U.S. Psychologists Urged to Curb Questioning Terror Suspects

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The C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va. The American Psychological Association will vote on an ethics policy that would bar its members from participating in national security interrogations. Credit Larry Downing/Reuters

WASHINGTON — The board of the American Psychological Association plans to recommend a tough ethics policy that would prohibit psychologists from involvement in all national security interrogations, potentially creating a new obstacle to the Obama administration’s efforts to detain and interrogate terrorism suspects outside of the traditional criminal justice system.

The board of the of the A.P.A., the nation’s largest professional organization for psychologists, is expected to recommend that members approve the ban at its annual meeting in Toronto next week, according to two members, Nadine Kaslow and Susan H. McDaniel, the group’s president-elect. The board’s proposal would make it a violation of the association’s ethical policies for psychologists to play a role in national security interrogations involving any military or intelligence personnel, even the noncoercive interrogations now conducted by the Obama administration. The board’s proposal must be voted on and approved by the members’ council to become a policy.

 

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Report on American Psychological Association’s Role in Bush-Era Interrogation Program

The organization’s involvement “undermines the fundamental ethical standards of the profession,” argues a group of dissident health professionals and activists.

 

 

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The board’s recommendation is a response to a report from earlier this month after an independent investigation into the involvement of prominent psychologists and association officials in the harsh interrogation programs operated by the C.I.A. and the Defense Department during the Bush administration.

The investigation, conducted for the association’s board by David H. Hoffman, a Chicago lawyer, found that association officials colluded with the Pentagon to align the association’s policies with those of the Defense Department to allow psychologists to be involved in harsh interrogations. The investigation also found that prominent psychologists helped shield the C.I.A.’s abusive interrogation program from ethical challenges from health professionals, including some dissenters inside the C.I.A.

In 2009, President Obama signed an executive order banning the use of the Bush-era harsh interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding, which is now widely considered to be torture. In June, the Senate passed legislation that would turn the ban into law, requiring that interrogations adhere to the limits in the Army field manual.

Yet Obama administration officials said in interviews that psychologists still played roles in the national security interrogations in terrorism cases. The primary organization that conducts interrogations of top terrorism suspects is the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, an interagency unit led by the F.B.I. A senior American official said that the high-value group, which draws personnel from the C.I.A., the Defense Department and the F.B.I., included psychologists who conducted research and advised on how to get accurate information from terror suspects.

The high-value team was sent to Iraq in May to question the widow of an Islamic State group leader who had been killed in an American raid in Syria, according to American officials. Psychologists are also still assigned to the American military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where they oversee voluntary interrogations requested by a detainee, a Pentagon spokesman said. Voluntary interrogations occur when a detainee requests a discussion with an interrogator.

It is still not clear how the proposed ban would affect the Obama administration’s interrogation programs.

Association and government officials said the two sides had not yet discussed how a ban would affect interrogation activities or the psychologists involved. But A.P.A. officials said they believed the proposed ban would be so strict that any psychologist involved in national security interrogations could be subject to an ethics complaint.

Several psychologists who have been longtime critics of the association’s involvement with Bush-era interrogations say they believe a complete break from any involvement is the best way for the psychological profession to heal itself in the wake of the report’s findings. Some psychologists also say the break is needed because they are skeptical of the Obama administration’s interrogation policies, noting that the Army field manual, the administration’s guidebook for acceptable interrogation techniques, includes loopholes that could allow the use of some harsh techniques like sleep deprivation under special circumstances.

“It has been very painful and disturbing to receive the results of the report, and now our job is to learn from them, and fix the problem,” Ms. McDaniel said. “We are engaged in a very important process, to deal with psychologists’ core values and our commitment to human rights.”

The Hoffman report has left many in the profession stunned.

“I feel less than hopeful at this point that the foul and unethical mess perpetrated over years in spite of direct knowledge and cries for ch

Psychologists played crucial roles in the post-9/11 programs of harsh interrogation created by the C.I.A. and the Pentagon. They consulted on and monitored the interrogations, and their involvement helped the Bush administration claim that the abusive interrogation techniques were legal. The psychologists’ involvement in the interrogations enabled the Justice Department to issue secret legal opinions that declared that the C.I.A.’s so-called enhanced interrogation program was legal in part because health professionals were monitoring it to make sure it was safe and that it did not constitute torture.

After the scandal involving prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004 and the subsequent disclosures of the C.I.A.’s use of harsh interrogation techniques, the A.P.A. created a special task force to address the issue of the involvement of psychologists in interrogations. In 2005, the task force said it was acceptable for psychologists to remain involved in the Bush-era interrogations.

The Hoffman report has concluded that the 2005 task force was stacked with psychologists from inside the government’s national security community, and that the task force’s pro-government report was part of an effort by association officials and other psychologists to collude with the Bush administration to keep the harsh interrogation program in operation. The association. has now renounced the guidelines established by the 2005 task force.

Since the Hoffman report was released, the association’s board has announced that four top officials were leaving the organization. A number of members have resigned or announced plans to resign from the organization to protest evidence cited in the report of collusion among the A.P.A., the C.I.A. and the Pentagon. Others are calling for an even more drastic housecleaning at the organization.

“This is an existential crisis for the A.P.A.,” said Steven Reisner, a New York psychologist and critic of the role the organization played in the Bush-era interrogations. “How they handle this will determine whether the association will survive.”

The meeting in Toronto next week, in addition to the vote on stricter ethics policies, will give the nation’s psychologists their first chance to gather and discuss the direction of their profession since the Hoffman report.

Ms. Kaslow, who has led the special association board committee dealing with the Hoffman investigation, said, “I’ve learned a lot about organizations in a time of crisis and leadership in a time of crisis.”

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