The American Psychological Association’s code of ethics begins by listing its general principles. This is the very first line: “Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm.”
This month, the APA spent part of its annual convention debating – and ultimately condemning – the involvement of its members in 19 unethical interrogation techniques such as “waterboarding” or simulated drowning, mock executions, and sexual and religious humiliation. It also called on Congress, the Department of Defense and the CIA to ban these tactics.
This action on the part of the APA appears long overdue.
In reports by Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and Salon.com, as well as this newspaper, these techniques are linked to the military’s SERE program, which the U.S. Air Force teaches at a survival school near Spokane. They are believed to be “reverse-engineered” from the torture techniques U.S. troops are taught to survive in enemy prisons. These reports point to two Spokane psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, and the role they may have played in developing them.
These harsh techniques, in sharp contrast to the APA ethics code, appear to do nothing but harm. The association now labels them as immoral, psychologically damaging and tactically ineffective.
Certainly, using pain and abject fear to psychologically destroy a prisoner constitutes harm to that individual.
These tactics also harm the interrogators’ pursuit of the truth.
An expert in human intelligence operations, Air Force Reserve Col. Steve Kleinman, told Vanity Fair that this style of interrogation does not incite prisoners to reveal good information. Instead, detainees may make false confessions just to bring the torture to an end.
These tactics violate the basic values of this country, which has always prided itself on respecting the rights of the individual. By lowering American interrogators to the level of our enemies, these methods harm our country’s integrity.
Mitchell and Jessen’s company issued a statement saying they oppose torture and do not endorse harmful interrogation methods.
Yet Kleinman told Vanity Fair, “I think [Mitchell and Jessen] have caused more harm to American national security than they’ll ever understand.”
If these reports are true, and the condemnation of their colleagues is warranted, this question must ultimately be asked: How could such violations of this healing profession’s principles ever have gone so far?