SAN FRANCISCO – Some psychologists’ participation in the development and use of harsh interrogation techniques at secret U.S. military detention centers around the globe is miring the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in internal conflict.
At the organization’s 115th convention, held in San Francisco through Monday, the APA is conducting eight panel discussions to debate what role – if any – psychologists should play at such detention centers.
The dispute within the 148,000-member APA has surfaced after recent revelations that psychologists such as Spokane-based James Elmer Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen reportedly assisted the CIA in developing a policy of brutal interrogation tactics, which are said to include waterboarding, sexual humiliation, sensory deprivation and extreme isolation.
These tactics were reverse-engineered from the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, or SERE program, taught at the U.S. Air Force’s survival school near Spokane, according to a five-person panel discussing psychologists’ role in interrogations Friday morning.
“This is a very sad chapter in our field’s and in our country’s history,” said Dr. Steven Reisner, a consultant to the United Nations on torture’s effects. “(The tactics) come from a psychologically developed program (SERE) and then transferred. It spread to Afghanistan. It spread to Iraq. And it is spread by psychologists.”
All panelists during the standing-room-only opening session on interrogation condemned the use of torture. But subtler divisions quickly emerged over dueling resolutions on the issue that will be brought before the APA for a vote Sunday morning.
One resolution, proposed by the Psychologists for an Ethical APA, advocates a moratorium on psychologists’ presence at sites that indefinitely detain suspects without due process.
A counter-resolution presented by the APA board generally condemns harsh interrogation tactics. Advocates of the counter-resolution maintain that psychologists play a mitigating role at detention centers, preventing widespread abuse.
U.S. Navy Capt. Morgan Sammons, who oversees health care for detainees, said that psychologists are a linchpin that ensures suspected terrorists aren’t abused. Military psychologists at detention centers, he said, were the first to bring to light the unethical treatment of detainees.
“If we divorce ourselves from the process, we put at risk the people whose rights we are trying to protect,” he said. Further, panelist Katherine Sherwood, an interrogator for the Department of Defense, asserted that the highly publicized instances in which questioning was “handled badly” were exceptions.
“If we repeat one incident 100 times, it does not mean it happened 100 times,” she said.
Sherwood and former APA President Ron Levant took umbrage, however, at characterizations by some panelists that torture tactics by interrogators were rampant and that a number of psychologists at detention centers had been complicit in SERE-based brutal treatment.
“It might surprise Dr. Reisner, but the outrage of interrogators of bringing SERE to Guantanamo was greater than the outrage from psychologists,” she said.
She said that a few examples referenced in a Department of Defense inspector general’s report do not constitute “evidence that these practices are going on,” but rather show the government red-flagging an issue of concern.
However, Steve Kleinman, an Air Force colonel who spent 24 years as an intelligence officer and interrogator, said instances of SERE-style interrogation in the so-called war on terror aren’t isolated cases. Rather, the use of such techniques could be classified somewhere between “widespread to very prevalent.”
Kleinman, who once served as the senior intelligence officer over special survival training, which oversees SERE, explained that SERE tactics are counterproductive to interrogation, which he said relies on building relationships with a prisoner.
The SERE program exposes military members to torture tactics deployed by Cold War-era enemies that were designed, not to glean intelligence, but to elicit false statements of support – propaganda – from prisoners, Kleinman said.
As a result, he added, any information wrought by SERE-style interrogation programs is unreliable.
“Torture is not interrogation. Do you want people to talk about what you want them to talk about or do you want the truth?” he said. “SERE model has a role elsewhere.”
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