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Thursday, 19 April 2007 13:07

The field of forensic psychology is generally about psychology and the legal system. There is however one area of which few may be aware. Forensic psychologist also consult in domains that have an international impact. Take the war on terrorism, for example.

Over two years after the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke,[1] the question of torturing POW's continued to make headline news. By June 07, 2006, The New York Times had published an article regarding Psychiatrists and Psychologists participation in interrogation[2] igniting heated debates throughout our field. This, of course, was not the first time psychology professionals had participated in covert military operations.

At the onset of the Cold War and just on the heels of the Korean War, national security personnel were flumoxed by the anti-American sentiments coming from several POWs. Thus began one of the nations most extensive psychology research programs, which some believe continues today. The resulting program was code-named MK-Ultra by then CIA director, Allen Welsh Dulles, and involved 147 sub-projects and hundreds of thousands of dollars. The latter were funneled through several front organizations, including but not limited to the Human Ecology Society and the Geschickter Fund. It was during this period that a number of prominent psychiatrists and psychologist engaged in what is today considered unethical practices involving unwitting test subjects.

In 1963, the CIA published the Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation manual. Under chapter eight,[3] the authors cite the late Martin Theodore Orne and his description of the "magic room" technique, which was later published in the book, "The manipulation of human behavior." The goal of this technique is to convince the subject that they are under the hypnotic control of the interrogator. To accomplish this perception, a combination of drugs and props are used. For example, from the book, "this would be the case of the prisoner who is given a hypnotic suggestion that his hand is growing warm. However, in this instance, the prisoners hand actually does become warm, a problem easily resolved by the use of a concealed diathermy machine." Dr. Orne additionally cautions readers, noting that the subject is no less resistant and that resulting material is unreliable.[4]

By 1972, the CIAs research using unwitting subjects came to a screeching halt when the late Frank Olsen's then adult son requested a formal inquiry into death of his father--an ex-CIA special operations agent. The inquiry resulted in a 1977 hearing led by Massachusetts Senator, Edward Moore Kennedy. The outcome revealed that prominent psychologists and psychiatrists had engaged unwitting subjects in experiments that ranged from the mundane to highly unethical, and sometimes, even lethal. The latter were classified "terminal" with the knowledge that death was very much a probability. Dr. Ewen Cameron, of the Allen Memorial Institute, topped the list when it came to issues of gross ethical misconduct, with his "sleep room" and "psychic driving" experiments.

By the late 1980s, several victims of the CIAs debacle had won lawsuits against both the United States and Canadian government. Due to this and other unethical research, medical and psychology associations, as well as educational institutions, began addressing research and human subjects in their respective code of ethics. As with the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, the knowledge imparted regarding POWs psyche is invaluable, as it not only provides insight into their experience but also highlights important issues with regard to the medical and psychology professionals participation in present-day covert military operations.

For example, in his book "Journey into Madness," Gordon Thomas describes the cycle of terror as it relates to prisoners of war. The cycle consists of four stages--surprise, desperation, chaos, and conversion. In the first stage the captive may experience "initial shock, disbelief, denial that it is happening to him/her, and unrealness." During the second stage the captive may "experience frozen fright" (i.e., they cannot run or fight) and may "beg and/or cling to their captors." Thomas explains that this stage is critical as the captive may also feel an "overwhelming and compulsive desire to talk." To keep the captive off balance, the captors utilize a combination of isolation, sleep deprivation, interspersed with erratic scheduling--such as 4 hours of sleep, 12 hours awake, 1 hour of sleep, 30 minutes awake, 15 hours of sleep. This results in "disorientation, apathy, rage, insomnia, self-recrimination, exhausting reexamination, despair, and terror." At this point, the captive is primed for what could be characterized as superficial conversion. During this final stage, the captive will engage in "logical dishonesty, shifting blame, superficial allegiance."[5]

The aforementioned is but a brief overview of the cycle of terror that prisoners experience. It is important however with regard to identifying and winnowing out ethical and moral responsibilities as psychology professionals. And had practitioners involved at Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and later, the Abu Ghraib prison, remembered these small yet salient points of our collective historical experience, perhaps the report issued by the International Red Cross would have shed a much more favorable light on BSCTs.

On Thursday, December 2, 2004, Molly Ivins, of AlterNet, introduced the public at large to BSCTs--pronounced biscuits. These teams are comprised of psychologist, psychiatrist, psychology personnel, and physicians, whose job is to provide consultation with regard to interrogating POWs.[6] Ms. Ivins article was in response to the investigation by the International Red Cross earlier in the year. The resulting report indicated that prisoners were subjected to "humiliating acts, solitary confinement, temperature extremes, use of forced positions, exposure to loud and persistent noise, and some beatings."[7]

The public outcry compelled both APAs--the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association--to revisit their code of ethics as they pertained to psychology practitioners who worked and/or consulted with covert military operations. They eventually issued statements against participation of members of their respective organizations in torture.[8] [9] However, while the American Psychiatric Association took a strong stand against psychiatrists participating in the interrogation of detainees, the American Psychology Association noted that psychologist participation in POW interrogation is necessary to national security and therefore acceptable as long as their members proceed with extreme caution and their conduct falls within the APA code of ethics.[10] The American Psychology Association further established a task force to review the code to determine if modifications and/or additions were necessary. The results identified several areas that warrant further consideration.[11]

Although the issue of psychology professionals providing consultation in covert military operations may seem cut and dried, lack of involvement by our psychology community could potentially result in disastrous outcomes, the least of which involves issues of military personnel with little to no training in the area of human psychology. The worst of which involves lack of insight as well as gatekeeping as it is related to mitigating, if not completely obviating, severe psychological abuses of our fellow human being--even if that individual may be, at that point in time, our sworn enemy.

In summary, it is quite likely that, in light of the American Psychology Association's stance, the APA code of ethics will be revised to incorporate guidelines with regard to psychologists participation in covert military operations generally, and interrogations, specifically. As with research of human subjects, such addition is necessary to serve not only as a guide for professional and ethical behaviors, but also a reminder to psychology professionals regarding the Hippocratic Oath-- primum non nocere--first do no harm.


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