APA condemns psychologist implicated in torture

In an unprecedented move, the American Psychological Association is taking steps to sanction one of its members, psychologist James Mitchell, in response to his role as a consultant to the CIA on its techniques of “enhanced interrogation” and a participant in the 2002 CIA interrogation of detainee Abu Zubaydah. The APA has been deeply divided over the ethical issues surrounding the participation of psychologists in interrogation for several years.

Here is the story:

By ANDREW WELSH-HUGGINS, Associated Press Writer – Sat Jul 10, 2010

Psychologists in the United States have been warned by their professional group not to take part in torturing detainees in U.S. custody.

Now the American Psychological Association has taken the unprecedented step of supporting an attempt to strip the license of a psychologist accused of overseeing the torture of a CIA detainee.

The APA has told a Texas licensing board in a letter mailed July 1 that the allegations against Dr. James Mitchell represent “patently unethical” actions inconsistent with the organization’s ethics guidelines.

If any psychologist who was a member of the APA were found to have committed the acts alleged against Mitchell, “he or she would be expelled from the APA membership,” according to the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press. APA spokeswoman Rhea Farberman confirmed its contents.

The letter is the first of its kind in the board’s history, Farberman said.

“The allegations put forward in the complaint and those that are on the public record about Dr. Mitchell are simply so serious, and if true, such a gross violation of his professional ethics, that we felt it necessary to act,” Farberman said.

Mitchell is a retired Air Force psychologist who participated in the 2002 CIA interrogation of detainee Abu Zubaydah, according to a 2008 Senate armed Services Committee report on the treatment of detainees in U.S. custody. Mitchell is not a member of the American Psychological Association.

Interrogators in Thailand subjected Zubaydah to severe cold, food and sleep deprivation, confinement in a narrow box and, with Mitchell participating, a simulated form of drowning known as waterboarding, according to the complaint filed with the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists.

“Regardless of what legal categories these techniques fall within, one conclusion is clear: a psychologist who helps inflict such cruel and shocking abuse on a defenseless human being would appear to have violated basic standards of conduct of the profession,” according to the complaint by Northwestern University law professor Joseph Margulies and filed on behalf of a Texas psychologist.

“Obviously, I’m not free to discuss any work I may have done for the CIA,” Mitchell told the AP. He called the complaint libelous and said it is “riddled throughout with fabricated details, lies, distortions and inaccuracies.”

Sherry Lee, the Texas board director, said complaints are shielded under Texas law and she could not comment.

The APA is monitoring similar filings in Ohio and New York made Wednesday against psychologists who oversaw detainee interrogations at Guantanamo Bay, but has no plans to back those efforts.

The accusations against Mitchell are “at a level of seriousness and credibility that we think is different than any other allegations against other psychologists that we know of,” Farberman said.

The San Francisco-based Center for Justice & Accountability filed a complaint against Dr. John Leso with the New York Office of the Professions, alleging professional misconduct. Leso led a behavioral science consultation team at Guantanamo in 2002 and 2003.

The complaint said Leso developed abusive interrogation techniques based on Army survival methods. Those methods, “Survive Evade Rescue and Escape” or SERE, teach soldiers how to withstand physical and psychological abuse they might face if captured by the enemy, according to the complaint against Leso.

In a second complaint, Harvard University’s International Human Rights Clinic alleges that retired Army Col. Larry James observed abusive interrogations and didn’t do anything to stop them.

The complaint says James, dean of professional psychology at Wright State University in Dayton, oversaw abuse at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba in 2003, 2007 and 2008 when he served with the base’s Behavioral Science Consultation Team.

The complaint against Leso says he is stationed at Fort Rucker, Ala. He could not be immediately reached. Messages were left Wednesday and Friday with the fort’s public affairs office. James has declined to comment. The Ohio board declined to pursue a similar complaint filed against James in 2008.

Boards in California, Louisiana and New York have rejected similar complaints in the past. But new sources of information, such as the 2008 Senate Armed Services Committee report, provide details that make the new complaints stronger, said Kathy Roberts, staff attorney with the Center for Justice & Accountability.

In 2008 the APA voted to ban its members from taking part in interrogations at the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other military detention sites where it believes international law is being violated.

The APA has also condemned the use of sexual humiliation, allegations of which are included in both the James and Leso complaints.

As a result, the Harvard clinic expects the APA to follow suit with those complaints, said Deborah Popowski, of the clinic.

Steven Reisner, a New York psychologist who brought the complaint against Leso, urged the APA to support an investigation, saying the case was similar to the Mitchell complaint.

Zubaydah was arrested in Pakistan in March 2002 on suspicion of being a top al-Qaida official. He was the first detainee subjected to Bush administration-approved harsh interrogation techniques, which included waterboarding, slamming the suspect into walls and prolonged period of nudity.

Zubaydah later told a military tribunal he suffered physical and mental torture and nearly died four times. Zubaydah claimed that after many months of such treatment, authorities concluded he was not the No. 3 person in al-Qaida as they had long believed.

    • Martha Davis
    • July 11th, 2010

    Regarding the American Psychological Association’s response to the attempt to strip the license of James Mitchell, it bears putting into perspective. The APA has already “disowned” Mitchell and Jessen, the contractors who supervised the torture/interrogation of Zubaydah, repeating several times over the years that they were not members and so it could not do anything about them. Mitchell and Jessen are the “bad apples” whom the CIA and everyone is throwing to the wolves. What the APA does not publicly acknowledge is that its staff included Mitchell and Jessen at invitation only APA conferences on how psychology could aid the War on Terror. A better indication of whether the APA is reforming and providing essential support to the state licensing boards in this tricky matter of de-licensing psychologists working in top secret sites, is whether the APA writes a similar letter for the complaints against John Leso and Larry James that are currently with state boards. Larry James was on the APA PENS Task Force that green-lighted the Behavioral Science Consultation Team role for psychologists, claiming it insures that detainee interrogations are “safe, ethical and effective,” a role that the American Psychiatric Association opposed for the psychiatrists initially assigned to those teams. Above all, the question is what really happens in action. It is not even clear that the Department of Defense withdrew all psychiatrists from the BSCT teams. And the APA has not disavowed the PENS policy despite the members’ referendum that effectively nullified it. There are still BSCTs operating in the detention sites. And there are still reports of torture, especially at Bagram.

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