Blog of Rights

Psychologists on the Dark Side

By Jennifer Turner, Human Rights Researcher, Human Rights Program, ACLU at 8:36pm

(Originally posted at Daily Kos.)

Thursday’s hearing in Afghan national Mohammed Jawad’s case brought stunning testimony on serious abuse he suffered at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan as a teenager, as well as military psychologists’ role in crafting abusive interrogation methods for use on Jawad and other prisoners at Guantánamo Bay.

On Thursday Special Agent Angela Birt, an Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) investigator who investigated two homicides of prisoners at Bagram prison in Afghanistan, took the stand. Her investigation resulted in confessions from 18 military police for their role in abusing prisoners and findings of probable cause to charge 27 officers for the homicides. Birt’s investigation led her to Jawad because he had been imprisoned at Bagram at the time of the two homicides. Her investigation also uncovered a widespread pattern of abuse that corroborates Jawad’s claims of mistreatment at Bagram prison.

Birt testified that the types of abuse Jawad told her he suffered—being forced to stand for long periods of time in stress positions; forced sleep deprivation; being hit, kicked and beaten; being shackled to the door of his cell; and being hooded and shackled with hand irons, leg irons and a waist chain while moved and in one case pushed down the stairs—mirrored other Bagram detainees’ claims. She also said that Jawad’s claim that he heard the cries and screams of other detainees was a “fairly common” claim of other prisoners locked in isolation who heard other prisoners “crying for their parents and begging for the beatings to stop” during interrogations nearby.

Birt testified that the period of time Jawad was at Bagram—the same period in which these two homicides occurred and the period chronicled in the documentary film Taxi to the Dark Side —“was the worst period of abuse I’ve ever seen” in the 2,000 cases she's investigated in her 18-year career at CID.

The methods Birt uncovered at Bagram were part of a menu of abusive Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) interrogation techniques also used on prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. Thursday’s hearing in Jawad’s case brought attention to the role of military psychologists belonging to Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs), known as “Biscuit teams,” in developing and refining these abusive techniques for use at Guantánamo Bay. Since 2002 BSCT psychologists have evaluated prisoners’ fears and psychological weaknesses to craft individualized blueprints for torture and other mistreatment, which they passed on to the interrogators. For instance, a Guantánamo psychiatrist advised interrogators to exploit one detainee’s severe phobia of the dark by deliberately keeping him almost totally in the dark.

Earlier media reports (see here, here, and here, and a New England Journal of Medicine article revealed, and recent revelations from a June Senate Armed Services Committee Investigation confirmed, that military psychologists contributed to the development of these abusive interrogation methods.

Sadly, Thursday’s hearing did not add much to the public record on the workings of the BSCT program at Guantánamo Bay. The BSCT psychologist, "Lt. Col. Z," who was scheduled to testify for the defense today, invoked her right to remain silent—presumably because she feared recounting her role could incriminate herself in criminal activity. Her testimony would have been the first time a member of the BSCT team had testified in a military commissions hearing.

What we already knew was that leaked Guantánamo Bay interrogation logs—which must be read to be believed —show that a BSCT psychologist was present during the highly abusive interrogation of Guantánamo prisoner Mohammed al-Qahtani. (Charges against al-Quatani were suddenly dropped in May, some have speculated because a trial would have turned the spotlight to the torture he endured at Guantánamo Bay.) And BSCT psychologists’ role in aiding torture has been the subject of much controversy among the American Psychological Association (APA), which is holding a referendum among its members to disallow psychologists to participate in such mistreatment.

What we did learn Thursday was that, according to Jawad’s defense attorney Maj. Frakt, in September 2003, “when an interrogator observed Mohammad talking to posters on the wall of the interrogation room and was concerned about his mental health,” instead of calling a mental health professional to care for him, they summoned the BSCT team, whose psychologist made a “cruel and heartless assessment and recommendations.” Maj. Frakt called the BSCT psychologist’s report, which was classified secret and therefore not discussed in detail in the open court session, “the most chilling document of all.”

And on Wednesday, Dr. Bruce Menely, the chief medical officer at Guantánamo Bay, testified that when Jawad tried to hang himself only months later, on Christmas Day 2003, BSCT psychologists—not regular medical psychologists—were notified of Jawad’s suicide attempt. In Omar Khadr’s hearing Wednesday, Khadr’s defense lawyer Lt. Cmdr. William C. Kuebler noted that, much like in Jawad’s case, military psychologists have met with Khadr to manipulate him and extract more information from him during interrogations.

During his emotional closing argument Thursday, Maj. Frakt asked, “What has this country come to when a licensed psychologist, a senior officer in the U.S. Armed Forces, someone trained in the art of healing broken hearts and mending broken minds, someone with a duty to do no harm, turns her years of training and education to the art of breaking people, to the intentional devastation of a lonely, homesick teenage boy?”

At the end of her examination of Birt, defense attorney Katharine Doxakis asked Birt whether her resignation from the military was because she had become disillusioned with the military after seeing the results of her Bagram abuse investigation. The prosecution’s immediate objection was sustained, and Birt never got to answer the question.

If, as implied by the defense, Birt’s resignation from the military was a stand against torture, why didn’t Guantánamo’s military’s psychologists do the same?  

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