Saturday, August 18, 2007

Edge of the Precipice: APA Meets the Devil's Details

The American Psychological Association is set to pass a new resolution regarding psychologists at national security interrogations. Tomorrow (8/19) is the showdown, at the APA Council of Representatives meeting.

The APA is on the edge of complete capitulation. Physicians for Human Rights saw fit to write a letter to APA warning it that the language they wish to use in their new resolution, re its definition of what constitutes isolation, sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation, will set things back, not move them forward.

From the letter from new PHR president Leonard Rubenstein to Stephen Behnke, APA Ethics Chair (no link -- I'm transcribing):

I am writing now to share one urgent concern I have discussed with Neil Altman [author of a moratorium resolution on psychologist participation in national security interrogations] about a qualification to the list of unacceptable interrogation techniques that could threaten to undermine the resolution, which is entirely unnecessary and is easily corrected. That is the qualification that isolation, sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation are only condemned if they lead to severe pain. Disapproval of other techniques is not so qualified. As you know, the Convention against Torture and other laws hold that all techniques that cause sever pain amount to torture. The entire point of listing the techniques is a statement by the APA that based on its knowledge and judgment, they amount to severe pain; moreover, they amount to cruel treatment. Condemning these techniques only if they cause severe pain is no different than not listing them at all. I note, too, that the language is actually worse than the board adopted last month. The entire qualification should be stricken -- just as there are no qualifications in the listing of other techniques....

If the APA cannot see clear to condemn them, but simply refers back to the Convention Against Torture, it will have gravely compromised the commitment it has made to oppose torture in all forms by our country.

"The Devil is in the Details"

For those who are confused, guess what? You've got it! You're supposed to be confused. The APA is crafting a resolution that is meant to sound anti-torture, using legalistic terms that seem innocuous, but have great meaning in federal courts. Intent to cause "severe pain" is a very difficult thing to prosecute. It almost never is, at least when it comes to torture and government officials. By crafting exceptions to the definitions of these techniques, the pro-torture forces are seeking to maintain the core program of their coercion paradigm: solitary confinement, sensory and sleep deprivation, which together work to break down an individual's psyche.

APA convention events on interrogation issues are constituted to appear even-handed. But the debate between anti-torture forces and the military is one-sided. Not because anti-torture activists aren't getting their say, but because of the tremendous weight of the U.S. government, and the psychological reality that conformity to power is a tremendously strong motivator. In addition, it's believed that the pro-government, pro-military forces already have the majority on the Council. It's not clear that the old moratorium resolution, or a new amendment crafted by Neil Altman and others that attempts to sneak a moratorium of sorts into the new resolution, will even be allowed to come to a vote.

Altman's amendment calls for psychologists only to work in health care roles, not as advisers to interrogation or conditions of detention. I still find this unacceptable, but it may be the most anti-torture forces can hope for at this point... if there's any reason left to hope at all.

After tomorrow, we'll know if my pessimism was merited.

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