The Ethics of Torture

For the past decade, there has been a contested and politically fraught question within the field of psychology regarding what role, if any, a psychologist may ethically play in the interrogation of enemy combatants. The urgent and fiery nature of this debate emerged, of course, out of the increasing public realization in the early 2000s that these “interrogations” based out of sequestered locations like Guantanamo Bay often consisted of government-sanctioned torture.

The American Psychological Association (APA) was slow to make any proclamation concerning the ethicality of a psychologist participating in or even overseeing the torture of another human being, despite the first and guiding ethical principle of the profession stating that psychologists should “do no harm”. When the APA began to draft policy tied to this issue in 2005, many psychologists criticized the organization for being equivocal and leaving loopholes through which professionals could potentially engage in unethical behavior without reprisal.

At the end of last year, the APA officially decided not pursue a formal complaint against Dr. John Leso, a psychologist and APA member who consulted on the torture of Mohammed al-Qahtani at Guantanamo Bay following 9/11. In a blog post earlier this month, Frank Summers, the current president of Division 39 (Psychoanalysis) of the APA, condemned this action as the latest in a series of negligent and hypocritical decisions by the APA regarding the ethics of torture.

The APA is a multifaceted and inescapably bureaucratic organization that acts, among other roles, as accrediting body, pedagogical resource, professional liability insurance provider, and conduct regulator. Unsurprisingly within such a complex structure, the motivation to sustain and expand the field of psychology and livelihood of psychologists often comes into conflict with matters of social responsibility and social justice. There is little I can add to Dr. Summers’ impassioned address; I can only share his dismay that in this instance the APA seems to have chosen self-protection and maintenance of the status quo over taking a firm and unambiguous stance on a matter of human rights.

As psychologists we have a responsibility not only to those with whom we work — and how embarrassing that we apparently needed to explicitly delineate “no torturing” as part of that responsibility — but also to the systems in which we work. Recently, a supervisor asked a group of my colleagues to each define (or try to define) what we do as clinical psychologists in our own minds. While others described the value of psychotherapy and clinical work in more articulate ways than I could hope to muster, my contribution was to state that in broad terms I believe the field of psychology — particularly psychoanalytically-informed psychology — provides a necessary countercultural service. Human society is filled with systems big and small, internal and external, that perpetuate our suffering. Psychologists, at their best, offer a new vantage point on the rigid and problematic aspects of daily life that we otherwise will tend to go along with, unthinking and unaware. Therefore, complicity with corrupt or inhumane structures — whether a specific workplace environment, a hospital network, or a government — is contrary to the very function of psychologists within society.

In its own distorted way, APA’s behavior regarding the ethics of torture may be an attempt to act in the service of its members, but it is ultimately a betrayal of the psychological discipline, and by extension the basic humanity that discipline ought to represent. Dr. Summers is blunt in laying out the options of dues-paying APA members who are appalled by recent developments:

Many of our members have already left the APA over this issue, and now with the Leso decision more are beginning to follow suit. As individuals, we must either resign from an unethical organization or be unrelenting in our insistence that our voices of opposition be heard.

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3 thoughts on “The Ethics of Torture

  1. Much of the information referenced in this post is not factual and has never been substantiated with direct evidence. I would like to offer the statement about the facts of the case from the American Psychological Association.

    February 20, 2014
    APA Public Affairs Office

    Statement by the APA Board of Directors on the “No Cause for Action” Decision Regarding the Ethics Complaint against Dr. John Leso

    In response to questions about the decision to close the ethics complaints against John Leso, PhD, the APA Board of Directors asked the Chair of the Ethics Committee at the time the final decision to close the complaint was made to provide the Board with an overview of the ethics process as it relates to the decision. The briefing took place during the Board’s February 20th meeting.

    Releasing information pertaining to an ethics matter is unusual due to APA’s responsibility to protect the rights and privacy of both the complainant and the psychologist accused of wrong-doing via a confidential process. However, in light of the Association’s interest in providing a clear understanding of its ethics adjudication process we are releasing the following statement.

    Statement of the APA Board of Directors
    Due process is the foundation for the rules and procedures that govern the APA ethics process. Those rules and procedures require balancing all evidence within an adjudication framework in an effort to determine if ethics charges should be brought, and can be proven, based on a preponderance of the evidence. APA’s responsibility is to enforce its Ethics Code while also protecting the due process rights of both the complainant and the accused. This requires that decisions be made on direct, substantiated information from primary sources, not second-hand accounts or supposition.

    Dr. Leso was stationed at Guantanamo Bay Cuba for approximately six months from summer 2002 to January 2003. The Dr. Leso matter presented an unusual and challenging situation in that complaints were filed by individuals with no firsthand knowledge of the events at issue. For this reason, and to ensure that all possible relevant material was reviewed, the APA Ethics Office proactively sought information that might be relevant to the allegations. Because much of the relevant information was classified, the process continued over a seven year period while substantial, relevant information was released into the public domain.
    The APA record concerning the Leso complaint includes approximately 2,000 pages of documents.

    Among the information resources that the APA staff actively pursued and reviewed were:
    · Report of the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate, Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody (“Levin Report”). November 2008
    · Lt General Randall Schmidt and Brigadier General John T. Furlow, Army Regulation 15-6: Final Report: Investigation into FBI Allegations of Detainee Abuse at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba Detention Facility, June 2005
    · Final Report: Assessment of Detainee Medical Operations for OEF, GITMO, AND OIF, Office of the Surgeon General Army, by Major General Lester Martinez-Lopez, May 2005
    · Report of the Constitution Project’s Task Force on Detainee Treatment, April 2013
    · Ethics Abandoned: Medical Professionalism and Detainee Abuse in the War on Terror, a task force report funded by IMPA/OSF, November 2013

    The amount of time, proactive information seeking and reviews devoted to the Leso complaint exceeded the standard activity in a typical case. This was due to the challenges in accessing relevant information. As a result, the APA Ethics Office staff and committee members needed to rely to an unusual degree on the outcome of governmental and military investigations, as well as litigation, where subpoena power could be used to obtain evidence.

    The focus of the review in the Dr. Leso matter—as with any ethics complaint—is whether the evidence substantiates that the psychologist has violated a standard in the Ethics Code. The Ethics Committee’s Rules and Procedures require the evidence to show the psychologist him- or herself engaged in unethical behavior.

    Based on the Ethics Committee’s Rules and Procedures, the Committee chair and the office director or designee have the responsibility to determine if a complaint rises to the level of a cause for action by the Committee. Due to the gravity of this case and the fact that the complaint was held open to allow for the introduction of new information should it become available, rather than one committee chair reviewing the file, two chairs reviewed it (in its entirety during their tenure). In addition, rather than one individual from the ethics office reviewing the file, four individuals did so: the ethics office director, the head of the office’s adjudication program, an ethics investigator, and the former director of the ethics office.

    All six came to the same conclusion. That based on the requirements set forth by the Ethics Committee Rules and Procedures, the record in this matter, read in its entirety, did not support bringing formal ethics charges against Dr. Leso.

    Reasons for this conclusion included that primary sources did not substantiate the allegations against Dr. Leso based on a preponderance of the evidence, that multiple reviews conducted by individuals with access to classified material found no evidence of wrong doing and affirmative evidence of safeguarding detainees, and that primary sources provided evidence that Dr. Leso argued against the use of abusive interrogation techniques and warned of harms that could come from the use of such techniques.

    It would be incorrect to draw any inference from the resolution of the Leso matter that APA is equivocal in condemning torture and abuse. We will continue to exercise the association’s influence wherever possible to prevent such treatment and will adjudicate any future claims against psychologists accused of unethical treatment of national security detainees in accordance with the Ethics Committee’s Rules and Procedures.

    In closing, the Board wishes to reiterate its previous statements of strong concern and regret that some military and health professionals did not live up to their ethical obligation of humane treatment of national security detainees. That should not have happened and should never again happen. However, in this case, APA’s responsibility was to determine, based on its rules and procedures, if a preponderance of the evidence suggested that Dr. John Leso acted in an unethical matter. That preponderance of evidence of wrong-doing was not found.

  2. […] behavior from Todd Essig at Forbes. The third takes an interesting slant on the issue raised in my recent editorial on the ethics of torture. Namely, Essig argues that resigning from an institution due to unethical […]

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