Friday, August 29, 2008

APA Referendum Backers Answer Critics

Supporters of a referendum within the American Psychological Association, which seeks to prohibit psychologist participation at "war on terror" prison sites like Guantanamo, Baghram, and an untold number of secret CIA prisons throughout the world, are heading into the last weeks of the mail-in election.

Referendum opponents have repeatedly either misunderstood or deliberately tried to muddy the waters on the main issue, which concerns the active collaboration of U.S. military psychologists in torture and other abusive procedures. These opponents contend that the anti-torture referendum contains language that would endanger psychologist participation in an number of professional and forensic settings domestically, both in prisons, and in situations that have little to do with police or penal activities.

The backers of the referendum have released yet another FAQ aimed at clearing up the issues. I especially like that it addresses the special position of psychologists in the military interrogation situation. A number of my colleagues have been trying to get me to write more about how the language of the Bybee-Yoo memos uses psychologists to legitimize the operations of the "enemy combatant" prisons.

Reproduced below is the text of this latest FAQ:
Q. Why have you chosen to focus on settings rather than individual actions?

A: We have four main reasons for doing so:

1. Psychologists know from decades of research that good people do bad things in bad situations (cf. Ross and Nisbett, 1991, Zimbardo, 2007). Psychologists subject to the chain of command in an inherently abusive environment (e.g., the CIA black sites and Guantanamo Bay) are no less vulnerable to "drift" than anyone else; it is time to start applying the hard-learned lessons of psychology to psychologists.

2. The presence of psychologists legitimizes the operations of these facilities. This is because the Bush administration has redefined torture in a way that all but guarantees that psychologists will play a role in any given torture session. To understand why one needs to explore the labyrinths of this administration’s legal defense of torture.

Most psychologists have heard of the infamous Yoo-Bybee legal memos that redefined torture so that only pain equivalent to that experienced during "death, organ failure or the permanent impairment of a significant body function" could be considered torture, but fewer psychologists know that the same memos incorporate psychologists into this administration's legal defense of torture.

Yoo argues that torture can only take place if the perpetrator intends to cause prolonged mental harm:

"If a defendant has a good faith belief that his actions will not result in prolonged mental harm, he lacks the mental state necessary for his actions to constitute torture. A defendant could show that he acted in good faith by taking such steps as surveying professional literature, consulting with experts, or reviewing evidence gained from past experience."

Thus, by consulting with a psychologist an interrogator demonstrates that his or her intent is to extract information and not to cause harm; if the interrogator is a psychologist he or she can demonstrate good intent by reviewing the literature before an interrogation. Of course members of other professions -- say sociology -- could also perform this same role but there is an advantage in using clinical psychologists since Yoo argues that one has only suffered 'prolonged mental harm' if the victim suffers from PTSD or (untreated) depression and psychologists can diagnose these disorders while other social scientists cannot:

"the development of a mental disorder such as posttraumatic stress disorder, which can last months or even years, or even chronic depression, which also can last for a considerable period of time if untreated, might satisfy the prolonged harm requirement"

Psychologists hold the keys to these abusive settings because the clandestine services need psychologists to tell them that they are not torturing. As Alexander Leighton once said: "the administrator uses social science the way a drunk uses a lamppost, for support rather than illumination."

3. We find these settings inherently offensive. Even without evidence of torture, we would object to the participation of psychologists in a system that buys people from mercenaries, ships them off to secret locations and holds them there for an indefinite period of time.

4. Although the accounts of prisoners who have been released and information emerging from military tribunals are beginning to provide first hand accounts about the treatment in Guantanamo Bay, we do not know what actions are being performed in the CIA black sites. These settings are – by their very nature – closed to scrutiny. What little we do know comes from heavily redacted documents released through the freedom of information act requests and a handful of leaked documents. We do know that abuse has taken place, we do know that psychologists have contributed to this abuse and we do know that those have who operate these facilities have resisted calls to allow a full, independent investigation. Obviously, this is not a sound basis for oversight.
While the end of voting is period is at the conclusion of the business day, September 15. It is not known when the results of the referendum will be known. Nor can anyone say with any certainty what those results will mean, or what will happen within APA after those results are made public. All I can say is to interested parties at this point is, if you are a member of APA, don't forget to vote YES on the referendum and get your vote back in before the deadline.

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