Shrinks, Lies and Torture

But a few days later Muriel, reading over the Seven Commandments to herself, noticed that there was yet another of them which the animals had remembered wrong. They had thought the Fifth Commandment was “No animal shall drink alcohol,” but there were two words that they had forgotten. Actually the Commandment read: “No animal shall drink alcohol to excess.”

Animal Farm, George Orwell.

“When the system works correctly, psychologists assess ‘the character, personality, social interactions and other behavioral characteristics of detainees.’ The psychologists . . . do not conduct the interrogations themselves, but instead ‘coach and counsel the interrogator in a way that allows him or her to build a relationship with the detainee.'”

So says the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, William Winkenwerder Jr., in an interview with Mark Benjamin last July.

Prisoner 063 was called “unclean” and “Mo”[for Mohammed]. . .He was not told, despite asking, that some of the interrogation took place during Ramadan, a time when Moslems have special obligations. He was not allowed to honor prayer times. . .Transgressions against Islamic and Arab mores for sexual modesty were employed. The prisoner was forced to wear photographs of “sexy females”and to study sets of such photographs to identify whether various pictures of bikini-clad women were of the same or a different person. He was told that his mother and sister were whores. He was forced to wear a bra, and a woman’s thong was put on his head. He was dressed as a woman and compelled to dance with a male interrogator. He was told that he had homosexual tendencies and that other prisoners knew this. Although continuously monitored, interrogators repeatedly strip-searched him as a “control measure.” On at least one occasion, he was forced to stand naked with women soldiers present. Female interrogators seductively touched the prisoner under the authorized use of approaches called “Invasion of Personal Space”and “Futility.” On one occasion, a female interrogator straddled the prisoner as he was held down on the floor . . . He was leashed (a detail omitted in the log but recorded by investigators) and made to “stay, come, and bark to elevate his social status up to a dog.” He was told to bark like a happy dog at photographs of 9/11 victims and growl at pictures of terrorists . . . He was shown pictures of the attacks, and photographs of victims were affixed to his body.

Such was the psychological “relationship-building” of al-Qahtan (who had told the interrogators his religion “forbids him to even speak to a woman”), as described by Dr. Steven Miles in his recent article “Medical Ethics and the Interrogation of Guantanamo 063” after Miles researched an 83-page interrogation log and an Army investigation of mistreatment of prisoners at APA Bay Such was the “counseling” at the behest of Major John Francis Leso, New York psychologist license number 013492, chair of the Behavioral Science Consultation Team at Gitmo in 2002, and identified in the log as being present at the interrogation. Leso is also an active member of the American Psychological Association (APA), which has gone to unusual lengths to deny his affiliation even as APA has weakened its ethical stand against torture.

Dr. Leso is pivotal in that his complicity in torture at Gitmo debunks each fabrication APA has proffered to justify psychologists’ involvement in the torture of detainees. Most recent past-president of APA, Gerald Koocher attempted to justify psychologists’ participation in torture by stating “many psychologists are behavioral scientists, and as such aren’t Leso.” But Dr. Leso is not a behavioral scientist. John caregivers was commissioned as a second lieutenant from the Johns Hopkins ROTC program as an undergraduate and was granted an educational delay to complete his doctorate in counseling psychology in 1995 at SUNY Albany (NY), far removed from any training as a behavioral scientist. Indeed, in June of 2002, a mere four years after receiving his license as a psychologist he was promoted to Chief of the Clinical Psychology Service at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. One would have assumed he was focused on caregiving and treatment of veterans in this position, though given the recent revelations regarding the quality of care at Walter Reed, perhaps Koocher was correct. Five months later, Dr. Leso was immersed in torturing.

In another implausible attempt at justification, APA’s Director of Ethics Stephen Behnke told Mark Benjamin in a 2006 interview for Salon that psychologists may actually help keep interrogations safe, by encouraging interrogators to talk to prisoners rather than employ harsher methods. The APA’s Director of Ethics seems to be saying that “We all know American-sponsored torture is occurring, we’re merely concerned that psychologists not appear too complicit in causing it.” Exactly as Orwell envisioned.

If the role of the psychologist is “to help to ensure interrogations are safe, legal, and ethical” as Dr. Behnke postulates, Dr. Leso either failed miserably according to APA standards and must have his license revoked, or the American Psychological Association is abetting torture.

On November 27, in the middle of al-Qahtani’s daily 20-hour interrogations, Major John Leso “suggested putting the prisoner in a swivel chair to prevent him from fixing his eyes on one spot and thereby avoiding the guards.” On December 11, after 16 days of 20 or more hours of interrogation a day, broken only by a 42-hour hospitalization for torture-induced hypothermia, al-Qahtani asked to be allowed to sleep in a room other than the one in which he was being fed and interrogated. “The log notes that ‘BSCT’ advised the interrogators that the prisoner was simply trying to gain control and sympathy.”

Alfred McCoy, author of the book A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror, was quoted by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now in an interview with Koocher:

Under General Miller, they created these things called “Biscuit” teams, behavioral science consultation teams, and they actually had qualified military psychologists participating in the ongoing interrogation, and these psychologists wouldidentify individual phobias, like fear of dark or attachment to mother, and by the time we’re done, by 2003, under General Miller, APA had perfected the C.I.A. paradigm, and it had a three-fold total assault on the human psyche: sensory receptors, self-inflicted pain, cultural sensitivity, and individual fears and phobia.

Koocher’s response? “It’s interesting. I wonder who these people were that were involved. I wonder if . . . whether they were, in fact, government specialists who had gone back and gotten psychological background.” Government specialists? Come on, Dr. Koocher, you seem to be handling psy-ops for the Bush administration. “These people” included Dr. John Leso, APA Member since 1996 and a licensed psychologist until July, 2009. As a licensed psychologist myself, Dr. Koocher, I wonder who “these people” are who convinced you to sell out my profession of psychology, these people for whom you tergiversate so easily.

Amy Goodman continued her interrogation (without torture): “Dr. Gerald Koocher, are you concerned about the Pentagon’s new position, that they’ll try to use only psychologists, not psychiatrists, to help interrogators devise strategies to get information at places like APA Bay, because of the overwhelming vote of the American Psychiatric Association discouraging its members from participating in those efforts?” to which Koocher lied again, “No . . . we have a very tightly written ethical code of conduct and that we are going to enforce it on our members if we discover that there are members who have been involved in torture or inhumane or degrading treatment.”

The misinformation campaign regarding torture isn’t reserved for the government’s familiar fictions. Complaints have been filed against Dr. Leso, though the record on APA membership and New York State Licensure have not reflected any changes to date in his status, and APA’s “tightly written ethical code” is neither tightly-written or ethical. Since a 2002 revision, the ethics code allows an out for psychologists who wish to follow government orders rather than the Hippocratic Oath of “Do No Harm”:

1.02 Conflicts Between Ethics and Law, Regulations, or Other Governing Legal Authority If psychologists’ ethical responsibilities conflict with law, regulations, or other governing legal authority, psychologists make known their commit- ment to the Ethics Code and take steps to resolve the conflict. If the conflict is unresolvable via such means, psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority.

Thus, the new ethical paradigm at APA is â¤do no harm if you’re repulsed by APA crimes implemented directly from the White House and can stand the punishment as a whistleblower.”

Though Koocher has repeatedly denied that any APA member has been involved in interrogations using torture, he finally acknowledged that reality in the summer of 2006, with a childish response to Dr. Frank Summers. When confronted with the fact that Leso’s name can easily be found on APA’s website by any APA member who looks, Koocher replied insincerely, “You may have made an important discovery!”

Ethics director Behnke also surfaced in Summers’ journal article, “Psychoanalysis, The American Psychological Association, and the Involvement of Psychologists at Guantanamo Bay.” When asked about a formal inquiry into charges of violation of ethics, Behnke said APA would only investigate charges on specific psychologists, and those investigations are confidential. More than one grievance has been filed against John Leso (I have filed one myself with APA and New York Board for Psychology). While the investigations are confidential, the results of any action taken against any psychologist licensed in New York State is accessible at their website. John Leso’s license is intact. Another smokescreen burns out.

Many scholarly articles have spotted the APA’s servile alchemy of transmuting torture into mere interrogation methodology even as it violates the Geneva Conventions, international law and possibly the U.S. War Crimes Act, yet the leadership of Guantanamo continues to this day to repeat the duplicitous mantra reminiscent of Bush and Rumsfeld: “We do not torture.” The newly-elected Behnke president, Sharon Stevens Brehm, responded to an excellent article by Arthur Levine in the Washington Monthly with the selfsame, equivocating comments of her predecessors:

Any direct or indirect participation in any act of torture or other forms of cruel, degrading or inhuman treatment by psychologists is strictly prohibited. No exceptions! . . . Furthermore, the Association is well aware that tremendous situational pressures often exist when psychologists work in national security settings. Ethical interrogations are based on building a relationship and forming rapport with the person being questioned. . .Guantanamo APA has chosen to stay engaged in the process of working to define and enforce ethical interrogations . . .

Furthermore, APA’s response to my recent request of Brehm for her comments on this divisive issue, which she forwarded to Guantanamo, is clearly the party line: “Any psychologist participation in a torture interrogation is absolutely prohibited. It makes no difference whether the psychologist’s participation is direct or indirect, supervisory, central or peripheral: Any psychologist participation in a torture interrogation is prohibited.” Good sound bite but not true. The Pentagon has chosen to use only psychologists after the American Psychiatric Association adopted a new policy discouraging its members from participating in military interrogations. APA is hiding behind the country’s deplorable attempt to defend its practice of torture. A cottage industry of professional bottom-feeders has sprung up to rationalize to the world how the United States is justified in creating a new definition to camouflage what are undeniable acts of torture.

Indeed, a legal memorandum from the Department of Justice dated 12/30/04 clarifying “what Congress really meant” by the use of the word “torture” is unnerving:

“Torture” is thus to be distinguished from lesser forms of cruel, inhuman, or de-degrading treatment or punishment, which are to be deplored and prevented, but are not so universally and categorically condemned as to warrant the severe legal consequences that the Convention (Convention Against Torture) provides in the case of torture. . . The requirement that torture be an extreme form of cruel and in-human treatment is expressed in Article 16, which refers to ‘other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture.”

Thus, for the United States, “acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” are no longer considered torture. Authored by Daniel Levin, Acting Assistant Attorney General, the doublespeak in the above memorandum can bring one to tears:

The need to define a category of “severe physical suffering” that is different from “severe physical pain,” and that also does not undermine the limited definition Congress provided for torture, along with the requirement that any such physical suffering be “severe,” calls for an interpretation under which “severe physical suffering” is reserved for physical distress that is “severe” considering its intensity and duration or persistence, rather than merely mild or transitory.

In a robust scientific study released just last month, Basoglu and colleagues documented the alterations the United States made to the U.S. Criminal Code, Title 18, Section 2340, after the numerous reports of human rights abuses by the US military. Those alterations resulted in the US torture policy which argues for a narrow definition of torture that excludes mental pain and suffering caused by acts that do not cause severe physical pain. The authors proceeded to discredit the newly-created interpretations of torture that the U.S. had hoped would disguise their sins:

Furthermore, these findings do not support the distinction between torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment made by the Convention Against Torture . . . These findings point to a need for a broader definition of torture based on scientific formulations of traumatic stress and empirical evidence rather than on vague distinctions or labels that are open to endless and inconclusive debate and, most important, potential abuse.

Mercifully, there are conscientious torture opponents and writers to whom we are indebted: Dr. Frank Summers, psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist, supervising and training analyst at The Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis, and associate professor of psychiatry and the behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Medical School; Dr. Stephen Soldz, psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis; Dr. Steven Miles, professor of Medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, professor of Bioethics at the University’s Center for Bioethics and author of Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror; Arthur Levine in the Washington Monthly summarizing the dependency of the field of psychology on the military in “Collective Unconscionable: How psychologists, the most liberal of professionals, abetted Bush’s torture policy”; Dr. Neil Altman who proposed to APA in August of 2006 a moratorium on psychologists’ involvement in interrogation and torture has been met repeatedly with Orwellian roadblocks by the APA Ethics Committee though he still trudges on; and Jane Mayer in the New Yorker are a few who provide all the information one needs to know to debunk APA’s doublespeak, and need not be repeated here.

While the reasons the APA so fastidiously defends and allows members to participate in torture are left to its leadership to explain, it’s undeniable that the primary professional organization for North American psychologists now serves as an abject apologist for the Bush torture agenda. The APA has effectively replaced “Do No Harm” with “Where’s the harm?” On behalf of those who have labored for many hours, often for years, attempting to bring the positive, hopeful benefits of psychology to people, I say that we can no longer ignore the dysfunctions within our professional organization. It is indeed time to take the gloves off. It’s time to demand prosecution of torturing war criminals such as John Leso via a special prosecutor beholden to no one in the Bush Administration; to seek to bring charges against them before the International Criminal Court; and certainly, to seek revocation of their professional licenses whenever possible. America is either a “Torture Nation”, or we start revoking licenses to torture and take back our country.

After all, it was President Bush who warned the Iraqi people on March 17, 2003 as he gave Saddam 48 hours to get out of town: “War crimes will be prosecuted. War criminals will be punished. And it will be no defense to say, ‘I was just following orders.'”

Postscript: And Dr. Leso? He was transferred in 2005 to the U.S. Embassy in Julie Andrews’ Austria where he is probably jetting to CIA secret prisons to continue his torturing. On the last morning of the 2006 national conference, at Koocher’s instigation, the APA Council of Representatives voted to suspend all rules and regulations in order to commend military psychologists, including Dr. Leso, for their many significant contributions and sacrifices, directing Dr. Koocher to convey “thanks and support” in an individual letter to each:

Dr. TRUDY BOND is a psychologist of 26 years though no longer a member of APA . She can be reached at, and is willing to offer help to others in filing complaints against Dr. Leso with both the New York State Board of Psychology and APA. She was unknowingly investigated by the Ohio Board of Psychology following two arrests for civil disobedience, minor misdemeanors, in protesting the U.S. occupation of Iraq.