Psychologists Aid Interrogators in the United States’ “War on Terror”

The profession of psychology is experiencing tremendous controversy and internal division over the issue of psychologists aiding interrogators in the United States’ “War on Terror.” Many psychologists object to the practice on ethical grounds, citing the ethical imperative to “do no harm” and protect the interests of individuals under their care. They contrast these ethical issues with the obvious risks of psychological harm inherent in the intense questioning tactics used by the military and intelligence agencies.

According to a report by the New York Times, other psychologists insist their presence protects detainees. They point to the risk of extreme harm that would be possible if no mental health professional were present. Opponents of the practice say this argument is a disingenuous cover for the highly-paid service of assisting questioners in “breaking” their subjects.

Amnesty International has condemned the practice of psychologists aiding interrogations, arguing that they are there simply to assist interrogators in finding ways to break their subjects’ will. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has joined the outcry. The organization has reiterated that the American Psychological Association (APA) “code of ethics mandates a respect for basic principles of human rights and holds psychologists ‘to a higher standard of conduct than is required by the law.”

The APA met in Boston this weekend, with 14,000 psychologists in attendance, and 200 some odd protestors outside calling for the APA to prohibit its members from participating in interrogations. Instead, the APA reiterated an earlier position with a statement that reads in part, “No psychologist – APA member or not — should be directly or indirectly involved in any form of detention or interrogation that could lead to psychological or physical harm to a detainee.” The statement continues, “Doing so would be a clear violation of the profession’s ethical standards.”

The policy also bans 19 particular techniques, now known to be used by American interrogators and their allies, including waterboarding, the use of hoods, and any physical assault. Whether this position will end the controversy is doubtful. And even if the APA strengthens this policy, it is questionable whether anyone will know when psychologists break the rules, as interrogations are, of course, quite secretive. Professionals who engage in aiding interrogations should be aware of risks to their reputation, career, and legal standing. A recent lawsuit by lawyers for a detainee named, for the first time, a psychologist as a defendant.

© Copyright 2008 by Daniel Brezenoff, Licensed Clinical Social Worker. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Augusta

    August 20th, 2008 at 2:48 AM

    This is horribbly sad to learn about. This in no way reflects the profesisonalism that I expect to see from those trained in the mental health field.

  • Stacy

    August 21st, 2008 at 2:54 AM

    But why shouldn’t a professional in this field be represented there? Don’t you think this might actually safeguard the rights of those who are undergoing interrogation to have someone there who understands the human mind and what it can take while still maintaining safety for the one undergoing the questioning?

  • Kyle

    August 24th, 2008 at 7:25 AM

    Personally I just feel that this is one arena that those in private practice should stay out of. Why not have someone employed by the governement to be in that role of safeguarding? I just kind of think that there are still too many political and personal issues involved to be able to be a part of something like this. How can you even begin to separate your feelings about these kinds of things? You can’t.

  • Bethany

    August 26th, 2008 at 3:06 AM

    I totally agree with you Kyle. There are people trained for these sorts of things and they are called military personnel. There is no need for mental health professionals to become involved at this stage of the game. Now that is not to say that those undergoing interrogation will not need professional help in the future- they very well may and that is not something that these in the field have to shy away from. But I feel that there are some things that are better left to others and there is no need for involvement at this level. They may see things they may have never wanted to see and experience in their lives and there is simply no need for that.

  • daniel b

    August 26th, 2008 at 10:29 AM

    Stacy: This is what many are arguing. Others think this is disingenuous. How would you feel about a medical doctor being present during a torture session?

    I personally believe that the presence of mental health or medical professionals only serves to legitimize immoral practices, and a stronger statement from APA on the matter would be a nail in the coffin of these decidedly unAmerican activities.

    Thanks for reading!

  • Jeanette

    August 27th, 2008 at 3:02 AM

    Thanks Daniel B! Could not have said it better myself! Interrogation and torture are completely an unAmerican processes, or they should be, and I in no way want to be a party to that.

  • Gloria Hall

    August 28th, 2008 at 9:52 AM

    This is all wrong. There is no way that I as a therapist could ever be a part of this. It is against both my political and professional beliefs and I feel like there are some governing bodies which should immediately step in and take action against those who are abusing their professional licences in this manner. Thank you.

  • daniel brezenoff

    August 28th, 2008 at 1:24 PM

    I certainly agree with you Gloria that this is all wrong. As for the APA, it has said what it is said and I don’t expect we’ll get much more from them. I do hope mental health professionals will, however, continue to pressure our professional organizations to make very clear statements of opposition to these practices.

    Thanks for reading!

  • Jess

    August 29th, 2008 at 3:12 AM

    What about psychatrists who are employed by the government and this is their job? To whose guidelines do they have to adhere? Their job requirements or the APA?

  • daniel brezenoff

    August 29th, 2008 at 6:15 AM

    Jess, all psychologists are bound to honor APA ethical regulations, and should not take a job that would require them to break those boundaries. Same for social workers and mfts, who must honor the ethical guidelines of their respective professional organizations.

  • Margo

    August 30th, 2008 at 3:03 AM

    I would not want to take a job that would in any way make me even have to consider doing these kinds of things. No matter the pay I think that is one I would have to leave to someone else.

  • James K

    August 31st, 2008 at 12:55 PM

    Yeah but you know there are others in every crowd who would do it just for the money involved.

  • Sandy

    September 4th, 2008 at 3:01 AM

    Well I guess I have to be the voice of dissent and admit that I find nothing wrong with this. If someone is trained to handle these types of situations then why not have a licensed professional on hand to help? Do I necessarily think the psychiatrist should be a part of the interrogation process? No but it might help to have someone knowledgeable in the field around to help the one being interrogated after the process is over. Is that not helping to secure that person’s human rights?

  • Daniel Brezenoff

    September 4th, 2008 at 2:37 PM

    Sandy: You are making the very case that the military and psychologists working with the military have been making. Opponents of this practice think the argument is (not on your part, but on the part of the military) disingenuous at best – a cover for using mental health expertise to interrogate people more effectively. Psychologists who offer advice and analysis in service of gathering information in the context of torture or quasi-torture are in violation of their own ethical code.

    Certainly, victims of torture should have access to mental health services after the fact; I think that’s actually an entirely separate issue. There’s no reason a psychologist needs to be present during the trauma in order to treat it; to the contrary, being present for such an event looks a whole lot like approval and collaboration to many in the field, and might interfere with the therapeutic alliance (I cannot see how it wouldn’t). Thanks for reading and for your willingness to dissent! Here’s hoping that that willingness isn’t crushed by the politics of fear that are currently pandemic on the planet.

  • George

    September 29th, 2008 at 8:37 AM

    You are right- this is hideous. I totally agree with you that being present does no good for future treatment. Like you and many, many others, I completely agree that it looks more like collaboration in the whole stinking mess.

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