Sunday, March 2, 2008

Psychologists and the Realpolitik of Torture

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.
Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?
Hamlet: Between who?
Sometimes it seems as if it is raining news and analysis. A number of good articles have appeared lately on the subject of U.S. torture. David Goodman's "The Enablers" over at Mother Jones is one of a number of articles in a special MJ series on torture. Goodman's article focuses on the fight within the American Psychological Association (APA) over psychologist participation in military and CIA interrogations of "enemy combatants." It's very good, fairly up-to-date, and puts the controversy into some historical context.

Another article, by Stephen Soldz and Brad Olson -- both psychologists and both active in the APA opposition organization, Psychologists for an Ethical APA -- has been published online over at ZNet. Its long title, "A Reaction to the APA Vote on Sealing Up Key Loopholes in the 2007 Resolution on Interrogations," tips you off that there has been some recent activity in the struggle to change APA policy on psychologists and interrogation. Indeed there has been, as last week APA Council voted to approve a substantial change in their previous language on prohibited interrogation techniques. But will it make a difference in the long run?

Soldz and Olson do a good job explaining what the loopholes were in the earlier APA position. The latter is a subject I've covered earlier myself:
The APA is touting how the new 2007 resolution prohibits "specific techniques sometimes used in interrogations and calling on the U.S. government to ban their use"....

Looking back at APA's long list of prohibited techniques we see something strange in the wording. The first part of the list are odious forms of obvious torture. "Techniques" that are "unequivocally condemned" include rape, mock executions, waterboarding, etc. Note, however, that use of "psychotropic drugs or mind-altering substances" are prohibited in instances where they are "used for the purpose of eliciting information". If they are used to sedate or "soften up" a detainee prior to the questioning, drugs are apparently not prohibited.

Even worse is what comes next: a subset of other techniques are also singled out as prohibited when they are "used for the purposes of eliciting information in an interrogation process". These are "hooding, forced nakedness, stress positions, the use of dogs to threaten or intimidate, physical assault including slapping or shaking, exposure to extreme heat or cold, threats of harm or death".

A third subset of "prohibited" techniques concerns sensory deprivation and overstimulation, and sleep deprivation. Here, the APA goes completely off the rails. They define these techniques to be prohibited only if "used in a manner that represents significant pain or suffering or in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm". (Emphasis mine)
Soldz and Olson described their reaction at the 2007 convention when APA Council brought forth their "substitute" resolution, written precisely to replace a bureaucratically-blocked resolution proposed months earlier calling for a moratorium against any psychologist participation at interrogation sites. They read the language around "definitions" of torture and cruel, abusive and inhuman behavior:
We remember clearly our shock at first observing this careful parsing of allowed degrees of suffering. We remember such insertions mysteriously occurring overnight before the Council vote. We recall how upset we were with this new language that was in such brazen contrast to the APA Ethics Code's injunction to "do no harm." We also remember our group of APA critics not being able to keep ourselves from wondering "Who pulled strings to get these phrases inserted?"
Opponents of APA collaboration with U.S. torture jumped on the wording of the disputed paragraph. Yet, introduced by representatives of APA's military psychology division, the Council resolution, with its weak and misleading language, passed easily. And that's where things sat for a number of months, as revelations mounted in the press about abusive conditions of confinement at Guantanamo's Camp Delta, about CIA use of waterboarding, and the participation of foreign countries in the U.S. "extraordinary rendition" program. Capping it all off, there was the circus of Attorney General Mukasey's testimony before Congress, with Bush's number one legal officer unable to make up his mind about whether waterboarding represented torture or not.

Meanwhile, the backlash grew against APA's sneaky maneuvers and parsing of language, allowing for the continuation of psychological forms of torture and abusive treatment. Goodman's article nicely summarizes what happened next:
In the wake of these revelations, a growing number of APA members have protested by withholding dues. In August [2007], Mary Pipher, author of the best-selling Reviving Ophelia, returned her APA Presidential Citation. And a stream of prominent APA members are resigning, including Kenneth Pope, the former chair of the organization's ethics committee, who quit in February. In addition, at least six college psychology departments -- Earlham, Guilford, Smith, University of Rhode Island, California State University at Long Beach, and York College of the City University of New York -- have gone on record saying it was a violation of professional ethics for psychologists to participate in interrogations in any prison outside the U.S. where prisoners are not afforded due process. And in January, the California State Senate Committee on Business, Professions, and Economic Development passed a resolution discouraging California licensed health professionals from participating in detainee interrogations.
(As a gesture demonstrating my wish to be open about any bias I may have, I should add that I resigned from the APA myself earlier this year.)

The APA brass certainly noticed something was happening. Ethics Director Stephen Behnke began sending out emails, trying to smooth the waters with critics. He assured the doubting Thomases that there was no attempt to create any loopholes, and that the confusion would all be cleared up by the long-promised casebook on ethics and interrogation due out in about a year. Of course, not a word was said about the now-forgotten moratorium proposal. It was dead in the water, relegated to the maximum program of radicals and little-read bloggers (ahem).

New APA Ban on Torture Techniques: Victory or Clever Cover-up?

According to Goodman's article, the Senate Armed Services Committee is still investigating the role of psychologists in the reverse-engineering of Pentagon anti-torture training for the interrogators of Bush's "war on terror." I had given up on any real hearings ever happening, but perhaps APA headquarters knows more than me. Or perhaps, as Soldz and Olson suggest, and I've made explicit in the past, the dawning realization that a Democratic administration is probably going to take over Washington, D.C. next January has signaled to APA that a change in approach is necessary. The Democrats have offered a reform of interrogation policy that includes a similar ban on abusive techniques, and offers the current Army Field Manual as an authority of allowable interrogation techniques.

Then again, maybe the resignations of prominent and non-prominent members, the dues boycott, and the muffled drumbeat in the press on the subject has played a role in APA's turnabout on torture definitions. In any case, all of a sudden, APA Council moved with due speed to make some purportedly dramatic changes in their previous position.

More than one critic of APA's past policy has noted the participation of Bill Strickland from APA's Division 19, Society for Military Psychology, on the small group redrafting the controversial paragraph. Not only has Strickland been a major opponent of a psychologist moratorium, wherein psychologists would follow the policies of the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatrist Association forbidding their membership from participation in the interrogation of detainees, he is also Vice President of Human Research Resources Organization, or HumRRO.

Goodman notes in his article that HumRRO is a major recipient of defense funding, and staffed at high levels by APA honchos past and present. But HumRRO was a major research center in the 1950s-1960s on sensory deprivation, using U.S. soldiers as guinea pigs, and thus a center of MKULTRA research. As reported in J.P. Zubek's 1969 compendium, Sensory Deprivation: Fifteen Years of Research (Appleton-Century-Crofts, publishers), HumRRO, located in Monterey, California, reportedly had the best laboratory of all the sensory research centers:
...they made significant contributions to the study of the effects of sensory deprivation on hallucinations, attitude change, emotions, motor behavior, and cognition. Perhaps their most important work has been in the area of the measurement of affect and subjective stress... (p. 10)
I presume Strickland and his military/CIA partners are counting on the fact that sensory deprivation can be banned in name only, but still be practiced in the field. How do they do this? By simply claiming, as is done in the new Army Field Manual, that what they are doing is not sensory deprivation, even when they are applying special goggles and mittens to detainees, taking a page right out of the Donald Hebb SD playbook. The famous picture of then-defendant Jose Padilla being taken from his cell in goggles illustrates the technique quite well.

As we shall see, the supposed closing of the loopholes (and they likely aren't all completely closed) belies the fact that the military and APA leadership have shifted the terms of the debate away from psychologist participation in unethical and likely illegal governmental detention of prisoners, and away from other, more arcane loopholes that promise no major change in U.S. torture practice. For brevity's sake, the reedited 2007 paragraph defining proscribed interrogation techniques is not reproduced here, but can be accessed at this link. Let me allow that it is quite encyclopedic in proscribing most torture techniques known or that can be imagined. It's reliance on the UN Convention Against Torture, which was ratified in the U.S. with a number of "reservations" that weakened its definitional structure, remains a possible difficulty in implementation. (See discussion on this point here.)

But the other difficulties are more obvious. Hence it is not in the resolution's language that we find the problems (at present), but in the politics that got us to where we now are. These are enumerated below:

1) Despite all protestations of good faith by APA, psychologists still staff the Behavioral Science Consultation Teams at Guantanamo, and other interrogation sites, including, presumably, secret "black site" prisons run by the CIA. Psychologists at these sites are under the military chain of command, not APA ethics codes and committees. These sites are known to be in violation of Geneva Conventions and other national and international laws and agreements concerning prisoners, including the holding of detainees in indefinite detention, hiding detainees from the Red Cross, subjecting detainees to abusive conditions of detention, transferring via secret rendition some detainees to foreign prisons to be tortured, and subjecting prisoners to secret courts where hearsay evidence and evidence supplied via tortured confession is allowed.

Scandalously, a promised resolution to be brought before APA Council calling for the closure of Guantanamo's prison facility failed to make an appearance yet again at February's meeting, putting off any action for some months. The Council member who promised to do this explained to an inquiring member that the Gitmo closure resolution wasn't presented at the Council meeting for the following reasons: it was being vetted by APA's Board for the Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest (BAPPI), emails got lost, a busy work schedule intervened, and various other dog-ate-my-homework excuses. When APA wants to bureaucratically bury something, they don't fool around.

2) APA's Ethics Code 1.02, which allows psychologists to obey commands and "governing legal authority," even when an action is at variance with professional ethics, remains a virtual get-out-of-jail card for military psychologists engaged in abusive interrogations. The code, rewritten after 9/11, places into APA's ethics code the Nazis' Nuremberg defense: "I was only following orders" ("Befehl ist Befehl"). The APA promised to insert a qualifying phrase about human rights into 1.02 back in 2006. No action has been taken to date. Contrast this with the six month time frame that brought about the recent word change in last summer's resolution.

3) For months, APA activists have been concentrating their fire on the previously weak language of the 2007 resolution and its loopholes regarding certain kinds of torture. With the "victory" of recent days over this disputed language, some activists aren't wondering if it isn't time to end the dues boycott, implemented last year as a protest against APA's torture policy. Others are seeing the language change as a sign of good faith by APA leadership. The days of a strong fight over a moratorium of psychologist participation at Guantanamo and CIA "black site" prisons seems a thing of the past, indicating the success of APA in changing the terms of the torture debate.

Calling the Question

The issue boils down to this: Are psychologists involved in interrogations of detainees at Guantanamo, CIA prisons, and other theater of war prison sites? Yes. Are these sites in violation of basic human rights laws and treaties? Yes. Have psychologists been implicated in torture of prisoners, and training other personnel in such torture? Yes. Does APA have an ethics policy in place that allows military psychologists to follow orders, regardless of ethical demands? Yes. Has anyone in the 50 plus year history of psychologist participation in mind control and interrogation research ever been held responsible for unethical practices? No. Has any military psychologist, or for that matter any health professional, been held responsible for torture-related activities since 9/11? No.

The overwhelming conclusion is that the language change in APA's 2007 resolution regarding interrogations, while welcome, is a small victory at best, part of a larger campaign where the government and their institutional handmaidens, like APA, have by far the lion's share of victories. This is the time when all opponents of APA participation in U.S. abusive interrogation must redouble their efforts to push for a moratorium on psychologist involvement in national security interrogations of so-called "enemy combatants." They must come out strongly against the use of psychological torture techniques in the Army Field Manual. They must call for accountability from those who have promoted torture and other abuse, up to and including criminal prosecutions. They must call for an end to the nation's policy of "extraordinary rendition." They must call for the rescission of APA Ethics Code 1.02. And, finally, they should take up Drs. Soldz and Olson's call for a reckoning with the sordid aspects of the history of the behavioral sciences:
We must, together with other health professions, come together as part of a truth and reconciliation process to publicly clarify the roles of psychologists and other health and mental health professionals in the production of harm. We must publicly admit and apologize for the use of psychological knowledge and expertise in detention and interrogation abuses. Until we clarify and personally accept the extent to which our profession and our professional association has condoned or abetted these and other abuses committed during this so-called "war on terrorism," we will have done little to learn what went wrong, and little to make the moral and institutional changes necessary to prevent their recurrence.
For further reading, please see this recent article, "The ethics of interrogation and the American Psychological Association: A critique of policy and process", by Brad Olson, Stephen Soldz, and Martha Davis.

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