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Psychologists Split Over Detainee Interrogations

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Psychologists Split Over Detainee Interrogations


Psychologists Split Over Detainee Interrogations

Psychologists Split Over Detainee Interrogations

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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New allegations about a psychologist at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, underscore a long-running dispute within the American Psychological Association about a psychologist's role in detainee interrogations. The APA is split on the issue.


Recent hearings in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have highlighted a serious ethical dispute among psychologists: What role should they play in interrogations? Should they consult on the health of detainees or advise interrogators on how much detainees can endure? NPR's Richard Knox has this story.

RICHARD KNOX: Mohammed Jawad landed in Guantanamo five years ago, when he was about 17. He's charged in a grenade attack in Afghanistan that injured two U.S. soldiers and a translator.

Jawad's military attorney says records show that in 2003, an Army psychologist, quote, "devised a plan intentionally designed to cause emotional devastation and to break Mr. Jawad." Jawad's lawyer says he was put in an extreme form of isolation on the recommendation of the unidentified Army psychologist. He says the teenager later tried to hang himself and kill himself by banging his head against the wall. Jawad's attorney planned to question the psychologist at a hearing yesterday, but the psychologist invoked Article 31, the military law's privilege against self-incrimination.

Colonel Larry Morris, the chief prosecutor in Guantanamo cases, said in an e-mail that Jawad did not attempt suicide. Morris says Guantanamo's medical director testified that Jawad has been in good physical and mental health throughout his confinement.

Stephen Soldz is a Boston psychologist who was called to testify as a defense expert. His testimony was canceled after the Guantanamo psychologist invoked the right to remain silent. Soldz says his review of the case does illustrate an ethical problem.

Dr. STEPHEN SOLDZ (Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis): The Ethics Code for psychologists says that psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and to do no harm, and here they are helping exploit detainees' weaknesses to break them down.

KNOX: Soldz is a leader of a dissident group that's trying to change the American Psychological Association's policy on detention center psychologists.

Dr. SOLDZ: Our position is that psychologists should not be at these sites, period, that we're lending legitimacy to the sites by being there and certainly by participating in interrogations there.

KNOX: The psychological association agrees its members shouldn't participate in torture or abuse, but over the past three years, the APA has steadfastly refused to say that psychologists shouldn't be at detention centers at all. APA officials were disturbed when they heard about the alleged abuse of Mohammed Jawad. It comes just as thousands of psychologists are gathered in Boston for the association's annual meeting.

Stephen Behnke is director of the APA's ethics office. He says if the new allegations are true, that psychologists stepped over the line.

Dr. STEPHEN BEHNKE (Director, APA Ethics Office): The question is not what can the detainee withstand, it's what is the psychologist going to do at that moment to stop the abuse.

KNOX: The debate turns on how to prevent it in a post-9/11 world, when the U.S. government has expanded the limits of what's permissible.

Dr. BEHNKE: Do you fight those policies from the inside or from the outside? Now, that is a question on which there is a difference of opinion among our membership, and a very passionate difference of opinion.

KNOX: The controversy is coming to a head. The dissenters got enough signatures to force a referendum on the issue, the APA's first ever. It aims to bar psychologists from working in places where people are held outside international law or in violation of the U.S. Constitution. APA leaders are working to defeat the referendum.

Dr. GERALD KOOCHER (Former APA President): It's an example of the angry political movement not thinking through the implications of what it was doing.

KNOX: That's Gerald Koocher, a Boston psychologist who was APA's president in 2006. He says the referendum could have unintended consequences for psychologists who work every day in prisons and courtrooms. He says they often collaborate with authorities in situations many could call coercive.

Dr. KOOCHER: Well, what's a coercive interrogation? If you are in the middle of a child-custody dispute and the judge orders you to talk to a guardian for your children, you may not want to do that. If you're Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and you're ordered to have a psychiatric evaluation, is that coercive?

KNOX: The dissenters counter that places like Guantanamo, Afghanistan's Bagram Prison, and secret CIA black sites are worlds apart from domestic prisons with legal oversight and constitutional protections. Referendum ballots went out this month to APA members. The results will be in sometime next month. Richard Knox, NPR News, Boston.

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