Why Ethical Psychologists Play an Important Role in Interrogations

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On Aug. 7, the American Psychological Association overwhelmingly approved a sweeping ban on any involvement by psychologists in national security interrogationsconducted by the U.S. government. This ban includes even non-coercive interrogations.

The vote was a knee-jerk reaction that some members felt was sorely needed to restore the organization’s reputation after an independent investigation led by David H. Hoffman, a Chicago-based lawyer. The probe found that some association officers and other prominent psychologists shielded APA members who participated in the CIA and Pentagon’s harsh interrogation programs during the George W. Bush administration. These programs involved “soft” torture and “enhanced” interrogation techniques and allowed the government to shield itself from claims of torture by saying health providers were overseeing what was being done.

The new APA ban forbids psychologists from conducting, supervising, being in the presence of or otherwise assisting in national security interrogations for military or intelligence entities, including private contractors working on their behalf. Psychologists also may not advise on conditions of confinement insofar as these might facilitate such interrogations. Psychologists are permitted to consult with the government on broad interrogation policy but may not become involved in interrogations or consult on the specific detention conditions for detainees.

In 2006 and 2007, I worked in Iraq with Task Force 134 on a program to challenge ideologically committed Islamic extremists. The Defense Department’s Detainee Rehabilitation Program was to be applied to 20,000 detainees and 800 additional juveniles. The idea was to try to engage detainees who had been exposed to, or adhered to, militant jihadi ideology in order to redirect them to other, nonviolent solutions. The initiative challenged the militant jihadi ideological attempts to justify violence against innocents and that addressed the psychological vulnerabilities in individuals for whom these hateful terrorist ideas resonated.

Far from violating human rights, APA standards or other ethics pertaining to the treatment of prisoners and minors, I was well aware of the abuses in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and took extraordinary care to write the highest level of ethical care into my program. I also instilled in all the psychologists and imams I trained that our prisoners be treated with respect, care and dignity and not tricked or mistreated.

For me the APA ban is simply sidestepping responsibility for what the organization failed to do, and still has not done, in regard to the psychologists who took part in harsh interrogations or witnessed and abetted “soft” torture or so-called enhanced interrogation techniques for the U.S. military, other countries’ militaries and police, the CIA and so forth. Those psychologists should have been, and should still be, called up on ethics charges and have their APA memberships revoked. That the APA blindly allowed such ethics and human rights violations by its members is shameful, and that it continues not to address what was done is also shameful. It is also pure foolishness to tell all of us who risked our lives doing the right thing that we can no longer guide the military, the intelligence community and others who will certainly continue to use harsh techniques if not guided otherwise.

Those of us who abided by ethical guidelines and made sure that our government was provided with programs that were based in sound research and grounded in the humane treatment of other human beings, including detained prisoners, should be lauded and encouraged to continue doing so. Our military is full of ethical and well-educated psychologists, and it hires people like myself who maintain the highest principles — even when the APA is sticking its head in the sand. Sticking one’s head in the sand doesn’t undo past wrongs, nor does it prevent new ones from occurring.

Banning involvement in what the government is doing is simply refusing to take a stand for what is right. Enhanced interrogation and “soft” torture are, in my opinion, ethically wrong and not useful in obtaining reliable information. Some may find times and circumstances to justify their use — others like myself won’t. The interrogation of prisoners is not wrong and is a necessary part of our continued fight against terrorism. Psychologists can, and must, continue to play an important and ethical role in guiding our governments to do the right thing.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and Bride of ISIS and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi and Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL’s Journey to Coming out Transgender. She has interviewed in the field and in prisons over four hundred terrorists, their close associates, family members and hostages and in 2006-2007 designed and wrote the psychological and Islamic challenge portions of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq for the U.S. Department of Defense. Website:www.AnneSpeckhard.com (This post was first published in the Washington Post, August 16th, 2015.)

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