President's Column

Many members have written me expressing profound concern about media reports of involvement by mental health professionals in the interrogation of detainees held by the military in Iraq and at Guantanamo, Cuba. The letters have several themes in common including: great dismay at the way detainees have reportedly been treated, concerns with government policies in pursuing the war in Iraq, and a wish that APA would speak out against involvement of psychologists in any activities that compromise the professional and ethical values we hold dear.

Elsewhere in this issue you will find a thorough account of APA's very strong position against psychologists' involvement in torture, inhumane, degrading or unlawful treatment of anyone ("Ethics and interrogations..."). We also clearly indicate that psychologists who provide mental health care may not participate in interrogation or share information with the interrogations process. You will also discover substantial agreement between APA's position and that taken by the American Medical Association.

You will also discover a certain irony in the position taken last May by our psychiatric colleagues. The American Psychiatric Association discourages its members' participation in military interrogations, but on the day this position was released, Dr. Steven Sharfstein, its president, told the media that the association will not discipline military psychiatrists who participate in an interrogation.

Some colleagues expressed dismay that psychologists participate in coercive interviews or interrogation at all. These folks do not seem to recognize the ethically appropriate public interest-oriented roles in which psychologists routinely interview people who may feel more or less coerced. Such well-established roles include: evaluations for the legal system (e.g., competence to stand trial, assessing criminal responsibility or child-custody evaluations), independent psychological evaluations for disability insurers, or employee screening for sensitive positions. Many psychologists also train others (e.g., police authorities, attorneys and hostage negotiators) in psychologically effective interrogation techniques.

Other colleagues have expressed concerns that behavioral scientists have helped interrogators create aversive interrogation techniques as noted in press accounts (e.g., sleep deprivation, social isolation, extreme temperature changes or degrading and embarrassing interventions). Such concern ignores the fact that the use of such strategies hardly constitutes a recent development, and did not originate as the ideas of psychologists.

We must not forget that some colleagues who consult on interrogations have performed roles that many of us would applaud. One example may serve to illustrate the point.

A senior psychologist assigned to help put a stop to the abuses documented at Abu Ghraib prison took his first tour of the facility at 2 a.m., soon after his arrival in Iraq. He walked past the one-way window of an interrogation booth and saw Spec-4 interrogator Irena Tsvybel* attempting to conduct an interrogation. The 23-year-old daughter of Ukrainian immigrant parents, Irena graduated from college with an honors degree in history just two years earlier. She speaks English and Russian fluently and dreams of a career as a linguist. The army offered an opportunity for language training and a way to pay off her student loans, but first she must complete this tour as a Spec-4 interrogator in Iraq. Now, she sits in the small room with her Arabic language interpreter.

Sitting across from her tethered to his chair with a leather restraint is a 40-year-old male captured earlier in the day as he attempted to set up a roadside improvised explosive device. In response to her questions he lunges, spits and shouts a string of profanities, all dutifully translated by the interpreter. The detainee tells her that she is "Nothing but a whore sent to Iraq for the pleasure of American soldiers." Irena's security guard, a five-foot-two-inch 90-pound female military police officer sits asleep by the door. The psychologist goes looking for Irena's supervisor, a 26-year-old sergeant, and finds him in an office down the corridor.

What role is the psychologist playing? The critical role of observing and understanding the pressures of the job that members of our armed services have been given. A psychologist on scene can guard against the behavioral drift that is often seen when human beings are taxed to their emotional limits. In doing so, that psychologist is assisting these young people in uniform while also safeguarding the welfare of detainees.

Helping Irena and others like her to do their job as best they can, improve their effectiveness and avoid demoralization, along with behavioral drift that could lead to the abuse of detainees, is but one example of a very appropriate consultative role for a psychologist attempting to assist with interrogation. We must never condone torture, inhumane or demeaning treatment of detainees.

We must never tolerate cooperation of psychologists delivering care with people conducting interrogation. We must also respect the legitimate roles of psychologists who participate in interrogation legally and appropriately in an effort to assure our safety.

*The Spec-4 interrogator's name has been changed to protect her identity.