Thursday, November 20, 2008

APA Meeting Mulls Over Interrogation Policy Changes

The American Psychological Association's Presidential Advisory Group on the Implementation of the Petition Resolution met at APA offices in Washington, D.C. last weekend. The "Petition Resolution" refers to the stunning victory of a referendum vote by APA membership last summer that officially changed that organization's policy, banning members from participating in interrogations or other activities at sites that are in violation of international or domestic law. (Read the Referendum's full text here.) The victory of the resolution won major media attention.

Previously, while passing formal resolutions against torture and psychologist participation in torture, APA had championed the use of military (and CIA) psychologists at national security sites where interrogations took place. While arguing that psychologists kept interrogations safe, an avalanche of revelations showed that, on the contrary, some psychologists had been intimately involved in the abuse.

The petition was the brainchild of doctoral candidate Dan Aalbers, who worked in collaboration with psychologists Ruth Fallenbaum and Brad Olson, both leaders of an ongoing effort to convince APA members to withhold their dues until APA changed their policy on interrogations.

But by last weekend, with the victory of the anti-torture referendum, Aalbers, Fallenbaum, and Olson, met with the other members of the APA advisory group, hand-picked from APA's Board of Directors and Council of Representatives. By the accounts of the petition's originators, the meeting went well.

According to reports, APA was very open to guaranteeing complete transparency of the meeting, allowing tape recording of sessions. In addition, all recommendations from group members were to be included in the report to be written by President Kazdin to the Council of Representatives. The Council meets next February and will consider all the "options" presented to them. According to the account I read, Kazdin's report will "include clarification of questions raised by members regarding the new policy, many of which revolve around where and to whom the policy applies." Aalbers, Fallenbaum, and Olson promise to reiterate the same positions regarding implementation of the resolution as appeared in their written statements last summer.

It seemed to the pro-resolution attendees at last weekend's meeting that the APA bureaucracy had accepted that the resolution was now APA policy. This has certainly been the public position taken by the organization. While "cautiously optimistic" things will turn out well, everyone is aware that the battle to make concrete the resolution's policy turns now to APA's Council of Representatives.

APA is a federated organization, with many interest divisions. (The military psychologists, for instance, have their own division, number 19, the Society for Military Psychology.) It was a Council vote in August 2007 that defeated an attempt to remove psychologists from all but clinical roles at sites like Guantanamo. But the political situation is different today, and the vote of the membership for such a removal weighs heavily over the APA bureaucracy. On the other side of the scale are years of connections with the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies, and the lucrative promise of jobs for some psychologists, and money for myriad government related research programs, which APA fears losing.

The most immediate way to implement the resolution would be to include its provisions in the organization's Code of Ethics. This would only make sense if, at the same time, that APA's Ethics Code 1.02 was rewritten or rescinded. It allows psychologists to obey commands and "governing legal authority," even when an action is at variance with professional ethics. Rewritten after 9/11, 1.02 remains a virtual get-out-of-jail card for military psychologists engaged in abusive interrogations. Opponents have compared it to 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, but no action has been taken to date.

The membership of APA owes a debt of gratitude to the activists who championed the resolution, and are now trying to implement its provisions in a very real way. And, given the importance of APA policy to Pentagon operations in the way of interrogations, really the entire country owes a debt of gratitude to these unsung individuals.

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