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Psychologists and Guantanamo


This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Over the weekend, the American Psychological Association held its annual convention in Boston. Outside the hall, about 100 anti-torture activists staged a protest rally. The big issue inside and outside was psychologists' role in military and CIA interrogations.

Members debated a resolution to bar the practice. Those in favor argued that working with the military in places like Guantanamo Bay legitimizes and condones cruel and abusive treatments of detainees. Opponents say the resolution harms the people that it seeks to protect, vulnerable populations and ethical psychologists. Today, we'll hear from psychologists on both sides. Later in the hour, too wealthy for a Bentley? Inside one rich man's world.

But first, psychologists and interrogation. If you're a psychologist or a mental health professional, should psychologists work with military and intelligence interrogators? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. We begin with Robert Resnick, a professor of psychology at Randolph-Macon College, with us today from member station WCVE in Richmond, Virginia. Nice to have you on the program with us today.

Dr. ROBERT J. RESNICK (Psychology, Randolph-Macon College): Thank you.

CONAN: And as I understand it, we're talking about a unit called behavioral-science consultation teams that work with the military. They're made of psychologists and others who assist in interrogations.

Dr. RESNICK: The BSCTs, yes.

CONAN: They're called BSCTs, informally. OK. Now, you wrote the argument against this proposal, and given the abuses that we've heard reported from Bagram in Afghanistan, from Guantanamo, CIA black sites, how can it be ethical to aid in what many consider torture?

Dr. RESNICK: It's never ethical, and the APA has never ever, ever said it was ethical. Since the early '80s, APA and American psychologists had been saying torture is not permitted under any conditions. You know, the major issue is, do no harm.

CONAN: The major issue is, do no harm, yet if psychologists participate in those BSCT teams that were involved in some of these situations, as they're reported to be, maybe that's not always obtained.

Dr. RESNICK: That may be true, and it's disheartening to hear that psychologists may have been involved in that, but I don't think that this petition does anymore than our very strong ethical code that says torture, under any conditions, is unethical and inappropriate.

CONAN: What's wrong, then, with reinforcing that?

Dr. RESNICK: Well, because as written, there are some very poor intentions that may happen. Very ethical and caring psychologists will be forced to leave a job, or be out of the job, or not take a job, in situations where they can help detainees or patients in psychiatric hospitals or prisons, because the language is a little bit loose in the details.

CONAN: And how would that work? I mean, what do you mean specifically?

Dr. RESNICK: Well, follow a prison psychologist, and prisoners often charge their constitutional rights had been breached. If that is the allegation and this petition were part of the APA policy, I would immediately have a problem, because I'm now working in a place that violates the U.S. Constitution. Psychiatric hospitals, the same thing, involuntary commitments, the same way, people allege their rights have been abridged, and if so, that would put me in conflict with the language of this petition.

CONAN: And that's how you argue it would harm those it seeks to protect.

Dr. RESNICK: Exactly. People in those institutions do great work helping disadvantaged persons, persons who are incarcerated or have psychiatric mental illness, and under this petition, they may be forced to move out of those situations.

CONAN: Also with us is Brad Olson. He's a psychologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, with us today from Avenue Edit Studios in Chicago. Nice to have you in the program as well.

Dr. BRADLEY D. OLSON (Human Development and Social Policy, Northwestern University): Thank you. Nice to be on here.

CONAN: And inadvertently, might Robert Resnick's argument - obtain (ph), might it harm people who are threatened and ethical psychologists?

Dr. OLSON: No, I don't think it would, and I understand the worry, the concern, that exists, but this is very - the resolution is very clearly focused on settings that are tied to the Global War on Terror and national security settings. And we're not even saying that psychologists should not be part of these settings.

What we're basically saying is that in these places, where the major role of psychologists is to exploit vulnerable detainees, in places where the U.S. Constitution is violated, places where international law is violated - I mean, if we look at these settings, if you look at the first twelve articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a place like a CIA black site, eleven those of articles apply to the CIA black sites. Those CIA black sites are violating those articles. Now, that's not true of U.S. prisons or U.S. psychiatric facilities, even though, you know, there are some concerns about those settings. But we've made it very clear that these are tied to Global War on Terror settings.

CONAN: And why are, then, the strictures that Bob Resnick told us about, that have been in place since 1980 against torture, strictly prohibiting participation in any way in torture, why are they inadequate?

Dr. OLSON: Well, they're inadequate - I think, probably the single most reason that they're inadequate is it's extraordinarily - I mean, these settings in CIA black sites and Guantanamo Bay exists where they are, sequestered from the mainland of the U.S. for a reason, to avoid some of our laws, and to make it very difficult for information to come out of these settings. So, it's impossible to sort of say, you know, this psychologist - even though we know standard operating procedures - say that a job of the psychologists is exploitation, and our ethics code says, do not exploit, it's impossible to know what is happening in these centers. And so therefore, we're focusing on the settings themselves.

CONAN: Given that, how would this be enforced?

Dr. OLSON: Well, you know, the American Psychiatric Association and American Medical Association came out before the APA's 2005 PENS Report, basically saying that physicians and psychiatrists have no role in these interrogations. And one of the criticisms that the American Psychological Association leveled at them was, well, this is not enforceable. But the truth is, the Department of Defense - because of these policies, because the APA's resolutions have really tried to secure the psychologists in these roles - the Department of Defense clearly now favors psychologists in these BSCT roles. So, what we really want is we want a clear policy, and we're going to work to enforce it. It's going to take some work, but we think that can be achieved.

CONAN: Bob Resnick, I'd like you to respond to what Brad Olsen had to say.

Dr. RESNICK: Well, I respectfully disagree. I think that we have ethical statements on the book. I'll read one sentence: Psychologists are absolutely prohibited from knowingly planning, designing, participating or assisting in the use of all condemned techniques. There's over two dozen listed and more can be added as they are evolved. I don't know how to make it any clearer than that. And moving from our ethical code to this resolution, we're talking about location rather than behavior and our ethical code says you cannot do this behavior anywhere. We don't need to say especially not there, because you're can't do it anywhere.

CONAN: Brad Olson?

Dr. OLSON: Well, I mean, yes. We are focusing on location, and that's not - I mean, typically psychologists, I mean, by our trade, we focus on individuals, but the truth is, you know, the reason we haven't focused on location before, haven't focused on these specific settings, is we've never been in the situation in the United States, where we've seen anything that's this far outside of the law. And psychologists hold the key to these settings, because the torture memos, the Yoo/Bybee memos, basically says it's not torture if the interrogator is not intending to produce harm and if the mental harm is not prolonged. So, by having a psychologist, a professional, legitimize what the interrogator is doing, you essentially - even in cases where we would say, anyone would say, this is torture - the argument could be made, this is not technically torture...

CONAN: Because that psychologist on the site said it wasn't.

Dr. OLSON: Exactly.

CONAN: But there are already restrictions against that psychologist for participating in torture.

Dr. OLSON: Well, again, it's the complete lack of transparency in these settings. I mean, we know that psychologists have played a central role going, all the way up from the Yoo/Bybee memos through the reverse engineering of the SERE program, the program that's used to inoculate U.S. soldiers against countries that violate the Geneva Conventions. Psychologists were central to reverse engineering those techniques and using them against detainees to extract information from them and orchestrating these interrogations that involved techniques of the Army Field Manual. This is even less intense than the enhanced techniques that the CIA uses, but that escalate fear, attempt to produce, depression and - I mean, that's just antithetical to the idea of what we're about as a profession of psychologists.

CONAN: Bob Resnick, he says the psychologist's role is central. What do we actually know about what psychologists do on these BSCT teams?

Dr. RESNICK: Well, that's an interesting question, because it's not clear how many psychologists, if any - I have no idea of how many - are involved and to the extent of their involvement, and there's lots of people saying there's a great deal, but I have known of no data that says there's any number in particular. But I want to again make the point that the American Psychological Association has never said torture - patient abuse, detainee abuse - is appropriate behavior. We have always said it's unethical and prohibited.

CONAN: But let me just go back on that point. Do the psychologists, you know, have an earpiece into the interrogators ear and say, ask him about his mother, that'll push his buttons?

Dr. RESNICK: I do not know.

CONAN: Do you know, Brad Olson?

Dr. RESNICK: Yes, I do. We have a standard SOP from - Standard Operating Procedure - from - signed by the surgeon general of the Army at one point, Kevin Kiley, and it's clear what psychologists do. I mean, their job is to make assessments of the detainee. Their job is to come up - orchestrate what the interrogation is going to look like, set up the conditions of detention to soften up the detainee, and I think, one of the primary techniques that psychologists are involved in, setting up social isolation, so that, at one point - for 30 days, a detainee was isolated so that they would be desperate for the need for human contact. So, when the interrogator came in the room, they were looking to talk, and so - I mean, that's exactly what the psychologist does, is they work on exploitation.

CONAN: We're talking about the debate over psychologists and interrogations. We'll take your calls when we get back, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're discussing a debate that's erupted among members of the American Psychology Association. At issue, whether its members should ever be involved in military interrogations. The APA has a longstanding ban on participation in torture of any kind or abuse; but now, a new resolution argues that that does not go far enough, that psychologists should not work at military or CIA detention centers at all. A new referendum is up for discussion. A mail ballot has been sent out, and the results are not going to be clear for some time yet. You can read more about the case that's sparked the controversy on our website at npr.org.

Today, we're talking with psychologists on both sides of the debate. If you're a psychologist or a mental health professional, should psychologists work with military and intelligence interrogators? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. Our guests are Brad Olson, a psychologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois - He argued the pro statement on whether the APA should pass its resolution - and with us also, Robert Resnick, professor of psychology at Randolph-Macon College, author of the con statement. And let's get a caller on the line, Jared, Jared calling us from Atlantic County in New Jersey.

JARED (Caller): Hi, yes. How are you today?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

JARED: I appreciate you taking the time to take my call. I'm a licensed professional counselor in New Jersey, and frankly, I'm a little sickened by the question that's being raised. We attribute to ourselves a set of ethical guidelines when we entered this field that suggests that we in no way, shape, or form should ever knowingly, and even by that matter, we do everything that we can to, even, not mistakenly, harm any of the people that we work with, regardless of what our title is in this field.

And my concern is that I'm hearing a tremendous slippery slope from one of your guests, that's saying that we are responsible, in this role, to knowingly put people at risk, regardless of whether we think they're the, quote/unquote, "bad guys," or not. They're human beings. And regardless of what it is that they've done, our ethical guidelines indicate to us that we are never supposed to harm people. And putting us in a position where we have anything - in any way, shape or form - to do with potential torture, whether that "torture" word is in quotation marks or whether our government says, well, is this really torture, or is it not really torture, puts our field at risk, and...

CONAN: Let me ask you, Jared...

JARED: Yes, sir?

CONAN: Do you see any circumstances under which the psychologists should - can ethically work under any kind of interrogations with the military and intelligence?

JARED: I think the question is incredibly complex, and I think that that's probably why this debate is raging like it is. My initial answer, my go-to response is to say, no, we have an ethical response to - or an ethical responsibility to...

CONAN: So, any interrogation is inherently unethical?

JARED: Interrogation, by definition, yes.

CONAN: Robert Resnick?

Dr. RESNICK: I'm not sure with interrogation. That's asking questions. The point that I've been trying to go over and over again is this is a petition about an anti-torture drive. And my point continues to be the same. We have in place the strongest language possible. It says you cannot, under any circumstances, do this kind of behavior. And I don't think that now saying even more so in this workplace contributes in our understanding of what we should not do.

CONAN: And Brad Olson, I think the kind of revulsion we hear from Brad is - from Jared, excuse me - our caller - well, is that what's fueling this controversy, do you think?

Dr. RESNICK: Oh, I - it definitely is, and I think Jared is exactly right, that this is an incredibly complex issue, particularly the question of, should psychologists be involved in interrogations at all? And what we're trying to say with this resolution is that, you know, this is not just about interrogations. This is about settings that - like the CIA black sites - where the U.S. Constitution and international law is violated so systemically.

CONAN: But what if they weren't? I mean, Guantanamo Bay, is that - no psychologist should work at Guantanamo Bay, period? Is that what you're arguing?

Dr. RESNICK: No - well - that is what we - Guantanamo Bay, at this point, we would say absolutely yes. I mean, here's the thing. You have some psychologists...

CONAN: Absolutely, yes, they should not participate?

Dr. RESNICK: Absolutely, yes, psychologists should not be at Guantanamo Bay or CIA black sites. And this is why. You have psychologists who are using the Army Field Manuel, psychologists who have designed enhanced interrogation techniques, which are indisputably torture, and you've got those psychologists there at the setting. And they're working on the detainee. They're saying what they're doing is safe, legal, ethical, and effective, and it is none of those things. They're working to harm mental health with no goal of helping the detainee.

Now, their job is basically to keep the detainee below the threshold of what they would consider torture, or severe, prolonged, permanent, mental harm. And so, then you have another psychologist, who is also a licensed professional, who is providing therapy for those detainees, and it becomes, I mean, it becomes almost absurd that one psychologist - and one thing we care about as psychologists is therapeutic alliance. So, a detainee is tortured by one set of psychologists and then handed over to increase their mental health, what, to the ability to be interrogated again.

CONAN: Mm-hm.

JARED: We can (unintelligible)...

Dr. RESNICK: So, that, you know, those are the complications of these settings.

CONAN: Jared, go ahead.

JARED: I'm sorry. We cannot afford in our profession to play good-cop/bad-cop. We cannot afford to do that. Our role and responsibility at all times is to protect the individuals with whom we associate. We work in this field. We work with rapists, and child molesters, and the people that society would consider - and many psychologists would consider - to be the worst of the worst. Regardless of what that person has done, our role, the role we choose to endow our lives to, is to protect people.

And if the role that we're playing in these facilities - I heard one of your guests and I'm sorry, I didn't realize who it was - but one of your guests mentioned that sometimes the role of a psychologist is to indicate whether or not a person should be deprived of social contact for X amount of time. That's the thing that we know as human beings. Social contact is something that's needed. It's an absolute necessity.

So, to be part of the decision-making process where we deprive somebody of that inherent, human need is, in fact, harming them, whether it's designed to be called torture, whether our government or any other government decides to manipulate the definition of torture or not - I mean, we've been - we've heard just now that the reason that these sites are very often off of American soil is because the Constitution can kind of be evaded.

CONAN: Yeah.

JARED: And that tells you the nature of the job we're being asked to do.

CONAN: Jared, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

JARED: Thank you very much for a great show.

CONAN: Here's an email from Pat in Belleville, Illinois. I'm not a clinical psychologist, but my degree reads, Ph.D. in psychology. If licensed psychologists do not work in these interrogations, who will end up working there? Will other persons do the work that psychologists now do if this resolution passes, except less well and with more damage to the suspects? Brad Olson?

Dr. OLSON: Well, we - you know, as psychologists, we have a lot of pride in our discipline. And I think that's great. But I think we also need to recognize that psychologists, even though we're professionals, we certainly have no monopoly over ethics. And many, many of the situations that we know, interrogators, linguists, others, other individuals in those settings, were very concerned with what's happening. And the psychologist has asked to push further.

We have the recent case of a young man - well, when he was captured, he was 16 or 17, so we'll say a boy - was crying to a picture of his mother, and had a series of actions that the interrogator was very concerned about. A behavioral science consultant was brought in, said she doesn't believe him. He was put in isolation. He later attempted suicide. And so, here we have a case of the interrogator saying, look, I'm concerned, and the psychologist is saying, push harder. And she took...

CONAN: Yet, isn't that...

Dr. OLSON: She took the fifth, the right to science - silence.

CONAN: Yeah, but isn't that the indication of - given that the strictures that Bob Resnick has told us about - that's an indication of an individual who may have violated the ethical strictures that were already on the books, one person, an aberration, not systematic.

Dr. OLSON: Oh, well, I mean, this is a miracle that - I mean, we have worked hard to find out every bit of information that we can so that we can have accountability later on. But what we're trying to do is we're trying to prevent this from happening before it comes about. And this is not just - I mean, this is part of the Standard Operating Procedures. This is not a rotten-apple story. This is an orchard that is built for harm.

CONAN: Bob Resnick, given what he's just said, do you think that psychologists should be working at Guantanamo Bay?

Dr. RESNICK: I think, when they're helping those individuals who are detained and experiencing psychological issues, whatever - again, do no harm, help those that are in need, help those who cannot help themselves. I - again, the restriction is absolute in APA. No torture, no abuse. The association has rebuked Bush. The administration has written letters to the CIA, to the FBI. No one says, you should be doing torture, no one.

CONAN: Let's get to Eric on the line, and Eric's with Columbia in South Carolina.

ERIC (Caller): Yes, sir, thank you for taking my call. And this is an interesting discussing, because it's a mirror image of one that has taken place in several of the past few conferences of the American Translators Association. Our membership includes interpreters. And of course, the question has arisen, how many interpreters have participated in these torture sessions? So, a draft resolution has been circulated over the past several conferences condemning such behavior and holding those accountable - who participated accountable for it, so - and a common defense for that has been, well, APA has not yet found it necessary to pass any such resolution. So...

CONAN: Against torture? We've been told over and over again that they have that ban on torture since 1980.

ERIC: No, I mean, an additional response to the current situation, the - any further specific code or resolution concerning the current behavior that's going on in Guantanamo and...

CONAN: And again, we've heard from Bob Resnick repeatedly that the Bush administration has been condemned by the APA. There have been repeated protests to the attorney general and various other places. What more do you need?

ERIC: Well, let me ask him my question. If he found out any of his members worked - had definitively participated in any of the torture sessions, would they be removed from the APA?

CONAN: Bob Resnick?

Dr. RESNICK: They would be brought up an ethical charges, and if found guilty of those charges, could be expelled from the association, yes.

ERIC: Well, then, you're one step further than the American Translators Association. Thank you. I appreciate your discussion.

CONAN: OK, Eric, thanks very much for the call. But interesting, as Brad Olson mentioned, this is a discussion that is ongoing in several different groups. We just heard from the translators, and the APA, as he suggested, has no monopoly on ethics. We're talking with Brad Olson, a psychologist at Northwestern University, who authored the pro statement on whether the APA should pass a resolution restricting the role of psychologists at military and intelligence installations. Robert Resnick is also with us, Bob Resnick, a professor of psychology at Randolph-Macon College, author the con statement. And you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let see if we can go - rather, let's go to Brendon, Brendon with us from Dayton, Ohio.

BRENDON (Caller): Yes, hi. Thanks for taking my call. I'm a graduate student and, well, actually I'm a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Wright State. And so I've been following the topic of today, based on the fact that our dean was associated with Guantanamo Bay. So, basically my question has to deal with, what is the black eye that maybe left on the profession if we don't pass this resolution? And what is the black eye left just from the inherent participation that psychologists have already had in these types of behaviors and what not?

CONAN: Well, let's hear first from Brad Olson.

Dr. OLSON: Well, is it the - I mean, there are already several black eyes from this that have occurred since 2005, since the APA put their, you know, first endorsement of the role of psychologist in the behavioral-science consultation role. But now, you know, now, we're - now we have the opportunity. I mean, now, this referendum is going to the membership. So, it's not just an issue of - I mean, the APA leadership is trying to fight this referendum.

But the truth is that it's really the psychologists' decision for themselves. So, they've got a great opportunity now to vote yes for the referendum and say that psychologists absolutely should not be working and bolstering these settings that violate U.S. Constitution or international law, unless they're working independently for the detainee, as an attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights would, or unless they're working for a third-party human-rights group. So, if they're coming in from the International Committee of the Red Cross, that's wonderful. And we've got a great new APA presidential candidate, Steven Reisner, who is really true - his - one of his main efforts is to build more internship programs with human-rights groups.

CONAN: Let me just say quickly, in other words, if they're working as a consultant to the military or in uniform, they should not be there? Is that what you're saying, Brad?

Dr. OLSON: In these settings...

CONAN: In those settings, OK.

Dr. OLSON: Yeah, in these settings...

CONAN: All right, just wanted to get that straight.

Dr. OLSON: Yeah, sure...

CONAN: All right. So, let's get a response there from Bob Resnick, going back to Brendon's question, would failure to pass the resolution leave the APA with a black eye?

Dr. RESNICK: I don't believe so, because what we have in place is more strongly worded than this resolution and it's much clearer. You get into a very, very slippery slope when you talk about when and how and what circumstances our constitutional rights have been violated or when U.N. rights are violated. It allows people to bring further lawsuits against psychologist who are working in prisons, psychiatric hospitals, forensic units. The black eye isn't there, because the language - and won't be there - because the 2008 language couldn't be any stronger. They're absolutely prohibited, et cetera, et cetera.

CONAN: And do you fear that this would require the members of the APA to become sort of the amateur constitutional lawyers?

Dr. RESNICK: Well, you will have to wonder about, you know, an inmate says, my rights to - my constitutional rights have been violated, and so now I'm bringing a suit. And I'm a psychologist. I don't have a law degree. I don't know what that means for me, but somebody could take that into my licensing board with a complaint. Someone could take it into a civil court. And even though it may be thrown out, it'd cost the psychologist several thousand dollars in legal fees to have that case dismissed. I don't think the language - while I'm sympathetic to the intent - the language is ambiguous enough that it could harm some very ethical - a psychologist doing very good work with the detainees or other persons who are incarcerated.

CONAN: Well, Brendon, thanks very much for the call. Good luck with your studies.

BRENDON: Thank you.

CONAN: And just one final quick question, Bob Resnick, results are expected when on this ballot?

Dr. RESNICK: Oh, don't ask me that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. RESNICK: In about three weeks, I believe.

CONAN: In about three weeks. Well, we'll revisit the question in some form or another then. Thank you both very much for your time today. We appreciate it after coming back from Boston.

Dr. RESNICK: Thank you.

CONAN: Bob Resnick, a professor of psychology at Randolph-Macon College, with us from member station WCVE in Richmond, Virginia. Brad Olson, thank you for your time, too.

Dr. OLSON: Thank you.

CONAN: Brad Olson, a psychologist in Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, with us from a studio in Chicago. Coming up, why some of the country's ridiculously wealthy cheered the economic downturn. Maybe now, owning a jumbo jet will mean something again. Jaime Johnson joins us on the culture of the WASP elite. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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