August 15, 2008 – They have closely studied suspects, looking for mental quirks. They have suggested lines of questioning. They have helped decide when a confrontation is too intense, or when to push harder. More than those in the other healing professions, psychologists have played a central role in the military and C.I.A. interrogation of people suspected of being enemy combatants.
But now the profession, long divided over this role, is considering whether to make any involvement in military interrogations a violation of its code of ethics.
At the American Psychological Association’s annual meeting this week in Boston, prominent members are denouncing such work as unethical by definition, while other key figures – civilian and military – insist that restricting psychologists’ roles would only make interrogations more likely to harm detainees.
Like other professional organizations, the association has little direct authority to restrict members’ ability to practice. But state licensing boards can suspend or revoke a psychologist’s license, and experts note that these boards often take violations of the association’s ethics code into consideration.
The election for the association’s president is widely seen as a referendum on the issue. Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, plan a protest on Saturday afternoon.
And last week, for the first time, lawyers for a detainee at the United States Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, singled out a psychologist as a critical player in documents alleging abusive treatment.
“It’s really a fight for the soul of the profession,” said Brad Olson, a psychologist at Northwestern University, who has circulated a petition among members to place a moratorium on such consulting.
Others strongly disagree. “The vast majority of military psychologists know the ethics code and know exactly what they can and cannot do,” said William J. Strickland, who represents the Society for Military Psychology before the association’s council. “This is a fight about individual psychologists’ behavior, and we should keep it there.”
At the center of the debate are the military’s behavioral science consultation teams, informally known as biscuits, made up of psychologists and others who assist in interrogations. Little is known about these units, including the number of psychologists who take part. Neither the military nor the team members have disclosed many details.
Defenders of that role insist that the teams are crucial in keeping interrogations safe, effective and legal. Critics say their primary purpose is to help break detainees, using methods that might violate international law.
In court documents filed Thursday, lawyers for the Guantánamo detainee Mohammed Jawad asserted that a psychologist’s report helped land Mr. Jawad, a teenager at the time, in a segregation cell, where he became increasingly desperate.
According to the documents, the psychologist, whose name has not been released, completed an assessment of Mr. Jawad after he was seen talking to a poster on his cell wall. Shortly thereafter, in September 2003, he was isolated from other detainees, and many of his requests to see an interrogator were ignored. He later attempted suicide, according to the filing, which asks that the case be dismissed on the ground of abusive treatment.
The Guantánamo court is reviewing the case. Military lawyers have denied that Mr. Jawad suffered any mental health problems from his interrogation. On Thursday, the psychologist in the case invoked Article 31 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the military’s equivalent of the Fifth Amendment.
“This is what it’s come to,” said Steven Reisner, an assistant clinical professor at the New York University School of Medicine and a leading candidate for the presidency of the psychological association. “We have psychologists taking the Fifth.”
Dr. Reisner has based his candidacy on “a principled stance against our nation’s policy of using psychologists to oversee abusive and coercive interrogations” at Guantánamo and the so-called black sites operated by the Central Intelligence Agency.
The psychological association’s most recent ethics amendments strongly condemn coercive techniques adopted in the Bush administration’s antiterrorism campaign. But its current guidelines covering practice conclude that “it is consistent with the A.P.A. ethics code for psychologists to serve in consultative roles to interrogation and information-gathering processes for national-security-related purposes,” as long as they do not participate in any of 19 coercive procedures, including waterboarding, the use of hoods and any physical assault.
How these guidelines shape behavior during interrogations is not well understood. Documents from Guantánamo made public in June suggested that at least some of the coercive methods the military has used were derived from SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, a program based on Chinese techniques used in the 1950s that produced false confessions from American prisoners.
These techniques included “prolonged constraint,” “exposure” and “sleep deprivation,” known informally as the frequent flier program.
In this kind of environment, “health professionals, bound by strong ethical imperatives to do no harm, may become calibrators of harm,” said Nathaniel Raymond of Physicians for Human Rights, which has been strongly critical of the psychological association’s position.
According to the standard operating procedure for Camp Delta, at Guantánamo, the “behavior management plan” for new detainees “concentrates on isolating the detainee and fostering dependence of the detainee on his interrogator.”
Some psychologists, though appalled by these techniques, emphasize that there is a danger in opting out as well.
“There’s no doubt that the psychologist’s presence can be abused,” said Robert W. Resnick, who is in private practice in Santa Monica, Calif., “but if there’s no presence at all, then there’s no accountability, and you walk away feeling noble and righteous, but you haven’t done a damned thing.”
Stephen Behnke, director of ethics at the psychological association, said in an interview on Friday that Defense Department standards for interrogation appeared to have improved in recent years.
“If you take the position that interrogation cannot be done ethically, then the discussion stops there,” Dr. Behnke said. “But if the answer is yes, then you don’t shut down the whole operation because certain individuals behaved unethically.”
Interrogators, too, are split on the question of whether psychologists provide valuable assistance. Some say that their advice can be helpful; others point out that there is no evidence that it improves the quality of the information obtained.
“I take a hybrid view of this,” said Steven Kleinman, a veteran interrogator and trainer who has worked in Iraq and strongly opposes coercive techniques. “The idea that a psychologist or psychiatrist is going to systematically unlock any prisoner’s resistance and provide some unique strategy is completely false – it’s a fantasy. Their role should be protecting the rights of both the interrogator and the prisoner. That’s far more valuable, and anything they might whisper in the interrogator’s ear, like ‘This person seems to have issues with his mother, play that up.’ “
However the field addresses the issue, scholars say it may not alter the relationship much between psychologists and the military. Psychologists have helped screen recruits and study morale going back to World War I, and in Iraq, some military psychologists have worked long tours under fire, managing troops’ mental reactions at the front.
“American psychology really grew up with the military,” said Jean Maria Arrigo, a psychologist who has studied the profession’s relationship to military intelligence. “It was barely considered a science before the collaboration began, and the entanglement goes very deep.”