Next month in San Francisco, the American Psychological Association will vote on a proposal that would return psychologists working for the military to the detention camp at the Guantánamo Bay naval base in Cuba.
The vote by the association’s 178-member governing council will take place against the backdrop of a bitter dispute over a 2015 report commissioned by the APA that found the organization colluded with the Pentagon to allow harsh interrogation methods, including sleep deprivation and painful “stress positions.” Some psychologists criticized in the report dispute its findings and have sued the organization for defamation.
The new proposal — backed by the association’s leaders — says that APA members at Guantánamo would be restricted to “working in a health care role,” treating both military staff at the base and the remaining detainees, who were rounded up in President George W. Bush’s “war on terror.”
Supporters argue that the APA went too far in 2015 when it completely excluded military psychologists from Guantánamo, responding to the report into alleged collusion between the APA and the military written by former federal prosecutor David Hoffman. As a result, the APA’s military psychology division argues, detainees are not getting treatment they should be guaranteed under the Geneva Conventions.
“The detaining power has to provide medical care, including mental health care, to anyone under their custody,” Mark Staal, a consulting psychologist who works with US Special Operations Command, and president of the military psychology division, told BuzzFeed News.
Opponents fear the proposal will set the scene for a re-engagement of psychologists in abusive interrogations if President Donald Trump acts on his repeatedly stated enthusiasm for waterboarding and a “hell of a lot worse.”
“Once they’re there, I think it’s very unlikely that they’ll be expected only to provide care,” said Alice LoCicero, a psychologist in Oakland, who studies how young people get involved in terrorism and is an outspoken critic of the proposal.
Some psychologists were involved in the harsh interrogations that took place in the early days of the war on terror, as sites operated by the CIA and the military filled with detainees captured in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The worst abuses were at “black sites” operated by the CIA, using methods developed by the former US Air Force psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. They turned aspects of military Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training, designed to help recruits resist attempts to torture them if captured, into an interrogation program involving waterboarding, extremes of hot and cold, and slamming detainees against walls.
Unlike the CIA, the military did not allow waterboarding. But in 2004, the International Red Cross warned that other methods that had been employed at Guantánamo — including solitary confinement and the use of stress positions — were “tantamount to torture.” Psychologists also advised on those interrogations, which were similarly inspired by SERE training.
The APA wrestled with the dark legacy of torture at its meeting in Toronto in August 2015, billed by then-president Susan McDaniel, a family psychologist at the University of Rochester in New York, as a chance to “reset our moral compass.”
At that meeting, the APA’s council voted to ban psychologists from Guantánamo and other sites deemed by the UN to be in breach of international law — unless working for the detainees themselves or for independent human rights groups.
But the Hoffman report and the APA’s responses to it, far from turning a new page, have deepened divisions within the organization.
Hoffman was asked to investigate claims made in a 2014 book by the journalist James Risen that APA officials colluded with the military to ensure that ethical guidelines for psychologists wouldn’t constrain the harsh interrogation methods being used at Guantánamo and other military bases. Hoffman focused on an APA task force that in 2005 decided that no specific new ethical guidance was needed for psychologists involved in national security work. He largely backed Risen’s account.
But the military psychologists criticized most heavily in the report, including Morgan Banks, formerly with US Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and Larry James, who in 2003 worked at Guantánamo, say that Hoffman got it wrong by ignoring Department of Defense policies, which they helped develop, that by 2005 had already prohibited abusive interrogation techniques including sleep deprivation and stress positions.
In April 2016, facing criticism from its military psychology division, the APA rehired Hoffman to look at those policies and advise whether any of his conclusions should be changed. “The supplemental review is expected to be completed by June 8,” the APA announced on its website.
But Hoffman never delivered, and in February 2017, psychologists including Banks, James, and the former head of the APA’s ethics office, Stephen Behnke, filed the first of three defamation lawsuits against Hoffman, his Chicago-based law firm Sidley Austin, and the APA. (The latest, filed in Massachusetts, also names Stephen Soldz, a member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, the group of “dissidents” who have long alleged that the APA was complicit in torture.)
APA spokesperson Kim Mills told BuzzFeed News by email that Hoffman’s review was halted by the first lawsuit. But Bonny Forrest, a psychologist and lawyer in San Diego who is representing James and Banks, said that Hoffman wasn’t told that her clients were considering legal action until after he missed the June 8 deadline. Hoffman’s law firm declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Steven Reisner, another member of the dissident group, has faced an APA ethics complaint from three other military psychologists for speaking on matters outside of his expertise and making “false and deceptive statements.”
“I am determined not to be silenced,” Reisner told BuzzFeed News. “This is the big push to undo the changes from 2015.”
Few psychologists dispute that the remaining 40 detainees still held at Guantánamo need better mental health treatment.
“There are no real therapy programs,” Alka Pradhan, a human rights lawyer who has represented about a dozen detainees at the base over the years, told BuzzFeed News. “It’s not quality care by any stretch of the imagination.”
But military psychologists are not the right people to step into that gap, Pradhan said, because detainees associate them with their previous experience of being tortured. “Most of them do not trust mental health care providers down at Guantánamo,” she said.
A better solution, Pradhan said, would be for the Department of Defense to let more independent psychologists work with the detainees’ lawyers to provide treatment. Right now, she said, only a handful of psychologists have the security clearance to do so.
Then there is the question of whether letting military psychologists back into Guantánamo and other detention centers to provide mental health care would be a first step to getting them involved in interrogation once more.
Indeed, in its comments on the proposed resolution, the APA’s Committee on Legal Issues argued: “Beyond approving the amendment, COLI encourages broadening the provision to also allow psychologists to be involved in the practice and policy of humane interrogations.”
Although that suggestion wasn’t accepted by the APA’s senior leaders, opponents of torture are concerned that psychologists are discussing the possibility of re-engaging with national security interrogations at a time when Trump has signalled his support for brutal methods and installed Gina Haspel, who in 2002 ran a black site in Thailand, as director of the CIA.
“I think we are setting the conditions to go back to state-sponsored torture,” Mark Fallon, a former Naval Criminal Investigative Service interrogator who worked at Guantánamo in 2002 and opposed the harsh methods employed there, told BuzzFeed News.
On the campaign trail, Trump promised to load Guantánamo “with some bad dudes” and repeatedly said that he backed waterboarding. In his first broadcast news interview after being elected president, Trump told ABC News that he would support a return to the practice, if Mike Pompeo, then his CIA director, and Defense Secretary James Mattis recommended it.
“Absolutely, I feel it works,” he said.
(In fact, harsh interrogation techniques yield unreliable intelligence, as detainees tend to say whatever they think their captors want to hear to make the suffering stop.)
So far, opposition from Mattis has blocked a change in policy on military interrogations of terrorist suspects, and no new prisoners have been transferred to Guantánamo.