Last 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.
One might think that APA officials and PENS members would be surprised by Lefever’s pro-torture positions. But that would be naive. For Lefever expressed exactly these opinions on the PENS listserve. In fact, he complained that the “political” nature of the task force — by which he evidently means the fact that it was designed to provide ethical cover, akin to the legal cover provided by Justice Department lawyers, for the Defense Department program of abusive interrogations — prevented serious discussion of his opinions:
In fact the PENS meeting was a steep learning curve for me in that it was a far more political process than I anticipated and I had hoped that we would have worked out our positions via intellectual or philosophical debate. When I brought up the idea of harm, and what is harm, it fell on deaf ears. I pointed out that behavioral and psychological techniques used in training our high-risk-of-capture students in Survival Schools [SERE] are viewed as vital, necessary, good, and for the greater good. Psychologists are strong proponents of these techniques even though they inflict psychological and physical pain. Yet the very same behaviors are proscribed by the Department of Defense and viewed as harmful when applied to America’s prisoners.
Notice that Lefever appears here to be acknowledging that SERE-based techniques were indeed being used on US detainees, a fact conveniently ignored by the more politically savvy members of the task force. After all, they well knew, the plan was to pretend that military psychologists were protecting detainees from torture, rather than applying well-known torture techniques in pursuit of the “greater good.” And Lefever was in a position to know about the use of SERE techniques against detainees as he served in Afghanistan, “where he lectured to interrogators and was consulted on various interrogation techniques,” according to his PENS biography.
Lefever also told the task force that the pursuit of “human rights” was, by definition, unethical:
These words–morals and ethics–do not mean “the ways of the individual” or individual rights. Any time the rights of the individual are placed above what is best for the community, it is, by definition, unethical or immoral. The discussion of individual rights is the domain of “human rights” organizations (like ACLU).
While it is likely that many others involved in the PENS process shared Lefever’s opinions of human rights, none were politically naive enough to say so. After all, such individual opinions might interfere with the greater good of providing cover for the SERE-based interrogations that had become US standard operating procedure.
Meanwhile, the APA touted the PENS report, with its supposedly careful examination of the ethics of psychologist aid to interrogations, as evidence of their systematic examination of the ethical dilemmas involved when psychologists aid secret national security interrogations. Bryce Lefever’s comments put the lie to that carefully constructed cover story.
As Psychologists for Social Responsibility, bioethicist Steven Miles, and others have said recently, we urgently need an independent investigation of psychologists’ aid to abusive interrogations. Such an investigation must examine the role of the APA and its leadership in providing ethical cover for this torture program.
PsySR member Stephen Soldz is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. This essay first appeared at his blog Psyche, Science, and Society. Steven can be reached at email@example.com.