Sunday, April 29, 2007

Action Diary! Your help needed RIGHT NOW to stop torture

Politics is about timing and tactics. By a unique confluence of events, and the way the CIA and military organized their methods of interrogation, a serious weakness in their ability to conduct torture has been discovered. If we strike now -- with letters, faxes, emails, etc. -- we can put a great deal of pressure on a particular vulnerable group who has the ability to greatly hamper the ability of the U.S. government to torture.

When the government researched coercive interrogation in the 1950s and 1960s, they put a great deal of emphasis on the psychological means of understanding human beings, and then using this knowledge to break human beings down. Now, psychologists at the American Psychological Association are trying to stop members from participating in this criminal process, just as members of other health organizations have so prohibited their members.

The psychologists are fighting what seems like a losing battle. But the struggle isn't finished. It is time to reach out to the public to exert their influence on the insular APA leadership. What follows is a brief description of the situation, followed by a direct action call for messages to be sent to key figures at APA.

A Moratorium Against Psychologist Participation in Torture

Stephen Soldz has a good diary up right now at Daily Kos that explains how the American Psychological Association is trying to deep-six a resolution that calls for a moratorium on psychologist participation in torture interrogations at places like Guantanamo Bay prison.

One year ago (!), Neil Altman, an APA psychologist, presented a resolution that was non-binding, but called for APA to take a stand against psychologist participation in foreign intelligence interrogations, after the passing of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 made clear that cruel and unusual methods of interrogation, if not outright torture, would be allowed, and that Bush would decide what met Geneva treaty norms and what didn't.

APA leadership could have fast-tracked this resolution, but they sunk it under a thousand tons of bureaucratic verbiage and the full weight of the serpentine process that is approval of a proposal at APA. Here's a snippet of the response to Dr. Altman's resolution by the Ethics Chair of APA, Dr. Stephen Behnke, dated 11/1/06:

In reviewing the item, the Ethics Committee had several points of observation that it offers for your consideration and on which it requests your feedback.

First, the Committee noted the phrase “U.S. detention centers.” The Committee was uncertain as to the intended scope of this term, which interpreted broadly could include any facility where individuals are detained, for example psychiatric hospitals, jails and prisons, or INS centers....

Second, the Committee noted the term “foreign detainees” and was unclear what group of individuals you wished to identify. Do you, for example, mean individuals who are not
citizens of the United States?

Uh, well, what's the definition of a "detention center"? What's a "foreign detainee"? -- Behnke and the APA leadership seek to bury the resolution the way a high priced lawyer destroys a poor litigant by filing multiple motions. They would make a simple statement of honest integrity, a statement easily made, for instance by the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association, into a case as dense and eternal as Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce.

We have been through all this before with APA. Avila wrote a great diary back in 2006 explaining how APA reversed an earlier stand on torture to make their membership available for Guantanamo and similary interrogations. I followed up with an explanation of how phony legal arguments inserted into an anti-torture resolution at an APA conference rescued the use of torture for the CIA and Pentagon.

According to the U.S. Declaration to the UN Convention on Torture, psychological harm or suffering is defined as NOT COMING from psychological forms of torture. -- Of course, it doesn't SAY this outright, but that's what IT'S MEANT to allow, by art of legal definition.

I don't want to rehash the entire controversy here. Suffice it to say -- and please go read more, following the links -- both the U.S. government and the American Psychogical Association leadership have consprired to keep the legal and organizational justifications in place to allow psychological forms of torture to continue.

By psychological torture, I mean sensory deprivation and sensory overload, sleep deprivation, isolation, manipulation of time and temperature, inducement of phobic fears and humiliation, forced stress positioning, and the propagation of psychological futility. There is a wealth of evidence that shows such techniques break down the nervous constitution of human beings, inducing psychosis and long-term psychological damage, primarily PTSD.

The Strategic Place of Mental Health Professionals in CIA-style Torture

When the American Psychiatric Association saw fit to forbid its members from participating in Bush's torture interrogations, the Pentagon made it clear it would turn elsewhere -- and by that, they meant psychologists!

Of course, the American Psychological Association was quick to not that its psychiatric sister organization was not proposing a total moratorium, allowing "training to military or civilian investigative or law enforcement personnel... on the possible medical and psychological effects of particular techniques and conditions of interrogation".

That wasn't good enough for the Pentagon, who announced on June 7, 2006:

Pentagon officials said Tuesday that they would try to use only psychologists, and not psychiatrists, to help interrogators devise strategies to get information from detainees at places like Guantánamo Bay, Cuba....

Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, told reporters that the new policy favoring the use of psychologists over psychiatrists was a recognition of differing positions taken by their respective professional groups.

(Yes, this is the same Winkenwerder who had to resign over the Walter Reed scandal.)

As far back as 1963, in the text of its infamous KUBARK counterintelligence interrogation manual, the CIA made clear its need for psychological expertise in interrogations. What follows is from the CIA's "Interrogator's Check List":

The questions that follow are intended as reminders for the interrogator and his superiors....

6. Does the interrogators selected for the task meet the four criteria of (a) adequate training and experience, (b) genuine familiarity with the language to be used, (c) knowledge of the geographical/cultural area concerned, and (d) psychological comprehension of the interrogatee?

7. Has the prospective interrogatee been screened? What are his major psychological characteristics? Does he belong to one of the nine major categories listed in pp. 19-28? Which?...

42. Is solitary confinement to be used? Why? Does the place of confinement permit the practical elimination of sensory stimuli?...

44. If hypnosis or drugs are thought necessary, has Headquarters been given enough advance notice? Has adequate allowance been made for travel time and other preliminaries?

45. Is the interrogatee suspected of malingering? If the interrogator is uncertain, are the services of an expert available?

By the early 21st century, the use of psychological personnel was bureaucratically soldified via the formation of Behavioral Consultant Teams or BSCTs ("biscuits"). As described by Arthur Levine at Washington Monthly:

[Guantanamo Commander] Major General Geoffrey Miller believed strongly in breaking detainees down, and that psychologists were crucial to this effort. (Miller would later be dispatched to Abu Ghraib to “Gitmo-ize” the prison by giving advice on detainee treatment, where, according to one general, he told subordinates that detainees should be “treated like dogs.”)

Miller approved the creation of Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs), which would include psychologists and other medical professionals. In theory, these “biscuit teams” would advise interrogators on how to develop a rapport with detainees, but in practice, things were less Dale Carnegie-esque. When one army psychologist and APA member helped interrogate Mohammed al-Khatani, the supposed “20th hijacker,” some of the techniques used included stripping Khatani naked, giving him intravenous fluids to force him to urinate on himself, exercising him to exhaustion, and making him roll over and perform other dog tricks. The interrogation log includes such psychological observations as “detainee seemed too comfortable.”

Anti-torture Psychologists Need Our Help!

Very few psychologists I speak to think they can really get the APA to back down from their pro-government position. And they may be right, if the fight is limited to only a dispute within APA!

We need to broaden this struggle. The blogosphere has responded to other crises with letters, faxes, phone calls and other forms of legitimate political protest when the issue has called for it.

It is time to bring the struggle against torture to the leadership of the APA. They must hear the voices of the society as a whole, shouting NO to torture, and NO to psychologist participation in coercive interrogations.

Here's How

Write or call the APA:

American Psychological Association
750 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002-4242
(800) 374-2721
(202) 336-5500

Write and call, now. Let them know how upset you are.

Send an email to the Public Affairs Office of the APA, expressing your outrage:

Phone the Ethics Office directly at (202) 336-5930 or use APA's toll free number (800) 374-2721, extension 5930, and give them a piece of your mind.

And finally, write to the President of the APA, Dr. Sharon Stephens Brehm. Be nice, be polite, but be firm (this is true for ALL communications).

Dr. Brehm has a web page, Ask the President. Follow the link to leave an email message directly for her.

If we apply enough pressure, it might make the APA stand up and take notice. Don't forget to write your congressman/congresswoman and senator, too!


We don't have to be powerless. We aren't helpless. Write, call, email today. Copy this diary's URL and send it to your friends.

I want to see APA inundated with thousands of messages saying "Stop torture. Stop psychologist participation in coercive interrogations. Support Dr. Altman's moratorium".

Together, we can prevail.

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