Monday, August 20, 2007

Postmortem: APA Torture Resolution Puzzle

The American Psychological Association (APA) has posted on their site the text of a new resolution passed August 19 on the question of psychologist participation in torture and cruel, unusual, inhumane or degrading practices (CUID) related to interrogation of "enemy combatants".

Written with an attorney's eye to nuances of definition and interpretation, it offers a condemnation of specific torture techniques, and suggests psychologists can refuse to work for interrogations or in settings that use such odious coercive techniques. But what it offers with one hand, it takes back with the other.

A close reading of the resolution shows that not much has changed since the last time APA took up this issue in 2006. I commented then that an abandonment of international laws and treaties in order to rely for definitions of CUID upon U.S. constitutional standards meant an evisceration of protections against involvement in coercive interrogations.

This essay looks closely at the inner workings of this latest resolution by the largest psychological association in the world, and why it is woefully inadequate.

"Reaffirmation" Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry

The title of the resolution is long, and even has its own footnote, which already might tell you something: Reaffirmation of the American Psychological Association Position Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and Its Application to Individuals Defined in the United States Code as “Enemy Combatants". The footnote refers the reader to the definitions of "unlawful enemy combatant" in the Military Commissions Act of 2006. This acceptance of the dubious Bush "war on terror" label for their prisoners from Guantanamo to Iraq to CIA secret prisons ("black sites") is an ominous foreshadowing of APA's true loyalties.

The reaffirmation concerns the fact that APA passed a resolution against torture in 2006, after a handpicked commission, stacked with military personnel that were already involved in suspect interrogation activities, studied the issue of psychologist involvement in national security interrogations. The 2006 resolution used a definition of cruel and unusual punishment or treatment that was taken from the McCain Amendment last year, which relied on an obscure set of legal reservations the U.S. held when ratifying the UN Convention Against Torture back in the early 1990s. These "reservations" were crafted earlier by Reagan and Bush, Sr. attorneys and relied on U.S. definitions of CUID, which are based on federal court interpretations of the 5th, 8th, and 14th amendments to the Constitution. I refer readers back to my earlier article for a fuller analysis.

But this reaffirmation of the 2006 position -- formally a denunciation of torture -- by the APA leaves intact the mushy definition around CUID (called "torture-lite" by some), meant to bring in by the back door some hideous techniques of punishment and detention, including isolation, sensory deprivation and overstimulation, and sleep deprivation.

The More Things Change...

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". Here is the relevant text from the new resolution:
BE IT RESOLVED that this unequivocal condemnation includes all techniques defined as torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment under the 2006 Resolution Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and the Geneva Convention. This unequivocal condemnation includes, but is by no means limited to, an absolute prohibition for psychologists against direct or indirect participation in interrogations or in any other detainee-related operations in mock executions, water-boarding or any other form of simulated drowning or suffocation, sexual humiliation, rape, cultural or religious humiliation, exploitation of phobias or psychopathology, induced hypothermia, the use of psychotropic drugs or mind-altering substances used for the purpose of eliciting information; as well as the following used for the purposes of eliciting information in an interrogation process: 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; and isolation, sensory deprivation and over-stimulation and/or sleep deprivation used in a manner that represents significant pain or suffering or in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm; or the threatened use of any of the above techniques to the individual or to members of the individual’s family...
Now, what kind of hairsplitter could I be to criticize such a definite blasting of the kinds of horrible torture techniques used by Bush's military and CIA? Even Physicians for Human Rights is trying to see the cup as half-full. And maybe they are right, but I have strong reservations of my own. Here's what PHR says:
The American Psychological Association's (APA) "unequivocal condemnation" of enhanced interrogation techniques used by the CIA such as water-boarding, mock execution, exploitation of phobias, exposure to extremes of heat and cold reinforces the urgency of abolishing the use of these methods in all intelligence-gathering activities conducted by the US government, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said today....

"The action by the American Psychological Association reflects what clinical experience and scientific study have long shown: that these techniques destroy people, amount to torture, and must never, ever be used," stated Leonard S. Rubenstein, President of PHR. "The Bush Administration must immediately follow the APA's resolution by expressly abolishing the use of these techniques by the CIA and all other agents of the US government."

The APA also determined that psychologists should have no role in planning, designing or assisting in these techniques, and urged tribunals to reject testimony elicited by torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. It recognized, too, that "conditions of confinement" as well as interrogation methods can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The resolution affirms that psychologists may not participate, directly or indirectly, in any activities that amount to or facilitate torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, even when these activities are authorized by law or regulation. [emphases mine]
... The More They Stay the Same

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)

Hey, APA, as Stephen Soldz noted at the convention to a number of people: what ever happened to Ethics Principle A of the APA's own Ethics Code?
Principle A: Beneficence and Nonmaleficence
Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm. In their professional actions, psychologists seek to safeguard the welfare and rights of those with whom they interact professionally and other affected persons...
My objection is this: Not only has APA abandoned its own ethics code, using legalistic language reminiscent of the infamous Yoo and Bybee memos on torture, but they have rescued a set of coercive techniques which do serious harm to individuals who suffer them and are directly against Geneva Convention Common Article Three. These techniques -- like sensory deprivation -- are not typically used in interrogation anyway (except slapping, shaking and threats). They are used as part of an abusive prison environment and constitute coercive conditions of confinement, not interrogation. An individual may suffer isolation or sensory deprivation or stress positions for many months without even being questioned!

Why would the APA allow this? Also, why did the APA fight hard to defeat an amendment to their new resolution that would have allowed psychologists to serve only a health-care related function at U.S. "enemy combatant" detention centers? Why did APA drop this new resolution in the laps of the voting Council of Reps at the last minute?

APA Proxy War in Intelligence Dispute over Interrogations

When I spoke at the "Town Hall" meeting the night the new resolution was passed, where hundreds of disgruntled and angry psychologists came to speak their pain and anger over the APA still allowing psychologist participation at detention camps that violate international human rights law, I explained that the parsing of language over "prohibited techniques" was consonant with the division within the military and intelligence community over the introduction of SERE reversed-engineered torture techniques into Bush's prison camps. It cannot be a coincidence that techniques associated with SERE-style torture are "unequivocally prohibited", while techniques engineered by the CIA decades ago and codified in their KUBARK Counterintelligence Manual (like use of drugs, sensory deprivation, etc.) are only conditionally banned. (SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, and is a military program to "stress inoculate" military officers and other personnel against abusive POW experience.)

In my analysis, within the government, SERE is under heavy investigation. The release of a Pentagon Inspector General Report condemning SERE psychologists for bringing abusive practices to prisons from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib and Afghanistan is leading to hearings by the Senate Armed Services Committee this fall. Meanwhile, the CIA is granted carte blanche via executive order by President Bush to use "enhanced" techniques of interrogation at secret "black sites" abroad. In Bob Dylan's words, "You don't need a weather man / To know which way the wind blows."

The APA has been the obedient servant of military needs since its inception. In future articles, I will explore some of this history. Meanwhile, APA anti-torture activists are still reeling from recent events, trying to find the silver lining to some of APA's statements, or withdrawing in fatigue and demoralization.
One thing is for sure: the fight against abuse of state power, and misuse of scientific knowledge in the service of same, is a struggle that will go on for a long, long time.


Anonymous said...

Reading this sort of sick stuff makes me ashamed to be an american. Godammit, WTF is going on in this country? We didn't behave like a bunch of idiot nincompoops during WW2. And anyone who says "But this is a different kind of war" to lamely justify barbaric behavior are part of the same cesspool that we all supposedly oppose. We can do much, much better than what our leaders tell us we can.

Shame on our government.
Shame on the APA

Valtin said...

You are so right. It is amazing that even in a war fought with such barbarism as WWII, the U.S. never stooped to such infamous behavior.

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