Health professionals must fight a Trump administration expansion of torture

It was profoundly distressing to hear Donald Trump on the campaign trail vowing a return to abusing prisoners with “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” Those thoughts threaten to reverse the work that I and others have done over the last decade to end torture as an official US government policy and to prevent health professionals’ participation in detainee abuse.

This piece originally appeared at Stat News on January 25, 2017.
It is re-published here with the author’s permission. 

As a psychologist, I know the extreme damage that torture — the systematic infliction of severe pain and degradation — does to its victims and to its perpetrators. My colleagues and I helped transform the American Psychological Association’s policies, establishing a firm barrier between psychological practice and national security interrogations and forbidding psychologist involvement in detainee care at detention sites, like the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, which violates international law. As a result, a year ago the New York Times reported that Gen. John Kelly had ordered the removal of psychologists from all involvement with detainees at Guantánamo.

Since Trump’s election, signals on torture have been mixed. His national security advisor, Mike Flynn, has at times endorsed the used of torturous “enhanced interrogation” techniques. His new CIA director, Mike Pompeo, has not ruled out changing US laws to allow waterboarding and other torture.

Despite President Obama’s efforts to close Guantánamo, it remains open. The new administration is even considering expanding its population of detainees. And it is conceivable that additional detention sites may be opened to hold detainees in harsh conditions for extended and indefinite periods without trial.

During the George W. Bush administration, the US adopted interrogation techniques that our State Department had traditionally denounced as torture when used by others. The most famous of these was waterboarding, in which drowning is induced and then interrupted, inducing panic and terror. While waterboarding got the most attention, many of the other techniques, including excruciating stress positions, exposure to extreme hot and cold, and prolonged sleep deprivation in painful positions for up to 180 hours, were also deemed torture and had been denounced by the State Department.

Torture is so repugnant that virtually every country, even those that surreptitiously practice it, feel a need to disclaim it. The United Nations’s Convention Against Torture has been signed by 160 countries. For hundreds of years, opposition to the use of torture has been an important measure of a country’s evolution toward civilized values. The return to torture in the Bush administration set back that progress, not only in our country but also around the world, as other nations took it as a green light for barbarous practices.

While ISIS would no doubt engage in barbarities regardless of US torture policy, it is no accident that the prisoners they execute in gruesome videos are cloaked in orange jumpsuits.

The US is again in danger of becoming a country where torturous barbarity is publicly endorsed as official policy. To prevent this, it is vital that every institution of civil society speak out.

Among these institutions, the health professions have great leverage. They must use it, and their constituencies must demand they use it. Wherever there is systematic torture, there are often health professionals, vetting prisoners for further abuse and treating them afterward to keep them alive, at least until the torturers are done with them.

In the Bush era torture program, psychologists played special roles. In the CIA program, psychologists devised and administered the abuses, apparently even being present during waterboarding. At Guantánamo, which is run by the military, interrogators consulted with psychologists, reportedly using information in prisoners’ medical files to identify vulnerabilities that could be used to “break” them.

This involvement of psychologists and other health professionals was intentional. In the Bush administration’s “torture memos,” the presence of health professionals during torture served as a legal “get out of jail free card” for the abusers. If a health professional assured interrogators that their techniques would not cause severe long-lasting harm — the Bush administration’s defining characteristic of torture — the interrogator was protected from legal responsibility for any harm that occurred.

The Trump administration will also likely need health professionals as participants and as legal cover for any return to torture. We must deny them that protection.

Over the last decade, professional organizations representing physicians, psychologists, and nurses have issued formal statements opposing their members’ participation in torture. Physicians and psychologists have gone further, stating that any participation by their members in national security interrogations violates the professions’ central ethical injunction to “do no harm.” However, despite credible complaints against specific health professionals, no professional associations or state licensing boards have launched investigations, much less taken disciplinary action.

Given the threat that the new administration may expand Guantánamo and return to torture, health professional and behavioral science organizations should reiterate their ethical opposition and maintain the bright line separating their professionals from national security interrogations. Other professions should follow psychologists in forbidding their members from involvement in detention facilities that violate international law.

But they must also go further. Professional organizations need to make it crystal clear that any credible complaint that a member has participated in detainee abuses or at detention sites deemed illegal under international law will be thoroughly investigated, and that discipline will be imposed if the complaint is substantiated. Not to act in the current climate would constitute a failure of the health professions carrying out their compact with society to protect and improve the health and welfare of all individuals, regardless of their legal status.

At this dangerous time, society needs the voices of health professionals, and our actions, to halt the use of torture.

Stephen Soldz, a clinical psychologist, is professor of psychology at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis and director of its Social Justice and Human Rights Program. He is a former president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, a cofounder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, and an anti-torture advisor to Physicians for Human Rights.

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Liberation Psychology: 25 years on. Some further materials.

1) On our videos page, we have added an audio recording of an interview with Martín-Baró from 1988.  In it he speaks of the circumstances under which he was working, including a wider political analysis of the Salvadorean conflict, the impact of torture and repression, and his survival of terrorist attacks on the University.  Thanks to Brinton Lykes for making this available.

2) Brinton is also the co-founder of the Martín-Baró Fund, which makes funding available to “grassroots groups throughout the world who are challenging institutional repression and confronting the mental health consequences of violence and injustice in their communities.”  Their current newsletter “The Just Word” has several articles (including a rare piece in English byElizabeth Lira from Chile) about Nacho and his impact, you can download it here.

3) Bruce Levine, another network member has also published an article to mark the 25th anniversary of Martín-Baró’s murder.  He reflects on the collusion of the American (sic) Psychological Association with the torture programme in occupied Guantánamo, (depicted in this film) noting that

“Liberation psychology – which Martin-Baró helped popularize – challenges adjustment to an unjust societal status quo and energizes oppressed people to resist injustices.”

You can read Bruce’s piece in “Truth Out” here.

4) Finally, about 12 years ago, when, with some difficulty, I got my copies of the two Cover A and Ivolumes of Martín-Baró’s “Psicología desde Centroamérica”, I translated the prologues and summaries for my own use.  A revised version of my translation of the Prologue to volume 1, “Acción e Ideología” is available on request.  This prologue gives a very clear account of his project to reconstruct social psychology, from the perspective of the peoples of Central America.  Please treat these notes for what they are, an initial translation without any review or other checks.  It is a great shame that more of Nacho’s work has not been translated into other languages to give a wider audience access to the breadth and depth of his work.  The translation is available, HERE, for personal use.

 

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Coalition for an Ethical Psychology: Statement on the APA’s failure to investigate Guantánamo Bay affair

image of bare room

from ethicalpsychology.org

from the COALITION FOR AN ETHICAL PSYCHOLOGY  www.ethicalpsychology.org

The Ethics Office of the American Psychological Association (APA) has announced that it will not proceed with formal charges against military psychologist Dr. John Leso, despite extensive public documentation that this APA member designed and participated in abusive interrogations at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In fact, Susan Crawford, the convening authority on military commissions at Guantanamo appointed by President George W. Bush, refused to refer the case of detainee Mohammed al Qahtani to trial because she concluded his interrogation met the legal definition of torture. Dr. Leso is known to have been a supervisor and participant in that interrogation.

Because Dr. Leso’s documented actions so clearly violated psychological ethics and because this abuse of psychological expertise was undertaken at the behest of governmental authorities, this case represents a landmark test of the independence of psychological ethics and professional standards from governmental and institutional pressures. The APA’s failure to pursue charges against Dr. Leso jeopardizes our profession’s fundamental ethical principles. In this synopsis we review (1) APA’s repeated vow to bring such cases to account; (2) the public record of clearly documented violations by Dr. Leso; (3) APA’s justifications for closing the Leso case without formal charges; and (4) our procedural and ethical assessment of the APA’s resolution of this case.

read the full statement.

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APA fails to take action on collusion with Guantánamo torture

The following post is based on a request from Psychologists for Social Responsibility, a USA-based group.

It is possible you’ve heard the news that the American Psychological Association recently issued a stunning landmark decision on psychologist involvement in state-sponsored torture.

U.S. military psychologist John Leso was involved in the development of the post-9/11 “enhanced interrogation” protocol at Guantánano Bay Naval Base and is documented as directly participating in the interrogation of Mohammed al-Qahtani. This interrogation was described as meeting the legal definition of “torture” by Susan Crawford, the Bush administration convener of the Guantánamo military commissions. Yet despite substantial evidence of Dr. Leso’s involvement in cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, the APA recently closed a complaint against him, almost seven years after it was first brought, without proceeding with formal charges.

I am writing to you today to ask for your help in putting needed public pressure on the APA, an organization whose leadership continues to be as complicit in U.S. torture under the Obama Administration as it was under the Bush Administration.

While several mainstream media organizations in the UK and Canada covered this important story (e.g., BBC, CBC, The Guardian), it has been buried in the U.S. The American public therefore goes unaware, and, we suspect, most APA members as well.

This week, Psychologists for Social Responsibility sent the letter pasted below to the APA Ethics Office, demanding answers (the letter is also available in PDF format on the PsySR website).

I am sure that all liberation-orientated psychologists will want to join in deploring the APA’s action and in supporting PSySR’s call for clear explanations and transparency about the decision-making process by APA.  You can read about PsySR’s work on torture at this link.  Please do publicise this through your own networks.

Mark Burton
Co-ordinator, LIberation Psychology Network
and Visiting Professor, Manchester Metropolitan University.

_________________________

Text of the letter to APA fromPsySR follows:

January 29, 2014

Stephen Behnke, JD, PhD Director, Ethics Office American Psychological Association 750 First Street, NE Washington, DC 20002-4242

Lindsay Childress-Beatty, JD, PhD Director of Adjudication/Deputy Director, Ethics Office American Psychological Association 750 First Street, NE Washington, DC 20002-4242

Dear Drs. Behnke and Childress-Beatty:

As representatives of Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR), we write to express our deep concern and dismay over the recent decision by the Ethics Office of the American Psychological Association to dismiss the Complaint against Dr. John Leso, a former military psychologist at Guantántamo Bay Naval Base. According to your 31 December 2013 letter to complainant Dr. Trudy Bond (a PsySR member), your office does not dispute that Dr. Leso was instrumental in devising and administering the Guantánamo “enhanced interrogation” protocol in 2002. Declassified government documents and independent reports have revealed that this protocol included, but was not limited to, weeks or months of solitary confinement; sleep deprivation; sexual humiliation; exposure to extreme cold; prolonged removal of sheets, blankets, wash cloths and religious items; 20-hour interrogations, and painful stress positions.

The Ethics Office took almost seven years to review one of the most egregious examples of unethical behavior in the history of American psychology. Due to unusual circumstances (leaks and release by Congress of classified documents) more information is available about Dr. Leso’s participation in government-sanctioned torture and abuse than may ever be the case for any other APA member. Dr. Leso co-wrote the plan for and is documented as directly participating in the interrogation of Mohammed al-Qahtani. This interrogation was described as meeting the legal definition of “torture” by Susan Crawford, the Bush administration convener of the Guantánamo military commissions.

In the end, your office apparently decided that Dr. Leso’s months of involvement with the torture program were wholly mitigated because he did not volunteer to lead the Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) that formulated the protocol; he was an early-career psychologist; and he reportedly expressed unease with the assignment and a preference for “rapport-building” methods. In reaching its decision the Ethics Office has set a stunning and disturbing precedent. Your office has now provided another layer of protection to psychologists who participate in the debilitating isolation of prisoners, the psychological abuses still permitted by Appendix M of the Army Field Manual, the brutal force-feeding of Guantánamo hunger-strikers, or other ethical violations. As well, this logic suggests that psychologists who engage in insurance fraud or sexual relations with their patients can evade censure if they are relatively inexperienced and express discomfort in advance of or concurrent with their actions.

For years APA has insisted that it would sanction any member for whom credible evidence existed of participation in torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, yet no psychologist has ever been held accountable for involvement in our government’s post-9/11 torture program. Evidence clearly exists that Dr. Leso and other psychologists have utterly failed to ensure that detention and interrogation operations at Guantánamo and elsewhere were kept “safe, legal, ethical, and effective.” By closing this case in the manner you have chosen, it is only reasonable for members and the broader public to assume that APA will never sanction any psychologist participating in government-sanctioned abuses. No statements from APA’s PR office will change this perception.

At this point, your office must realize that the Leso decision is being widely discussed in the media and has become a matter of profound concern to many members of the profession. We therefore believe that it is important for the Ethics Office to provide greater clarity regarding two key issues: First, substantively, how does this landmark decision align with the specific principles and standards of the APA’s code of ethics, and with longstanding professional prohibitions against involvement in torture and abuse? Second, procedurally, how was the decision to close the case reached? While you state that the complaint was “carefully reviewed by multiple reviewers,” it is unclear who these reviewers were. Does this decision reflect an official vote of the entire Ethics Committee, or rather action taken by the Director of the Ethics Office, or some other group of reviewers, without the participation of the full committee? Confidentiality about these matters serves, in our perception, no constructive purpose and instead raises confusion and uncertainty about the priorities and procedures of the Ethics Office. We therefore request that this information be made public in order to begin to rebuild the moral authority of the profession.

We look forward to your timely reply. Thank you.

Sincerely,

The Steering Committee of Psychologists for Social Responsibility

cc: Members of the APA Ethics Committee Members of the APA Board and Council of Representatives

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