Psychologists Vote Not to Return to Guantánamo Amid Heated Debate Over Torture Legacy

The American Psychological Association continues to be roiled by controversy over its involvement with the war on terror.

GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA - OCTOBER 22: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been reviewed by the U.S. Military prior to transmission.)   A U.S. soldier looks into a cell of the "Gitmo" maximum security detention center on October 22, 2016 at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The U.S. military's Joint Task Force Guantanamo is still holding 60 detainees at the prison, down from a previous total of 780. On his second day in office in 2008 President Obama issued an executive order to close the prison, which has failed because of political opposition in the U.S.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
In an image that has been reviewed by the U.S. Military prior to transmission, a U.S. soldier looks into a cell of the "Gitmo" maximum security detention center on Oct. 22, 2016 at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

The governing council of the American Psychological Association voted Wednesday against a proposal to allow military psychologists to return to Guantánamo Bay, after a fraught debate that had reopened controversy over the organization’s involvement in the early days of the war on terror.

The proposal would have amended the ethics policy of a 2015 resolution by the association, which banned psychologists from working at detention sites that are in violation of international human rights law, such as Guantánamo. Current policy allows for independent psychologists to treat both military personnel and detainees in illegal settings, but only if they work directly for the detainee or a human rights organization, which precludes offering their services at Guantánamo, because the military does not allow civilian psychologists access to the prison.

The proposal inserted language that would allow psychologists to work in national security settings “in a health care role” — raising concerns about the profession once again working under the command of the military.

“The vote is a decision to remain steady with the current policy that keeps psychologists out of illegal detention facilities. It keeps APA consistent with the human rights community and international law,” said Stephen Soldz, a psychologist and representative on the association’s council.

The 2015 resolution came on the heels of a report from former federal prosecutor David Hoffman, commissioned by the APA, which concluded that members of the organization’s leadership had collaborated with officials in the George W. Bush administration to ensure that psychologists could participate in national security interrogations under APA policies, even as evidence of CIA torture and military abuses at Abu Ghraib emerged. The reform realigned the APA’s ethics policy according to international human rights law and conventions against torture.

This week’s proposed amendment reflects a wider opinion, held by some operational psychologists who work with the military and intelligence community, that the 2015 ban went too far. Sally Harvey, one of the authors of the proposal from the APA’s military psychology division, told the council yesterday that “the heart of this [proposal] is to provide the detainees with access to psychological treatment, should they wish to receive that treatment.” But an earlier interim memo from supporters pushed for language that would broaden “the provision to also allow psychologists to be involved in the practice and policy of humane interrogations.”

Susan Brandon, who was criticized for her involvement in a 2005 APA task force that concluded psychologists could be involved with national security interrogations, told The Intercept that “we shouldn’t denigrate psychologists being part of these programs any more than we denigrate all the other parts of the support staff at Guantánamo.” (Until recently, Brandon served as research director for the FBI’s High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, a multi-agency effort created by the Obama administration after shutting down the CIA’s rendition and interrogation program.)

The proposal drew strong criticism from a bevy of leading human rights groups. Juan Méndez, the former United Nations special rapporteur on torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, said in a statement, “The current military restriction on access to independent psychologists at Guantánamo is itself a violation of international law. For the APA to weaken its ethical standards to accommodate this violation is to acquiesce in the continued violation of the rights of the detainees.” Ultimately, the council voted 2-to-1 to reject it.

Long after the official closing of the CIA’s black site at Guantánamo, conditions at the prison remain a concern. The drawn-out detention of the remaining 40 detainees has inevitable psychological impacts, and reports show an environment in which torture survivors bear a fundamental mistrust of military psychologists. A 2011 report by retired Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis found a routine failure by medical personnel to diagnose detainees with post-traumatic stress disorder, instead attributing problems to personality disorders or “routine stressors of confinement.” The practice of force-feeding hunger strikers has also been criticized as a form of torture. And given President Donald Trump’s comment that waterboarding “absolutely” works, and his nomination of Gina Haspel as CIA director despite her history overseeing a black site, many feel that the era of abusive interrogations is not long past.

“I hope that APA will continue down this path and will undertake efforts with partnering organizations to find ways of providing treatment to detainees at Guantanamo and to the many hundreds of released detainees desperately needing care for the harms they suffered,” said Soldz.

The current controversy offers a view into the war within the APA community over the conclusions of the 2015 Hoffman report. Triggered by revelations from a book by reporter James Risen (who now works for The Intercept), the 542-page report found that the APA’s ethics office “prioritized the protection of psychologists — even those who might have engaged in unethical behavior — above the protection of the public,” and went as far as to say some APA officials had colluded with Pentagon officials in setting APA policy.

The fallout led to the swift termination of the APA’s ethics director, Stephen Behnke, and the resignation of other top officials. The report didn’t sit well with many who have worked with the military. Behnke and four other psychologists named in the report have denied any wrongdoing and filed multiple defamation suits against Hoffman and the APA, and lodged internal ethics complaints against other members advocating reforms. Along with other members who work in military settings and the military psychology division, they have written several reports and articles and even launched a website attempting to discredit the Hoffman report. APA members will vote on an additional proposal this week that would remove the Hoffman report from the APA’s website.

“The military psychologists want to believe that we have wronged them because we don’t believe that they have the ability to go into illegal sites and to be able to operate ethically inside of them,” said Dan Aalbers, a psychologist and APA member. Steven Reisner, a psychoanalyst who has been a leading activist behind the torture policy reforms, said he sees a concerted effort to silence the Hoffman report’s supporters and outspoken critics of operational psychologists.

“Their goal is really to walk back all of the effects of the independent review and restore their pre-Guantánamo reputation,” said Reisner. “I think what they want to do is return to the privileged position of psychologists being able to advise in the global war on terror. This was a huge boon to operational psychologists.”

Aalbers sees another motivation. This is “the dark side of American optimism, this idea that we can go in anywhere, even in places that have conflicting roles, and succeed,” he said. “I don’t think you can be a healer and an intelligence gatherer at the same time.”

Top photo: In an image that was reviewed by the U.S. Military prior to transmission, a U.S. soldier looks into a cell of the “Gitmo” maximum security detention center on Oct. 22, 2016 at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

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