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Controlled Insanity

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June 24, 2009

In the notes to his novel 1984, George Orwell described “doublethink” as controlled insanity. Doublethink, a form of trained, willful intellectual blindness to contradictions in a belief system, is synonymous with the American Psychological Association (APA) and its role in the illegal detentions, torture and abuse that began shortly after September 11, 2001.

As a psychologist determined to hold state licensing boards and the national professional organization accountable for ethics violations of their members and licensees, I am only too familiar with doublethink.

When the public was becoming more aware of the abuse and torture in detention centers such as Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, the American Psychological Association (APA) established the Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) (PDF), ostensibly to “examine the ethical dimensions of psychology’s involvement and the use of psychology in national security-related investigations.”

The final PENS report was released in June of 2005, stating that the APA Ethics Code as previously written was adequate in providing ethical guidelines to military psychologists in national security-related investigations.

Much has been written about this report since its release, often critical, as the report allowed psychologists to continue working in the illegal detention centers and stated that psychologists could choose law over ethics in the event of a conflict.Most readers will not need a reminder of the Bush administration’s “laws” regarding detainees at that time (think John Yoo, Jay Bybee, Donald Rumsfeld).APA’s task force essentially endorsed a Code of Ethics that allowed violators of criminal law to avoid the Nuremberg Principles. Recently, Sheri Fink has described the process that led the PENS task force to these conclusions.

The PENS report became a critical turning point for many psychologists, many of whom only then began to realize the degree to which the APA was aligned with the Pentagon in its “War on Terror.” This was partially due to the number of military psychologists appointed to the task force by the APA president, as well as the presence of many participants with serious conflicts of interest.

The same month as the release of the PENS report, Time magazine published a partial log detailing the torture of Mohammed al-Qahtani, a prisoner at Guantánamo.With the release of these documents in 2005, it became clear that Major John Leso, the first BSCT psychologist at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, colluded in torture. Dr. Steven Miles and Philippe Sands have both offered documentation of Leso’s actions, as well as many other sources.

I initially filed an ethics complaint against Leso, complete with documentation,with the APA on April 15, 2007.It wasn’t until February of 2008 that my complaint was finally, officially acknowledged.The U.S. government admitted al-Qahtani was tortured when Susan J. Crawford, convening authority of military commissions at Guantánamo, stated unequivocally,”We tortured [Mohammed] Qahtani. His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case for prosecution.”Leso was instrumental in devising the interrogation plan of Mohammed al-Qahtani, collaborating, colluding and watching as Mohammed al-Qahtani was tortured. APA has been silent since that time, though the complaint against Leso still remains open.

As recently as last week, the APA Board of Directors stated in an open letter, “APA will continue to monitor material in official reports related to psychologist mistreatment of national security detainees, will investigate reports of unethical conduct by APA members, and will adjudicate cases in keeping with our Code of Ethics.”More doublethink. The last four presidents of APA, as well as the APA Ethics Director Stephen Behnke, have repeatedly made the same politically correct statement for four years, with absolutely no actions to support their statements. It’s become clear that the APA peddles intellectual contradiction as policy when it comes to torture, with no intent of enforcement.

Indeed, at every turn, the leadership of APA has been defending the role of psychologists in the illegal detention centers. Dr. Boulanger’s recent post describes the response of the APA to torturous interrogations:

Steven Behnke, the Director of Ethics for the American Psychological Association, emphasized the “unique competencies” that psychologists bring to their role in interrogations, and claimed that psychologists who help military interrogators made a valuable contribution. Furthermore, he argued, psychologists play a vital role in safeguarding the welfare of detainees.

When met with the increased public reporting of the collusion of psychologists in the torture of prisoners at Guantánamo and other detention sites, juxtaposed against the ethic “do no harm,” APA’s mantra became one of justifying the psychologists’ presence with the above senseless words in an attempt to reduce the dissonance, or more simply, to ratchet up the doublethink.If safeguarding the welfare of the detainees was truly the role of psychologists, many of those psychologists have gravely — and prosecutably — failed. There is story upon story of detainees released after many years of illegal imprisonment with no charges ever being brought against them, prisoners who were abused and tortured. Where were the psychologists who were conscientiously protecting the detainees, keeping the interrogations safe as Dr. Behnke suggests? The answer is: they weren’t.

I filed another complaint against Leso on April 5, 2007, with the NY State Education Department’s Office of Professional Discipline. The Director of Investigations rejected the complaint via telephone, claiming that the office lacked jurisdiction over the matter. Thus the state of New York continues to license Leso to collaborate in torture. The degree of seriousness and accountability the New York regulatory agency attached to alleged violations of federal criminal law and international law is evidenced in the handling of this complaint by a phone call.

Recently, Dr. Bryant Welch, who for most of the 20-year period from 1983 to 2003 either worked inside the APA central office as the first Executive Director of the APA Practice Directorate, or served in various governance positions such as the Chair of the APA Board of Professional Affairs, described the following:

A seventeen-year-old boy is locked in an interrogation cell in Guantánamo. He breaks down crying and says he wants his family. The interrogator senses the boy is psychologically vulnerable and consults with a psychologist. The psychologist has evaluated the boy prior to the questioning and says, ‘Tell him his family has forgotten him.’ The psychologist also prescribes ‘linguistic isolation’ (not letting him have contact with anyone who speaks his language.)

The boy attempts suicide a few weeks later. On the eve of the boy’s trial, the psychologist apparently fearing her testimony will only further implicate her, indicates she will plead the Fifth Amendment if she is called to the stand.

The trial is postponed, leaving the boy in further limbo. (emphasis added)

This psychologist not only did not protect the detainee, but clearly harmed him. This psychologist’s presence in the life of this child prisoner only escalated his abuse.

After significant research, I filed an ethics complaint with the state licensing board in Alabama in November of 2008, soon after this episode of torture supervised by Dr. Diane Zierhoffer described above, was publicly disclosed.

Though the complaint was twelve pages with over 150 pages of documentation, the Alabama Board of Psychology returned all my original documents within one month, like a hot potato, stating, “After careful consideration and extensive research into the feasibility of the Board’s investigation of the issues raised in your complaint of November 25, 2008, it has been determined that your request for the Alabama Board of Examiners in Psychology to accept jurisdiction over your complaint must be denied.”

I shipped my complaint and documentation back to the Alabama Board of Psychology, with a letter from my attorney reminding the Board of its legal obligations under Alabama law. To date, no response has been received, the Board has demonstrated no accountability, and legal action is the only recourse.

APA has stonewalled all complaints against military psychologists, and state licensing boards refuse to call to account the psychologists they license. After filing another complaint in Louisiana against Dr. Larry James, chief psychologist at Guantánamo during the time that the APA stated that psychologists would protect detainees, I was informed by the Louisiana Board of Psychologists that my complaint was not within the statute of limitations.

Since filing a complaint in court alleging the Board’s ruling was not valid, the Board now contends that I had no standing to file a complaint. The results of a hearing on the case to decide this preliminary issue are pending. If a psychologist cannot make an ethics complaint against another psychologist who has potentially violated federal and international law, there is no system of accountability.

PENS Rises from the Ashes

Of significant concern is the continued, insistent doublethink of previous PENS task force members. In current journal articles, task force members continue to celebrate the outcome of the PENS task force, seeming to have remained ignorant to the complex errors in the process of creating the PENS report, as well the final report itself.

Writing in the APA’s Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research in 2009, Morgan Banks, PENS member, maintains, “Just because the job of psychological support to interrogation is difficult and requires interpretation of some vaguely defined concepts, this does not mean that we should not be doing it.”

In the same article Banks describes the PENS report as follows:

Several senior military psychologists were asked to participate on this Task Force, and they brought with them the products of this ongoing collegial consultation. In short, long before the APA examined the issue, involved operational psychologists had developed a process for mutual consultation, and an ethically based set of practice guidelines was emerging. The agreed-upon guiding concepts were those of safety, legality, ethical defensibility, and effectiveness. All of these concepts are antithetical to torture. The PENS Task Force continued that development and helped formalize the ethical standards for psychologists in this developing area. This PENS report was carefully integrated into the Army Surgeon General’s policy guidance.

The Army Surgeon General to which Banks is referring is Kevin Kiley, M.D., who resigned in disgrace when it was found that the physical and psychological care of our own troops at Walter Reed, the troops for whom Kevin Kiley oversaw the care, were suffering abuse and worse.

And the PENS report to which Banks refers with such self-congratulatory remarks? The correspondence among PENS members was clearly not concerned with the well-being of the prisoners. The “client” was no longer a flesh-and-blood person but had morphed into a concept, that of “military intelligence.” The vulnerable parties became the troops and the U.S. citizens, not the isolated, shackled and abused prisoners. The PENS report was not about the prisoners and abuse, but how the “operational psychologists” and the APA could avoid accountability.

Dr. Gerald Koocher, president of APA at the time of the PENS Report, stated in the PENS task force deliberations, “I have zero interest in entangling APA with the nebulous, toothless, contradictory, and obfuscatory treaties that comprise ‘international law.'” In his most recent journal article in the APA’s Psychological Services, Koocher advocates for the role of the “invisible” psychologist or psychological consultant:

The parens patriae doctrine also leads to the logical conclusion that the state may use its protective obligation in ways that may harm individuals in other ways. Indeed, violations of individual rights in quest of protecting the vulnerable have formed the foundation of many governmental actions taken in recent years as steps toward national security, relying on utilitarian ethics and permissible harms. Psychologists may find themselves called on to assist the state in its protective efforts in invisible ways.

Koocher continues in the same article to elucidate the theme of the APA’s PENS report: “. . . at times the most vulnerable party may be the public at large. In such situations, psychologists must weigh their moral obligations against legally permissible options . . . Sometimes withholding our services may yield a greater public good than providing them.”

Finally, in the draft of a chapter to be released this month, APA PENS Task Force member Mike Gelles, Dr. Steve Kleinman and Dr. Randy Borum have also referred back to the PENS report:

The President of the American Psychological Association (then, Ron Levant, Ph.D.) appointed a Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS). The Association adopted the PENS Task Force Report as its official position, declaring, in part, that ‘Psychologists may serve in various national security-related roles, such as a consultant to an interrogation, in a manner that is consistent with the Ethics Code’…Despite some continued dissension within the professions, psychologists and psychiatrists continue to consult to interrogations.

Gelles, Kleinman and Borum state in the same chapter: “No large-scale, sweeping changes are yet apparent in the USG’s ethos or national strategy for intelligence interrogation.”

All of the above suggests that in spite of strong activism against the role of psychologists in detention centers and interrogations, in spite of resolutions opposing psychologists’ presence, in spite of the ever-widening knowledge of the role of psychologists in torture, “no large-scale, sweeping changes are yet apparent.”

Doublethink is not the same as hypocrisy. The “doublethinking” person deliberately must forget the contradiction between the two opposing beliefs. In Orwell’s novel, doublethink means being able to falsify public records, and then believe in the new history that the propaganda ministry, itself, has just written. Sound familiar?

Dr. Trudy Bond is a licensed psychologist in Toledo, Ohio.

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