Involving Physicians in Military Interrogations

A recent New England Journal of Medicine article questions the ethics of psychiatrists being involved in interrogations. In 2006 the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the American Medical Association (AMA), and the American Psychological Association (APA) issued statements that it is unethical for doctors and psychologists to be directly involved in the interrogation process. Directly involved also includes viewing the interrogation with the “intention of intervening.” Physicians are allowed to train interrogation personnel but are not supposed to tailor interrogation protocols to specific prisoners or detainees.

In 2006, the military outlawed harsh interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, hooding, and using military dogs. However, detainees can be kept in complete isolation for up to 30 days, which could result in post-traumatic stress. Some military psychiatrists and psychologists have been involved in teaching specific psychological concepts, such as learned helplessness, to military personnel. Physicians and psychologists do have a responsibility, not only ethically, but also mandated by the military to report inappropriate and coercive interrogations to the proper authorities. However, that means that the physicians have to be involved on some level in the interrogation, even if it only viewing it, which goes against the issued statements by the APA and AMA.

War campSome military psychologists have argued that they should be involved to make sure that the detainees and prisoners are treated well. In other words, they feel that if they were not there to supervise, the interrogations of the prisoners would be harsher than necessary. However, this position goes against what the professional organizations recommend. This leaves some military physicians and psychologists in a bind; on one hand they feel morally obligated to monitor the well-being of detainees but on the other hand, it is unethical for them to do so.

Many physicians believe that treating prisoners well, being kind to them is much more effective than harsh interrogation or even other more mild but aversive interrogation techniques. There is evidence so support that belief. Information given when under duress is often unreliable; social psychologists have been studying a related topic –- eyewitness testimony –- for a number of years. They have found that individuals under a lot of stress, such as having a gun pointed at them, are much more unreliable than outside observers. So, there is considerable theoretical evidence that treating prisoners as humanely as possible both inside and outside interrogations leads to the most reliable information.

Should medical and health care professionals be directly or indirectly involved in interrogation? If so, what should their roles be? If not, why shouldn’t they be involved? Do you agree with the position of the APA and AMA? Should physicians and psychologists even be involved in the general training of military interrogators?


J. H. Marks, M. G. Bloche (2008). The Ethics of Interrogation — The U.S. Military’s Ongoing Use of Psychiatrists New England Journal of Medicine, 359 (11), 1090-1092 DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp0806689

Jared Tanner, PhD

Jared Tanner has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in neuropsychology. His interests are mainly neuroimaging and neuroanatomy. He spends his research time looking at the structure of gray and white matter in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. With a focus on neuropsychology, he is also interested in how normal and abnormal brain structure relates to cognitive and behavioral functioning.
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