Using documents obtained under the freedom of information act, the New England Journal of Medicine has just published an eye-opening article on the involvement of psychiatrists on ‘war on terror’ interrogations who participate despite their professional ban.
The piece is timely because American psychologists have just been banned from these interrogations after a drawn out internal battle. However, the main psychiatric body swiftly and unequivocally banned their members from doing the same in 2006.
As we speculated previously, these bans are unlikely to have much effect on the individual level owing to the secret nature of the work and the consequent difficulty in finding and disciplining members who disregard ethical regulations.
This new article demonstrates that the ethical rules are indeed being flouted by some psychiatrists, as military documents show several have been trained as members of the Behavioural Science Consultation or ‘biscuit teams‘ that work with interrogation techniques condemned as torture by the UN and Red Cross.
Yet documents recently provided to us by the U.S. Army in response to requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) make clear that the Department of Defense still wants doctors to be involved and continues to resist the positions taken by medicine’s professional associations… The memo appears to claim that psychiatrists should be able to provide advice regarding the interrogation of individual detainees if they are not providing medical care to detainees, their advice is not based on medical information they originally obtained for medical purposes, and their input is “warranted by compelling national security interests.” The advice envisaged by the memo includes “evaluat[ing] the psychological strengths and vulnerabilities of detainees” and “assist[ing] in integrating these factors into a successful interrogation.”…
Other documents obtained under FOIA indicate that between July 2006 and October 2007, five Army psychiatrists were put through the “behavioral science consultation” training course. The policy memo raises critical questions about that course, among them, Why are consultants receiving training in “learned helplessness” ‚Äî a term that invokes the work of psychologist Martin Seligman, who used electric shocks to induce passive behavior in dogs and destroy their will to escape?
The NEJM has also made the US Military’s ‘behavioural science consultantion policy’ it gained through the freedom of information act available online and it makes for interesting if not slightly disturbing reading.
It clearly states that ‘biscuit teams’ can comprise of psychologists, psychiatrists and physicians and notes that ‘behavioural science technicians’ must have at least 10 years experience in mental health.
The document constantly re-states the ethical obligations of the team members but is full of contradictions – for example, by stating that members must remain within “professional ethical boundaries established by their professional associations” despite the fact that the document is dated after psychiatrists were banned from taking part.
It also notes later that ethical codes do not supersede “US and international law, regulations and DoD [Department of Defense] policy” suggesting that they can be overruled where necessary.
It also contains some remarkably vague statements about the confidentiality of medical and mental health information and whether it can be used in an interrogation – apparently not when it could result in “inhumane treatment or would not be in accordance with applicable law”.
This is telling, considering that the NEJM reported in 2005 that at Guantanamo Bay “health information has been routinely available to behavioral science consultants and others who are responsible for crafting and carrying out interrogation strategies”.