in blood pressure and inflammatory stress responses….

Findings from clinical research performed by prominent psychologists such as Dr. Stuart Grassian and Dr. Craig Haney, highlight the destructive impact of solitary confinement. Effects include depression, anxiety, difficulties with concentration and memory, hypersensitivity to external stimuli, hallucination and perceptual distortions, paranoia, suicidal thoughts and behavior, and problems with impulse control” [p. 32].

These findings regarding negative effects make clear that attempts to prevent torture and detainee abuse need to curtail the use of isolation to an absolute minimum, only potentially acceptable when needed for temporary management of unruly or dangerous detainees. It should never be sanctioned as a routine tool for “fostering dependence on the interrogator.” Such uses are immoral and are likely violations of the UN Convention Against Torture and the US Torture and War Crimes Acts. As the PHR-HRF report argues:

“The medical impact of sensory deprivation and prolonged isolation supports the conclusion that both techniques of interrogation may be considered prosecutable acts of ‘torture’ or ‘cruel or inhuman treatment’ under the [War Crimes Act] or Torture Act because they cause ‘severe’ and ‘serious’ mental pain and suffering. The lasting depression and posttraumatic stress disorder that victims of isolation suffer constitute the prolonged and/or non-transitory mental harm required for mental pain to be considered severe or serious. Moreover, isolation and sensory deprivation in interrogations is likely calculated to ‘disrupt the senses or personality.’”

And how did all of this play within the APA? As Soldz notes, it is now apparent that from the outset of the debate the APA leadership pursued a strategy of protecting the actual techniques of abuse which were being used in Guantánamo. And we have specific reason to believe that some in the APA leadership had actual knowledge of those techniques. The leadership pursued its plan by involving a key military officer who was probably an author of these processes as its voice in presenting the matter.

Of relevance to those of us struggling to change American Psychological Association policy on psychologist participation in interrogations, the APA included clauses in its 2007 resolution against torture that allows continued participation in the use of isolation [and sensory deprivation] in certain circumstances:

“This unequivocal condemnation includes, but is by no means limited to, an absolute prohibition for psychologists against… the following used for the purposes of eliciting information in an interrogation process: … isolation, sensory deprivation and over-stimulation and/or sleep deprivation used in a manner that represents significant pain or suffering or in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm.”

The APA inclusion of this carefully-qualified language led many APA critics, as well as certain reporters to wonder will psychologists still abet torture? It is therefore essential that the APA clarify the meaning of these apparent “loopholes.” Recent attempts by the APA to address the meaning of these “loopholes” raise the possibility that APA leaders, reeling under the impact of massive protests among members and criticism in the press, are looking to resolve any ambiguities in the 2007 Resolution. But so far, the APA leadership have failed to make a clear, unequivocal statement that this use of isolation at Guantanamo is unethical. In a recent widely circulated letter by the APA Director of Ethics, he stated:

The third and final category of techniques consists of techniques that may not be “used in a manner that represents significant pain or suffering or in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm.” In my opinion, the description of these behaviors-isolation, sensory deprivation and over-stimulation, and sleep deprivation-suffered from not having adequate time to find wording that conveyed the authors’ intention. As I’m sure you recall, the discussions focused on the definition of these words and precisely what the implications of an absolute prohibition would be. As an example, an individual in detention may be separated and placed in a cell in isolation, in order to prevent that individual from colluding with another detainee in formulating a story that is consistent between them. Likewise, the regimen of a camp may require that detainees begin their daily routines at a very early hour. I believe that everyone will agree neither example would constitute impermissible isolation or sleep deprivation, but it is important to find language that clearly separates what is permissible from what is impermissible.

If the APA really intended that the “loophole” clauses allowing isolation in certain circumstances, was just to cover routine uses of the kind here mentioned, the APA should have no difficulty stating clearly and unequivocally that the use of isolation described in the Guantanamo SOP is unethical and that psychologists participating in that use are engaging in unethical behavior.

In considering the APA’s positions, we should remember that the Chief Psychologist of the Guantanamo Joint Intelligence Group [JIG] at Guantanamo at the time of this SOP, was none other than Colonel Larry James, who the APA chose to introduce their 2007 Resolution on the Council floor. The SOP makes clear that the JIG was the military unit that decided how long isolation was used on each detainee to “enhance and exploit the disorientation and disorganization felt by a newly arrived detainee in the interrogation process” The Rumsfeld memo makes clear that “medical and psychological supervision” were essential elements of this decision-making process. It is thus likely that the JIG’s psychological unit was involved in determining exactly how much of this abuse a given detainee could tolerate. It hardly inspires confidence in the APA’s willingness to stand unequivocally against US torture and abuse that they selected this same Col. James to make the case for their carefully parsed and nuanced resolution. The APA has ignored extensive evidence from official documents and press reports raising questions about the activities undertaken by the psychological component of the JIG command during the time [from January 2003 for a an unknown number of months] he was stationed there. The SOP provides additional evidence that Col. James’ command was engaged in routine abuse of detainees. Due to secrecy, we do not know exactly what activities Col. James was involved in. But, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, should the APA have someone who was at Guantanamo during this time represent it’s anti-torture positions? [For the record, Col. James denies that isolation was used for interrogation purposes and stated, in an email, that isolation was only used for medical purposes, to avoid spreading infection.]

This information has erased any doubt as to the role played by the APA throughout this process. The APA alone among all professional organizations dealing with the issue has provided cover to the Bush Administration’s program of torture and official cruelty. It is an abettor of the procedures adopted and used, not a professional organization exercising detached and objective ethical oversight of its members. It has brought the reputation of psychologists in America down several pegs. And it has a lot of explaining to do–both to its members, and to the public as a whole.

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More from Scott Horton:

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

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Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

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No Comment March 28, 2014, 12:32 pm

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On CIA secrecy, torture, and war-making powers

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