The world post-September 11th saw legislation and government activity on both sides of the Atlantic that would never be countenanced outside of these exceptional events. Many critics have pointed to the “Patriot Act” in the US and its apparent curbs on civil liberties that the then-government in Washington was so vocally defending.
The New York Times has brought to light a story that has relevance for this blog, regarding the involvement of psychologists in interrogation of terrorism suspects. They report how two US psychologists with no prior training in or understanding of interrogation became leading consultants to the CIA:
They had never carried out a real interrogation, only mock sessions in the military training they had overseen. They had no relevant scholarship; their Ph.D. dissertations were on high blood pressure and family therapy. They had no language skills and no expertise on Al Qaeda.
Having suggested new and better ways to interrogate, they actually participated in brutal interrogation of terrorist suspects:
By the end of March, when agency operatives captured Abu Zubaydah, initially described as Al Qaeda’s No. 3, the Mitchell-Jessen interrogation plan was ready. At a secret C.I.A. jail in Thailand, as reported in prior news accounts, two F.B.I agents used conventional rapport-building methods to draw vital information from Mr. Zubaydah. Then the C.I.A. team, including Dr. Mitchell, arrived.
With the backing of agency headquarters, Dr. Mitchell ordered Mr. Zubaydah stripped, exposed to cold and blasted with rock music to prevent sleep. Not only the F.B.I. agents but also C.I.A. officers at the scene were uneasy about the harsh treatment. Among those questioning the use of physical pressure, according to one official present, were the Thailand station chief, the officer overseeing the jail, a top interrogator and a top agency psychologist.
Whether they protested to C.I.A. bosses is uncertain, because the voluminous message traffic between headquarters and the Thailand site remains classified. One witness said he believed that “revisionism” in light of the torture controversy had prompted some participants to exaggerate their objections.
As the weeks passed, the senior agency psychologist departed, followed by one F.B.I. agent and then the other. Dr. Mitchell began directing the questioning and occasionally speaking directly to Mr. Zubaydah, one official said.
In late July 2002, Dr. Jessen joined his partner in Thailand. On Aug. 1, the Justice Department completed a formal legal opinion authorizing the SERE methods, and the psychologists turned up the pressure. Over about two weeks, Mr. Zubaydah was confined in a box, slammed into the wall and waterboarded 83 times.
The brutal treatment stopped only after Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen themselves decided that Mr. Zubaydah had no more information to give up. Higher-ups from headquarters arrived and watched one more waterboarding before agreeing that the treatment could stop, according to a Justice Department legal opinion.
This Obama administration has taken steps to dismantle the shady operations that permitted such torture and in particular has banned the involvement of “consultants” (as these psychologists were viewed) in the interrogation of suspects. Their multi-million dollar operation has folded and it appears that criminal proceedings are imminent.
While the British Psychological Society issued a Declaration in 2005 condemning state-sponsored torture in all its forms – and some might view this as quite late in the day – simultaneously banning UK Psychologists who wanted to remain members from participating in such activity, its American counterpart, the APA, waited until 2008 to pass a similar motion.
The APA petition was passed by 8,792 votes to 6,157.
I think in the light of the above, it’s worth spelling out what the British Psychological Society demands of its members in this regard:
Psychologists shall not countenance, condone or participate in the practice of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading procedures, whatever the offence of which the victim of such procedures is suspected, accused or guilty, and whatever the victim’s beliefs or motives, and in all situations, including armed conflict and civil strife.
Psychologists shall not provide any premises, instruments, substances or knowledge to facilitate the practice of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or to diminish the ability of the victim to resist such treatment.
Psychologists shall not be present during any procedure during which torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is used or threatened.
Psychologists must have complete professional independence in deciding upon the care of a person for whom they are responsible.