| Ander Nieuws week 8 / nieuwe oorlog 2007 |
Abusing the profession

The Guardian
February 13, 2007
By Peter Kinderman
There is substantial evidence that the so-called "war on terror" has inveigled psychology and psychologists into its abusive systems. Last year's UN report on the abuse of detainees in Guantanamo Bay contained a reference to the extensive use of psychological methods and also referred to the role of psychologists and psychiatrists in interrogation techniques. It is profoundly worrying that such techniques are used, frightening to observe that they may be becoming more widely used, and depressing not to hear more condemnation of the involvement of professional psychologists and psychiatrists in their deployment.
CIA interrogation manuals written in the 1960s and 1980s describe the coercive techniques such as those used to mistreat detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and in Guantanamo Bay. The CIA manual, Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual - 1983, was originally obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the Baltimore Sun in 1997. It lists a wide range of psychological techniques now widely observed in the "war on terror". The document is freely available in downloadable form from academic libraries in the US. It is clear that psychological expertise contributed to this "training manual". UK and US personnel trained in psychological techniques are involved in the R2I (resistance to interrogation) programmes taught to British and US military specialists. Psychologists, of course, study all aspects of human behaviour, including coercion and torture. Equally, members of the UK armed forces are likely to be exposed to danger and they should be prepared for that. But there are aspects of the present situation that are deeply troubling.
The US government has tried to excuse the CIA and the US military from laws prohibiting the use of torture, and defines torture in a very limited manner that refers explicitly to pain and tissue damage. And it is clear that American and other interrogators are abusing psychological knowledge. Terrorism suspects are disorientated and rendered anxious (even terrified). People are humiliated and degraded. Cunning plans appear to have been developed to use psychological approaches to adversely affect the victim.
One example given in the recent UN report involves a female interrogator sexually taunting an observant Muslim subject, including removing her clothes, then putting her hand down her knickers and removing what appeared to be menstrual blood, which she then smeared on the subject's face (it was, in fact, red marker-pen ink). For a clinical psychologist, this behaviour is psychological abuse, and is either designed to, or in any case will, harm the individually psychologically.
The psychological impact of psychological torture, degradation and abuse is well known. Indeed, the CIA itself has admitted as much, warning in its 1983 Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual that: "Extreme deprivation of sensory stimuli induces unbearable stress and anxiety and is a form of torture...there is a profound moral objection to applying duress beyond the point of irreversible psychological damage". The forms of psychological abuse reported as occurring in the "war on terror" can be devastating on the mental health of victims. Amnesty International has documented these consequences extensively, and academic mental health workers have commented on the severity of the possible consequences. In the UK, in a different context, it is possible to achieve a conviction for grievous bodily harm as a result of purely psychological abuse. It is highly likely - as indeed the CIA itself admits - that hooding, sensory deprivation, sexual humiliation and intense fear will harm the victim.
International law, of course, is clear. The Geneva Convention of 1949 bans "physical or mental torture, or any other form of coercion [...] threat[s], insult[s], or [...] any unpleasant or disadvantageous treatment of any kind". The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights outlaws "inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment". Psychological abuse such as that carried out at Guantanamo Bay will not only cause harm, it is illegal.
The US Government has attempted to hide from this fact. Alfred McCoy from the US History News Network has detailed the legal labyrinths that the administration has constructed to exempt such psychological abuse from their prefer definitions; such that "severe mental pain" is defined only as "drug injection drug injection; death threats; threats against another; and extreme physical pain". Clearly there are a vast number of unacceptable practices - physical practices such as stress positions and even "waterboarding" and psychological practices such as sexual humiliation, disorientation and the exploitation of phobias - that fail to meet this useful definition but remain abhorrent.
We are all aware of the failure of many governments to act appropriately to remove the scourge of torture. The prevalence of psychological techniques perhaps warrants particular attention. In addition to protecting people against physical harm, people's mental well-being must be protected. People must be protected against indefinite detention - itself testified to lead to serious mental health problems. People need protection from techniques such as routine hooding and sensory deprivation techniques. And people, of course, need protection from the techniques reported by the UN as being used in a variety of international facilities. The impulse to resort to torture seems depressingly common. A recent BBCWorld Service poll found that up to a third of people think torture is justified under certain circumstances (the "ticking bomb suspect" scenario, for instance). It's just this kind of dramatic circumstance that Jack Bauer portrays in the new series of 24 - so realistically that the US military has appealed to the producers to tone down the torture scenes because of the impact they are having on troops in the field and America's reputation.
Action is required by international bodies and governments. But relevant professionals must also do something. It is noticeable that there has been relatively little outcry from professional psychologists and psychiatrists about the trend. Most professional bodies require their members to repudiate torture, and forbid their involvement in torture. The British Psychological Society is, in fact, a positive example in this regard. It would be naive to expect the US Government to change its practice following pressure from obscure professional groups, but it might help generate democratic pressure if mental health professionals were more out-spoken.
Guardian Unlimited Guardian News and Media Limited 2007
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