Seeking Answers from Social and Personality Psychologists: 10 Research Questions in the Torture/Interrogation Debate

Bradley Olson

As someone trained in personality and social psychology—and now also working as a community psychologist—it’s clear to me that social and personality theory and research make essential contributions to understanding social justice issues.

I’ve long been an activist on the American Psychological Association (APA) torture issue and a member of Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR). This led to an invitation to participate in a session chaired by Chris Crandall at the 2009 Society for Experimental Social Psychology conference in Portland, Maine. The session involved presentations of several excellent studies related to U.S. torture and interrogation. My role was to act as a discussant and to suggest what other areas, as an activist, I thought should be studied empirically.

For several decades, the horrors of WWII and the racism that led to the civil rights movement inspired the work of U.S. social and personality psychologists. As several participants mentioned at the session in Portland, the Global War on Terror (GWOT) and Guantanamo can have similar influences on the discipline in the years ahead. I agree. From my perspective as an activist, here are 10 questions I would love social and personality researchers to help answer:

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The CIA’s Torture Research Program

Stephen Soldz

In the aftermath of World War II the Nuremberg Code and other standards established that all research on people should be based upon two fundamental principles: voluntary informed consent and minimization of harm. “The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential,” begins that Code. The principles of the Nuremberg Code were widely incorporated, including in the United States, into professional ethical rules and laws governing human research. New evidence suggests that, not only did the CIA torture the detainees in their custody, but they also conducted illegal and unethical research on them.

Experiments in Torture

A new report of which I am a coauthor, Experiments in Torture: Evidence of Human Subject Research and Experimentation in the “Enhanced” Interrogation Program, just released by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) provides the first strong evidence that the CIA was indeed engaged in research on detainees in its custody. The report, the result of six months of detailed work, analyzes now-public documents, including the “torture memos” from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) and the CIA’s Inspector General Report and the accompanying CIA Office of Medical Services (OMS) guidelines for monitoring of detainees.

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Shocking New Report: The CIA Performed Human Experiments on Prisoners Under Bush

Stephen Soldz

Over the last year there have been an increasing number of accounts suggesting that, along with the CIA’s "enhanced interrogation" torture program, there was a related program experimenting with and researching the application of the torture.

For example, in the seven paragraphs released by a British court summarizing observations by British counterintelligence agents of the treatment of Binyan Mohamed by the CIA, the first two of these paragraphs stated:

    It was reported that a new series of interviews was conducted by the United States authorities prior to 17 May 2002 as part of a new strategy designed by an expert interviewer….

    BM had been intentionally subjected to continuous sleep deprivation. The effects of the sleep deprivation were carefully observed. [emphasis added]

The suggestion was that a new strategy was being tested and the results carefully examined. Several detainees have provided similar accounts, expressing their belief that their interrogations were being carefully studied, apparently so that the techniques could be modified based on the results. Such research would violate established laws and ethical rules governing research.

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Major Global Crises Call for Psychologists to Take the Stage

Gloria Gordon

For several years I have kept a folder on my computer desktop for items relating to my admittedly grandiose plan to deliver a jolt to human behavior experts in the U.S. that will focus their attention on the planetary crises we face in this era.

In sorting through the contents of the folder I find that among its 684 documents there appear two categories of useful files. One set features authorities talking/writing about Big Problems predicted to hit home in the coming decade or two (climate change, economic disaster, global violence, food and water shortage). What is special about these files is that, in the midst of their analyses, these authorities toss in an explanatory mental/emotional cause.

Some examples: when the economy crashes, they throw human greed into their comments; when climate change is featured in the news Al Gore points to emotion-driven thinking habits that we have slipped into since television became a dominant part of our culture; recently James Cameron, director of the film Avatar, tells us that we humans are in denial about the seriousness of the way we have degraded the environment–and that our denial is caused by our fear of the huge mess the planet is in and the dangers that lie ahead: food and water shortage, displaced populations, disease, world violence.

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Psychologists in An Age of Torture: An Open Letter to Dr. Carol Goodheart

Trudy Bond

“We’ve seen a lot of negative e-mail discourse in recent years as APA has made decisions and released reports that have triggered controversy among our members . . . We also saw heated disputes over APA’s stance on the role of psychologists in interrogations . . . The difference is that in the new age of outrage, criticism on these issues quickly escalated to unwarranted heights. In 24/7 instant communications, extreme voices dominate . . .I see four elements converging online to strain the collegiality within APA . . .viral distortion (a small number perpetuate shocking misrepresentations about APA’s actions, policies and procedures). The effect on APA is damaging when members and the public believe the distortions . . . Let’s turn down the temperature on outrage.”

APA in the Age of Outrage
by Dr. Carol D. Goodheart
President, American Psychological Association

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The “Ethical Interrogation”: The Myth of Michael Gelles and the al-Qahtani Interrogation

Stephen Soldz

Several public accounts of abusive interrogations at Guantanamo have praised psychologist Dr. Michael Gelles for his opposition to these abuses. Similarly, the American Psychological Association (APA) has repeatedly pointed to actions of Dr. Gelles to instantiate their claim that psychologists played a crucial role in opposing abuses and protecting detainees. Gelles also has been a regular public presence, discussing the errors at Guantanamo while advocating for the APA’s “policy of participation” in interrogations. The APA policy encourages psychologists to aid interrogations to keep them “safe, legal, ethical, and effective.” But a recently released Defense Department document challenges Dr. Gelles’s role as an exemplar of psychological ethics in interrogations.

As reported by Bill Dedman, Phillipe Sands, and Jane Mayer, Gelles objected to the “harsh” interrogation tactics being used at Guantanamo. In particular, he strenuously objected to the plans to “reverse engineer” the tactics used by the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program to inculcate strategies for resistance to torture in US service members at high risk for capture.

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No Place to Hide: Torture, Psychologists, and the APA

Roy Eidelson

The role that psychologists and the American Psychological Association (APA) have played in the context of detainee abuse and torture is a pressing concern for the profession of psychology and for everyone committed to human rights.

There are now many excellent resources available for those interested in learning more and taking action–including carefully researched articles and books, exceptional documentaries, and an increasing number of publicly available official documents.

My 10-minute video above–“No Place to Hide: Torture, Psychologists, and the APA”–provides a brief, timely overview of what has unfolded over the past several years and where things stand today. I extend my thanks to colleagues who have shared their insights and expertise with me.

The video is also available on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o84RE-9023U.

PsySR president-elect Roy Eidelson is a clinical psychologist and the president of Eidelson Consulting, where he studies, writes about, and consults on the role of psychological issues in political, organizational, and group conflict settings. Roy can be reached at roy@eidelsonconsulting.com and he welcomes your reactions.

APA Ethics Policy-Maker Endorses Torture

Stephen Soldz

interrogationLast week NPR broadcast a story in which former military SERE psychologist Bryce Lefever openly endorsed US torture, saying it was a “natural” reaction of SERE psychologists to hearing their country was attacked by terrorists. In the piece, Lefever makes clear that, in his opinion, he is only stating publicly what virtually all military psychologists thought.

Lefever explicitly renounces the quaint psychologist ethics code with its “Do No Harm” standard. If causing pain will reduce the total harm in the world, then it is the only ethical way to go, Lefever told NPR listeners.

Lefever’s ethical attitudes are especially interesting as he was a member of the American Psychological Association’s task force on Psychological Ethics and National Security.

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Psychologists for Social Responsibility Urges Independent Torture Commission to Examine Role of Psychologists and APA in Prisoner Abuse

guantanamoPsySR’s Statement Urging Independent Torture Commission to Examine Role of Psychologists and APA in Prisoner Abuse

As an organization dedicated to the ethical application of psychology to promote peace, justice, and human rights, Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR) condemns the prominent participation of psychologists in planning and carrying out the systematic abuse of U.S. detainees, as documented by the release of four previously classified Office of Legal Counsel memos and the extensive report of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“In an era of complex international relations and security needs,” notes Jancis Long, Ph.D., President of PsySR, “it is more important than ever for the human sciences to be the guardians of human rights, professional ethics and universal responsibilities.” PsySR therefore also urges the following:

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Gaslighting in the APA?

Bryant Welch

notortureWe are definitely not in Kansas anymore.

For psychologists committed to social justice, this is a very surreal time.

With the rise of the neo-conservative movement, concerns over Iraq and our eroding civil liberties were added to the longstanding issues that have united psychologists for decades, concerns based on respect and compassion for subjective human experience.

But for those of us concerned with such issues, there has been an astonishing, jaw-dropping chain of events taking place in our very own national organization that simply blows the lid off even the most basic veneer of decency we have always attributed to those with whom we have entrusted the stewardship of our own field.

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