The Talking Dog

August 16, 2008, Kodachrome

After we take a moment to send best wishes to our ailing (but now recovering) TD Mom, and to marvel at Michael Phelps tying Mark Spitz's seven gold medals for swimming at the Beijing Olympics (with one race still to go... even without actually watching t.v....) we turn to an annual event, that being the convention of the American Psychological Association, this year in Boston, which is considering outright outlawing its members participation in military interrogations (i.e. torture).

It's been exactly a year since the APA debated the role of its members in assisting the more gruesome and unlawful aspects of American conduct in the war on terror at their convention in San Francisco last year; I remember it for the strangest of reasons, that being while in Colorado for last year's Pikes Peak Marathon, on my rental car's radio, I heard Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! radio program reporting from there on this very issue. [Our own reporting on the subject includes our interviews with Dr. Steven Miles on medical complicity and with Mike Otterman on more general issues of torture.]

Anyway, from the Grey Lady's account of the APA "debate":

At the American Psychological Association’s annual meeting this week in Boston, prominent members are denouncing such work as unethical by definition, while other key figures — civilian and military — insist that restricting psychologists’ roles would only make interrogations more likely to harm detainees.


Others strongly disagree. “The vast majority of military psychologists know the ethics code and know exactly what they can and cannot do,” said William J. Strickland, who represents the Society for Military Psychology before the association’s council. “This is a fight about individual psychologists’ behavior, and we should keep it there.”

At the center of the debate are the military’s behavioral science consultation teams, informally known as biscuits, made up of psychologists and others who assist in interrogations. Little is known about these units, including the number of psychologists who take part. Neither the military nor the team members have disclosed many details.

Defenders of that role insist that the teams are crucial in keeping interrogations safe, effective and legal. Critics say their primary purpose is to help break detainees, using methods that might violate international law.

In court documents filed Thursday, lawyers for the Guantánamo detainee Mohammed Jawad asserted that a psychologist’s report helped land Mr. Jawad, a teenager at the time, in a segregation cell, where he became increasingly desperate.

According to the documents, the psychologist, whose name has not been released, completed an assessment of Mr. Jawad after he was seen talking to a poster on his cell wall. Shortly thereafter, in September 2003, he was isolated from other detainees, and many of his requests to see an interrogator were ignored. He later attempted suicide, according to the filing, which asks that the case be dismissed on the ground of abusive treatment.

The Guantánamo court is reviewing the case. Military lawyers have denied that Mr. Jawad suffered any mental health problems from his interrogation. On Thursday, the psychologist in the case invoked Article 31 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the military’s equivalent of the Fifth Amendment.

“This is what it’s come to,” said Steven Reisner, an assistant clinical professor at the New York University School of Medicine and a leading candidate for the presidency of the psychological association. “We have psychologists taking the Fifth.”


The psychological association’s most recent ethics amendments strongly condemn coercive techniques adopted in the Bush administration’s antiterrorism campaign. But its current guidelines covering practice conclude that “it is consistent with the A.P.A. ethics code for psychologists to serve in consultative roles to interrogation and information-gathering processes for national-security-related purposes,” as long as they do not participate in any of 19 coercive procedures, including waterboarding, the use of hoods and any physical assault.

How these guidelines shape behavior during interrogations is not well understood. Documents from Guantánamo made public in June suggested that at least some of the coercive methods the military has used were derived from SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, a program based on Chinese techniques used in the 1950s that produced false confessions from American prisoners.

These techniques included “prolonged constraint,” “exposure” and “sleep deprivation,” known informally as the frequent flier program.

In this kind of environment, “health professionals, bound by strong ethical imperatives to do no harm, may become calibrators of harm,” said Nathaniel Raymond of Physicians for Human Rights, which has been strongly critical of the psychological association’s position.

According to the standard operating procedure for Camp Delta, at Guantánamo, the “behavior management plan” for new detainees “concentrates on isolating the detainee and fostering dependence of the detainee on his interrogator.”

Some psychologists, though appalled by these techniques, emphasize that there is a danger in opting out as well.

“There’s no doubt that the psychologist’s presence can be abused,” said Robert W. Resnick, who is in private practice in Santa Monica, Calif., “but if there’s no presence at all, then there’s no accountability, and you walk away feeling noble and righteous, but you haven’t done a damned thing.”


However the field addresses the issue, scholars say it may not alter the relationship much between psychologists and the military. Psychologists have helped screen recruits and study morale going back to World War I, and in Iraq, some military psychologists have worked long tours under fire, managing troops’ mental reactions at the front.

“American psychology really grew up with the military,” said Jean Maria Arrigo, a psychologist who has studied the profession’s relationship to military intelligence. “It was barely considered a science before the collaboration began, and the entanglement goes very deep.”

The S&G title "Kodachrome" applies to this post because there is an extremely bright line associated with this issue: the microsecond that a prisoner in American custody is subjected to cruelty, to anything-- anything-- that would be objected to if done to a captured American-- the line has been crossed. There, that wasn't so hard. Waterboarding, sleep deprivation, dogs, death threats... all unacceptable. Indeed, all war crimes.

This is the problem: there is a right answer. Involvement in these coercive interrogations is not only "professionally unethical" (notwithstanding "debates" that a "professional association" that is arguably itself a captive of the military or at least the military industrial complex may have)... it is illegal, and most importantly, it is simply wrong.

Yes, I admit that we are a few weeks short of seven years' slippery slope slide into a moral abyss of anything justifies "our national security". But it wasn't true then, and it's not true now. If we can't maintain our most fundamental values as civilized human beings (let alone as the world's sole super-power and principal guardian of human rights)... then there is little point for our continued existence as a nation. The terrorists will have already won. Is that what we want? Wake the f*ck up people: these issues are not debatable. Read that line above:

In court documents filed Thursday, lawyers for the Guantánamo detainee Mohammed Jawad asserted that a psychologist’s report helped land Mr. Jawad, a teenager at the time, in a segregation cell, where he became increasingly desperate.

This is A KID. So is Khadr, and so were quite a few others (as noted in our interview with GTMO chaplain James Yee).
What justifies torturing children? I'll tell you what: NOTHING. EVER. JUSTIFIES. IT. PERIOD. Which is why I, who unlike most of you or most of those at the APA convention was actually across the street from the WTC on 9-11, find these "debates" so appalling.

There is no debate about participation in torture, or even "abuse" or "mere" cruelty: it is wrong, without reservation. And those involved should be stripped of any professional credential, and in my view, prosecuted as the criminals they are. And that's as bright a line as it gets.