The American Psychological Association and detainee interrogations: unanswered questions

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Authors: Kenneth S. Pope and Thomas G. Gutheil
Date: July 2008
From: Psychiatric Times(Vol. 25, Issue 8)
Publisher: UBM LLC
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,448 words

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News accounts and court records of detainee interrogations in such settings as the Guantanamo Bay detainment camp and the Abu Ghraib prison have sparked controversy over involvement of mental health professionals and behavioral scientists. Authors of articles in medical, psychological, legal, and scientific journals have struggled with complex ethical questions about psychiatrists and psychologists who participate in planning or implementing detainee interrogations.

Psychologists at the center of the controversy

Psychologists have moved to the center of this controversy for diverse reasons. First, the Pentagon's stated intention to rely on psychologists rather than psychiatrists fits well with the American Psychological Association's stated belief in contributing to detainee interrogations to prevent terrorism. As the New York Times reported:

Pentagon officials said ... they would try to use only psychologists, not psychiatrists, to help interrogators devise strategies to get information from detainees at places like Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The new policy follows by little more than two weeks an overwhelming vote by the American Psychiatric Association discouraging its members from participating in those efforts. Stephen Behnke, director of ethics for the counterpart group for psychologists, the American Psychological Association, said psychologists knew not to participate in activities that harmed detainees. But he also said the group believed that helping military interrogators made a valuable contribution because it was "part of an effort to prevent terrorism." (1)

Second, in contrast to the American Psychological Association's position, the American Psychiatric Association voted overwhelmingly to discourage its members from participating in any interrogation activities. In May 2006, after extensive debate and careful consideration of all points of view, the American Psychiatric Association's Board of Trustees and the Assembly of District Branches approved a clear prohibition.

No psychiatrist should participate directly in the interrogation of persons held in custody by military or civilian investigative or law enforcement authorities, whether in the United States or elsewhere. Direct participation includes being present in the interrogation room, asking or suggesting questions, or advising authorities on the use of specific techniques of interrogation with particular detainees. (2)

This policy was based on a tradition of medical ethics reaching back to the Hippocratic oath and its fundamental principle to do no harm. Similarly, the AMA-adopted a prohibition: "Physicians must not conduct, directly participate in, or monitor an interrogation with an intent to intervene, because this undermines the physician's role as healer." (3)

Third, disagreements among psychologists on the issues have tended to be sharp and have been reported on vividly in the media. For example, the Associated Press, in describing how the American Psychological Association "scrapped a measure" to prohibit its members from assisting interrogators at any US military detention center, illustrated what was at stake.

"If we remove psychologists from these facilities, people are going to die," said Army COL Larry James, who serves as a psychologist at Guantanamo Bay....

"If psychologists have to be there so detainees don't get killed, those conditions are so horrendous that the only moral and ethical thing is to leave," said Laurie Wagner, a psychologist...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Pope, Kenneth S., and Thomas G. Gutheil. "The American Psychological Association and detainee interrogations: unanswered questions." Psychiatric Times, vol. 25, no. 8, July 2008, p. 16. Accessed 26 Sept. 2020.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A181302411