The debate over whether psychologists should remain present at CIA "black sites" or the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and other military-run detention centers-and continue playing a consulting role in the interrogations of terrorism detainees-was argued over the course of six sessions, a town hall meeting, and the floor of the APA Council of Representatives, which ultimately passed a resolution banning specific interrogation techniques ("Council extends its stance on torture").
The view that psychologists must stay at military-run sites was most forcefully expressed by Navy Capt. Morgan T. Sammons, PhD, who argued that psychologists can help prevent interrogators from straying into brutality.
Referring to a recent New Yorker article in which a CIA official described how only personal "moral barometers" guided how interrogators treated detainees, Sammons said psychologists know just how fallible that barometer can be.
"We cannot absent ourselves," he said. "It would be irresponsible for us to do that. Only by becoming as involved as we have can we ensure that abusive practices do not occur."
As the Navy's psychology specialty leader, Sammons helped plan efforts to meet the mental health needs of terrorism detainees. Looking back over his experiences, he insisted that psychologists consistently acted to help improve detainees' treatment, both by opposing mistreatment and promoting safeguards.
A contrary view
Several other psychologists presented an opposing view: that psychologists cannot practice ethically in places where international human rights standards do not apply and that they should avoid any role in interrogations at such places as CIA "black sites" and Guantanamo.
During his presentation, Steven Reisner, PhD, of Columbia University, said that a recently declassified report from the Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General found that psychologists helped facilitate the abuse of detainees by teaching, supervising and guiding abusive interrogation techniques derived from SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape). SERE trains U.S. service members to resist torture from interrogators who use physically and mentally coercive interrogation techniques, Reisner said.
Reisner stated that, according to the report, after SERE techniques were brought to Guantanamo, the practices were spread to U.S.-run facilities in Afghanistan and Iraq-a move he said was facilitated by psychologists.
In Reisner's view, psychologists' participation in interrogations where fundamental human rights are being violated supports practices that are inherently unethical and inhumane.
"If you have a site where detainees are kept in indefinite isolation, in indefinite confinement, without an end, without due process, then you have affected their psychology in a way that makes any interrogation an interrogation of abuse," Reisner said.
According to Craig Haney, PhD, of the University of California-Santa Cruz, the treatment meted out to terrorism detainees is linked to a 30-year trend within the U.S. criminal justice system of focusing primarily on punishment, and allowing steadily worsening conditions to be inflicted on prisoners.
From his 30 years of studying many U.S. prisons where the worst abuses have taken place, Haney said that psychologists working in them were afforded little or no genuine power to improve conditions or prevent mistreatment.
At the same session featuring Sammons and Reisner, two veteran interrogators said that psychologists should remain involved in the overall process, and that the larger discipline of psychology can build support for "rapport-based interrogations" in which interrogators patiently develop relationships with detainees and gradually persuade them to give up information.
Air Force Col. Steven Kleinman, a reservist with 20 years of interrogation experience, said that psychologists can help interrogators learn about detainees' motivations not by seeing them as the "face of evil"- but as people, with interests, fears, hopes, desires and anxieties of their own.
"Psychologists help keep us focused on the fact that the individuals that we are debriefing and eliciting information from, that we're in fact interrogating, are people," Kleinman said. Psychologists can also help interrogators adhere to clear standards of conduct, and by supporting the emotional and psychological needs of interrogators, help avoid conditions leading to abuse, Kleinman said.
A former Guantanamo civilian interrogator, speaking under an assumed name, added that psychologists can help the public and policy-makers understand why rapport-based interrogations work better than coercion and abuse. The interrogator also insisted that reports of abuse at Guantanamo do not reflect the vast majority of interrogations conducted, which she said topped 39,000 since the camp first opened in late 2001.
Michael Gelles, PsyD, former chief psychologist for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, added that ethical and effective interrogations are exceedingly important to national security. To that end, he said, psychologists can help interrogators gain the trust of detainees by providing insight into their personalities and motivations.
"I do think that psychologists play an important and critical role in helping interrupt the forward momentum of transnational terrorism," Gelles said.