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Alarms Raised over Safeguarding Professional Ethics in FBI proposed “Shared Responsibility Committees” addressing Potentially Radicalized Individuals

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D.

Murky federal plans, and odd bedfellows between law enforcement and counseling professionals, currently threaten to create ethical dilemmas for those in the helping professions—psychologists, counselors, imams and doctors—who may be called upon by the FBI in upcoming months to report on citizens in behalf of national security interests as they roll out their new “Shared Responsibility Committees” (SRCs) .

Homegrown terrorists are indisputably a significant problem these days—one the FBI and CIA struggle to identify and stop short of “boom”—that is while they are still in the radicalizing and planning stages of an attack. With Internet instructions for bomb making and ideology only fingertip clicks away, for some the radicalization to lethality process can occur now in only weeks or months. And judging from the damage inflicted in Oklahoma City in 1995 by Timothy McVeigh and his truck bomb or Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook in their December 2015 attack in San Bernardino with their homemade pipe bombs and assault rifle killing spree, we know that terrorists who are inspired—but not necessarily controlled or commanded—by terrorist groups of today can be highly lethal and horrific in the result they produce. Indeed, an entire daycare was wiped out by Timothy McVeigh’s attack with nineteen young children killed.

For the first time in history we also see a terrorist group—ISIS—more than willing to use severely mentally ill persons to carry out attacks. Now with terrorists instructions and recruitment materials so easily located online and so comprehensive, ISIS no longer has to meet its cadres in person to inspire and instruct them in the art of terrorist killing. Thus there is very little risk to the group leaders in using the severely mentally ill. Indeed, mentally ill “groupies” who become enamored of the terrorist organization and who are willing to carry out even low level attacks are strongly encouraged by ISIS. For instance former drug user and allegedly mentally disturbed, Canadian national, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot a soldier and then began a shootout inside the Canadian Parliament in behalf of ISIS. Similarly Alexander Ciccolo who was finally turned in by his own father after he became enamored of ISIS, and was subjected to an FBI sting operation and ultimately arrested when he tried to obtain weapons from an undercover agent appeared to be both dangerous and mentally ill.

When these mentally ill, or otherwise healthy “cadres” for that matter, have no criminal history to flag them to law enforcement as potential terrorists they are particularly hard to detect. And that is where a new program rolled out by the FBI to identify and stop budding terrorists comes into play.

“Shared responsibility committees” or SRCs are the new brainchild of the federal government, and although highly secretive, appear to be committees that enlist counselors, social workers, religious figures, and other community members to intervene with people the FBI believes are in danger of radicalizing, in order to stop them. This is an alternative to highly controversial “sting” operations in which the FBI pretends to be a terrorist operator and comes alongside someone showing serious signs of extremism, offering social and logistical support to carry out an attack, when in fact the true goal is to lure the radicalized individual into prosecutable action that is no longer simply extremist boasting and until acted upon remains a “thought crime.”

Using hotlines and rapid intervention teams as a useful addition to undercover surveillance, and ultimately prosecution and jail time, is a good idea and one that I’ve been arguing in behalf of for years. Family members are often the first to notice that their loved one is becoming an extremist and no family member should have their only response option be calling law enforcement when concerned about extremist talk and behavior in a loved one. Indeed the FBI leaders state that in more than fifty percent of terrorist cases, family members know that a family member is radicalizing but few call for help. Indeed, family members that do call law enforcement and then find their family member subjected to an undercover sting operation and arrest are often upset by the results.

So we do need useful interventions—hotlines and rapid intervention teams made up of psychologists, social workers, and clergy who understand the radicalization process and who can intervene to reverse the social isolation, tunnel vision and twisted thinking that extremist groups lure their new members into. But should these interveners work with law enforcement or be in the employ of the FBI? And should these partners be disclosing to the FBI what a reasonable patient reasonably believes is confidentially expressed information shared privately with his or her healthcare provider?

The SRCs bring up some important questions about when we pursue these alternative counseling methods—what should the ethics be? Will, and should, existing civil liberties and healthcare protections remain in place? For instance when I designed what became the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq for the U.S. Department of Defense to be applied to the twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles then held by the U.S. forces, I trained all of my interveners to caution detainees from trusting us too much and to stop them before making self-incriminating confessions while in treatment. In prison they were likely under video and audio surveillance and we could not guarantee them confidentiality of treatment—whereas normal counseling ethics assume confidentiality in treatment. Not so in a prison environment.

Similarly with the FBI Shared Responsibility Committees, the counselors, psychologists, social workers and other professionals agreeing to take part in hopefully preventing and intervening in terrorism cases must consider carefully existing security, legal and ethical protections in medical and psychological care that afford all of us assured and commonly assumed privacy and confidentiality in our health and medical care—where honest communication and trust are necessary prerequisites to getting good care.

Generally psychological, educational and pastoral counseling professions operate under strict legal and ethical guidelines in which communication is considered confidential except in the exceptional cases where there is an duty to warn potential victims of imminent and serious danger (Tarasoff) or a duty to protect as in the case of an explicit threat made by someone clearly capable of carrying out the threat and thereby creating a clear and present danger; or in an active child abuse case. Only in these exceptional cases is confidentially suspended. Likewise, most professions require the professional to warn his patient at the outset of treatment that such exemptions to confidentiality apply. Likewise HIPAA laws safeguard the privacy and security of certain health information that may be recorded and transmitted electronically by our healthcare providers.

However, those taking part in the SRCs may now believe they have blanket national security “loopholes” to report on their clients to the FBI. But, unless they have discussed this reporting “loophole” with their patients ahead of time and obtained their consent for it and only if there is indeed imminent danger to self or others indicated in the counseling session, could one could argue they have such permission to report on the counseling process to the FBI, or anyone else for that matter.

Just because Muslims, new immigrants, and converts to Islam have fallen prey to groups like ISIS does not mean that they no longer are afforded their civil liberties, HIPAA protections, or that medical and counseling professionals can now abandon their ethical duties to support law enforcement and the fight against terrorism.

Nor does it mean that suspected Muslims can be subjected to checklists that might identify their vulnerabilities to terrorism (vulnerabilities that are so widely spread throughout the general population as to be almost meaningless without also considering exposure to a terrorist recruiter and terrorist ideology) and these checklists should not then used to justify reporting confidential aspects of their file to law enforcement.

There are no such national security “loopholes,” in counseling or medical ethics, nor should there be. Our current laws and ethical guidelines are quite clear on when a person should, and can be, ethically reported to law enforcement and they require telling our patients ahead of time that such laws will be applied so that no trickery or breach of confidentiality of treatment is ever involved. To practice otherwise is to completely undermine the entire medical and counseling profession—ethically, legally and morally—and to create fear and anxiety in those who might come for help if they believed such help was indeed not confidential in nature.

We have already shamefully recently witnessed an era in which psychologists were called upon to assist the federal government in its “enhanced” interrogation techniques in which a dark few willingly violated professional ethics as they took part in, witnessed and advised on such “soft” torture techniques as: subjecting security prisoners to extreme and prolonged stress positions; sleep deprivation; extreme cold; having ice water poured over ones naked body; being held naked in the presence of opposite sex guards; seductive and sexually inappropriate behavior; being subjected to bright lights and loud music twenty-four hours per day; not being allowed to use the toilet nor clean oneself in the mandatory manner necessary for Islamic prayers; and the sickening list goes on and on. In the fall of 2015, the American Psychological Association was so disturbed by its members taking part in these activities that they wrongly, in my opinion, banned all of its members from now taking part in any national security interrogation—when in fact they should have reprimanded and thrown out the members who did so in ways that violated professional ethics.

All of us in the psychological, counseling, pastoral and medical professions have strict legal and ethical guidelines which we are called to follow in treating our patients. Whether they are Muslim, or considered potentially nefarious by the FBI, CIA or otherwise, makes no difference. It is only if they are an imminent danger to self or others that we are allowed to violate the sanctity of confidentiality and trust now still placed in our profession. Our ethical guidelines and laws exist for a reason and we should uphold and enforce them, not change them to compromise our standards for good ethical and legal care.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and is a nonresident Fellow of Trends. She is also the author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. Her newly released book, inspired by the true story of an American girl seduced over the Internet into ISIS, is Bride of ISIS. Dr. Speckhard has interviewed nearly five hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan and many countries in Europe. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles. She is currently running the ISIS Defectors Interview Project with Dr. Ahmet Yayla at ICSVE. Personal website:

Reference for this article is: Speckhard, Anne (April 29, 2016) Alarms Raised over Safeguarding Professional Ethics in FBI proposed “Shared Responsibility Committees” addressing Potentially Radicalized Individuals ICSVE Brief Report

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