Sunday, August 12, 2007

Moment of Truth Arrives: APA & Participation in U.S. Torture

On August 16, the American Psychological Association (APA) opens a five day convention in beautiful San Francisco. Behind the mise en scene of cable cars, wind-whipped fog, hot sourdough bread, and old Victorian gingerbread homes, a crucial political struggle is taking place over the future of coercive interrogation techniques and inhumane detention conducted by U.S. forces in the wrongly-named "war on terror".

In previous posts, I have explained how psychologists have participated in Pentagon and CIA-run torture of so-called "illegal enemy combatants", how there is a long history of this, and how a large group of APA internal critics and anti-torture activists have proposed a moratorium against use of psychologists in all operations concerning detention and interrogation of detainees in foreign prisons and at Guantanamo. A recent article by Jane Mayer at The New Yorker describes the fight within the Pentagon and CIA by some government behavioral scientific professionals against use of torture techniques:

The use of psychologists was also considered a way for C.I.A. officials to skirt measures such as the Convention Against Torture. The former adviser to the intelligence community said, “Clearly, some senior people felt they needed a theory to justify what they were doing. You can’t just say, ‘We want to do what Egypt’s doing.’ When the lawyers asked what their basis was, they could say, ‘We have Ph.D.s who have these theories.’ ” He said that, inside the C.I.A., where a number of scientists work, there was strong internal opposition to the new techniques. “Behavioral scientists said, ‘Don’t even think about this!’ They thought officers could be prosecuted.”

Unfortunately, this internal opposition by some CIA and military psychologists and psychiatrists proved impotent. No doubt, however, some of what we know about what's going on internally must have come from leaks by such disgruntled and disgusted personnel.

Bureaucratic Vertigo: Resolutions, Amendments, and Votes

Now the scene shifts to the civilized convention meeting rooms of the APA, where, somewhere, the APA's Council of Representatives will meet on Sunday, August 19 to vote on possibly two separate resolutions: one calls for a moratorium against psychologist participation at Guantanamo, in addition to detainee sites in Iraq, Afghanistan, and secret prisons abroad. The APA Board of Directors has proposed a different resolution, which details a number of prohibited interrogation techniques, but fails to support a moratorium, and will allow psychologists to still work in certain defined ways at prisons that allow indefinite detention. Forces within APA are working to derail the first proposal (on a moratorium) in favor of the weaker, new APA-crafted resolution. I detailed all this in my recent article: Will APA Psychology Convention Endorse Indefinite Detention?

Since the existence of this second proposal appears in part meant to remove the moratorium resolution from consideration, i.e., undemocratically not allow it to come to a vote, a number of the moratorium proponents have been working hard to amend the Board's resolution to make it more like the original proposal to ban psychologist participation (a "ban" by the way that was only advisory, with no enforceable provisions).

These amendments, some of which are very helpful, still have a number of problems. Not least is they leave intact the Board resolution's reliance on a definition of "cruel, unusual, inhumane and degrading treatment" (so-called "torture-lite") that is rooted in shifty and inadequate U.S. constitutional so-called protections, and not on international laws and treaties, which are much more specific in their protections. Consider the barbaric practices that exist in U.S. "supermax" prisons, and you get the idea. Additionally, the amendments fall short on nailing down the definition of certain prohibited techniques, creating loopholes for CIA and Pentagon torture proponents.

Closing the Loopholes

Recently, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) sent a letter to APA President Sharon Brehm calling for a vote on both proposals, and suggesting changes of their own to the Board's proposal to strengthen it. Their changes are worth noting:

We understand, of course, that the list of techniques in the proposed resolution is, by the very nature of a list, incapable of addressing all possible forms of torture; but the list does cover virtually all abusive psychological techniques used by the military and CIA and the Department of Defense since 2002....

To avoid creating loopholes, we urge that the resolution be amended in certain key respects that should not be objectionable:

A. Assure that the description of prohibited techniques leaves no room for ambiguity....

1. The use of isolation and sleep deprivation in interrogation is never permissible (thus eliminating the qualifier that they are condemned only if there is a detriment to health....

2. The use of psychotropic drugs is prohibited;

3. Any exploitation of fears or psychopathology (not just phobias) is unacceptable; and

4. Participation “during” interrogation is expanded to include “or in connection with detention,” because we now know that practices such as isolation, sleep deprivation, and use of persistent loud music have been used as part of a strategy to break down individuals both inside and outside the interrogation room....

The Board’s resolution serves to underscore the importance of other actions we urged in my letter of June 14, especially adopting a stance that psychologists not participate in the interrogation of individual detainees by performing pre-interrogation assessments, designing interrogation plans, assisting in interrogation, monitoring interrogation, or otherwise.

Brehm the Decider

Addressing the PHR letter to Sharon Brehm is more than just an organizational gesture, one organization speaking to the administrative head of another organization. In the APA internal struggle -- one you can be sure is monitored by the military, the CIA, and perhaps even by the White House itself, as the loss of APA support would be a huge blow to the attempt to make Bush's "war on terror" antidemocratic and torture techniques legitimate -- the battle of the two resolutions is likely to be partly decided by Brehm herself, as she is both APA President and also the presiding officer of the Council. This is because the APA Parliamentarian has asked her to judge the procedural matter in such a way that she may make the key decision as to whether the moratorium decision is allowed to come to a vote.

As one insider explained:

Thus, a member — indeed, THE most important member of the Board of Directors — is in a position to rule on the legitimacy of a motion that has been put forward by herself and her own Board of Directors!

Is the "fix" in? Or will Brehm allow, as many suggest, both resolutions to come to a vote? (The idea that the Board's resolution was meant to overturn the moratorium resolution and by the Council's own rules should be thrown out and only the moratorium resolution come to a vote is, while supported by a few, probably a non-starter.)

No one knows what Brehm will do. But one wonders if she wants to go down as the APA president that allowed continued psychologist participation in coercive detentions, and de facto endorsement of working at facilities that allow hellish indefinite (and often solitary) detention. Then again, the blandishments of the White House, the Pentagon and the CIA must be considerable, and the voice of the APA's own Society for Military Psychology (Division 19 of the APA) remains strong and vociferous against any moratorium.

Summing Up

This has been a long and complicated post, especially for those who may not have kept up with this political fight in the Siberia of American politics. But it is not an insignificant tussle. As recent articles in Vanity Fair, the Washington Monthly, The New Yorker, and elsewhere have made clear, the fight over psychologist participation in torture is central to how Bush and Cheney conduct their criminal "war on terror" abroad, with its black site secret prisons, its use of extensive torture and abuse, and its arrogant dismissal of international law and treaties. It's evident the U.S. Congress has little appetite to oppose the Bush regime in any substantive way. That leaves it up to us -- to the rank and file of various civilian organizations, such as the APA -- to fight back against the antidemocratic and criminal impulses and policies both proposed and implemented by the Bush Administration and its compliant Pentagon and CIA toadies.

But perhaps not everybody at Langley and the Pentagon complex are so compliant! There are those within these institutions who want to see the torture and inhumane treatment stop. Perhaps some of these will stand up and reveal more of the inner connections of the Bush war machine with torture and affronts to international law. Perhaps even a few may have something yet to whisper into Sharon Brehm's ear.

Still, it would be foolish to hope much for anything along such lines, as the socialization and organizational pressures of being in the military or intelligence organizations, not to mention on the APA Council or Board of Directors, shapes the context within which these people think and behave. No. It will be up to the APA rank and file, and the general public at large, to the degree they can be mobilized to pressure the APA and their Council of Representatives.

Rally for an Ethical APA

There will be a rally to end APA collaboration with illegal interrogations and torture on Friday, August 17, 4-5:30pm at Yerba Buena Gardens, right by the APA convention. It is endorsed by many psychological organizations, including sections of the APA, as well as by prominent individuals and organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee, Nobel Peace Prize-winning Physicians for Human Rights, Tikkun, School of the Americas Watch, Robert Jay Lifton, MD, Steven Miles, MD, and others. There will be speakers and music. Come show your support.

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