Rendition fallout

The American Psychological Association argued to the Texas licensing board that one of its members, James Mitchell, should be stripped of his license for “patently unethical behavior” in violation of the organization’s ethical guidelines, The Washington Post reports. In 2002, Mitchell, then retired from the Air Force, reportedly assisted the CIA’s interrogation of a terrorist detainee, Abu Zubaydah, in Thailand. Zubaydah was alleged to be a top al Qaeda official. A Senate report stated that interrogators including Mitchell used extreme measures to question Zubaydah, including waterboarding. Mitchell called the complaint libelous, distorted and inaccurate, though he added he was not permitted “to discuss any work that I may have done for the CIA.”

The Texas complaint filed stated that “a psychologist who helps inflict such cruel and shocking abuse on a defenseless human being would appear to have violated basic standards of conduct of the profession.” Similar cases were successful against participating psychologists in Ohio and New York, the press report noted, but California, Louisiana and New York boards have rejected similar charges in other cases.

In a comparable situation, my blog on May 8, 2009, pointed out that Justice Department attorneys who condoned these extreme interrogation measures also might be censured. An internal Justice Department review of the lawyers’ work (one, Jay Bybee, is now a federal judge) concluded that the lawyers had committed no crime in this regard, but noted that their roles might be reviewed by state bar disciplinary authorities to determine if they violated standards of professional conduct by their condonations. In the case of the federal judge, might there be a basis for impeachment?

When professionals aid practices that are in violation of prevailing standards of human rights, they should be held accountable, the United States argued during the Nazi war criminal trials involving lawyers, judges and doctors who lent legitimacy to Nazi cruelties. Whether professionals, however provoked and patriotically motivated, should be charged as criminals in American courts is a question whose answer depends on the wordings and jurisprudence of relevant American laws. That these individuals exercising public powers should be judged by their professional peers and by the public whose powers they exercised seems clear.


Ronald Goldfarb, Washington attorney and author, was a Justice Department official in the Kennedy administration.