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The Psychologist's Role in Military Interrogations

Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D. Updated: Aug 3rd 2007

The upcoming American Psychological Association national conference (August 17-20) will likely draw the national media spotlight. Typically, this conference is not a hotbed of controversy. At this meeting, however, there will be a miniconvention (entitled "Ethics and Interrogations: Confronting the Challenge) a protest demonstration, and a town hall meeting all culminating in a vote on whether there should be a moratorium on psychologists engaging in the military interrogations of political prisoners.

Opinions are sharply divided between those who believe that psychologists are an integral part of interrogations (because they can ensure that prisoners/detainees are not treated cruelly), and those who believe that psychologists should not participate in any activity that may potentially violate international human rights standards and their professional code of ethics.

Dissension among the ranks of APA members about the appropriate roles of military psychologists is not new. Previously, questions have been raised about the role of psychologists in Guatanamo Bay, Cuba and the use of Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (groups of mental health and medical professionals) at similar detention centers. Because the exact and appropriate role of BSCT teams (commonly referred to as "Biscuit" teams) in interrogations has not been clarified by the Department of Defense, some suggest that opportunity is ripe for these health care professionals to accidentally or purposefully overstep appropriate ethical behavior.

Another previous controversy surrounded the results of a 2005 APA task force, which concluded that it was okay for psychologists to abide by military guidelines and American laws (instead of international human rights treaties) if they were given directions to participate in interrogations. This task force in essence made the "loophole" in the current APA Ethics Code (Ethical Standards Section 1.02) more explicit and concrete. Here is the exact wording of the current ethics code regarding "Conflicts Between Ethics and Law, Regulations, or Other Governing Legal Authority": If psychologists' ethical responsibilities conflict with law, regulations, or other governing legal authority, psychologists make known their commitment to the Ethics Code and take steps to resolve the conflict. If the conflict is unresolvable via such means, psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority." In other words, the task force basically pointed out that psychologists can ignore their ethical code if a governing authority (in this case, the U.S. Military) asks them to do so.

Critics suggest that the task force contradicted another APA resolution stating that the organization is opposed to all forms of torture and abuse, and that the United Nations documents and conventions form the backbone of APA policy. Even though other professional health care organizations (e.g., the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association) prohibit their members from being involved in interrogations, the American Psychological Association currently has no such mandate.

Recently, attention was again drawn toward the role of psychologists in interrogations by articles published on and, as well as declassified Department of Defense reports. These pieces all suggest that psychologists were involved in refining and training others in a system of psychological torture techniques for use on suspected terrorists using tactics that violate the Geneva Conventions. The reports also show that psychologists played a role in bringing abusive interrogation techniques to Iraq and subsequently, Afghanistan. Unfortunately, some psychologists are going beyond the role of protecting the detainees and moving into activities that seem to go way beyond the realm of "do no harm" (also part of the APA ethics code).

Some of you reading this article will likely argue that what these psychologists are doing is for the greater good. In other words, if their questioning tactics prevent another September 11, aren't they helping society as a whole? I disagree. Deeply embedded within the role of a health care provider is the notion that we will help others, and that we will not allow our knowledge to be used for harming people. Psychologists have always struggled to define themselves as a unique and scientific discipline (separate from psychiatrists or social workers, for example). Adding "proficient in conducting and teaching abusive interrogation techniques" to our list of unique skills is not going to elevate our standing within public opinion or professional arenas. I hope that the APA moratorium passes.

The APA ethics code is available at:

The Vanity Fair article is available at:

The article is available at:

The Department of Defense report is available at:

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Treaties, U.S. laws - one and the same - Ian Westmore - Aug 4th 2007

 Another previous controversy surrounded the results of a 2005 APA task force, which concluded that it was okay for psychologists to abide by military guidelines and American laws (instead of international human rights treaties) if they were given directions to participate in interrogations.

All treaties ratified by the U.S. become U.S. law, so such a directive would be unlawful.

As for the argument that torture is acceptable if it saves innocent lives, the fact is that torture rarely delivers worthwhile results. This has been confirmed by, among others, Deputy Army Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Lt. General John (Jeff) Kimmons, who last year stated that no actionable intelligence had been obtained through abusive interrogation methods post 9/11.

Indeed, it could do more harm than good, both from the perspective of diverting attention from the real threats and also by providing the enemy with a propaganda tool to aid recruitment of new followers.

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