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“Fair and Balanced” in Academia: Twisting Recent Torture History in the Journal “Nature”

NatureA dust-up in academia concerning torture and the role of psychologists has failed to make a dent in the reportage of either the establishment media or the blogosphere. Nevertheless, the issue has fired up e-mail listservs over at the American Psychological Association, and among opponents of APA’s long-time pro-military interrogations policy.

It all started when the May 21 edition of the prominent scientific journal Nature carried an unsigned editorial entitled "Responsible Interrogation." The editorial makes some unequivocally strong statements against the Bush policy of "enhanced interrogation techniques."

Despite plausible-sounding talk about ‘states of induced dependency’ and the like, there is no scientific basis for asserting that techniques such as waterboarding, or slamming people against a wall, are fast or effective ways of getting at the truth (see Nature 445, 349; 2007). Indeed, it is hard to imagine any ethical way a controlled study on that question could be carried out….

And even if physical or mental torture could be shown to be effective in some immediate, tactical sense, that would be beside the point: torture is a violation of human rights and of international law, and is a threat to the long-term health of democracy. It is not to be tolerated.

But then, noting "there are no easy answers," the editorial launched into a discussion of the controversies that beset the American Psychological Association (APA) when it tried to reconcile professional ethics with the job of assisting military and intelligence interrogations. Even worse, especially for those APA activists who worked so hard to pass a referendum-inspired change in APA policy on interrogations, the Nature article returned to a line of argumentation that APA had supposedly now rejected.

From the editorial:

Another, long-standing issue for many APA members can be found in the first of the 12 principles [enumerated in APA’s policy statement, Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS)], which explicitly states that it is ethical for psychologists to be involved in interrogations. Other professional societies have taken a less permissive tack; the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the World Medical Association have all come out against having their members participate in interrogations.

But such restrictions fly in the face of the reality that interrogation is a necessity in preventing loss of life from terrorism, and that some professionals feel it is their duty to ensure that the activity is conducted responsibly. The risks of abuse are ever present, and having a professional present should serve as protection for detainees, provided the professional adheres to, and is held accountable to, the most fundamental medical ethic of all: ‘do no harm’.

The idea that psychologists are necessary to ensure "responsible interrogation" may be popular among APA staffers and military psychologists, but it was rejected last summer by the APA membership at large when they voted by almost 60% to change official APA policy and ban psychologists from participating in settings where human rights violations, including torture, take place.

From the referendum’s text:

Whereas the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Mental Health and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture have determined that treatment equivalent to torture has been taking place at the United States Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Whereas this torture took place in the context of interrogations under the direction and supervision of Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs) that included psychologists.

Whereas the Council of Europe has determined that persons held in CIA black sites are subject to interrogation techniques that are also equivalent to torture [4], and because psychologists helped develop abusive interrogation techniques used at these sites.

Whereas the International Committee of the Red Cross determined in 2003 that the conditions in the US detention facility in Guantánamo Bay are themselves tantamount to torture [6], and therefore by their presence psychologists are playing a role in maintaining these conditions.

Be it resolved that psychologists may not work in settings where persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law (e.g., the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the US Constitution (where appropriate), unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights.

Yet none of this appeared in the Nature editorial, which instead quoted a member of the APA’s PENS commission, Mike Gelles, to the effect that psychologists are needed to prevent abuse at interrogations. Gelles at least comes by his position honestly, having reported to higher ups on abuse occurring at Guantanamo while he was there in the capacity of chief psychologist for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. What Gelles doesn’t mention is that his whistleblowing did very little, and that abuse and torture at Guantanamo continued for years, if not to the present day.

But for the cynical APA bureaucracy, sensitive to the winds of politics change — the recent moves by President Obama to embrace "war on terror" rhetoric, to propose the indefinite detention of WOT prisoners, and to restart the military commissions prosecutions — current events are pushing them to return to their previous stance vis-a-vis psychologists and interrogations. After all, the referendum is only advisory and not enforceable, according to APA by-laws, as APA leadership is fond of quoting when they are in the mood. As an advocacy group, they are unstinting in their vigilance over access to government jobs, and with the expansion of the war in Afghanistan, there will be plenty of openings for psychologists who like to work in operational roles with Special Forces.

Moreover, the stance of the Nature editorial writer did not drop from the skies, as apparently, that individual got plenty of assistance in this task from APA brass. Writing to the APA Council of Representatives (COR) about the Nature editorial, Associate Executive Director for APA’s Public and Member Communications department, Kim Mills, told COR members (emphasis added), "APA staff worked with one of the editors to provide detailed history and background, which led to what we think is a fair and balanced piece."

It seems unlikely that APA associate executive directors deal much with irony, but it seems the political winds at APA are blowing straight out of Fox News network as much as from anywhere.

Opponents of APA’s previous interrogation policy, including many who worked hard to pass the 2008 referendum, are furious at APA for its apparent collusion in the making of the Nature editorial and are asking supporters to flood the journal with letters to the editor. More, they are asking APA to condemn the editorial and make clear their adherence to the new referendum policy. One wonders why APA has not come out against any participation at Guantanamo or Bagram prisons even now, if they really wish to restrict psychologist presence at sites where human rights are restricted.

What galls so many APA critics is to see ignorance and platitudes, not to mention cover-up of recent historical evidence on the role of psychologists and APA over the interrogations/torture scandal, paraded as anti-torture propaganda in the pages of a prestigious scientific journal. There is an abundance of evidence, most recently in a 200-plus page report by the Senate Armed Services Committee, that rather than protect prisoners, psychologists working for the CIA and the Department of Defense, and psychologists contracted for such purposes, such as former JPRA/SERE psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, were instrumental in creating the conditions for torture and abuse.

But then to have noted that may not have seemed "fair and balanced" to the denizens of America’s largest organization of professional psychologists. It certainly failed to gain the notice of the editors of the journal Nature, who, to their ignominious shame, will have to carry this embarrassment of an article in their archives for a long, long time.

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Jeff Kaye

Jeff Kaye

Jeffrey Kaye is a retired psychologist who has worked professionally with torture victims and asylum applicants. Active in the anti-torture movement since 2006, he has his own blog, Invictus, previously wrote regularly for Firedoglake’s The Dissenter, as well as at The Guardian, Truthout, Alternet, and The Public Record. He is the author of Cover-Up at Guantanamo, a new book examining declassified files on treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo detention camp.