Thursday, May 14, 2009

More 'Torturegate' Fallout as Psychologists Come Under Fire Over Interrogations; Military Panels May Return

Physicians' Group Charges Task Force on Interrogations Set Up by Psychologists Was Stacked With Bush Loyalists Who Formulated Opinions of and Policies Toward Terror Suspects That Violated the Geneva Conventions on the Treatment of POWs; Rights Groups Fear Obama May Revive Military Commissions -- ACLU Vows It Will Sue to Stop Them

Guantanamo Bay prisoners undergo sensory deprivation

The controversy over harsh treatment by the U.S. of terror suspects, such as those at the Guantánamo Bay detention camp (above) -- which many critics denounce as torture in violation of U.S. and international law -- flared anew last week with a demand by a physicians' group for an investigation of a task force formed in 2005 to advise the U.S. military on prisoner interrogations. The task force, created by the American Psychological Association, was "stacked with Defense Department and Bush administration officials" and "rushed to conclusions that violated the Geneva Conventions," according to Physicians for Human Rights. (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EDT Thursday, May 14, 2009)


Inter-Press Service

A leading human rights organization is charging that an American Psychological Association task force formed to advise the U.S. military on prisoner interrogations was "stacked with Defense Department and Bush administration officials" and "rushed to conclusions that violated the Geneva Conventions."

Meanwhile, human rights advocates and legal scholars expressed fears about a pending Obama administration decision on whether to resurrect the military commissions designed by the Bush administration to try the estimated 200-plus remaining Guantanamo detainees after President Obama's 120-day moratorium on the proceedings expires next Wednesday.

That possibility appeared to move a step closer to reality when Guantanamo's chief judge refused to delay a May 27 pretrial hearing for Ahmed al-Darbi, a Saudi Arabian accused of providing material support for terrorism and participating in a conspiracy to commit murder and other crimes.

Military authorities also allege that he conspired with al-Qaida in a never-realized 2000-2002 plot to bomb vessels at sea in the Straits of Hormuz. He has been a U.S. prisoner since 2002, first at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, and since 2003 at Guantanamo.

Al-Darbi's hearing will be the first commission session since President Obama took office and ordered the freeze on war court proceedings. The Guantanamo judge, Army Col. James Pohl, ruled that defense lawyers had ample notice to prepare for the one-day hearing.

The American Civil Liberties Union vowed to file new lawsuits to block the military commissions, insisting that they are unconstitutional.


Newly-released internal APA documents indicate that the organization's 2005 ethics task force on national security interrogations developed its policy to conform to Pentagon guidelines governing psychologist participation in interrogations, said Physicians for Human Rights.

The PHR is calling for an independent, outside investigation of the APA -- the world's largest professional organization of psychologists -- and a probe by the Defense Department's inspector general into whether any federal employees exerted influence over the APA's Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security.


Nathaniel Raymond, director of the PHR's Campaign Against Torture, told Inter-Press Service that "The APA's ethics task force on national security interrogations produced a report that was rushed, in secret, and being driven to already-reached conclusions – conclusions that violated the Geneva Convention."

"The APA made ethics subservient to law by following guidelines set out by the Pentagon," Raymond continued. "Members of the task force had long-standing ties to the Pentagon, and the task force was stacked with Defense Department and Bush administration officials. There were clear conflicts of interest."

"The APA needs to explain how that happened. And the Pentagon's inspector general needs to look into how this was allowed to happen," Raymond added.


The charges of APA conflicts of interest came after a series of task force emails were posted online by and, a not-for-profit investigative journalism organization. The PHR said the emails indicate that the APA's ethics task force developed its ethics policy to conform to Pentagon guidelines.

"These serious allegations require an independent investigation to determine whether APA leadership engaged in unethical conduct," said Dr. Steven Reisner, the PHR's advisor for psychological ethics. "The American public deserves to know if there were inappropriate contacts or conflicts of interest between APA officials and the Pentagon."

The task force found it to be "consistent with the APA Ethics Code" for psychologists to consult with interrogators in the interests of national security. While noting that psychologists do not participate in torture and have a responsibility to report it, and should be committed to the APA ethics code whenever they "encounter conflicts between ethics and law," the task force decided that "if the conflict cannot be resolved ... psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law."

The PHR has been a longstanding and outspoken critic of the APA task force's policy governing psychologist involvement in interrogations, calling for a "bright line" prohibition against health professional participation in interrogations. Although the APA membership passed a 2008 referendum banning psychologists from facilities that violate U.S. and international human rights law, the PHR believes that the APA task force policy must be immediately revoked.

Riesner said it was time to "put a psychologist's ethical obligations to human rights principles ahead of following orders."


The recently released Senate Armed Services Committee report detailing detainee abuse by the Defense Department found that psychologists rationalized, designed, supervised, and implemented the Bush administration's interrogation program.

The committee's report, released April 21, found that psychologists warned officials as early as 2002 against using potentially ineffective and dangerous interrogation techniques on detainees. But reported Friday that "the same psychologists helped develop the harsh interrogation policies and practices they warned against."

"The Senate Armed Services Committee report confirms that psychologists were central to the Bush administration's use of torture," said Raymond. "In the context of these revelations, the American public needs to know why a supposedly independent ethics policy was written by some of the very personnel allegedly implicated in detainee abuse."

Stephen Soldz, a board member and spokesman for another advocacy group, Psychologists for Social Responsibility, told Inter-Press Service that the emails "show that several of the military psychologists formulating APA ethics policy were giving themselves get-out-of-jail-free cards."

Soldz charged that their report concluded that it was ethical to follow military policy while the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel memos allowing torture were still in effect." The memoranda prepared by OLC lawyers provided the rationale for the Bush administration's assertion that "enhanced interrogation techniques" were legal.


The PHR has repeatedly called for an end to the "reverse-engineering" on terror suspects of the survival tactics used by captured U.S. personnel, the dismantling of the Pentagon's behavioral science consultation teams, and a full congressional investigation of the use of psychological torture by the U.S. government.

The U.S. military's SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) program was developed to train U.S. soldiers to cope with torture if captured by enemy forces. The Senate Armed Services Committee report noted that SERE's developers had warned Pentagon officials as early as 2002 that "reverse-engineering" SERE techniques for use on detainees "could be ineffective and dangerous."

The SERE program puts members of the military's elite special operations forces through brutal mock interrogations, from sensory deprivation to simulated drowning.

Dr. Jeffrey Kaye, a San-Francisco-based psychologist who has written extensively on the role played by medical professionals in prisoner treatment, told Inter-Press Service that the APA's ties to the Pentagon "are longstanding, going back at least to the Cold War." Any inquiry should make the historical connection between the work of CIA and SERE psychologists and the role of coercive interrogation used in psychologically 'breaking down' a human being."

Kaye added that there is a long history of collaboration between psychologists and the military, which includes several former APA presidents. These men were the "institutional godfathers" for a later generation of psychologists who continue to be deeply involved in interrogation techniques, he said.

In an article accompanying's publication of the APA task force's extensive email exchanges, reporter Sheri Fink posed the question, "Is it possible for psychologists to uphold the ethical tenets of their profession while working within a system of interrogation that violates those tenets? Does it matter if they raised objections to the system of interrogation but cooperated with it anyway?"

The Senate report said that in 2002, a psychiatrist and a psychologist who worked at the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, prepared a list of harsh interrogation techniques that ended up influencing interrogation policy not only at Guantánamo, but also in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the same memo, they warned that these methods were likely to result in inaccurate tips and could harm detainees. Those warnings disappeared as the memo moved up the chain of command.

The APA board quickly adopted the task force's report as the organisation's official policy. But last year, members of the APA successfully petitioned for a vote on whether to ban psychologists from working in detention settings where international law or the U.S. Constitution are violated. The membership passed the proposal.

Some psychologists have filed complaints with the APA and state licensing boards against colleagues who were allegedly involved in abusive interrogations.


Judge Pohl's ruling ordering the May 27 hearing noted that "There has been no change in the statutory or regulatory scheme governing military commissions."

In setting that date, Pohl said he was "not trying to influence the administration's review" and would consider adjusting or canceling the hearing if there "are changes between now and May 27."

The major issue at the al-Darbi hearing is how much evidence might be presented at his military trial in a bid to show that he was tortured into confessing crimes he now denies. Al-Darbi's lawyer, Ramzi Kassem of the Yale University law school, is trying to prevent Pentagon prosecutors from introducing dozens of the Saudi's self-incriminating statements, which the lawyer claims were obtained through brutal treatment during interrogations at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay.

Al-Darbi's attorney has requested that two documentary films describing a climate of abuse at the time of al-Darbi's interrogations be introduced as evidence.

During his first week in office, President Obama ordered a case-by-case review of all detainees held at Guantanamo. Al-Darbi's lawyer told Inter-Press Service he doesn't know if al-Darbi's case has been reviewed by the administration. But he was certain that his client could not find justice at a military commission trial, whether it was held in Guantanamo or in the U.S.

The American Civil Liberties Union vowed to launch new legal challenges in federal court to stop the commissions. ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero told Inter-Press Service that any plan by the Obama administration's to resuscitate the Guantanamo military commissions and ship them onto American soil "is fatally flawed."

Romero insisted that the military commissions "are built on unconstitutional premises and designed to ensure convictions, not provide fair trials," and promised that the ACLU would litigate to force the administration to prosecute the detainees in the civilian courts.

"Reducing some but not all of the flaws of the tribunals so that they are 'less offensive' is not acceptable," he said. "There is no such thing as 'due process light.' Our justice system depends upon basic principles of fairness and transparency and once they are compromised even a little, they are rendered meaningless."

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Volume IV, Number 38
Special Report Copyright 2009, Inter-Press Service, LLC.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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