New Report Links Psychologists and Medical Professionals to Detainee Abuse

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

A report published this week by a panel of military, medical, psychology, and ethical experts alleges U.S. military psychologists and medical professionals not only participated in, but also designed and facilitated, the torture and inhumane interrogation of U.S. military detainees.

The culmination of two years work by a task force of 20 experts formed by the Institute on Medicine as a Profession and the Open Society Foundations (IMAP/OSF) sheds new light on the extent to which psychologists and medical professionals played a role in the inhumane and degrading treatment of detainees of the U.S. military.

The report, entitled “Ethics Abandoned: Medical Professionalism and Detainee Abuse in the War on Terror,” details how the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have required medical and psychological personnel to violate national and international ethical standards of their professions since September 11, 2001.

It cites numerous professional and ethical violations including disclosing medical and psychological information about detainees so that it could be used during interrogations, not reporting medical abuses, and force-feeding inmates engaged in hunger strikes, which is forbidden by the World Medical Association (WMA) and the American Medical Association (AMA).

According to the Task Force, “The DoD went so far as classifying physicians and psychologists on BSCTs [Behavioral Science Consultation Teams] as combatants who are not subject to all ethical duties of their profession, even though they are required to hold a professional license.”

The report shows these personnel used their medical and psychological knowledge to assist in the inhumane treatment of prisoners. Psychologists were enlisted to design interrogation techniques that inflicted physical and psychological harm to detainees. These techniques included confinement in a box as small as a coffin, sleep deprivation, and waterboarding. The CIA’s Office of Medical Services played a central role in not only reviewing and approving internationally recognized forms of torture, but also advised the Department of Justice on how to conduct these so-named “enhanced interrogations.

In a statement on Monday, IMAP President David Rothman said, “Putting on a uniform does not and should not abrogate the fundamental principles of medical professionalism. ‘Do no harm’ and ‘put patient interest first’ must apply to all physicians regardless of where they practice.”

The report states that the Department of Defense (DoD) has improved their practices in recent years, most notably forming a committee to review the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay Prison, but that the “anemic ethical standards” adopted within the military have largely continued.

The task force made a number of recommendations constituting a sweeping overhaul of current U.S. military and intelligence agencies protocol for conduct with detainees. Along with calling for military officials to discipline medical personnel found to have breached national and international guidelines of professional conduct, the panel recommended instituting a required military training program on human rights and professional ethical principles for treating detainees.

The Present Report and the American Psychological Association

In a statement released earlier this week, the American Psychological Association (APA) expressed their support for much of the report’s recommendations including training programs to ensure medical employees of the U.S. military uphold the ethical standards of their profession.

“The position of the American Psychological Association is clear and unequivocal: For more than 25 years, the association has absolutely condemned any psychologist participation in torture,” it wrote, noting that torture and other cruel and degrading practices are not acceptable even during war or under the threat of war.

The report published this week acknowledges the APA’s stance against torture, but notes that the APA does support the role of psychologists as advisors to military interrogations, which members of the Task Force say unrealistically requires psychologists to balance the two conflicting roles.

The Task Force writes, “In the Task Force’s view, the American Psychological Association incorrectly permits psychologists to balance professional obligations against national security interests and embraces the idea that psychologists can simultaneously and without conflict play the roles of aiding in intelligence gathering and safeguarding the well-being of detainees in interrogation.”

The ethical obligations of psychologists working for the military is something the field has been grappling with more and more in the post-9/11 era. In the past decade the APA has issued several official resolutions in response to reports of psychologists violating human rights under contract for the military.

In 2005, the revelations that those with psychology training were participating in unethical behavior, including torture, led APA President Robert Levant and President-Elect Gerald Koocher to commission a task force to examine the ethical position of the organization in relation to national security (APA, 2005). However, the task force did not recommend removing psychologists from interrogation settings, as another APA, the American Psychiatric Association did in 2006, but stated ambiguously:

“Psychologists have a valuable and ethical role to assist in protecting our nation, other nations, and innocent civilians from harm, which will at times entail gathering information that can be used in our nation’s and other nations’ defense. The [APA] Task Force believes that a central role for psychologists working in the area of national security-related investigations is to assist in ensuring that processes are safe, legal, and ethical for all participants.”

This ambiguity caused controversy within the APA, as many members felt the new ethical guidelines did not go far enough. Especially as it later surfaced that 6 of the 10 members of the APA’s task force had strong ties to the military, including task force member Col. Larry James, who was the lead psychologist for the intelligence group at Guantanamo Bay Prison in 2003. (Salon, 2006).

In 2006, members of the APA did pass a resolution against torture (APA, 2006), which was followed up by a resolution in 2008 forbidding psychologists from practicing in national security settings where people were held illegally (APA, 2008).

Most recently, in 2013, the APA consolidated its policy on torture by rescinding the 2005 Presidential Task Force Recommendations, and by keeping the 2006 and 2008 resolutions. An excerpt from the APA’s current ethical guidelines reads:

“Psychologists shall not knowingly engage in, assist, tolerate, direct, support, advise, facilitate, plan, design, or offer training in torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment under any and all conditions, nor shall they participate in any procedure where such treatment is threatened. Psychologists may not enlist others to employ these techniques in order to circumvent this policy’s prohibition. Moreover, psychologists shall not provide knowingly any research, instruments, or knowledge that facilitates the practice of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

However, the Task Force notes a loophole in the seemingly clear position of the APA.

“The association policy permits psychologists to participate directly in interrogation. The task Force believes the association should change that stance in keeping with the standards of medical associations that prohibit direct participation in interrogation,” the Task Force reported.

The present report in the context of other reports of since 9/11 – The Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment, International Committee of the Red Cross Report on Guantanamo, UN Report on Guantanamo Bay Prison, and UN Special Report on Torture, detailing the treatment of Chelsea Manning – suggests that the United States military repetitively violates human rights, specifically when dealing with its detainees.

In a public statement released Monday, Task Force member Dr. Gerald Thomson, professor of medicine emeritus at Columbia University said he hopes medical professionals will no longer play a role in the abuse and torture of military detainees.

“The American public has a right to know that the covenant with its physicians to follow professional ethical expectations is firm regardless of where they serve. It’s clear that in the name of national security the military trumped that covenant, and physicians were transformed into agents of the military and performed acts that were contrary to medical ethics and practice,” Thomson said.  “We have a responsibility to make sure this never happens again.”

Correction: The number of members of the 2005 APA Presidential Task Force with ties to the military was originally reported as 4, however the number was 6. (Nov. 9, 2013).