Psychologists and Interrogations

Psychologists and Interrogations

As an interesting side note to the debate on counterrorism techniques, the American Psychological Association (APA) rejected a proposal on Sunday that would have prohibited psychologists from assisting interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and other military detention centers:

Instead, the group approved a resolution that reaffirmed the association’s opposition to torture and restricted members from taking part in interrogations that involved any of more than a dozen specific practices, including sleep deprivation and forced nakedness.

Critics of the proposed ban who spoke before the vote at the 148,000-member organization’s annual meeting in San Francisco said the presence of psychologists would help insure interrogators did not abuse prisoners.

“If we remove psychologists from these facilities, people are going to die,” said U.S. Army Col. Larry James, who serves as a psychologist at Guantanamo Bay.

Supporters argued that psychologists should not be working at detention centers where prisoners are detained indefinitely without being charged.

Although there is a surface plausibility to Colonel James’ position, it’s difficult not to agree with the response of Laurie Wagner, a psychologist from Dallas: “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.” Moreover, a substantial amount of evidence indicates that psychologists who are present at interrogations do far more than protect prisoners:

The association’s vote follows reports that mental health specialists were involved in prisoner abuse scandals at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

A recently declassified Defense Department report said that since 2002, psychiatrists and psychologists have helped military interrogators develop new techniques to extract information from detainees.

Among other things, psychiatrists and psychologists are accused of helping interrogators exploit prisoners’ fears to increase their stress levels.

By way of comparison, both the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association currently prohibit their members from participating in interrogations.

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Benjamin Davis
Benjamin Davis

Col. Larry James appears to have misunderstood the disctinction between his military role and his role as a psychologist. One of the reasons that psychologists have been chosen for this task and not doctors or psychitarists is because it was perceived that the ethical constraints on doctors or psychiatrists were higher. Thus, the psychologists have been instrumentalized as aids to torture because they have acquiesced as has Col James rather than resisted. The psychologist’s society may feel constrained to use such a weasel word approach because too many members are compromised for their prior acquiescence in participating in these interrogations.