On Christmas Eve, the Washington Post published an op-ed by forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner, “What I really said about radical jihadism.” Dr. Welner achieved some notoriety for his testimony in the sentencing phase of the trial of fomer child soldier and Guantanamo prisoner, Omar Khadr. Mr. Khadr was the first former child soldier tried for war crimes by the United States in living memory. Sentenced to forty years in prison, due to a stipulation that was part of a plea bargain that garnered a confession from the formerly tortured Khadr, his sentence has been reduced to eight years, some at Guantanamo, where he remains imprisoned in solitary confinement, and some in Canada, upon a presumed repatriation at some point in the future.
As I pointed out at the time, even before he testified, Dr. Welner was telling Steven Edwards of the Canadian National Post that the young Khadr had failed to “publicly repudiat[e] al Qaida, as civilized Muslims should.” Nor was Dr. Welner above a sly comparison of the young Omar Khadr, who has spent his entire brief adulthood in U.S. custody, with America’s arch enemy (and former ally) Osama bin Laden.
“When one leaps to the conclusion about Omar Khadr’s future because he is friendly, one might recall that Osama bin Laden has always been described as gentle, likeable and charming,” New York-based Welner told Postmedia News.
The “Context” of “Radical Jihadism”
In a December 5 op-ed, also for the Washington Post, “Radical jihadism is not a mental disorder,” retired Brigadier General (and child and adolescent psychiatrist) Stephen N. Xenakis, critiqued Welner’s testimony at trial. Xenakis himself was a member of the Khadr defense team, and spent approximately 200 hours in clinical meetings with Mr. Khadr. While he was on the witness list for the sentencing phase of the military commissions trial, Dr. Xenakis never testified. (Andrea Prasow’s theory for the failure to testify, posted at The Jurist, strikes me as more likely than Xenakis’s own statement that the defense thought Omar Khadr’s own testimony more powerful than that of his mental health witnesses.)
In his op-ed, Dr. Xenakis wrote:
“In my professional opinion, Omar Khadr is at a high risk of dangerousness as a radical jihadist,” Welner said. Based on hundreds of hours of reviewing records and interviewing witnesses, and 7 to 8 hours of examining the prisoner, the doctor said he concluded that Khadr was a radical jihadist who was at risk of inspiring others to violent acts in the future.
Dr. Welner was nonplussed, replying that Xenakis had “mischaracterized” his testimony. “Assessing risk of dangerous jihadist activity borrows from clinical understandings about criminal and violent recidivism,” Welner wrote, “but it must reflect the context of actual jihadist violence or an individual’s ability to facilitate that violence.” He added that his risk assessment on Mr. Khadr relied upon “statistical base rates” and cited a recent report from the director of national intelligence which noted that “the figures of released Guantanamo detainees who return to active battle have climbed sharply from just 6 percent in 2008 to 25 percent.”
Lies, damned lies, and statistics
Now, Dr. Welner never bothers to mention that at the time of trial, the latest figures on recidivism from Guantanamo detainees was around 5%, as reported by the Department of Defense, as was finally conceded by the New York Times in an article in June 2009, after considerable controversy about over-reporting recidivism statistics. The Times noted that discrepancies which led them to report the figure as a higher 1-in-7 recidivism rate were due to adding in those detainees identified as “suspected of engaging in terrorism.” (See also this May 2009 article by Lara Jakes in USA Today, which directly reports the Pentagon as giving a 5 percent recidivism rate.)
But even the latter figure is extremely questionable, as an earlier report by Professor Mark Denbeaux, attorneys Joshua Denbeaux and R.David Gratz, and researchers from the Seton Hall Law Center for Policy and Research proved in a scholarly examination of government recidivism claims published last year. The Seton Hall report demonstrates shoddy record-keeping by the Pentagon (at least two reported recidivist “terrorists” were never even at Guantanamo; some of those released took up arms against Morocco, Russia, and Turkey, but not the United States). More egregiously, former detainees are described as “returning to the fight” solely because they engaged in “anti-U.S. propaganda.”
Many of the same problems occur in the report, “Summary of the Reengagement of Detainees Formerly Held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba” (PDF), released earlier this month. The report claims that of the released detainees, “[t]he Intelligence Community assesses that 81 (13.5 percent) are confirmed and 69 (11.5 percent) are suspected of reengaging in terrorist or insurgent activities after transfer.” Suspicion of terrorist activities doesn’t rely anymore on engagement in “anti-U.S. propaganda,” but is predicated upon “[p]lausible but unverified or single-source reporting” (emphasis added).
In a press release following the Pentagon’s latest release on “recidivism” figures for former Guantanamo detainees, Center for Constitutional Rights commented, the government “persists in using the language of ‘re-engagement’ to describe individuals, despite the fact that the majority of them should never have been detained in the first place and were known early on by the government to be innocent. It is not possible to return to the battlefield if you were never there in the first place.” Furthermore, “the latest report only summarizes its figures without actually naming any alleged recidivists or including any information that would enable meaningful scrutiny.”
Whatever the actual figures, and the Pentagon is hardly a trustworthy source, Dr. Welner doesn’t bother to mention that the “confirmed” figure is actually around 13 percent, not the 25 percent he cites. Of course, if Welner were honest, he would admit that he didn’t have any such figures at the time of his evaluation, and that the only figures then open to him were those of the approximately 5 percent reported earlier.
In addition, as a psychiatric professional, Dr. Welner must know that extrapolation of dangerousness from “clinical understandings about criminal and violent recidivism” about which he is familiar, i.e., an American population, on a population largely culturally different is extremely problematic. For instance, norms on psychological tests refer to specific populations, and one would never think of administering, for instance, a recent journal article states that use of the Psychopathy Checklist, widely used to predict violent and non-violent recidivism, is based on of Anglo-American samples, and its generalizability “beyond these groups… is still in question and requires further research.” But it is just for this reason that Dr. Welner relied so heavily upon the work of Danish correctional psychologist Nicolai Sennels, “precisely because Sennels has studied and treated large-scale groups of young Muslim and non-Muslim inmates.”
In his op-ed, Dr. Xenakis wrote:
As the defense explained during cross-examination, Sennels is also known for inflammatory views on Islam, having claimed that “massive inbreeding within the Muslim culture during the last 1,400 years may have done catastrophic damage to their gene pool.” Sennels has described the Koran as “a criminal book that forces people to do criminal things.” Welner specifically repudiated these views in court.
But in this duel of op-eds, Dr. Welner went further, defending Sennels as a professional “lauded by the Danish Psychological Association.” That Sennels “has now become a foe of unregulated Muslim immigration to Europe,” Welner wrote, “does not negate what he learned from giving of himself to help Muslims stay out of prison.”
Sennels is a racist ideologue, who uses psychological jargon to argue for the ejection of Muslims from Europe. He spews his views, based upon his work as a social worker and psychologist working with “antisocial individuals.” Despite the fact that he admits, “I did not keep statistics of any kind,” he believes he has enough evidence to conclude that “very few Muslims have the will, social freedom and strength of personality” to be integrated into European society.
Sennels continues. “Many young Muslims become assailants,” he writes. “This is not just because of the Muslim cultural acceptance of aggression, but also because the Muslim honor mentality makes them into fragile, insecure men. Instead of being flexible and humorous they become stiff and develop fragile, glass-like, narcissistic personalities.” And from this, the Danish psychologist, “lauded by the Danish Psychological Association,” and Dr. Welner, concludes that the presence of Muslim populations in many Western countries means “the possibility that violent conflict will happen in Western cities all over the world is very great.” His solution: “draconian measures”; “shutting down Muslim immigration;” “tightening the thumb screws on integration”; “and perhaps even sending Muslims who proved themselves unable to adjust to our Western secular laws back to their countries of origin.”
Any data stemming from the work of Nicolai Sennels is irretrievably biased and unusable. It is to the ever-lasting detriment of the U.S. armed forces that they used an expert who relied upon unscientific approaches and racist ideology to testify on the dangerousness of a Guantanamo prisoner.
Predicting Dangerousness Has “Very Low Reliability”
Dr. Welner certainly sounds on the defensive in his article. He cites a previous Supreme Court decision, Estelle v. Smith (1981), and says that since that decision “forensic psychiatry has refined such dangerousness evaluation to focus on context.” Welner has reason to be defensive. For one thing, Estelle v. Smith concerned the throwing out of such a dangerousness evaluation because the defendant’s rights had been violated. The irony of this is not lost on those of us who have castigated the military commissions and the entire “war on terror” detainee policy as being outside the law. Additionally, the case includes this notable aside:
…some in the psychiatric community are of the view that clinical predictions as to whether a person would or would not commit violent acts in the future are “fundamentally of very low reliability,” and that psychiatrists possess no special qualifications for making such forecasts. See Report of the American Psychiatric Association Task Force on Clinical Aspects of the Violent Individual 23-30, 33 (1974); A Stone, Mental Health and Law: A System in Transition 27-36 (1975); Brief for American Psychiatric Association as Amicus Curiae 11-17.
In a widely-cited 1994 essay, “The Dimensions of Dangerousness Revisited: Assessing Forensic Predictions About Violence” in Law and Human Behavior, sociologist Robert Menzies and colleagues, concluded that while some forensic clinicians “were able to predict some people, under limited temporal and contextual conditions, some of the time, under no circumstances could even the most encouraging performances be mustered as an argument for clinical or psychometric involvement in the identification of potentially violent clinical or correctional subjects.” A later 2000 study on sexual predator evaluations and evidentiary reliability concluded there is a “large and consistent body of empirical evidence indicates that the standards of the profession include no ability to accurately predict dangerous behavior” (emphasis added).
That’s not the kind of evidence that Dr. Welner would wish to enter into the record. Meanwhile, Omar Khadr, victimized more ways than one would care to count, now resides in the “fortress-like” maximum security prison, called Camp 5 at Guantanamo, where he endures near-24 hour solitary confinement, which as an article on isolation in the case of purported Wikileaks whistleblower Bradley Manning recently describes, is a pernicious form of torture.