Avoiding “Behavioral Drift” in DoD Detainee Operations

09.09.19 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The treatment of detainees in U.S. military custody will be observed by military psychologists in order to help discourage and detect unethical or abusive behavior, the Department of Defense said in a directive that was issued last week.

“It is DoD policy to use BSS [behavioral science support] . . . for detainee operations or intelligence interrogations to assist with the humane treatment of detainees,” the new directive said. See Behavioral Science Support (BSS) for Detainee Operations and Intelligence Interrogations, DoD Instruction 2310.09, September 5, 2019.

DoD cited the problem of “behavioral drift,” which refers to a tendency to deviate from ethical standards under the pressure of circumstances and in the absence of external oversight.

Behavioral drift “is commonly observed in detention and other settings in which individuals have control or power over others’ activities of daily living or general functioning,” the new DoD directive acknowledges. “Behavioral drift is detrimental to the mission and may occur very quickly without careful oversight mechanisms and training.”

Psychologists (or “behavioral science consultants”) have been involved in DoD detention operations to some degree for years, but the new directive formalizes their role and responsibilities. Under the new policy, DoD psychologists are permitted to observe detainee operations and intelligence interrogations but not to supervise or direct them.

If the psychologists observe a suspected violation of law, policy, or doctrine governing detainee operations or intelligence interrogations, they are required to document and report their observations. They may also “provide training for all personnel who interact with detainees about behavioral drift.”

The role of psychologists in this context has been a subject of professional controversy especially in the years immediately following 9/11.

Some argue that any participation by psychologists in the detention or interrogation process is objectionable since it risks legitimizing abusive practices rather than preventing them. “There are members [of the American Psychological Association (APA)] who feel strongly that the very presence of psychologists in national-security settings around the world serves to legitimate what human rights organizations have condemned,” the APA noted in 2006.

In effect, such critics contend that the problem of behavioral drift may apply not only to the military interrogators but to the psychologist observers as well. If so, another layer of external review could be needed to oversee the observers.

In 2016, the APA revised its Ethics Code to include a statement that “Psychologists do not participate in, facilitate, assist, or otherwise engage in torture, defined as any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person, or in any other cruel, inhuman, or degrading behavior.”