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Thursday, May 30, 2013

What Do Our Students Need to Know About Detainee Interrogations?

APA Paul Kimmel and W. Brad Johnson offer separate reviews of clinical psychologist Martha Davis's film Doctors of the Dark Side in the May 8, 2013, release of PsycCRITIQUES. Kimmel is a former president of the APA's Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence: Peace Psychology (Division 48) and a highly respected peace advocate. Johnson is a former president of the APA Society for Military Psychology (Division 19), former chair of the APA Ethics Committee, and a professor in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the U.S. Naval Academy. Both reviewers offer thoughtful perspectives on the role of psychologists in interrogations, and both believe Doctors of the Dark Side might be a valuable training tool for psychologists and other health professionals preparing to work in national security jobs. For example, Johnson notes,

New professionals will hardly be able to absorb this film without appreciating the risks associated with detainee interview and interrogation work and the terrible toll associated with ignoring human rights.
Should this film routinely be shown in psychology training programs?

Read the Reviews
ReviewDo as Little Harm as Possible
By Paul Kimmel
      PsycCRITIQUES, 2013 Vol 58(19)

ReviewPsychologists' Roles in National Security: Getting Beyond Dichotomous Thinking
By W. Brad Johnson
      PsycCRITIQUES, 2013 Vol 58(19)



This type of material should absolutely not be used to train any graduate students. Get some psychologists who have actually been to a military detention facility to articulate the quandaries.

Deborah Popowski

...Martha Davis has made an important film that is solidly grounded in the factual record. In "decrying" the failure of psychology’s standard-bearers to take on the moral corruption within their profession, she captures the sentiment of thousands of people in the United States and around the world. I keep going back to the same question: If the Chilean Medical Council found the courage to investigate, try fairly, and discipline torture-facilitating colleagues while dictator Pinochet was still in charge, how is it that regulators in this democracy can’t seem to muster up the strength to stand up to power and exercise their duty to apply the law equally to all?

Deborah A. Popowski
Lecturer on Law, Clinical Instructor
Harvard Law School

Dr. Nancy Arvold

To think that graduate students should NOT be exposed to this ethical dilemma of participating in interrogations is as inappropriate as NOT exposing them to other critical ethical issues, e.g. sex with clients or racist or other unprofessional behavior. The first is an example of systemic abuse, perpetrated by individuals, that should be stopped. Period.
The film is frank and vivid, and clearly demonstrates the FACTS of psychologists' participation, and the stark reality that although we psychologists have a responsibility to do no harm, and to enhance the mental/emotional well being of clients, sometimes money and power draw us to justifying unethical, even evil, behavior.
When I teach counseling students, I always bring up the issue, and now that the film is available, intend to use it in my classrooms.

Dr. Trudy Bond

I agree that Martha Davis’s film is a vital training tool. However, I find fault with Dr. Johnson’s critique, especially this assertion:

“Although some licensing boards may have determined that they do not have jurisdiction over behaviors occurring outside the United States or in military settings, it also seems quite clear that other licensing boards have carefully reviewed allegations and found the evidence wanting. For instance, licensing board complaints against Larry James in Ohio and Louisiana have been dismissed.”

As a complainant in both cases, I believe that it is important to correct the record. There is no evidence that in either case the licensing board “carefully reviewed allegations and found the evidence wanting.”.

I have the hard copies of all correspondence from both Boards as well as all court documents. The Louisiana State Board of Examiners very clearly refused repeatedly to review the complaint against Dr. James, claiming instead that it was time-barred. When I attempted to challenge the Board’s reading of the statute of limitations, the Board argued that they simply were not required to investigate every complaint filed, and the Louisiana courts ruled they had no power to force the Board to conduct an investigation. Neither the courts nor the Board ever ruled on the basis of the evidence presented in the complaint.

In response to a different 50-page complaint regarding Dr. James, the Ohio Board of Psychology merely stated: “It has been determined that we are unable to proceed on this matter.” Since that time, the Board has spent considerable time and money in an ongoing case arguing that it has no duty to investigate Dr. James. There is no evidence from the Ohio Board that any earnest investigation was ever conducted as a result of our complaint. Indeed, we offered them contact information for the lawyers for men and boys imprisoned during that period, who were prepared to offer additional evidence. To the best of our knowledge, the Board never contacted them. Nor did they answer our repeated requests to clarify whether their decision was based in law or fact, so that we could address their concerns by providing supplemental information.

Anny Fan

I oppose psychologist participates any tasks related to interrogation. I think it violates the fundamental principle of Beneficence and Nonmaleficence. The principle states that “psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm.” In fact, use torture as an investigative technique in interrogation is especially common for national security and military, so it can’t avoid doing harm on the suspects. Some people may argue that the psychologist's primary role is to prevent an interrogator's actions from escalating into torture. If the psychologist is the employee of the military force, he or she plays a subordinated role under the military perspective. I do query about the actual effect of a psychologist to affect the decision about national security issue or termism. My question is “how can a psychologist protect the suspect from harm?” I can’t accept psychologist using the excuse of minimizing the harm to torture other and I think that the involvement of psychologist in interrogation may be just a political gesture to justify the using torture in interrogation.

Nelson H H Law

Should psychologist be present during interrogation? Before we get to that, let's change the question a little bit. What is the role of the psychologist for interrogation? Is the psychologist there to make sure the detainee receive no permanent harm? or is the psychologist there to make sure the intensity is severe enough for the detainee to give out information?

An article by Rubenstein and Xenakis (2010) - Roles of CIA Physicians in Enhanced
Interrogation and Torture of Detainees
(,authors discussed the Enhanced Interrogation Program used by the CIA. Obama Administration provided a guideline for investigator to follow when they are performing those enhanced interrogation techniques to detainee. Within the guideline, there is a chart of "Medical Rationales for Limitations on Physical Pressure". Investigator has to follow it to avoid causing major physical harm to the detainee. Although the chart looks quite researched and scientific based, some of the items are still ethically questionable. For example: it listed "Insult Slap" as a "Correct Technique" and "no preexisting injury likely to be aggravated".

If I am not misunderstanding, physicians are only required to present in some but not all of the interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding.

In my opinion, psychologist and physicians are slightly different. It is much easier for physician to measure physical damage, but it is not quite easy for psychologist to measure mental damage, not even mentioning some down-the-road long term psychological damage.

I have no further comment on whether or not psychologist should be present during interrogation. I think it will be very difficult for psychologist to list out the limits, because research on the effect of torture is just not feasible.

The film is definitely a good source for people who are not familiar with interrogation to get a taste of what interrogations are all about.

Vivian Ng

I definitely disagree to use the film as a material in training graduate students of psychology. American Psychological Association (2013) mentions that, “Practicing psychologists can have the professional training and clinical skill to help people learn to cope more effectively with life issues and metal health problems.” It is understandable that psychologists are trained to help others for their betterment. Most of the psychologists exert their professional in assessing patients, giving diagnosis, and providing psychotherapy. What they do is mainly to empower patients’ abilities, and help them recover their predicaments. Many clinical skills will be exercised in which patients can discover their resources, and improve their coping skills. Nevertheless, detainee interrogation is another kind of technique which is used to destroy one’s self-esteem, dignity, and human rights. Such skill is not suitable to be learned by new psychologists. The majority of them prefer establishing one’s strengths rather than doing harms on others. It is undoubted that not every psychologist would like to practice detainee interrogations in their future careers.

American Psychological Association. (2013). What do practicing psychologist do? Retrieved on August 7. 2013, from

Edwin Yau

As per the recent article (NYT, 2013), the rate of suicide within the services is found substantially higher than that of the general population. More intense care is needed as more troops returns after Obama’s decision on the withdrawal from Iraq and the pullback in Afghanistan. Pentagon also fueled more funds to support prevention and remedial programs.
There would be great opportunities for psychologists to take part in such programs and help military personnel mitigate emotional issues associated with combat. However, what if they are “invited” or “instructed” to join some highly confidential operations?
Thus, I suggest that the film should be involved and APA’s recent standpoint (APA, 2012) in the training program. Students should think about this ethical dilemma and make no mistakes in their future career.

American Psychological Association (2012, Apr). Psychological ethics and national security. Retrieved from
The New York Times (2013, May 15). Baffling Rise in Suicides Plagues the U.S. Military. Retrieved from

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Editor of PsycCRITIQUES

Danny Wedding, PhD

Chair of Behavioral Sciences,
College of Medicine,
American University of Antigua

Associate Editors of PsycCRITIQUES

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