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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Local psychologists had high-level backup for torture role

It’s not news that two Spokane psychologists were instrumental in developing, teaching and employing firsthand the torture program that the U.S. adopted in years immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

But an exhaustive new report makes the case that the professional gatekeepers of psychology – as represented by top officials in the American Psychological Association – colluded with military leaders in developing a permissive and vague code of ethics regarding the participation of psychologists in interrogations, and actively thwarted efforts to develop policies that would have prohibited it.

The goal was to help “grow” the field of psychology – versus psychiatry – and to foster financial relationships with the military, as well as performing damage control for the profession and helping to give a legitimate gloss to techniques that were illegal under international law. Top APA officials did this knowing that abusive techniques were being used and with “substantial indifference to the actual facts” surrounding interrogations.

“Although APA officials insisted at the time, and for years after, that all their actions were based on independent ethics and policy judgments about how to provide appropriate ethical guidance for psychologists who worked in this area, we found that this was not the case,” the report concluded. “Instead, key APA officials were operating in close, confidential coordination with key Defense Department officials to set up a task force and produce an outcome that would please DoD, and to produce ethical guidelines that were the same as, or not more restrictive than, the DoD guidelines for interrogation activities.”

The report was conducted by former federal prosecutor David Hoffman and commissioned by the APA. Nadine Kaslow, a former president of the organization, told NPR that the report left her stunned, saddened and convinced that the APA needed to “apologize for the actions and policies and lack of independence from government influence.”

One of the chief aims of the APA collusion, the report says, was to provide jobs and contracts for psychologists. This was exemplified by the work on developing and implementing the Bush administration’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” by James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, two former Fairchild Air Force Base survival trainers who formed a private firm that was paid more than $80 million by the CIA.

Mitchell and Jessen stood at the very center of America’s foray into post-9/11 torture. As several reports have shown – including two Senate investigations, the new APA reports, public statements made by former FBI interrogators, and reporting by several journalists and authors – the men helped to “reverse-engineer” survival school tactics for use in interrogations, personally participated in waterboarding and the use of other harsh tactics outlawed by the Geneva Conventions during a brief window where they were legalized by Bush administration memos and redefinitions, and helped train others in the use of such techniques.

Though some Bush officials and others have continued to defend the program, last year’s Senate report concluded that Congress had been misled by the CIA about the level of brutality involved, and that the program had been essentially useless in producing intelligence.

The APA report includes a handful of new details about Mitchell and Jessen – about whom a CIA official once said, “They are doing special things to special people in special places, and generally are not available.” The pair briefed Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in July 2007 regarding the CIA’s final detainee. President Barack Obama ended the program in 2009, and Mitchell and Jessen’s contract was terminated shortly thereafter.

As the news about the involvement of medical professionals in interrogations started to become public in 2004, many psychologists began to demand that the APA either prohibit or limit such activities – as the American Psychiatric Association has done. Those calls led to the creation of a task force intended to produce guidelines for psychologists in the interrogation process. The report concludes that the task force produced guidelines that had the appearance of opposing abusive interrogations while falling into line with the Bush administration’s program.

Among the criticisms is that the APA failed to perform even cursory investigations of complaints about improper actions, including a complaint about Mitchell. (Mitchell resigned from the group while the complaint was pending; the APA has repeatedly distanced itself from the duo.)

For many in the profession, the participation of psychologists in interrogations was a clear-cut breach of the Hippocratic oath. Interestingly, the report notes that the task force omitted the words “do no harm” from its final guidelines. Others had practical questions: How could psychologists serve as both interrogators and as medical professionals watchdogging the process? In such a situation, who was their client?

For many this came down to a national security justification: The client was the country, and preventing harm to the country outweighed other considerations. For these people, the APA officials who worked with the military were “American heroes, and the fact that they have been attacked rather than thanked for their service to their profession and the country is a tragedy,” the report said.

Others located the tragedy elsewhere.

“We have heard from psychologists who treat patients for a living that they feel physically sick when they think about the involvement of psychologists intentionally using harsh interrogation techniques,” the report said. “This is the perspective of psychologists who use their training and skill to peer into the damaged and fragile psyches of their patients, to understand and empathize with the intensity of psychological pain in an effort to heal it. The prospect of a member of their profession using that same training and skill to intentionally cause psychological or physical harm to a detainee sickens them. We find that perspective understandable.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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