March 28

2005: American Psychological Association PENS ethics policy “saves” government torture policy

The American Psychological Association (APA) has remained at the center of controversy following revelations of psychologists’ central role in the horrific inhuman treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and at secret CIA “black sites.” Other professional healthcare and medical associations distanced themselves from the government’s national security interrogations, and declared that their members are prohibited from participating in torture under any circumstances as  these interrogations used internationally banned, inhuman and degrading techniques internationally recognized as torture.

The APA has had a long record of accommodating the intelligence priorities of the CIA and the military. In June, 2005, the APA convened a Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) in response to Abu Ghraib, and an article in The New York Times (Nov. 2004) about a leaked report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (Detainee Abuse In Guantnamo, Nov. 2004) in which it was revealed that U.S. psychologists working as Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs), were actively involved as planners, consultants, researchers, and supervisors of brutal, abusive, and inhuman interrogations that were deemed to be “tantamount to torture.” Torture took place at Guantánamo Bay Detention Center, Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and CIA “black sites.”

APA “saves” the government’s torture program with PENS ethics policy
As noted in the previous post, by the time of the PENS meeting, the CIA program faced both external and internal legal, political, and operational conflicts which threatened to pull the rug out from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC ) memos written by Steven Bradbury re-authorizing the use of  torture (“enhanced” techniques). The OLC authorization required monitoring and evaluation of the techniques’ safety and efficacy.

An e-mail archive of more than 600 e-mails that belonged to Scott Gerwehr, a Rand Corp. research analyst and CIA contractor who specialized in “deception detection, has served as a primary treasure trove documenting “widespread and secret complicity” by the APA particularly when the CIA of torture program was threatened. The most recent analysis of the Gerweher e-mail archive, “All the President’s PsychologistsThe American Psychological Association’s Secret Complicity with the White House and US Intelligence Community in Support of CIA’s “Enhanced” Interrogation Program” (2015) underscores APA’s singularly immoral position vis-a-vis other professional healthcare organizations.

The PENS Task Force met for just 21/2 days, (June 24 & 25) and issued a policy report the following day declaring that “it is consistent with the APA Ethics Code for psychologists to serve in consultative roles to interrogation and information-gathering processes for national security-related purposes” and declared that psychologists play a critical role in keeping interrogations “safe, legal, ethical, and effective.”

As soon as the PENS Task Force issued its report, the APA Board of Directors declared a state of emergency, invoked Article VII, Section 4, of the APA Bylaws, and bypassed APA’s Council of Representatives which is the normal, deliberative democratic reviewing process for APA policies. The Council reviewing process includes vigorous debate from multiple points of view; which can uncover bias, unfounded conclusions, overlooked information, and possible unintended consequences. The Board of Directors evaded the review process and voted by e-mail on July 1 to approve the report as APA ethics policy. The APA Council never voted whether to accept, endorse, or approve the PENS policy. (Pope. Are APA’s Detainee Interrogation Policies Ethical and Effective? Zeitschrift Fur Psychologie, 2011)

The clandestine PENS process, the biased selection of the panel favoring members connected to the military ensured that military interests would be accommodated, and suspension of the Council’s deliberative review process have led critics to charge that, “APA has deliberately played an adjunct role to the Pentagon and CIA in the “war on terror”… even to the present day, APA has refused to call for the closure of Guantanamo Bay prison.”  (Kaye. Anti-Torture Psychologists Respond To Attack…The Public Record, 2012)

Adding insult to injury, the APA promoted support for its interrogation policy, issuing a series of public announcements in its press releases, its journals, its web site, its Internet lists, its conventions, and other venues, falsely asserting that “The APA Council of Representatives, the Association’s governing body, has endorsed a Task Force Report on Psychological Ethics and National Security today. . . .” Although when caught lying they retracted some of those misstatements, but the purpose was served, as few see those retractions months later.(Pope, Zeitschrift Fur Psychologie, 2011)

No wonder that PENS has long been a flashpoint that ignited a battle within the APA. In 2006, the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology was formed “to mobilize diverse groups for the removal of psychologists from U.S. programs of torture and other detainee abuse.” The Coalition posted a PENS Annulment Petition, stating that the APA “became the sole major professional healthcare organization to support practices contrary to the international human rights standards that ought to be the benchmark against which professional codes of ethics are judged.” The Coalition listed the following contentious issues regarding PENS:

  • Six of the nine voting task force members are psychologists employed by the military or intelligence agencies. Several served in chains of command linked to detainee abuse. Three are Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) psychologists and/or BSCT supervisors; two are DoD intelligence researchers on interrogation efficacy.
  • Task force member names were concealed from the APA membership and the press until leaked a year later by Congressional sources. Members are pressed to keep proceedings secret.
  • Task force meetings include undisclosed “observers” with high-level contacts in the military-Intelligence establishment, as well as one from the White House whose names never appeared in the published PENS Report.
  • The report endorsed the continued involvement of psychologists in the interrogation program using identical language to Defense Department. Russ Newman, head of the APA Practice Directorate, was married to Debra Dunivin, a BSCT consultant to interrogations at Guantánamo. Dunivin, with two PENS panelists, personally delivered the PENS Report to the Army Surgeon General.
  • Task force disregarded all reports that psychologists participated in abuses at Guantánamo and elsewhere and concludes that it is ethical for psychologists to consult to military and CIA interrogations. Task Force endorses the loophole in the 2002 APA Ethics Code allowing military and intelligence psychologists to override professional psychological ethics.
  • The three task force members not affiliated with military /intelligence agencies were fed patently false information in order to gain their agreement. Later all three renounced the PENS Report and the process. (Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. APA and US Torture: Basic Facts)

Members of the Coalition for Ethical Psychology have long argued that the PENS report was “a rigged committee and a rigged process, and the product of an undisclosed relationship between the APA and U.S. intelligence agencies. Their concerns were validated by several reviews of APA’s documented record and by an examination of the secret, internal correspondence of APA’s key leadership.

Constitution Project Task Force, Report on Detainee Treatment.
In 2013, the Constitution Project Task Force issued a comprehensive Report on Detainee Treatment. Chapter 6 addresses “The Role of Medical Professionals in Detention and Interrogation Operations” in which the role of psychologists and the APA are reviewed. The report documents that psychologists “helped create  interrogation  techniques  for  use  in questioning  detainees”  and  that  many  of  these  techniques  “constituted  torture  or  cruel,  inhuman or degrading  treatment.”  The  Report  also  confirms  that  psychologists  “participated  variously in interrogations  by  monitoring  certain  interrogations,  providing  or  allowing  to  be  provided  medical information  on  detainees  to  interrogators,  and  not  reporting abuses.” (p. 239-240, note 245)

The Constitution Project Report confirms that the PENS Task Force was dominated by panelists who were actively engaged in military and/or intelligence agencies; noting that several of the panelists had prior knowledge of psychologists’ unethical involvement in torture; but that this crucial information was withheld from the three civilian PENS Task Force members. The report notes that those three civilian members all expressed some degree of regret about their role, although they had signed the report. It reports that one civilian panelist, Michael Wessels, resigned and told a reporter that he regarded the PENS Task Force as “predominantly a national security establishment operation” rather than a “representative dialogue” of psychologists. (p. 239)

Another civilian member, Jean Maria Arrigo, asked whether APA should “exclude from membership psychologists who intentionally or negligently contribute to coercive interrogation.” She was admonished by Larry James, a former BSCT psychologist at both Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, who insisted in writing that: “it was psychologists who fixed the problems and not caused it. This is a factual statement! The fact of the matter is that since Jan. 2003, wherever [ ] we have had psychologists no abuses have been reported.”

His claim is contradicted by the fact that BSCT psychologists had crafted the GTMO Interrogation Manual with its escalating 3-tier categories the last of which is outright torture. Furthermore, in his written testimony after he succeeded Major John Leso as BSCT psychologist at Guantanamo in 2003, James wrote that Leso was “traumatized and “devastated” because of the “harsh and inhumane interrogation tactics” that he witnessed, “such as sexual humiliation, stress positions, detainees being stripped naked, and the use of K-9 dogs to terrorize detainees.” (p. 239) And his claim is contradicted by all authoritative reports such as: the military “Taguba Report” (2004; the CIA Inspector Report (2004); the International Red Cross Guantanamo Report (2004; the Physicians for Human Rights report (2009); the Senate Armed Services Report (2009); the Senate Select Intelligence Report (2014); the Seton Hall Law Center Report (2015).

Among the “silent observers” at the PENS Task Force was Susan Brandon, the former APA “senior research scientist” who at the time served as Assistant Director of Social and Behavioral Sciences for the White House. Throughout her career, Brandon worked on “deception detection” and matters relevant to interrogations. Dissident APA Task Force member Arrigo described how Brandon exerted pressure on panelists to adopt a likely pre-approved policy favoring psychologists’ participation in Guantánamo, CIA, and other interrogations. (Kaye. Interrogation Official Linked to U.S. Mind Control Research, The Public Record, 2010)

Arrigo’s claim was confirmed by an e-mail from Geoff Mumford, APA’s director of science policy who indicated that Susan Brandon had served as an “observer” at the PENS task force meetings and “helped craft some language related to research” for the task force report. (Risen. Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, Oct. 2014, p. 200).

Stephen Behnke, Director of Ethics for the American Psychological Association, defended psychologists’ participation in interrogations, asserting that “conducting an interrogation is inherently a psychological endeavor;” and claimed that psychologists have “unique competencies” that physicians lack; and that this competence sets them apart from physicians.  Professionally, psychologists had always been at a disadvantage when competing for clients vis-a-vis psychiatrists who had the medical degree and the right to prescribe drugs. But when the “client” was the United States Defense Department with its deep pockets, APA saw that it had a competitive advantage over psychiatrists.

APA’s steadfast support of the CIA and Pentagon interrogation policy that incorporates torture, and the participation of psychologists in such interrogations, has been financially profitable for the organization and for participating psychologists.  For their supportive endorsement of the military interrogation policy that uses torture, psychologists were rewarded.

In May 2006, after the American Psychiatric Association issued its final Position Statement prohibiting psychiatrists’ participation in interrogations, the Pentagon stated that it would “use only psychologists, not psychiatrists, to help interrogators devise strategies to get information from detainees at places like Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.”

Behnke was quoted stating “psychologists knew not to participate in activities that harmed detainees.” He also stated that the APA believed that helping military interrogators made a valuable contribution…” (Lewis. Psychologists Preferred for Detainees, The New York Times (June 7, 2006)

On Sept. 21, 2007, the APA submitted a statement to the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence incorporating 12 statements from the PENS report, claiming that:

“psychologists have important contributions to make in eliciting information that can be used to prevent violence and protect our nation’s security;” and that “conducting an interrogation is inherently a psychological endeavor;” that “psychology is central to this process;” and that “further research on all aspects of information-educing processes is critical.”
(cited by Pope, Zeitschrift Fur Psychologie, 2011; and The Constitution Project, 2013).

Those involved in interrogation “science” appear to be thriving. President Obama appointed Susan Brandon Chief for Research of the Behavioral Science Research Program at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DoD); then Chief of Research Unit of High Value Detainee Interrogation Group, Dept. of Justice. (Read more here and here) Brandon is also listed as a “Member-At-Large” of the Foundation for Advancement of Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS). 


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