Talk Nation Radio interview with Stephen Soldz on Psychologists Participating in US Military Interrogations

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By torture we don’t mean, and international law does not mean, just physical abuse. Psychological torture is probably more common these days. Stephen Soldz

Our guest this time is psychoanalyst, psychologist and public heath researcher Stephen Soldz of the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He has taken a strong stand against torture in all of its forms and he is presently working to get the American Psychological Association (APA) to enact stricter guidelines on torture.

In fact Soldz and others are withholding membership dues from the APA as a way to protest that organization’s policy on psychologists participating in interrogations.
“We have to examine the whole nexus of ties between the Military and the APA,” he says. The petition is (here).

Dori Smith: Stephen Soldz welcome to Talk Nation Radio.
Stephen Soldz: Thanks for having me.

Dori Smith: You have been working so hard to get the APA to get on board against torture. Just talk about where things stand right now and where your efforts are right now.

Stephen Soldz: Officially the APA, American Psychological Association, there are a number of APA’s, has taken a position against torture. The issue has to do with what’s actually going on in Guantanamo, the other U.S. detention facilities, mental health professionals, at this point mainly psychologists, are participating in interrogations and what are called ‘behavioral science consultation teams,’ or ‘biscuits’ BCTS as they get referred to. And there have been repeated accounts in the Press, in the New Yorker and Salon and MSNBC and the New York Times that these psychologists are participating in abuse in either torture or certainly cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment banned by U.S. and international law. So there have been repeated accounts of this occurring. The APA has done nothing to look into these accounts and has strongly supported over and over again the participation of psychologists in interrogations. Though, to be fair to them they claim that the psychologists are not supposed to participate in torture or abuse. They just do nothing to find out whether in fact they are doing so.

So this has been an issue for years. A couple of years ago, in 2005, the Association appointed a Presidential Task Force on National Security, or PENS Task Force, (PDF File) to form policy on this. Now, somewhat oddly they kept the membership secret at least for quite a while.

Mark Benjamin in Salon last summer finally revealed that up to nine voting members, because there was a chair who was non voting, six were from the Military, five with intelligence ties, Military or intelligence agencies, so six of nine are from the Military with five of them having direct intelligence connections. So it was a completely stacked task force. Not surprisingly they said, ‘Oh it’s ethical for psychologists to participate in interrogations though they shouldn’t participate in torture.’

The APA then circumvented their own procedures which would have had that being debated by their council of representatives, which is an elected body, something like 170 members. Instead they took it straight to the board which usually doesn’t get things until after it’s been approved by the counsel of representatives and within a few days of approval of the so-called PENS report it was approved by the board. And then they touted this that this was ethical.

Meanwhile, the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association (pdf) have said it is not ethical for their members to participate in interrogations in any direct way, either to be present or to consult on interrogations of individuals. So they do allow the possibility of consulting on general strategies. So the American Psychological Association stands out of the mental health professions in allowing this. So the Military announced last summer that at this point they quote ‘prefer psychologists’ for these BCTS because of the differing approaches of the mental health profession and different ethics guidelines.

The Military notices these things. The APA uses every trick in their book to avoid changing, every institutional way to muddy the issue, to delay, to make sure nothing really happens. And last summer they voted on an anti torture resolution, which is fine, it sounds good but it completely ignored the issue that what raised it was allegations that torture is occurring at Guantanamo and elsewhere. They completely ignored that and have refused to do any investigation and have attacked people who have claimed this.

For example, the APA President in 2006 said, ‘A number of opportunistic commentators masquerading as scholars have continued to report on alleged abuses by mental health professionals. Obviously, the APA is not interested in finding out what is really going on. They are interested in protecting their ties to the Military at all costs, and also possibly the prestige of psychology as being helpful to the Military in these efforts.

So there are a number of us who are very unhappy with this. There has been this undercurrent of dissatisfaction but it has been hard to focus it. The APA I have to say has been very good at using every bureaucratic and institutional means that there is to deflect and delay.

But things are proceeding. There is a resolution to declare a moratorium on psychologist participation until the issue can be further debated. This we hope will come up at the council representative meeting in August. Our latest strategy is to run a presidential candidate, Steven Reisner who has been a vocal critic of participation in interrogations. We are running him on a single issue campaign of getting out of the interrogations business and joining the American Medical and American Psychiatric and by the way American Nursing Association.

Dori Smith: I know Reisner has said something about the Hippocratic Oath when he first started to discuss this and come out as a leader, to try to take a position within the APA and to have some influence there. Is it to run the organization?

Stephen Soldz: A lot of the running is done by permanent staff. There’s an executive director and then there is a president each year. So it would be at least partly a moral force but we hope to use that as leverage to reform the organization and change the policy.

Dori Smith: He had said, and I’m quoting him, ‘the Hippocratic oath says do no harm. It does not say measure harm and see if it is the correct amount.’ Explain what that means in terms of the medical aspect of what a psychoanalyst or a psychologist in any case would do in a situation involving an interrogation.

Stephen Soldz: You see doctors have this Hippocratic Oath that everyone swears upon, I don’t know if it is upon graduation from medical school or getting a license, and the first line is ‘first do no harm.’ The psychology ethics code has somewhat similar language, something like ‘psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and to do no harm.’ But it doesn’t have the same role in psychology practice as the Hippocratic Oath has in medicine. So we are trying to make the force of that stronger.

What’s been interesting is that the APA leadership has basically poo-pooed this thing about striving to benefit those with whom they work because presumably the way detainees are being treated they are not benefiting and they are being harmed by what’s being done to them. From the data that we have of what these biscuit psychologists do it involves increasing the stress and finding individual triggers using individual detainee fears and weaknesses against them. So if someone has a phobia of dogs then you use dogs in the interrogation as they have been doing. If someone has a phobia of confined places you put them in a confined place. This certainly doesn’t fall under any reasonable version of the Hippocratic Oath or for that matter under the APA ethics guidelines either.

Dori Smith: Stephen Soldz, the difference again, in terms of mental health care, why is that an exception? How did that happen? I mean was it the Military influence?

Stephen Soldz: Well first, speaking of the psychological community, psychoanalysis is sort of a specialty form of treatment that includes people trained as psychoanalysts who may have varied backgrounds; it’s primarily psychology and then psychiatry, in terms of the distinctions in the health professions which can be confusing. There are two aspects, one is its not mental health that’s going on, it’s consulting on interrogations. So the American Psychological Association would say ‘well these people are not health providers, unlike you therapists.’ But the Military in fact says that the BCTS psychologists are health providers, this is a crucial point because health providers are held to a different standard, potentially. It has to do with the nature of what is psychology going to be as a profession, is it OK to consult on harming people as long as you are not their therapist?

We say no. I’m not sure what the APA would say on that but they are very anxious to expand the realm of professional activities open to psychologist beyond the traditional mental health boundaries, beyond helping people with their personal problems. Presumably they don’t want to tick the military off by taking a position against interrogations. Rather, they would like to say, ‘oh we are so useful, see how useful we are to you, we can do all of these different things.’

Dori Smith: How might this affect people who rely on therapists in general? How might this all have an impact on their ability to trust their therapist which I understand is very important?

Stephen Soldz: Well trust is absolutely central, I mean patients are telling their therapists the most personal details of their lives and in the absence of trust that’s impossible and help is impossible. So this can have a very serious impact. It’s actually not just the interrogations issue. Recently, information has come to light of a joint conference at the APA that was held, I think it was in 2002, with the FBI in which the FBI was advocating that basically therapists act as spies. And if they hear from somebody that their neighbor or their brother or their friend might be doing something suspicious they should turn them in and they wanted the APA to change their ethics guidelines to make this ethical.

So it could go considerably beyond what is going on at Guantanamo and the other detention facilities, but in general to hear that psychologists are engaging in abusive treatment can affect all mental health professions. Are people going to trust a profession that thinks it’s OK to do that? I don’t know, but if it gets more popularized that could be a serious issue.

Dori Smith: How has U.S. torture affected our view of the U.S. Military as an entity set up to protect the American people?

Stephen Soldz: The way I think of it is that it increases the denial. One of the most dangerous social trends is that people just want to not think about the bad things that are going on. Many people are against the Iraq War but they just don’t want to hear about it, you know Abu Ghraib comes up in pictures and they say, ‘I just can’t deal with it.’
The biggest danger is that it increases that tendency of people to shut down. You don’t want to think that your side that the U.S. Military are doing these bad things so you simply won’t think about it. And how can you have any kind of democratic debate when people can’t think about all of the different aspects of what’s happening and don’t inform themselves?

Then we also have the media that of course doesn’t play a very good role in informing the public. But I think at the public level these things increase a kind of cynical turning off that doesn’t help anybody, or maybe it helps the government to accomplish some of their ends because there is less accountability when people can’t deal with it.

Dori Smith: Just give us a definition of psychological torture so we can understand what the topic is a little better.

Stephen Soldz: By torture we don’t mean, and international law does not mean, just physical abuse. Psychological torture is probably more common these days. I think people don’t understand how horrific the kind of absolute isolation, having no human contact, the sensory depravation for many of the people both Jose Padilla and the people in Guantanamo, they are kept under bright lights 24 hours a day, they are denied even the ability to cover their eyes. There are detainees at Guantanamo who were given 15 pieces of toilet paper a day. When one of them used the toilet paper to cover his eyes from the bright lights so he could sleep at night the toilet paper was taken away as an ‘inappropriate use’.

This is designed to break people down, to destroy their personalities. The use of loud music, we are talking about music just below the point of breaking ear drums for hours and hours on end. When Jose Padilla was taken to the dentist they put goggles over his eyes so he couldn’t see anything. They put ear muffs over his ears so he couldn’t hear anything. This is horrifying. It’s designed to destroy people and it has long lasting and in many cases permanent psychological affects that people may never get over. So that’s what is being done.

Dori Smith: We are speaking with Stephen Soldz a member of the faculty of Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He co-edited the book ‘Reconciling Empirical Knowledge and Clinical Experience, the Art and Science of Psychotherapy’, with Leigh McCullough in 2000, and has authored numerous papers for magazines such as ‘Psychotherapy Research’ and ‘The International Journal of Group Psychotherapy”.

But Stephen Soldz also writes about issues of peace and justice. You can find recent articles in Counterpunch and you can learn more online at

Other members of the American Psychological Association such as past President Gerald Koocher have stated support for psychologist participation in interrogations carried out in facilities such as the top secret U.S. Military prison on Guantanamo Bay Cuba. We contacted the APA for comment but they did not return our call. A follow up call from us resulted in a reply from Pam Willenz at that organization that she had no one to speak with us at this time. She suggested that we email her and we have done so in the hope that someone from the APA can be heard on Talk Nation Radio in the future so that we can get their position on torture and psychologists participating in interrogations in general.

If you log on to the web site of the APA it appears to be a typical health organization with referrals to therapists and updates on treatments for depression and PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There is also information for parents about topics like bullying and for students seeking careers in psychology.

A closer look reveals some not too subtle invitations into careers with the US Military. But it is APA policy that ‘psychologists participating in terror related interrogations are fulfilling valuable and ethical roles to assist in protecting the U.S. and other nations and innocent civilians from harm,’ their web site says.

As to America’s prospects for peace in the Middle East there is a possibility that some U.S. forces will leave Iraq, at least. On March 12th Reuters reported that U.S. Military planners have a fall back strategy if the U.S. troops build up fails to stabilize Iraq. This would involve a strategy of pulling troops back combined with an advisory role similar to the U.S. experience in El Salvador in the 1980s they reported. –At that time there were few if any stories about violence in El Salvador making the corporate news. In complete obscurity therefore El Salvadorans who were trained by the U.S. at the U.S. Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning Georgia participated in mass arrests, atrocities, death squads, torture, and the killing of priests and nuns. It was not until a UN led truth commission report came out on the disaster that members of Congress helped peace groups to pressure the first Bush Administration for an end to Military aid to El Salvador.

Finally, as they seek more funding for the U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Bush administration has tried to push members of Congress back into a more militant posture. Military and security experts, meanwhile, have been advising the Administration to keep negotiating. Yet, Vice President Dick Cheney seemed to rule out negotiations with those he sees as enemies of Israel or America in the Middle East. Here is a portion of what he told a meeting of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, just this week.

‘An enemy that operates in the shadows and views the entire world as a battle field is not one we can fight with strategies used in other wars. An enemy with fantasies of martyrdom is not going to sit down at a table for negotiations. Nor can we fight to a standoff hoping that some form of containment or deterrence will protect our people. The only option for our security and survival is to go on the offensive facing the threat directly, patiently and systematically until the enemy is destroyed.’ (Vice President Dick Cheney March 12, 2007)

I asked Stephen Soldtz to talk about the way the current administration’s hard line policies such as torture have been affecting society and the Military.

Stephen Soldz: There are some signs that culture has changed the recent discussion about the show 24 which features torture on a regular basis in a very positive light. Even the Military have gotten concerned. The New Yorker reported that some Military officers went to the director of 24 and asked them to tone down the torture because U.S. troops in Iraq are being influenced by it to practice what they see there.

I want to emphasize that despite any opinions on what the Military is doing that the Military is very split on these abuses and there are significant factions in there who do not approve of torture and have been aghast at what’s been going on there. And I feel that they deserve credit regardless of what one thinks of the Iraq War or other aspects of the current military operations.

But in terms of the brutalization of society, certainly overseas we have this traditional problem that Americans don’t pay a lot of attention to other countries. We just read the news from Iraq and senior officers are routinely talking about the ‘bad guys’ –the ‘bad guys this, the bad guys that,’ I think just this morning I saw in their move into Sadr City, home for two and a half million Iraqis, ten percent of the total population, ‘there were a lot of bad guys who were in hiding.’ I mean if the senior military leadership is thinking about ‘good guys and bad guys’ how in the world can you make discriminations about use of violence in an environment which is more like cowboy movies than reality?

Dori Smith: It’s becoming an accepted idea anyway that the harshest tactics must be used in the so-called war on terror to stop an attack on America somehow. That torture must be used in order to stop the worst case scenario anywhere in the world, Iraq, Afghanistan, America, and our whole culture has changed now to support this trend towards the use of torture supposedly to protect Americans.

Stephen Soldz: Yeah the ticking time bomb scenario which I gather that people who have looked into it have never found an instance where if you don’t get the information out of someone within an hour there is going to be a bomb going off.

Interestingly former President Clinton and also Hillary Clinton have endorsed the use of torture in those circumstances. They want it legalized with something like ‘torture warrants’ but it was rather shocking to see them endorsing torture in these circumstances while condemning it in general.

We do have this general brutalization but I think also if you are thinking, ‘good guy bad guy’ then by definition those who suffer this are ‘bad guys’. That’s always the reason why we can close our eyes to abuses in the criminal justice system. After all they must be guilty why else would they be there? And we close our eyes to the torture and as you mentioned the Military Commissions Act because, ‘it would only be done to bad guys, besides which you know I really can’t think about it’. –It’s going to come back to haunt us in various ways, I don’t think we know in what ways yet. While we do have leaders criticizing some of the abuses we really don’t have any leaders saying, ‘you know the world’s a little more complicated than that’ and if you want to deal with Iraq maybe you have to understand why people are fighting U.S. occupying forces. You have to understand the different factions that are fighting there and maybe you even have to understand the so-called terrorists. I mean terrorism may be bad but terrorists in most cases have political goals in mind, even it looks like Osama Bin Laden has political goals of getting the U.S. out of the Middle East. And this ‘good guy bad guy’ stuff never works. It didn’t work with the IRA, it doesn’t work with the Irgun in Israel, and it won’t work today. Eventually these things get solved through some type of negotiation and political solution. You know you can’t kill everyone who might be sympathetic to so-called terrorists. Maybe you can but its too horrific to imagine.

Dori Smith: A whole people become vilified and able to be attacked or targeted or bombed or what have you?

Stephen Soldz: Yes, there’s no ability to make distinctions. I did a piece looking at some of the memoirs of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. These were people who were there in the earlier stages, the first year or two. One thing that was striking was that no where in the three books I looked at was even the term Sunni and Shiite mentioned, you know U.S. troops were completely oblivious to them. There was simply the ‘good guys and the bad guys’. And while at moments some of them could imagine why would someone fight us when we are here 5,000 miles away from home in their homes busting down their door, and they quickly went back to the ‘good guy bad guy’ scenario. But who is the bad guy? It seems like it’s almost any Iraqi.

Dori Smith: When it’s applied to us, when it blows back in our direction and then we get vilified as a people then we are more able to be targeted right and thus 9/11?

Stephen Soldz: And of course, we don’t accept, and rightly don’t accept being put in these terms of ‘the bad guys’. We want fine distinctions between particular acts of our government and the American people. Well it applies the same to other countries and other peoples.

Dori Smith: Getting back to your petition with regard to the APA are you calling on the APA to do specific things and if so let’s just list them, I mean have you looked at practices, do you want them to take some sort of time to organize a promise not to support torture, are you looking at Military contracts, what exactly are you trying to organize here?

Stephen Soldz: The first step is to get a moratorium on the participation of psychologists in national security interrogations of so-called enemy combatants. This is to get some breathing space for the organization to engage in a legitimate participatory democratic process to debate it. We consider the PENs task force with its secret military intelligence dominated membership to be illegitimate and that that should be set aside and the organization needs to set a new policy.

I personally advocate what’s called the ‘bright line’ that psychologists should never be involved in interrogations. I don’t think a health profession should be. There are other people among our group who disagree, who think that if there are appropriate human rights safeguards which don’t exist at present at Guantanamo, that it would be OK for psychologists to participate in interrogations. So this is an issue that needs to be resolved democratically with an open process, not a task force meeting in secret being rushed through, that’s the first step.

Then, I personally, I’m speaking now as an individual, believe that we have to examine the whole nexus of ties between the Military and the APA, the American Psychological Association. How did we get here? How did it turn out that the APA leadership has gone so out on a limb to defend participation in interrogations? We need to find out.

It may be that the best way to find out would be a Congressional investigation of what’s going on in Guantanamo, the mental health professional’s participation in activities there, I don’t know that anyone but Congress has the ability to find that out. And maybe also of what’s going on with the APA because we need some type of independent look at that. It seems that something is rotten in Denmark but exactly what isn’t clear.

Dori Smith: Psyche, Science and Society is the blog if you would like to continue this conversation with Stephen Soldz. You can also find him at The petition for a moratorium on psychoanalysts and psychologists participating in torture is at Stephen Soldz thank you so much for joining us.

Stephen Soldz: Well thank you.

For Talk Nation Radio I’m Dori Smith. Talk Nation is produced in the studios of WHUS, Radio for the People at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. to listen live Wed. at 5 PM. Talk or for transcripts and discussion. Our music is by Fritz Heede and also this time the Known Unknowns with Tell the Truth.

The Center For Constitutational Rights has announced that a damages complaint has been filed on behalf of former Guantanamo detainees.


March 22, 2007, New York, NY – Last night, attorneys at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) added new plaintiffs and new defendants to a lawsuit seeking unspecified damages and declaratory relief for five released Guantánamo detainees who spent years in captivity under abusive conditions at the offshore prison camp. The suit is brought against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Richard Myers, and dozens of others, including civilian and military personnel at Guantánamo Bay. It charges that the Pentagon chain of command authorized and condoned torture and other mistreatment in violation of the Alien Tort Statute, the Vienna Convention, the U.S. Constitution, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the Federal Civil Rights Act. None of the former detainees has ever been a member of any terrorist group, and all were released without being charged with any crime. The suit was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

CCR, which represents many of the detainees at Guantánamo and coordinates the work of nearly 500 pro bono attorneys, filed the original complaint on November 11, 2006 on behalf of Yuksel Celikgogus and Ibrahim Sen, two Turkish citizens who were released from Guantánamo in 2004. The new plaintiffs added yesterday include Turkish citizen Nuri Mert, Uzbekistan citizen Zakirjan Hasam, and Algerian citizen Abu Muhammad. Hasam and Muhammad, both refugees sent by the U.S. against their will to Albania, were determined to be non-enemy combatants at their Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRT’s) in late 2004, yet were not released until two years later. Celikgogus and Sen were released without charge before the creation of the CSRT process.

Said former detainee Abu Muhammad, “Guantánamo destroyed my life. I lost four and a half years of my life – there’s no way that the government can replace that, but it hasn’t even tried. I am alone in Albania without my family, a job, or a future. I used to believe that the United States stood for justice and fairness, but I cannot believe that anymore after what I have been through.”

Abu Muhammad is a 43-year-old medical doctor and Algerian refugee who was taken from his pregnant wife and five children in Pakistan in 2002, sent to Guantánamo for four years and released to Albania on November 16, 2006. Zakirjan Hasam, an Uzbek refugee who fled religious persecution in Uzbekistan, was transferred to the U.S. in 2002 by Afghanis who he believes received a bounty from the U.S. government, and was also released on November 16, 2006 and transferred to Albania. Yuksel Celikgogus is a 39-year-old Turkish citizen and father of three. Ibrahim Sen is a 26-year-old Turkish citizen. Both Sen and Celikgogus were released to Turkey on November 22, 2003, after two years in U.S. custody. Nuri Mert, a 35-year-old Turkish citizen and father of four, was released to Turkey on April 1, 2004, after being detained for more than 2 years by the U.S.

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