A group of psychologists who have been outspoken in opposing the use of U.S. medical professionals in interrogations have released a letter to President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel condemning the ongoing use of interrogation techniques amounting to torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners.

The use of such techniques are found in the current Army Field Manual (PDF), and in particular in its special Appendix M, which summarizes a set of techniques, under the label “separation,” that are only meant to be used on prisoners who the U.S. government claims don’t meet the additional Prisoner of War protections of the Geneva Conventions — prisoners like those held in indefinite detention at Guantanamo.

Even so, most human rights and legal groups have found the techniques under question — solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, manipulation of diet and environment, use of fear and emotional abuse of prisoners — to be against Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, the UN Convention Against Torture, and other international and domestic laws. (See “Contrary to Obama’s promises, the US military still permits torture,” The Guardian, Jan. 25, 2014).

Not mentioned in the letter, signed by Steven Reisner, President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility (PsySR), on behalf of his organization, is the recent discovery that the use of torture techniques derived from a government program to help military personnel resist torture (the “SERE” program), was never totally removed from the military’s Army Field Manual. Instead, the Pentagon used obfuscating language and obscure references to hide that fact from the casual onlooker.

Indeed, the current Army Field Manual on interrogations, including its Appendix M, was the subject of an Office of Legal Council 2006 memorandum by “torture memo” author Steven Bradbury. While President Obama rescinded most of the Bush-era torture memos when he first came into office, he never rescinded the Bradbury memo on Appendix M.

To this day, the use of methods amounting to torture in the Army Field Manual continues, and while this is opposed by nearly every human rights group that has looked at the torture question — from Amnesty International to Physicians for Human Rights, from Center for Constitutional Rights to The Constitution Project — Congressional oversight personnel at the Senator Carl Levin’s Armed Services Committee (SASC) state the procedures in the Army Field Manual and its Appendix M are not abusive.

The procedures in the Army Field Manual currently are backed by presidential executive order, and its methods are used by both the Department of Defense and the CIA.

A SASC staffer was quoted recently as saying, “We are comfortable that Appendix M of the Army Field Manual no longer permits the use of interrogation techniques that are cruel and inhuman, or are a violation of our obligations under international law.”

“No longer permits…”? Does SASC admit Appendix M once did permit torture? If it “no longer permits” such use of cruel and inhuman techniques, nor violate international obligations, can someone at SASC inform us of when that change took place? And what did that change consist of?

I don’t think we’ll ever get an answer to these questions. As long as the mainstream media, including so-called alternative outlets, continue to ignore the current use of torture by the United States, government apologists and those who cover for use of torture have nothing to lose by keeping mum.

History will not treat such cowardice and dishonesty kindly.

Below is the full text of the letter from PsySR. The link to the letter is here.

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April 29, 2014

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

As an organization of health professionals dedicated to human rights advocacy, Psychologists for Social Responsibility strongly objects to practices that violate the ethics of health professions and lie outside the norms of international law and practice. The recent Report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence confirms that, beginning during the Bush Administration, interrogation and detention practices were put in place by the CIA that constituted torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Practices once condemned under law and international treaty were soon redefined by the Justice Department to permit a “culture of torture” to proliferate under U.S. policy. These practices quickly spread to the detention centers of the Department of Defense and throughout the theaters of war. While legal progress has been made to limit these policies and practices, significant remnants remain under your authority. We write to you today to urge you to eliminate all existing procedures allowing for torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees.

In 2009, via Executive Order 13491, your administration officially announced its intention to end the torture practices developed and instituted under the Bush Administration. Interrogation practices that did not conform to the Army Field Manual were abolished. However, as documented by numerous legal and human rights groups, as well as by former interrogators,[1] the Army Field Manual still includes abusive techniques in violation of these standards.

We concur with the recent recommendation of the Institute on Medicine as a Profession (IMAP)/Open Society Foundations report [2] calling for you to issue a new executive order banning interrogation techniques using isolation, sleep deprivation, exploitation of fear, and other methods that violate international standards regarding torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. We, too, urge you to remediate the ethical standards of the Army Field Manual via executive order.

The current edition of the Army Field Manual (2006) officially supports interrogations using “approach techniques,” including the creation, manipulation, and intensification of phobias and fears in prisoners (“Fear Up”) and the calculated psychological attack against ego or self-esteem (“Emotional Pride and Ego Down”). The “Emotional Futility” approach intends to create a perception in a prisoner that “resistance to questioning is futile.” The manual describes the purpose of this technique as engendering “a feeling of hopelessness and helplessness” in a detainee and notes the “potential for application of the pride and ego approach to cross the line into humiliating and degrading treatment of the detainee.”

Also problematic on both basic health and human rights grounds is Appendix M, added to this most recent version of the Army Field Manual (2-22.3). This special annex proposes a technique known as “Separation,” which includes the use of solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, forms of sensory deprivation, and environmental manipulations — all of which could theoretically be extended indefinitely — as ostensibly legitimate forms of treatment on “unlawful combatants.” The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture [3] and independent human rights organizations describe such practices as torture and/or cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. As health professionals and human rights advocates, we are disturbed that such techniques are conducted under an official capacity and by executive order.

We are particularly concerned that health professionals, including psychologists, have been engaged to support such efforts, directly or indirectly, in violation of their ethical obligations and in violation of the policies of their professional associations.

As you must be aware, these practices are not only cruel, but also yield questionable intelligence and contribute to a perception of our country as a systematic violator of human rights. It would serve as a strong and principled legacy of your Administration if these remaining practices of torture, cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment were finally and definitively ended.

We look forward to your timely response.

Sincerely,

Steven Reisner, PhD
President
Psychologists for Social Responsibility

cc: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel

[1] Scott Horton, “Interrogators Call for the Elimination of Appendix M”, Harpers, Nov. 16, 2010. URL: http://harpers.org/blog/2010/11/interrogators-call-for-the-elimination-of-appendix-m/
[2] Ethics Abandoned: Medical Professionalism and Detainee Abuse in the War on Terror, IMAP/OSF Task Force Report (PDF), Nov. 2013. URL: http://www.imapny.org/File Library/Documents/IMAP-EthicsTextFinal2.pdf
[3] “‘Solitary confinement should be banned in most cases,” UN expert says’”, UN News Centre, Oct. 18, 2011. URL: https://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=40097

[Note: The letter was first posted at Counterpunch on April 30. Also, in regards to full disclosure, I should say that I am a member of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, and while I am not on the steering committee that decided to publish this letter, nor have ever held any leadership position in that organization, I was consulted on the matter of this letter. I am proud that an organization I belong to took a principled stand on this issue.]