The American Psychological Association and the Missing Ethics Investigation: How APA Suppressed an Ethics Complaint and Appointed the Accused to Formulate Ethics Policy on Torture
July 29th, 2009
In an important development in the American Psychological Association saga, Jeffrey Kaye has reported that psychologist Michael Gelles, a member of the association’s 2005 PENS [Psychological Ethics and National Security] task force, was himself accused of ethics violations during the interrogation of Navy Petty Officer Daniel King. This occurred well before Gelles’ appointment to the PENS Task Force.
Kaye bases his account of Gelles’ involvement largely on the statements to the Senate Intelligence Committee [SIC] of King’s three attorneys, highly respected George Washington University Constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley and Navy Jags Robert Bailey and Matthew Freedus. [See the Federation of American Scientists page on the case for these and other documents.] The attorneys’ accounts are, in turn, based on an actual videotape of Gelles’ interrogation of King.
According to the statement given to SIC, in late September 1999 King was accused of spying after an ambiguous result on his routine polygraph test. As a result, King was interrogated by the Navy Criminal Investigative Service [NCIS], for whom Gelles worked, for 17 to 19 hours at a time for 30 days straight.
As Turley relates:
“King was given at least five polygraphs in a single day during his interrogations by the NCIS. He was not only lied to about his results but lied to about the meaning of these results. NCIS agents told King that these results indicate that something did happen. In this sense, the polygraph examinations were used in combination with the NCIS insistence that King write down his fantasies. NCIS agents convinced King that these results indicated that his fantasies were simply suppressed memories.”
The King interrogation reportedly was rife with abuse. King allegedly was illegally denied an attorney when he requested one. Agents repeatedly lied to him about the results and the meaning of ambiguous or incorrectly administered polygraph tests. He was repeatedly threatened with further abuse if he did not cooperate.. He was encouraged to report his fantasies, after which agents told him that these fantasies meant they must have a basis in fact. During his extended interrogation, accompanied by sleep deprivation, King made a confession, only to recant it the next day and thereafter. After at least 520 days of detention, he was released, and the case was dropped without charges. The case was later the subject of hearings before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Turley describes Gelles’ interview with King:
“At times, King is shouting “I don’t know what I’m supposed to give you” over and over at the agents as they press him for a signed confession. Moreover, it is noteworthy that King seeks the assistance of a psychologist for hypnosis on the videotaped interview with NCIS psychologist Dr. Michael Gelles. After his return to the United States, King was clearly trying to find a way to distinguish fantasy from reality. He told Gelles that he had no memory of the espionage facts but says that the polygraph examinations prove that he must have done something – a clear misconception that neither Gelles nor the agents correct. King asked for hypnosis and truth serum to determine if this is merely a dream. Gelles told him that he might give King hypnosis if King goes back and gives the agents “corroborating” evidence. Gelles told King that he could trust the agents and says that the agents are clearly his friends, he had a “special relationship” with the agents and the agents “will be with you forever.” Gelles virtually ignored the statement of King that he had suicidal thoughts when he left Guam – two days before the interview. Instead, Gelles told King to give corroborating evidence as a precondition for the hypnosis that King sought to clear his doubts as to any espionage. These tapes show a sailor who is struggling with his total inability to remember any act of espionage while clearly accepting the false representation that, if a polygraph examination shows deception, he must have committed such an act. It is difficult to watch and listen to these tapes because they show a total disregard by the NCIS for any effort at determining the truth of these allegations as opposed to making a case at any costs.”
Understandably appalled the attorneys determined to take action against Gelles. Turley says,
“Dr. Gelles has already been notified of our intention to file formal charges against him with the American Psychological Association. Dr. Gelles has refused to give licensing information to the defense or to respond to allegations of violation of basic canons of professional conduct as a licensed psychologist. Dr. Gelles is on the videotape telling an individual with stated suicidal thoughts to return to interrogation and that the agents are not only his close friends but that they would stand with him “forever.” Dr. Gelles specifically tells King that, if he offers `corroborating’ evidence to the NCIS, he might be able to give King the hypnosis that he seeks [to help determine what is real and what is not real].”
American Psychological Association
According to Kaye, Turley confirmed to him that he, indeed, filed an ethics complaint with the APA regarding Gelles’ behavior in this case, but the complaint was never investigated:
“In a private communication, Mr. Turley subsequently indicated the ethics charges were filed, and dismissed without any investigation by APA.” [Emphasis added.]
The Ethics Director of the APA at the time was Dr. Stephen Behnke, who assumed the position in 2000. This is important because, in 2005, Dr. Behnke was involved in the process of appointing the members of the PENS task force to examine the ethics of psychologist participation in national security interrogations of detainees. At the time the task force was convened, and even after the Task Force report was published, the membership of the PENS task force remained secret. The report was unsigned (apparently the only case of an unsigned Presidential Task Force report in APA history, requests for the names of Task force members from the membership and the press were denied. In fact, soon after the report was published, Gelles and Behnke shared a panel on Ethics and National Security at the APA Convention. Gelles reported back to the other task force members on the listserv of the PENS task force, that “I was once again impressed with how Dr. Behnke eloquently represented our work and insured the confidentiality of the panel, despite pressure to reveal the identities of the task force members…” It was later revealed that six of the 10 members were from the military-intelligence establishment.
It is hard to understand any way in which Dr. Behnke could not have been aware of the ethics complaint filed with his office against Gelles in a high-profile case.
Not surprisingly, this stacked task force concluded that psychologist participation in national security interrogations at Guantanamo, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at CIA black sites was ethical. In fact, they claimed:
“[P]sychologists are in a unique position to assist in ensuring that these [interrogation] processes are safe and ethical for all participants.”
The case of Gelles’ involvement in the King interrogation, of course, makes this assertion quite dubious.Gelles’ involvement in the King interrogation clearly did not “assist in ensuring that” this interrogation was “safe and ethical for all participants.” Furthermore, as Turley reports, Gelles ignored suicidal statements made by King, thus failing during his interview in his obligation to ensure that the process was “safe.”
From the record of the King case, it appears that Gelles may have violated several other of the recommendations of the PENS task force. Among the recommendation that may have been violated were:
PENS: “Psychologists are alert to acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and have an ethical responsibility to report these acts to the appropriate authorities.”
The detention and interrogation of King would likely meet the legal threshold of “cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.” He was subjected to sleep deprivation for a month and isolated from all social supports. According to the Senate testimony of King’s attorney, JAG Robert Bailey, NCIS agents threatened to harm King’s family on at least two different occasions. While it is possible Gelles reported these abuses, there is no indication in the public record that he did so.
PENS: “Psychologists are aware of and clarify their role in situations where the nature of their professional identity and professional function may be ambiguous.”
PENS: “Psychologists are sensitive to the problems inherent in mixing potentially inconsistent roles such as health care provider and consultant to an interrogation, and refrain from engaging in such multiple relationships.”
PENS: “Psychologists make clear the limits of confidentiality.”
In his videotaped interview with King, Gelles reportedly told King that he was a “doc” and not an agent while failing to tell him that he was part of the investigative team and that the interview was part of the interrogation. He thus confused his health provider ["doc"] and investigative roles. He di not, apparently, clarify “the limits of confidentiality.”
It is important to stress that these comments on Gelles’ behavior are provisional and are based solely upon accounts of his interview with King provided by King’s attorneys. There may be other aspects of the case that would change the overall evaluation of Gelles’ behavior. But such exculpatory information is not available in the absence of an investigation.
What is most important is that the APA Ethics Committee, faced with a complaint of very serious ethical lapses from a highly reputable attorney, failed to open the case or investigate these claims. It thus appears that they never even viewed the videotape containing the Gelles interview of King or sought information from King or his complainant attorneys.
This case is not the only ethics complaint filed against a member of the PENS task force. Another Task Force member faced charges for possible involvement in abuses at Guantánamo in 2003. Here, too, the APA Ethics Committee declined to open a case, even though the same APA Ethics Director, Stephen Behnke, publicly admitted that the acts alleged are unethical. In yet a third case, an ethics complaint against a Guantanamo military psychologist was opened but remains open three years later. Government documents show this psychologist participating in the planning and execution of the torture of Guantanamo detainees al Qahtani. A fourth psychologist, Col. Morgan Banks, has acknowledged training Guantánamo interrogators in abusive interrogation techniques. Ethics charges could not be brought against Banks because he was not an APA member at the time of the abuse. Nor was he an APA member when Behnke appointed him to the PENS Task Force, though he has joined the APA since. Evidently ethics complaints against psychologists affiliated with the military [Gelles was a civilian NCIS employee at the time of the King interrogation] have an exceedingly high threshold before the APA will even open a case, much less investigate.
Equally important to the failure of the APA to investigate the complaint against Gelles was that Behnke allowed Gelles to be appointed to the PENS task force on the ethics of interrogations, in spite of the fact that an ethics complaint had been filed against him for interrogation abuse. Ordinary prudence would caution against such a step, at least without full transparency and explanation. The lack of such prudence, however, is not surprising on a task force on detainee abuse which is already known to contain four members from chains of command accused of detainee abuse.
Interestingly, as Kaye notes in his article, Gelles himself made reference to the King case on the listserv of the PENS task force in a manner that suggests that even he assumed members of the task force were well aware of his involvement in the matter:
“As Chuck Ewing has said on many an occasion… the Agency is entitled to consultation just as an individual…. In the Squillicoate [sic] case referenced in the article, and to some extent my experience with the King case, a new demand to re-think how the profession was going to hold psychologists in practice accountable in contexts outside of the clinical and academic arena’s was becoming more evident.” [Emphasis added by Kaye.]
As reported in the PENS task force report, members of the task force were aware that the APA the ethics code included the Nuremberg Defense ["just following orders"] in its ethics standard 1.02, added in 2002.
“If psychologists’ ethical responsibilities conflict with law, regulations, or other governing legal authority, psychologists make known their commitment 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.”
According to this standard, Gelles’ actions, however otherwise in violation of the ethics code, would be “ethical” if carried out in response to an order or “other governing legal authority.” As I write this I cannot help but wonder if the Gelles-King case was on the minds of the Ethics Committee as they pondered adopting 1.02. Given the APA’s pattern of failing to adequately investigate ethics complaints against military-affiliated psychologists, it is not surprising that they have maintained the Nuremberg Defense despite the APA Council requesting a revision twice over the last four years. The APA is apparently about to adopt another six-month delay in revising this standard despite the obvious unethical behavior it may have facilitated and the serious consequences it has had for the whole profession of psychology
The failure of APA to investigate the Gelles case, and his subsequent appointment to the PENS task force will reinforce recent calls by psychologists and human rights advocates in an Open Letter for, among other actions, annulling the PENS report; bringing in independent attorneys to pursue accountability of psychologists accused of torture or detainee abuse; revision of ethics standard 1.02 and other problematic sections of the ethics code; and for an independent investigation of ties and possible collusion between the APA and the military-intelligence establishment.
APA has a very long way to go if it is to regain the trust of its members and of the public. Concerned APA members at this juncture must decide how long they will wait to see these changes implemented by the APA leadership before they leave the association for a less compromised alternative.