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Michael Gelles condescends to APA critics
Friday, 06 April 2007 13:46
by Stephen Soldz

Michael Gelles, the former Navy psychologist who reported to his superiors of abuses at Guantanamo, including abuses involving psychologists, has written a response to recent critics — Neil Altman, Steven Miles, and Uwe Jacobs — of his defense of APA’s position on participation in interrogations [for the original Gelles letter and the responses see “Whistle-blower” Michael Gelles throws in lot with American Psychological Association on interrogations issue and Uwe Jacobs of Survivors International asks questions of Michael Gelles]:

Michael G. Gelles, Psy.D., ABPP
4 Professional Drive
Suite 120
Gaithersburg, MD 20879
301 346 5177

April 5, 2007

Dr. Neil Altman, PhD Dr. Uwe Jacobs, PhD Dr. Steven Miles, MD

Dear Drs. Altman, Jacobs, and Miles,

Thank you for your correspondence, in response to my letter to Drs. Altman and Moorehead-Slaughter. I appreciate your commitment to this issue and hope that we can find common ground in our approach. It is clear to me that we all seek the same goal: An ethical means of eliciting accurate and reliable information in order to prevent acts of violence and loss of life. I must say, however, that based upon my extensive work in consulting to law enforcement, police and military around the world, including in Guantanamo Bay, Iraq and Afghanistan, the position you set forth in your letters and the questions you pose rest upon substantial misconceptions about the nature of interrogations, the role of psychologists in national security settings, and the likely impact of APA disengaging from this critical debate and of APA members withdrawing from the practice of interrogations.

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Please allow me to begin by emphasizing: Psychologists should not defer to lawyers on the question of what constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. I believe Dr. Altman’s resolution is considerably off the mark on this score. I took action when I learned of abusive behaviors. I didn’t go through a legal analysis, nor did I consult with attorneys even though many were present and, like me, troubled by what was occurring. I became involved because behaviors that were wrong came to my attention, not because an attorney intervened or a definition in a legal text had been violated. APA should focus on specific behaviors, not on legal definitions.

Moreover, nothing in my experience supports your concern that psychologists will be forced to engage in behaviors they believe to be unethical. I am not aware of any psychologist who has been ordered to support a coercive interrogation or to train interrogators in abusive processes, nor am I aware of any psychologist who has been disciplined for communicating concerns or refusing to participate in a consultation. In the time since I reported concerns to my chain of command—an action that was followed by a promotion—ethics has become a focus for psychologists being trained for this role. Current Department of Defense policy makes explicit reference to APA’s PENS report and includes the actual report itself. The community of military psychologists, together with civilians who consult to national security and law enforcement, have formed a tight network where didactic seminars and peer consultation on ethics are frequent. Through the PENS Task Force and subsequent Council of Representative actions, APA is playing a critical role in bringing moral clarity to the debate over what constitutes an ethical consultation to an interrogation, as well as science to the practice of interrogations. Removing psychology and psychologists would stop the steady and measurable progress we have made and are making. From my perspective, a moratorium would be to abdicate rather than to embrace our ethical responsibilities.

In his thoughtful letter, Dr. Jacobs states that “our professional organization has to protect our own.” I wholeheartedly agree. We are a professional association whose members have extensive experience and expertise in a broad range of practice areas—an aspect of APA that is to our decided advantage. If we want to protect psychologists working in detention facilities, let’s ask our colleagues who are most familiar with operations in these settings: military psychologists, police psychologists and correctional psychologists. What protection do our colleagues working in these settings and in these areas of practice believe they need? What steps do they think APA can take that will best offer that protection? Does a moratorium offer the protection that military psychologists seek? Let’s begin our discussions by respecting the experience and expertise that resides within these communities—in the same manner we would proceed with a complex treatment intervention only after having consulted at length with the psychologist who knows the patient best.

Dr. Jacobs quotes Alberto Mora and asks whether I agree with his statement, “To my mind, there’s no moral or practical distinction between cruelty and torture … cruelty … destroys the whole notion of individual rights.” I have an enormous admiration and respect for Alberto Mora. This quotation captures the essence of what we are talking about: Torture, cruelty and abuse have no role in interrogations. They are wrong. They violate human rights. They increase—not decrease—the long-term likelihood of violence. This is Alberto Mora’s position. This is my position. This is APA’s position. Let us assert and emphasize that position at every opportunity, in every venue possible, especially where interrogations are taking place.


Michael G. Gelles

There is not one mention of the terrible human rights violations that have occurred, and are still occurring, at Guantanamo, not to mention the role of psychologists in those abuses. He ignores the evidence that it is precisely his pals, “the community of military psychologists, together with civilians who consult to national security and law enforcement,” who are reported by virtually every reporter who has looked into the matter — Jane Mayer (New Yorker), Mark Benjamin (Salon), Bill Dedman (MSNBC), art Levine (Washington Monthly) — to be one ones who were sent to Guantanamo to develop torture techniques, not to prevent them. Evidently Dr. Gelles considers himself to be one of a tight-knit community with these people, not to mention those psychologists who helped developed the special technique used at the CIA black sites.

Perhaps Dr. Gelles’ being a member of this “tight network” helps explain why, despite his concerns regarding the horrible abuses involving BSCT psychologists at Guantanamo, he never went public. Rather, he sent a report up the chain of command that resulted in a two-year internal struggle over interrogation practices, a struggle which, according to Jane Mayer’s account (How an internal effort to ban the abuse and torture of detainees was thwarted) was lost by Dr. Gelles’ superiors who were trying to reign in the worst abuses. It is always possible that going public and throwing the spotlight directly on what this community was doing would have been more successful at reducing abuse. But Dr. Gelles chose to confine his efforts to bureaucratic struggles up the chain-of-command, not engaging public opinion as force for reform, just as now he asks us to trust this same community of psychological consultants to act ethically, in a situation where, because of near-total secrecy, public oversight is essentially impossible.

Dr. Gelles asserts “moreover, nothing in my experience supports your concern that psychologists will be forced to engage in behaviors they believe to be unethical. I am not aware of any psychologist who has been ordered to support a coercive interrogation or to train interrogators in abusive processes.” If these Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) psychologists, whose behavior during interrogations Dr. Gelles is famous for complaining about, were never “ordered to support a coercive interrogation,” then either Dr. Gelles doesn’t recognize a coercive interrogation when he sees one, or Dr. Gelles is cleverly parsing words here, or these psychologists engaged in abuses without orders. Further, the statement that there is no evidence “hat psychologists will be forced to engage in behaviors they believe to be unethical” may be true, because these psychologist think that the extreme techniques that they utilize(d) are, indeed ethical. Any of these possibilities does not support the position that psychologists’ participation in interrogation is likely to reduce abuses. Further, all reports from military officers are that disobedience of orders carries severe consequences, making the need for “force” to get psychologists to participate extremely unlikely.

Another of Dr. Gelles’ rhetorical tricks is to conflate “military psychologists, police psychologists and correctional psychologists.” While there may be difficult ethical issues involved in psychologists aiding police and correctional interrogations, surely Dr. Gelles should be able to understand that there is a world of difference between those in the criminal justice system who have, at least in principle, constitutional rights and legal mechanism to protect those rights and detentions of so-called “enemy combatants” who have been stripped of all rights and may be locked up for the rest of their lives on the authority of a single individual, the President, and whose trial, should it ever occur, does not include the right to hear testimony against them or even to know the details of the charges against them, the right to procure witnesses in their favor, the right against self-incrimination, or even the right to not have coerced (and unreliable) testimony used against them.

While I respect Dr. Gelles’ honorable act of reporting abuses to his superior, I must say that his inability to see, or his unwillingness to acknowledge, these fundamental moral distinctions between the rule of law, however flawed in practice, and the despotism characterizing America’s detention system reduces his moral stature in my eyes. I agree with Dr. Gelles that “torture, cruelty and abuse have no role in interrogations.” In a system, such as the American detention system, which is built upon cruelty and abuse, if not outright torture, as Amnesty International pointed out yet again just today(Cruel and Inhuman: Conditions of isolation for detainees at Guantánamo Bay), there is no such thing as an interrogation devoid of “torture, cruelty and abuse.” That this fact casts a dark shadow upon our government and upon our people makes it no less true. Thus, by Dr. Gelles’ own statements, psychologists have no role in interrogations in America’s lawless detention system.

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