WASHINGTON >> The U.S. military has sharply curtailed the use of psychologists at the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in response to strict new professional ethics rules of the American Psychological Association, Pentagon officials said.
Gen. John F. Kelly, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees Guantanamo, has ordered that psychologists be withdrawn from a wide range of activities dealing with detainees at the prison because of the new rules of the association, the nation’s largest professional organization for psychologists. The group approved the rules this past summer.
Kelly’s order is the latest fallout after years of recriminations within the profession for the crucial role that psychologists played in the post-9/11 programs of harsh interrogation created by the CIA and the Pentagon. The psychologists’ involvement in the interrogations enabled the Justice Department in the George W. Bush administration to issue secret legal opinions that declared that the CIA’s so-called enhanced interrogation program was legal, in part because health professionals were monitoring it to make sure that it was safe and that it did not constitute torture.
Anger within the profession about the role of the psychologists helped lead to the new ethics rules.
In 2015, six psychologists were assigned to Guantanamo at a time, and given rotating tours of duty, as many as 12 different psychologists served at Guantanamo during the year, according to Col. Lisa Garcia, a spokeswoman for the Southern Command.
Officials said that the order to pull psychologists out of detainee operations at Guantanamo, issued about two weeks ago but not made public, is intended to protect the psychologists from violating the new rules, which could expose them to losing their licenses. Many states use the psychological association’s ethics code in their professional licensing requirements for psychologists.
“These psychologists are licensed for independent practice and are volunteers” at Guantanamo, Cmdr. Karin Burzynski of the Navy, a spokeswoman for the Southern Command, said in a statement. “They are bound by their respective professional organizations’ ethical guidelines, and Gen. Kelly will not jeopardize them losing their credentials.”
The new rules specifically bar psychologists from any involvement in national security interrogations, and also bar them from providing mental health services to detainees at sites like Guantanamo that the United Nations has determined do not comply with international human rights law. Currently, no interrogations take place at Guantanamo, Burzynski said, and instead only voluntary interviews are conducted when a detainee asks to speak with American personnel.
As a result of Kelly’s order, psychologists at Guantanamo no longer observe or are involved with detainee interviews, or provide any feedback to the U.S. military on detainee behavior, according to Burzynski.
The psychologists have also been removed from the prison’s Behavioral Health Unit, which is responsible for detainee mental health programs, and from the prison’s so-called detainee socialization programs.
At Guantanamo, psychiatrists, Navy corpsmen and nurses specializing in mental health have replaced the psychologists to provide mental health treatment for detainees. Psychologists will still provide mental health care for U.S. military personnel who work at the prison, which is allowed under the association’s rules.
Psychologists were more involved than psychiatrists in the Bush-era interrogation programs at both the CIA and the Pentagon, at least in part because Bush administration officials believed that officials at the American Psychological Association were more supportive of the role played by psychologists in interrogations. By contrast, Bush officials believed that officials at the American Psychiatric Association, which had tougher ethics rules, were not comfortable with the involvement of psychiatrists.
So far, the only other part of the government that has expressed concern about the new rules — and could be affected by them — is an FBI-led unit that conducts terrorism interrogations overseas, the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group. The group, which includes CIA personnel and employs psychologists, was created by President Barack Obama after he ended the Bush-era harsh interrogation programs in 2009.
Some current and former military psychologists have been critical of the APA ban, saying it is so broadly written that it could make it difficult for them to work professionally in almost any national security setting. But advocates of the ban say it had to be written in a way that would close what they believe were longstanding loopholes in the organization’s ethics guidance.
The new ethics rules for psychologists were approved at the American Psychological Association’s annual meeting in Toronto in August after an investigation, ordered by the group’s board, found that some association officials and other prominent psychologists colluded with government officials to make sure that the association’s policies did not prevent psychologists from involvement in abusive interrogations conducted during the Bush administration.
Two psychologists who were CIA contractors, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, helped run the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program, which is now widely considered to have included the use of torture.
Association officials say that after Kelly ordered psychologists out of detainee operations at Guantanamo, top Obama administration officials contacted them to express concerns.
Brad Carson, the acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, made an “urgent request” to discuss the new ethics rules with top association officials, according to an email sent by a senior association official to the organization’s council of representatives.
“His primary concern was the policy’s prohibition on military psychologists providing mental and behavioral health services to detainees at the Guantanamo detention facility,” according to the email, written by Ellen G. Garrison, a senior policy adviser for the association who was on the phone call with Carson.
In a follow-up email to one leading member of the council, Garrison said that she told Carson that the association was not going to change its new policy to give the Pentagon what it wants at Guantanamo.
The Pentagon declined to comment on Carson or any role he had in the matter.
Association officials say they were subsequently contacted by Jack Smith, a senior health policy official at the Pentagon, and Frazier Thomas, the director of the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, and are now scheduled to meet with both men next month. The Pentagon also declined to comment on Smith, and the FBI declined to comment on Thomas.
Even as the association faces objections from the Obama administration on its ethics ban, it is also confronting dissent from current and former military psychologists who dispute the findings of the independent investigation, which was conducted by David H. Hoffman, a Chicago lawyer.
The dissenters believe that the new ethics rules go too far and will have unintended consequences, and a group of four prominent psychologists who were named in the Hoffman report have issued a lengthy rebuttal to its findings.