Campaign Against Torture

I just returned from San Francisco, where the American Psychological Association (APA) met to consider its ethical stance in the face of overwhelming evidence that psychologists in military and intelligence agencies participated in the torture of detainees in US custody. As many of you may know, the APA failed to take a strong ethical position against psychologist participation in interrogations. It even defeated a mild resolution that would have allowed psychologists to offer only clinical treatment services in detention facilities where human rights violations are pervasive. The APA has thus failed to come to grips with the implications of the role of psychologists in supporting interrogations at Guantánamo and other places where terrorist suspects are detained, pretending that it is possible to act ethically in an environment that undermines the possibility of ethical practice.

The APA did, however, advance the struggle against torture by the CIA. The APA "unequivocally" condemned the use of 20 distinct interrogation methods - such as mock executions, forced nakedness, hooding, stress positions, water boarding, and threats to families of detainees - that reportedly have been used by the CIA and that amount to torture. It called upon the Defense Department, CIA and other agencies to prohibit these tactics and demanded that psychologists not participate in planning, designing or carrying them out.

The new policy is particularly strong in forbidding indirect as well as direct participation such that psychologists cannot aid in "softening up" prisoners for interrogation through grotesque and abusive conditions of detention. Moreover, following orders from those in charge of interrogations, or even following US government interpretations of laws or regulations that permit torture, is no longer an acceptable justification. The APA called on psychologists to report torture and to cooperate in all investigations of it, including those by Congress.

It is troubling, though, that the resolution condemns isolation, sleep deprivation, sensory overload and sensory deprivation only when used in a manner that "represents significant pain or suffering or in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm." How can an organization ethically committed to "do no harm" invite distinctions regarding relative amounts of harm inflicted through coercive interrogation techniques?

Given what we know about these methods, this purported qualification is really no qualification at all, since clinical experience and investigations have demonstrated how deeply damaging these tactics are, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder, extreme anxiety, depression, dissociation or even cognitive impairment. A new report by PHR and Human Rights First, Leave No Marks, shows that the harm from each of these four techniques (among others), is so serious that using any of them constitutes a war crime under US law. Because of the harm these techniques cause, the APA resolution must be understood to absolutely prohibit the use of the four methods.

The new APA interrogation resolution comes on the heels of a recent Executive Order that continues the CIA's "enhanced interrogation program," a euphemism for an abhorrent set of practices that amount to ongoing use of torture. While its particular interrogation tactics remain classified, there is every reason to believe that they include many of those the APA has now properly condemned – and which psychologists have helped design and implement. Condemnation of these methods by the APA, which has very strong relationships with agencies involved in national security, can aid our fight against torture in the public debate as well as in Congress and the Executive Branch. And by passing the resolution, the APA essentially commits to joining this fight.

We will all have to work together in the coming months to end the use of all 20 abusive techniques from use in all US interrogations, including those conducted by the CIA. It was gratifying that so many psychologists at the meeting in San Francisco have vowed both to continue to fight for the enduring values of their profession and to share our vision of ending torture by our government for good.


Len Rubenstein

 Tell a friend about this report on the APA's new interrogation policy.

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