updated 8/4/2005 5:05:25 PM ET 2005-08-04T21:05:25

A leading British medical ethicist is calling on medical bodies in the United States to take a stronger stand against psychologists and psychiatrists working alongside U.S. military interrogators at detention centers from Guantanamo Bay to Abu Ghraib.

Writing this week in The Lancet medical journal, Dr. Michael Wilks singles out the American Psychological Association as "a disgrace" for sanctioning the idea that psychologists can act as advisers to interrogators.

Debate over the role of psychologists and psychiatrists in interrogations has intensified over the last few months following reports that some were involved in the abuse scandals at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba and at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Some experts have questioned whether it is possible for doctors and psychologists to maintain ethics while acting as consultants to military interrogators.

Allegations of psychological abuse
Allegations of psychologist and psychiatrist involvement in the prison abuse scandals have included the health professionals using their skills to advise interrogators about how to break detainees to make them cooperate and helping them increase distress in prisoners by exploiting fears.

Wilks condemned an American Psychological Association report for accepting that psychologists can have a role in assisting military interrogators.

"The use of such knowledge in creating techniques intended to damage the minds of people under interrogation, and to advise how these techniques can be refined, is grossly unethical, and the fact that a professional body can support such activity is a disgrace," he wrote.

The American Psychological Association rejected Wilks' characterization of its views.

"Psychologists have been consulting with law enforcement for many years. We feel they can do that in an ethical manner and that it is a very valuable contribution to law enforcement and to national security," Stephen Behnke, director of ethics at the American Psychological Association, told The Associated Press on Thursday.

"He makes an assertion that this is intended to damage. There is an entire body of thought on this that is referred to as 'rapport building,' that is designed not to harm."

APA: Psychiatrists are not acting unethically
The American Psychiatric Association also said it believes that psychiatrists teaming up with interrogators is not necessarily unethical.

Wilks countered that "they harm patients generally by getting involved in this kind of activity. It's unethical to be in that role, full stop."

However, the American Psychiatric Association acknowledged that its ethics code surrounding interrogations and torture needs clarification. It said it plans to come up with a more specific ethics statement next month.

"We have not before taken up specifically the issue of torture. That has been, I hope, outside of the practice of American psychiatry," said Dr. Spencer Eth, chairman of the ethics committee at the American Psychiatric Association.

"To say that it's not covered adequately just speaks to the fact that this is a new situation, a new role, a new threat to society that psychiatrists are now being called on to do things that they haven't been asked to do before," he said.

‘Corrupt use’ of psychologists
Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist who was not connected with the Lancet article, said he agreed with Wilks' conclusions.

"Neither the American Psychiatric Association nor the American Psychological Association in their latest statements have addressed the matter adequately," he said. "I don't believe psychiatrists or psychologists should be advisers to interrogators. I think that's a corrupt use of their knowledge."

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