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Psychologists' e-mails stir interrogation issue

Critics urge inquiry on ethics question

By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / May 8, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Newly public e-mails between psychologists involved in the Bush administration's controversial detention program have fueled a fierce debate over whether mental-health professionals should give advice on warfare, and whether the nation's largest psychology association tacitly blessed the government's use of abusive interrogations involving waterboarding and sleep deprivation.

The e-mails were part of internal deliberations of a 2005 American Psychological Association task force on ethics and national security that featured several military psychologists who served as advisers or trainers to interrogators in Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. At issue in the e-mail deliberations was how to balance their profession's strict ethical code of "do no harm" with the military's attempt to coerce information on terrorist plots from suspects.

None of the e-mails, posted this week on the investigative journalism website ProPublica, advocate the use of torture. In fact, several describe how psychologists stepped in to prevent abuse of detainees in places like Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

But the e-mails - written by military psychologists who were consultants to interrogators questioning detainees at secret, so-called black sites overseas - have angered medical ethicists and human rights advocates. They say the APA should have barred psychologists from playing any role in the interrogations, and should not have invited psychologists working for the Pentagon to help shape the organization's ethics code.

"It's the fox - already having eaten the chickens - guarding the henhouse," said Nathaniel Raymond, senior investigator at the Cambridge-based Physicians for Human Rights, which on Wednesday called for an independent inquiry into the ethics and national security task force and the APA's actions. Raymond said retired military personnel should have served on the panel instead of active practitioners.

But Gerald P. Koocher, dean of the School of Health Sciences at Simmons College in Boston, who helped assemble the task force, and its chairwoman, Olivia Moorehead-Slaughter, a clinical psychologist at Brookline's Park School, believe it was vital to hear from military psychologists who faced the ethical dilemmas.

"We had people who knew what was happening," said Koocher, a former APA president. He said some of his critics in the mental health community are "being mindless ideologues" by insisting that all psychologists withdraw from advisory roles with the military.

"Working for the military is a legitimate occupation for people," Koocher said.

The 10-member task force is, generally, a who's who list of military mental-health professionals who eventually came out in public as opponents of torture.

One member, Army Colonel Larry James, was sent to Abu Ghraib to install guidelines after photos of detainee abuse made international headlines, while another, Morgan Banks, argued against using coercive tactics on Guantanamo Bay detainees, according to a report by the Senate Armed Services Committee. Task force member Mike Gelles, a civilian with Guantanamo Bay's Criminal Investigation Task Force, criticized the brutal methods used in interrogations there, while colleague R. Scott Shumate, a CIA psychologist, reportedly left in disgust after he witnessed the treatment of Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah.

But Physicians for Human Rights argues merely being involved as consultants in those operations runs against the grain of professional ethics.

"Basic medical standards preclude any medical professionals from being involved in interrogations," Raymond said, adding that the men continued to be involved in training and advising interrogators after voicing objections to the tactics. He criticized them for failing to do more to stop the alleged abuse.

But the e-mails show how the military psychologists struggled to find the ethical boundaries.

In one exchange, Gelles said psychologists should serve only as consultants to interrogators, and never play a lead role. James disagreed.

"What about if the interrogator is an 18- or 19-year-old kid right out of high school?" James wrote. "No, I don't think the psychologist should do the interrogation. On the other hand, this is a dangerous situation. . . . All too often at Abu Ghraib the 19-year-old's supervisor was a 25-year-old reservist who never did a real-world interrogation either."

Both men asserted that psychologists had fixed problems, not caused them.

Bryce Lefever, a military psychologist who served at the detention center at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, opined in one e-mail that psychologists do harm for the "greater good" when inflicting pain on US soldiers to teach them how to withstand torture at the hands of enemy captors. The same behaviors, however, "are viewed as harmful" when used on US prisoners.

In July 2005, the task force concluded that it is ethical "to serve in consultant roles for interrogation" as long as the questioning is safe and legal. It also concluded that psychologists have an ethical obligation to report torture and should not use phobias to inflict stress.

But two task force members believe it did not go far enough.

Mike Wessell, a Columbia University professor, resigned after the task force failed to denounce waterboarding as torture, which the APA did in 2008.

Soon after, Jean Maria Arrigo, an independent scholar and social psychologist went public with the group's private e-mails.

The task force "served to legitimate the presence of psychologists in the interrogations," she said.