Symposium Features Debate Over Psychologist's Role in Coerced Interrogations
March 20, 2009 — A symposium on the role of mental health professionals in coerced interrogations highlighted ongoing controversy over psychologists' work with detainees at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.
Attended by scores of psychologists and attorneys, the March 20 event featured a panel of experts who articulated a range of views on the role of mental health professionals in military interrogations.
Sponsored by the Earle Mack School of Law and Psychology program, the Health Law program and the Philadelphia Behavior Therapy Association, the event probed a vast question, said Barry Furrow, professor of law at Earle Mack School of Law and director of the Health Law Concentration.
"Where is the soul of a profession," Furrow asked.
While the American Psychiatric Association strictly forbids physician involvement with military interrogations, the American Psychological Association has put forth a far less restrictive policy, said Donald Bersoff, director of Drexel's Law and Psychology Program.
In their policies, the two professions have staked out their loyalties and ethical duties differently, Bersoff said, noting that psychiatrists see their role exclusively as treaters of their patients, while psychologists balance that burden against a debt to society at large.
"There does not seem to be any barrier to mental health professionals participating in coercive interrogations, as long as they observe international law."
Eric Zillmer, fellow of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, past president of the National Academy of Neuropsychology and a distinguished guest of the Pentagon at Guantanamo Bay in 2006, said psychologists have a legitimate role in military interrogations.
"The presence of a psychologist may lead to higher ethical standards. They can be a whistle blower. They can champion rapport-based forms of interrogation," Zillmer said, adding that military interrogators are not necessarily well trained.
Psychologists have a long history of involvement in interrogations of different sorts, including hostage negotiations, Zillmer added.
Jonathan Marks, director of the Bioethics and Medical Humanities program at Pennsylvania State University and former counsel for Human Rights Watch, said there is documentation that suspected terrorists have been treated with extreme aggression.
"In many cases, aggressive interrogations rose to the level of torture," Marks said. "They violated the most fundamental norms of international law."
Yet ethical issues are not the only reasons for psychologists to avoid involving themselves in coercive interrogation, Marks said, noting that sources including the U.S. Army Field Manual have concluded that "coercion, threats and insults provide unreliable results."
Psychologists do have a legitimate role in the global war on terror, said Michael Gelles, a former chief forensic psychologist with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and currently a senior manager with Deloitte & Touche.
"You develop a relationship (with detainees)," Gelles said. "It's respectful."
Yet Gelles said the administration "got impatient" and pushed interrogators at Guantanamo Bay to replace the rapport-based interviews with high-pressure techniques formerly employed to train U.S. soldiers how to withstand the cruelty of enemy questioning.
Psychologists must be willing to recognize when their client - in this case, the government - is not behaving rationally and respond accordingly, he added.
Steven S. Sharfstein, president and CEO of Sheppard Pratt Health System and the former president of the American Psychiatric Association, said psychologists may be uniquely situated to assist ethically with interrogations by defining the boundaries that questioners must not cross.
Yet Sharfstein said the process is fraught with complications, since interrogations are designed to get information from unwilling informants.
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