“Whistle-blower” Michael Gelles throws in lot with American Psychological Association on interrogations issue
March 21st, 2007
Michael Gelles, a psychologist and formerly in charge of Naval criminal investigations at Guantanamo, is well known as a one of those who called attention within the Department of Defense, to reported abuses occurring during interrogations at Guantanamo. In December 2003 he filed a report with his boss, David Brant, then head of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. Brandt in turn took these accusation to Alberto J. Mora, at that time general counsel of the United States Navy. Jane Mayer, in her New Yorker article, The Memo, tells the story of the efforts by Brandt and Mora to oppose the Bush administration’s torture policies.
In the story of psychologists at Guantanamo, Dr. Gelles is the only one known to have behaved honorably. Unfortunately, in a recent letter to the American Psychological Association, Dr. Gelles is trading upon that honor to support the participation of psychologists in interrogations at US detention facilities. Dr. Gelles comes out swinging at those of us who are struggling to end such participation.
Here is Dr. Gelles’ letter. It is addressed to Neil Altman — who is the chief sponsor of a proposed APA Resolution to call a Moratorium on psychologist involvement of national security “enemy combatant” detainees [the APA leadership has been resolutely opposed to this resolution] — and to Olivia Moorehead-Slaughter, head of the APA’s Ethics Committee, and formerly Chair of the infamous Presidential task force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS). [This was the task force in which six of nine voting members were from the military and intelligence communities, and on which Gelles served.]:
Michael G. Gelles, Psy.D., ABPP
4 Professional Drive
Gaithersburg, MD 20879
March 14, 2007
Dr. Neil Altman
Dr. Olivia Moorehead-Slaughter
Dear Drs. Altman and Moorehead-Slaughter,
Recently, I learned about the resolution in progress that calls for a moratorium on psychologist involvement in military interrogations conducted at centers for foreign detainees. I felt that it was important to write to you both as a psychologist who for almost twenty years was intimately involved in work related to national security and public safety (I am now no longer in government service), and as a member of the American Psychological Association. I have enormous respect for those who bring a sense of social justice to this issue. For that very reason, I respectfully request that you consider a different perspective on the resolution in progress, from a psychologist whose presence at a detention facility and involvement in interrogation consultations resulted directly in the uncovering of deeply disturbing events.
Based on my active involvement, I was able to bring forth grave concerns to senior leaders about what I had learned. These leaders then changed the methods and procedures used to elicit information. My actions are of public record in the press and in memoranda to senior public officials. My primary concern with the resolution lies in the ramifications if psychologists with appropriate training and professional guidance are not present in these settings. I firmly believe that my presence and active engagement had a significant and positive impact on the manner in which interrogations are conducted.
As you well know, there are very different and competing philosophies regarding what methods should be permissible in eliciting information from detainees. Unfortunately, at times in the past, those who have both conducted and consulted to interrogations and who have worked to develop methods for eliciting information have had little or no training, guidance, or oversight. The results have been catastrophic and the collateral damage far reaching. Interrogations left to those who are not properly trained can lead to drift and result in brutality, which is utterly contrary to the competent and effective methods for eliciting accurate and reliable information employed by those who have the appropriate training and experience.
Having worked with law enforcement, the intelligence community and correctional officers, I am very familiar with the structure and function of detention facilities. I am too aware of how easily aggression can get out of hand, and how the well intentioned can become carried away with emotion and perverse purpose and drift across boundaries, all of which may result in aggressive, violent and humiliating acts to detainees. We know that well trained professionals, clear guidelines, established procedures and scrupulous oversight serve to keep in check aggression and the tendency to over identify with a role and a method. Removing trained professional psychologists from these settings will impact the degree of oversight and inevitably increase the likelihood of abuse, thus having precisely the opposite effect of what occurred as a result of my involvement at Guantanamo Bay.
The need for psychologists to consult in the areas of law enforcement and intelligence will continue in both domestic and foreign settings. The critical question is whether professional psychology, of which APA is the leader, will bring to the debate over interrogations, as well as to the practice of interrogations, a philosophy that leaves no room for abuse, cruelty or humiliation. APA has taken exactly the right position: Abusing anyone for any reason is unethical and antithetical to the very notion of a psychologist. APA’s philosophy of interrogation, founded upon the value of building rapport, precludes abusive behavior of any kind. Rather than a reason for APA to withdraw from settings in which interrogations take place, that abuses have taken place is itself a powerful reason, and identifies a professional need, to have APA as a strong and forceful presence and voice in these settings.
Like most psychologists, I am deeply disturbed by the legal framework that has arisen regarding the detainees. I am also profoundly disturbed by the treatment of mentally ill persons in our jails and prisons. Recent media accounts of occurrences in US correctional facilities depict incidents as heinous as those recounted by the media regarding foreign facilities. Our response should not therefore be to withdraw from correctional facilities. Likewise, we must not “throw the baby out with the bath water,” but we must rather examine the mistakes that have been made and the abuses that have occurred in interrogation settings, continue to develop guidelines and parameters that direct us professionally, and remain fully engaged with these difficult and complex issues.
My direct experience leads me to conclude that we should remain engaged in interrogations as a persistent voice for the right way to do things. I am deeply concerned for our profession, our communities, and our nation as a whole, should psychologists withdraw from participating in settings as profdsionals who bring value to a broad spectrum of activities and initiatives that, when conducted in a competent and ethical fashion, propagate humane treatment, facilitate the eliciting of accurate and reliable information, and promote peace by preventing acts of violence.
In terms of future APA initiatives, I would strongly support a document that assists psychologists in maintaining the highest ethical standards of our profession. APA has set forth multiple.and clear prohibitions for psychologists consulting to interrogations. Rather than focus on what psychologists cannot do, I would respectfully suggest that it would be more productive for APA to provide guidance that promotes ethical behavior by addressing what psychologists in challenging and ambiguous ethical situations may do to ensure they remain firmly within the bounds of our ethics, and by addressing what we as colleagues can do to support their efforts. Such a positive statement would be affirming of the role that psychologists play and would make a significant contribution to psychologists in this and other areas of work, a contribution that would be especially valuable to our newest members.
Dr. Gelles writes in the letter as if his experience is typical, that most psychologists would use their expertise to prevent abuse. There is, of course, no reason whatsoever to believe this argument. The reason we know so well the name of Michael Gelles is precisely because of his uniqueness. He was the only psychologist to report abuse. The official Army Surgeon General’s investigation of the Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) psychologists states that virtually none of them witnessed abuse. Given the well-documented wealth of abusive treatment at Guantanamo, this finding means that the vast majority of BSCTs closed their eyes to the abuse they witnessed. In fact, all the evidence we have suggest that the primary role of psychologists at Guantanamo, Gelles excepted, was to promote techniques, those of the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) program, that are widely regarded as constituting either torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
It should also be noted that Dr. Gelles was at Guantanamo as a criminal investigator, not as an “national security” interrogator. He was able to raise issues regarding the treatment on detainees and retain his position, at least temporarily, because he was not part of the military intelligence chain of command. Rather, as Mayer and others make clear, Gelles reported abuse up the chain of command. It was only because that chain of command chose to support him and act upon it, that any action was taken upon this information. BSCT psychologists, being part of a chain of command that was dedicated to “taking the gloves off” and abusing detainees, would undoubtedly suffer severe career setbacks, or worse, should they choose to call attention to the abuses they were imported to inflict.
It should also be remembered that, while Dr. Gelles’ behavior in filing his report was honorable, it was not heroic. The report was filed in December 2003. Yet, despite the severity of the abuses he witnessed and reported upon, Dr. Gelles did not go public. Perhaps the first public mention of his concerns was in a March 2005 Boston Globe article by Charlie Savage. In fact, the Mayer article is the story of the failure of these efforts to prevent abuse, as her subtitle indicates: How an internal effort to ban the abuse and torture of detainees was thwarted.
The letter by Dr. Gelles, further, skirts around the fundamental human rights violations that are at the heart of Guantanamo. In the context of the 2006 Military Commissions Act abolishing habeas corpus access to courts for detainees and the authorizing the President to reinterpret the Geneva Conventions ban on torture, there is no legal framework that can support whistle blowers or allow detainees any route to redress torture or other highly abusive conditions. Psychologists may have a proper and honorable role at Guantanamo as mental health providers, should the DOD decide to provide treatment for the massive mental disturbances they are creating there. But there is no honorable role for psychologists in interrogations. Such a role constitutes a fundamental conflict of interest with the primary health promoting role of the profession.
Finally, Dr. Gelles ignores the considerable evidence being brought forth by detainees’ attorneys that the treatment of detainees at Guantanmo continues to be horrific. In fact, many of the detainees there today are being systematically driven insane by the combination of prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, and being subject to extreme temperatures. This treatment goes on for months, even years, apparently as an assertion of naked power. Guantanamo is an assertion of the power to destroy souls. Until Gelles comes to terms with that, his opinions on APA policy will lack moral force.
Gelles’ letter was emailed to all 170+ members of the Association’s Council of Representatives and Board. In typical APA fashion, they refused to send out a response by Neil Altman, whose position Gelles was critiquing. They did, however, post it, along with Gelles’ letter, on the Association’s ethics web page.
Here is the Altman letter that APA didn’t have the decency to send out to recipients of the Gelles letter:
Neil Altman, Ph.D.
127 W. 79th St. #3
New York, NY 10024
Dr. Michael Gelles
Dr. Olivia Moorehead-Slaughter
March 18, 2007
Dear Drs. Gelles and Moorehead-Slaughter,
I appreciate receiving your letter, Dr. Gelles, and I resonate with many of the points you make in it. I admire your courage in reporting your concerns about interrogations to senior leaders, and I agree with you that psychologists can potentially have a positive effect in training interrogators in safe and effective ways, based on the fostering of rapport, of questioning detainees. However, I would like to make some additional points, not addressed in your letter, that have convinced me that it is not appropriate for psychologists to be involved in interrogations at US detention centers holding “enemy combatants”.
1. Psychologists working in the detention centers could legally be ordered to train or otherwise to participate in interrogations that would be illegal under international law, but legal under current US law. As per the military commissions bill of 2006, only “grave breaches” of the Geneva Conventions, as defined by the President, qualify as war crimes under US law. Simple breaches of the Geneva Conventions are not illegal under current US law as long as they do not rise to the level of “grave breaches” in the view of the President. A psychologist who reported abuses to superiors, as you did, would have to make the case that what he or she observed was more than simply a breach of the Geneva Conventions.
2. The use of interrogation techniques that are damaging to the psychological state of detainees is not limited to those who are not properly trained. “Fear up” “Pride and ego down” and “futility” techniques of interrogation are acceptable in the military as long as they do not cross a line into torture, or cruel, inhuman, or inhuman treatment. This line, however, is poorly defined. When does “pride and ego down” become humiliation (banned under the Geneva Conventions), when does “fear up” become a threat (also banned), and so on. The answer has to be: no one can know for certain, because the standard set by the Geneva Conventions is not the same as the standard currently set by the US Government. Psychologists working in the detention centers could be ordered to train interrogators in techniques that create fear and damage the self esteem of detainees, and they would have no right to object unless the damage met the standard set by a “grave” breach of the Geneva Conventions. A psychologist could object that training interrogators in techniques that raise the fear and humiliation level of detainees runs counter to the ethical principles of psychologists that state that psychologists do no harm. Presumably the forthcoming case book could advise psychologists in techniques that are considered unethical from this point of view. Yet, if the techniques are legal under US law, the psychologists could be legally ordered to participate; if they decided to participate for fear of damage to their careers or fear of court martial, they would have an ethical loophole in the form of standards 1.02 and 1.03 that allow psychologists to follow orders even when they run counter to the ethical principles.
3. Your reporting of abuses to your superiors was a courageous and noble act. It does not follow that such action should be expected from all military psychologists. Assessing the legal status of an interrogation technique and reporting abuses is not in the training and job description of a psychologist. To put psychologists in a position where they would have to do so is to take upon ourselves, as a profession, the burden of trying to prevent or undo the damage caused by inadequate legal protection. This burden properly belongs to politicians and government officials whose job it is to protect basic human rights.
4. I do not think it would be appropriate to call for a moratorium on the presence of psychologists in prisons because, despite the mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners, those prisoners do have legal rights and courts of law to which they can turn to challenge their detentions and the treatment they are receiving. This is not the case for “enemy combatants”.
5. In an ambiguous legal framework, psychologists and others who participate directly and indirectly in interrogations are in danger of damage to their careers if they refuse an order they find unethical or illegal, but in danger of future criminal prosecution if they carry out that order. Government officials are retroactively protected against war crimes prosecution under the 2006 Military Commissions bill, showing how seriously the threat of future criminal prosecution is being taken by those who have authorized interrogation techniques. APA, in my view, needs to take seriously the question of how to protect psychologists from such a no-win situation.
I understand that the absence of psychologists in detention centers would do nothing directly or immediately to improve the situation there, and could even lead to short-term deterioration in conditions if advocates for safe and effective interrogations were removed. On the other hand, in my view the problem is systemic, a lack of legal protection of basic human rights, not a few people who are poorly trained and as a result get carried away. APA, all of us as a group, can make a better contribution to changing this situation by publicly recognizing it as untenable for psychologists and for all those who live and work in the detention centers. We do not want to create any impression, unjustified though it may be, that we approve of the legal framework around the detention centers by virtue of our functioning within that framework.
Once again, Dr. Gelles, I have the highest respect for you and for what you have done. I appreciate and respect your concern.
Neil Altman, Ph.D.
The cover email sent out with the Gelles letter quoted bioethicist Steven Miles in support:
Dear Members of Council,
At Council in February I provided an update on PENS-related activities. I discussed a moratorium resolution introduced by Neil Altman as part of APA’s ongoing work on this issue. As I mentioned during my presentation, Dr. Altman’s resolution and accompanying materials can be found on the ethics portion of APA’s website (www.apa.org/ethics).
Attached please find a letter from Dr. Mike Gelles offering a different perspective on the resolution. Dr. Gelles is an APA member whose actions at Guantanamo Bay, calling abuses to the attention of his superiors, resulted in what medical ethicist Steven Miles has called a “successful medical protest of prisoner abuse.” Dr. Gelles’ actions have been discussed in the press, including in the New Yorker Magazine.
Dr. Altman and Dr. Gelles will have further correspondences related to this issue, which will be available at the ethics website. I encourage you to visit the website to read their ongoing exchanges on this important issue. In addition, this Friday at Consolidated, there will be an open meeting at 5pm to discuss Dr. Altman’s resolution. Dr. Altman will be present for discussion and to answer questions.
I therefore asked Steven Miles to comment on the Gelles letter. Here is his reply [Updated 3-23-2007 to fix minor errors.]:
March 23, 2007
Re: APA and Dr. Gelles letter to the Council.
Dear Members of APA and its Council,
I am a physician who has conducted extensive research on the role of clinicians and behavioral scientists in support of interrogation in military prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan, and at Guantanamo Bay. My book, Oath Betrayed: Torture, Medical Complicity, and the War on Terror, was cited by APA leadership in commending the letter of Dr. Michael Gelles in support of the APA position on interrogation to you.
I respect Dr. Gelles and entirely disagree with his letter. In no way, does my review of 40,000 pages of the declassified government files pertaining to these matters give me any confidence in the APA PENS position as amended at your meeting last summer.
The APA position is unique among clinical societies and it has been rejected by its community of sister societies. Dr. Gelles’s argument does not successfully allay those criticisms.
Dr. Gelles was a whistle blower for some of the most egregious abuses at Guantanamo. However, it is important to note that he played this role in his capacity as chief psychologist for the Navy Criminal Investigative Service and not as a frontline member of the Guantanamo Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCT) which recommended interrogation plans. There is no evidence of protest of abusive interrogations from those frontline behavioral scientists or physicians. Furthermore Dr. Gelles’ critique was unwelcome and would have failed without the allied support of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit and the command and legal leadership of the Navy Criminal Investigative Service. Even then, the clinical staff at Guantanamo continued to assist abusive interrogations and failed to establish, or use, an abuse reporting system.
Dr. Gelles does not explain how well-trained psychologists and psychiatrists at Guantanamo Bay and in Iraq failed to exercise oversight over abusive interrogation or to institute structural reforms of those clearly dangerous environments. He asserts, without support, that these professionals were not properly trained or lacked adequate oversight. The Defense Department defends the very interrogation to which Dr. Gelles objected as conducted according to a “very detailed plan” by “trained professionals in a controlled environment, with active supervision and oversight.”[ http://bioethics.net/journal/j_articles.php?aid=1140] And yet, Dr. Gelles argues that psychologists should “remain engaged in interrogations.”
Dr. Gelles fails to explain the need for empowered therapeutic psychological services in these prisons. In asymmetrically calling for guidelines for psychologist’s participation in interrogations, he ignores the most pressing question in military interrogation facilities, “If the psychologists are working for the interrogators, who are the advocates for the prisoners’ mental health?”
Dr. Gelles ignores the alternative approach of non-engagement in breaking prisoners down that was aggressively pushed by the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit and dismissed by the military. This approach would be entirely compatible with the American Psychiatric Association position.
Dr. Gelles tacit endorsement of the APA-PENS position (a position he coauthored) fails to note how the August 9, 2006 APA Resolution Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment entirely capitulates to the anomalous legal position of the United States government.
• The APA endorses the McCain amendment which became the Detainee Treatment Act. This act only applies to psychologists working in the Armed Forces and does not apply to intelligence agency interrogations. It is further limited by President Bush’s signing statement, “The executive branch shall construe [the Act] in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President to supervise the unitary executive branch and as Commander in Chief and consistent with … protecting the American people from further terrorist attacks.”
• It endorses a parochial to the United States definition of “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment” as meaning treatment or punishment that, “would be ‘prohibited by the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States, as defined in the United States Reservations, Declarations and Understandings to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment done at New York, December 10, 1984.’” The United States has rejected such parochial national definitions of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment that have been invoked by other countries.
• The APA resolution is silent on the Geneva Conventions which is entirely in accord with the Military Commissions Act of 2006, “No alien unlawful enemy combatant subject to trial by military commission under this chapter may invoke the Geneva Conventions as a source of rights.” Later it says, “The President has the authority for the United States to interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions.”
Finally, and perhaps most dangerously Dr. Gelles, proposes that US military clinicians be given a set of professional duties to which we strenuously object when taken by other countries. I doubt that Dr. Gelles would be willing to argue that the former Soviet Union was correct in its misuse of sluggish schizophrenia or China’s similar political use of psychiatric treatment. The international precedent here is extremely dangerous. As Dr. Gelles told the Boston Globe in 2005, “if the goal is to get reliable and accurate information, … rapport-building is the best approach.”
The APA has put itself in a difficult position somewhat akin to a client or friend who insists that all of his respected friends’ or colleagues’ counsel that his plans are imprudent or dangerous are mistaken. In such situations, more reflection to cultivate insight and foresight usually has a salutary effect.
Steven H. Miles, MD
Center for Bioethics
Dept of Medicine
University of Minnesota
612 624 9440
Is to be hoped that Dr. Gelles will rethink his position and realize that, in the current climate, there is no honorable role for psychologists in interrogations in America’s detention facilities, removed as they are, from any human rights protections. The only defensible position is to call a Moratorium on such participation. Anything else is to provide a fig leaf for the abuses that, according to numerous reports, occur on a daily basis in these facilities.