Professional Responsibility for Torture

When it became publicly known that Gitmo detainees were being waterboarded, and subsequent to the debate about whether torturing prisoners was really torture or just “enhanced interrogation with psychological fear of death with extreme prejudice,” the blame was directed at the administration doing the dirty.  But President Bush didn’t dream up these techniques on his own.

The  New York Times reports that actions are being taken to hold the nuts and bolts guys accountable.



Critics are taking legal action to seek punishment for psychologists who, they say, designed and consulted on abusive interrogation techniques used on suspected terrorists.


The psychologists violated professional ethics rules, the critics say, because, they claim, the interrogations amounted to torture.


In one lawsuit, in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, a human rights group based in San Francisco is trying to force New York State to investigate Dr. John Francis Leso, a psychologist whom the group accuses of overseeing abusive interrogations at Guantánamo nearly a decade ago.


An NYU professor of psychiatry, Steven Reisner, who filed a grievance with the state disciplinary board, said:


“The significance is this: There has been no one held accountable for the Bush administration’s torture program.” Because the federal government has been unwilling to bring criminal prosecutions, Dr. Reisner said, “we’re trying to bring an ethical complaint so they’re at least held accountable for their licensure.”

Naturally, these actions have yet to achieve any success or produce results.  And indeed, it’s quite likely that Leso, as well as Dr. James E. Mitchell who designed, and Dr. Larry James who oversaw “abusive interrogation techniques” at Guantánamo, will ever be held directly accountable, as their efforts were under the protective arm of the government.  But these actions will at least make it known within their profession that these were the people who used their education, knowledge and experience to make torture possible.


State courts would be reluctant to intervene in complaints against military psychologists because they would “tend toward the view that these are matters of federal policy and federal law” that the government should address, said Dr. M. Gregg Bloche, a professor at Georgetown University who is both a lawyer and a doctor.


Ironically, one of the justifications for the acceptability of the abusive interrogation techniques offered by the administration was that they were designed by doctors.



The psychologists may also benefit from circular reasoning by the government and ethical authorities, said Dr. Bloche, whose book, “The Hippocratic Myth,” explores the tension of doctors’ ethical commitments.


While the Justice Department under President George W. Bush said its interrogation guidelines were legal because psychologists designed them, the American Psychological Association has said that the psychologists who consulted on interrogations had a duty to follow government guidelines, Dr. Bloche said.


While psychology may be a bit dubious in its therapeutic benefit for most, apparently its effectiveness when it comes to torture is no longer in doubt.  When the government needed torture, the whole “do no harm” myth went up in smoke, trumped by the overarching duty to please the customer.

There’s a tendency to forget, as we blame the government for things gone bad, that they wouldn’t be able to accomplish nefarious covert goals without the help of others.  Had no psychologist been willing to lend his craft to torture, there would likely still have been abusive measures, but without the imprimatur of medical approval.

Remember John Yoo, the justice department toady whose notorious torture memo provided the government with the legal rationalization to do harm?  Remember how he ended up in prison as a law professor at University of California, Berkeley because of this? 

That wrongs committed at the behest of the government, and those who use their professional prowess to make it possible (or more effective), rarely end up with anyone paying a price, doesn’t necessarily mean that they can walk away free and clear.  There may never be prison sentences for this psychologists, or even a day’s suspension of their professional licenses, but at least these actions by their professional brethren get their name out there and they will not escape the shame of enabling this disgraceful moment in American history.

It might not be much, but it’s better than nothing.  And if they ever make a movie about them, I hope they model after Marathon Man.

7 comments on “Professional Responsibility for Torture

  1. Shawn McManus

    Wouldn’t this be a case where no laws were broken but a number of people seeking vengence must see someone punished for what they view as an injustice?

    I realize that isn’t the main point of the post but is at the core of the issue.

    Why bother going after those on the periphery of the issue when George W. Bush said that he authorized and would do it again?

  2. SHG

    Because they are supposed to be medical professionals, and the duty of a professional is to his profession, not to further someone’s political agenda (whether you agree or not) at the expense of professional ethics.  No government, president or general can relieve a doctor of his professional responsibility.

  3. Shawn McManus

    It could just as well be argued that, knowing those detained will be interrogated using the most effective means available, the psychologists involved tempered the techniques so that no lasting damage would be done.

    Which is the greater abrogation: saying “I’ll have nothing to do with this” or making sure that those detained suffered no long term damage?

  4. SHG

    My views on professional enablement are pretty clear.  If a wrong is going to be perpetrated, it will be perpetrated without me.

  5. Shawn McManus

    If that is the standard, then the psychologists would have to believe that they were doing something wrong but involved themselves anyway.

    It looks as though the human rights group who brought the case are taking that for granted.

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