For several years, psychologist members of the American Psychological Association (APA) have been fighting to change the APA’s policies allowing psychologists to participate in interrogations widely reported to be abusive. As the association’s 2007 Convention opened last week, the American Civil Liberties Union called upon the APA to stop psychologists’ participating in abusive interrogations:
“The history of torture is inexorably linked to the misuse of scientific and medical knowledge. As we move fully into the 21st century, it is no longer enough to denounce or to speak out against torture; rather, we must sever the connection between healers and tormentors once and for all. As guardians of the mind, psychologists are duty bound to promote the humane treatment of all people. We strongly urge the APA to adopt the strongest possible stance and issue a moratorium on the participation of its members in abusive treatment.”
At the convention the APA decisively rejected this call, as well as that of hundreds of APA members at a rally and in numerous debates on the issue. The APA’s Council of Representatives rejected, by an approximately 85% to 15% vote, the simple statement that:
“Be it resolved that the roles of psychologists in settings in which detainees are deprived of adequate protection of their human rights, should be limited as health personnel to the provision of psychological treatment.”
As an alternative, the association passed a resolution, proposed initially by the Board of Directors, declaring use of some of the most egregious techniques to be unethical. While the Board resolution constituted progress for the APA, the resolution unfortunately contained enough caveats and loopholes, many added at the last minute without discussion with moratorium supporters, that observers were uncertain whether it condemned the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” techniques, as Physicians for Human Rights has argued, or whether, in fact, it continued abetting the CIA’s torture, as Salon’s Mark Benjamin wondered.
While the APA had undoubtedly hoped for a major public relations boost from their resolution, putting the controversy behind them, the reverse seems to have occurred. Democracy Now! went to San Francisco and provided detailed coverage before and after the convention, including the electrifying claim by association member Jean Maria Arrigo that a key APA ethics taskforce on which she served had been covertly controlled by the military-intelligence establishment, while Agence France-Presse, perhaps tongue in cheek, entitled their report “US psychologists limit roles in torture of military prisoners” and Salon entitled Mark Benjamin’s convention report “Will psychologists still abet torture?”
In the days since the convention ended, the APA has taken another hit as the first editorial in mainstream paper, the Houston Chronicle, stated quite clearly, “Psychologists have no place assisting interrogations at places such as Guantanamo Bay.”
“The worst argument for psychologists’ presence at interrogations comes from U.S. Army Col. Larry James, director of the psychology department of a military medical center” the Chronicle went on to explain.
” ‘If we lose psychologists from these facilities, people are going to die,’ he said at the APA meeting. Psychologists, James suggested, can rein or report overzealous violators.
Any interrogation system that teeters so close to atrocities needs more than a psychologist. It requires thorough overhaul and specific bans of the most extreme methods. The Department of Defense has listed such prohibitions. The CIA has not.
Torturing prisoners doesn’t produce reliable data. It does, however, violate human rights and strip Americans of the right to protest torture of its own men and women. Above all, it blurs our credibility as a democracy worth defending.
No American psychologist should have a part in an interrogation system with the potential to devolve into murder. No American should.”
An even more dramatic development in the struggle occurred this week when psychologist and New York Times bestselling author Mary Pipher (author of Reviving Ophelia among many other books) decided to return her Presidential Citation award from the American Psychological Association in protest. Here is her letter to APA President Brehm explaining her decision:
August 21, 2007
American Psychological Association,
750 First Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002-4242
I am writing to inform you that I am returning my Presidential Citation dated 2/02/06 and awarded to me by then President of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Gerald Koocher. I have struggled for many months with this decision, and I make it with pain and sorrow. I was honored to receive this award and proud to be a member of APA. Over the years I have spoken at national conventions many times and had enjoyed an excellent relationship with the APA and its staff. With this letter, I feel as if I am ostracizing a good friend.
I do not want an award from an organization that sanctions its members’ participation in the enhanced interrogations at CIA Black Sites and at Guantanamo. The presence of psychologists has both educated the interrogation teams in more skillful methods of breaking people down and legitimized the process of torture in defiance of the Geneva Conventions.
The behavior of psychologists on these enhanced interrogation teams violates our own Code of Ethics (2002) in which we pledge to respect the dignity and worth of all people, with special responsibility towards the most vulnerable. I consider prisoners in secret CIA-run facilities with no right of habeas corpus or access to attorneys, family or media to be highly vulnerable. I also believe that when any of us are degraded, all of human life is degraded. This letter is as much about us as it is about prisoners.
In our Ethics Code we agree to promote honesty and accuracy. Our involvement in these projects has been secretive and dishonest. Finally, as psychologists we vow to do no harm. Without question, we violate this oath when we allow people in our care to be deprived of sleep or subjected to sensory over-stimulation or deprivation.
I cannot accept the August 19, 2007 Reaffirmation of APA’s Position Against Torture (Substitute Motion Three.) Under this motion, psychologists will be allowed to continue working on interrogation teams that are not subject to the Geneva Conventions. This motion places our organization on the side of the CIA and Department of Defense and at odds with the United Nations, The Red Cross, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association. With this reaffirmation we have made a terrible mistake.
I know that the return of my Presidential Citation from Dr. Koocher will be of small import, but it is what I can do to disassociate myself from what I consider to be a heinous policy. All of my life I have tried my best to stand up for those with no voices and no power. The prisoners our government labels as enemy combatants are in this category.
I return my citation as a matter of conscience and in the hopes that the APA will reconsider its current unethical position. We have long been a wonderful organization that respected human rights and promoted tolerance, kindness, and peace. Nothing is more fundamental to our core orientation and professional service to others than our commitment to all people’s inherent dignity, safety and welfare. I hope my letter may be useful in restoring the APA to its long-respected and important stance as a beacon of integrity and kindness for all human beings.
Dr. Mary Pipher
The Lincoln Journal Star ran an article on Pipher’s action in which she explains the origins of the Letter:
A report on Monday, by “Democracy Now,” a national, daily, independent news program heard in Lincoln on radio station KZUM, set Pipher in motion.
The report said the American Psychological Association’s policymaking council had voted to reject a resolution at its annual convention Sunday that would have banned members from participating in interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. detention centers around the world often referred to as “black sites.”
In its place, the council had approved a resolution prohibiting psychologists from direct or indirect participation in 19 “unethical” interrogation techniques and called on the U.S. government to ban their use.
The list includes mock executions, simulated drowning or suffocation, sexual humiliation, exploitation of phobias, exposure to extreme heat or cold and isolation or sleep deprivation “that represents significant pain or suffering, or in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm.”
The resolution left what Pipher sees as loopholes on such techniques as sensory and sleep deprivation, which cause people to fall apart very quickly. And it stopped far short of banning psychologists from participating in the interrogations of prisoners at the military sites, she said.
The vote upset Pipher, who has worked with victims of torture and has seen the lifelong harm it can inflict.
It is to be hoped that other prominent psychologists will join Dr. Pipher and hundreds of other psychologists in thier efforts to restore ethics and integrity to the profession of psychology, and to end the US regime of abuse and torture of detainees.
STEPHEN SOLDZ is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He maintains the Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice web site and the Psyche, Science, and Society blog.