Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Torture Election: Fighting for the Soul of the American Psychological Association

Originally posted at AlterNet

In a surprising turn of events, New York psychologist Steven Reisner won over 30% of the votes in the mail balloting for nominations for the presidency of the American Psychological Association (APA), as announced at the beginning of April. This represented more votes than any other candidate running.

Dr. Reisner, a psychoanalyst, is a Senior Faculty member and Supervisor at the International Trauma Studies Program, an Adjunct Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University, and a consultant to the United Nations on stress and trauma. As a key leader of Psychologists for an Ethical Psychology, he is also a leading critic of APA's position on torture and interrogations.

A number of APA members see Reisner's showing as a great victory for critics of APA's position of allowing psychologists to participate in Bush's "war on terror" interrogations. Reisner received 1,765 votes, four hundred more than Robert E. McGrath, the next most popular candidate. The impressive numbers are testimony to two years of anti-torture activism within APA, involving scores of dedicated professionals. The electoral results guarantee that Dr. Reisner will be on the ballot for APA president next October.

All told, however, the vast majority of votes still went to candidates who have very different positions on interrogations. Moreover, there are signs that some APA office holders and loyalists are hostile to Reisner's candidacy. One inside source says that a top member of the California Psychological Association -- a state affiliate of APA -- called it "despicable" that Reisner was running for APA president, after all he's done to "disrupt" that organization.

The APA ostensibly takes a hard line against torture. But it refuses to forbid its membership from working at Pentagon or CIA prison sites that deny its prisoners basic human rights, like habeas corpus, and with documented histories of abuse and torture. Amy Goodman, in a recent column, summarized the battle within APA to turn the organization away from collaboration with governmental interrogators. The story of this collaboration, and how psychologists came to be key members of the Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs, popularly called "biscuits") at Guantánamo and elsewhere, has been told in great detail by myself, psychologist Stephen Soldz, and writers Katherine Eban, Jane Mayer, Arthur Levine, and Mark Benjamin, among others. The narrative is as dense or as simple as one wishes to make it, and depends how deeply one looks into the history of U.S. torture.

The APA's shifting position on interrogations is rooted in a long commitment to serve the national security apparatus of the United States. That commitment has been reflected in the current APA election, where Dr. Reisner appears as the first true candidate of change on this issue.

The Candidates: The Psychopharmacology Doctor

While Reisner received the plurality of votes in the first round of APA balloting, second place went to Robert E. McGrath at 1,340 votes. (Only 3-4% of APA members seem to have cast nominating ballots in this election.) McGrath runs a postdoctoral program in psychopharmacology at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and was president of APA's Division 55, the American Society for the Advancement of Pharmacotherapy. (APA is a federated organization, divided into 53 professional divisions; each division, along with representatives to the state and provincial psychological associations, is represented on APA's Council of Representatives.)

McGrath has said little on the record regarding APA's interrogation policy, though he did write a letter to the house APA organ, the Monitor, last September on "psychologists' military roles":
In response to recent claims that psychologists have been involved in torture and abusive interrogations, some psychologists are now calling for a complete ban on any involvement in military interrogations. I am troubled by these claims, but I am also troubled by two questions concerning this proposed solution: By extension, shouldn't psychologists withdraw from all coercive interrogations, including those by law enforcement agencies? Don't further restrictions in the diversity of individuals involved in such interrogations increase the potential for abuse even further?
One wonders how objective Dr. McGrath is on this issue, given Division 55 is largely devoted to teaching psychologists psychopharmacology and lobbying for prescription rights for psychologists. The practice, which has been fought tooth and nail by the psychiatric establishment, has found its greatest support in the military, which established a Psychopharmacology Demonstration Project in 1989 to train military psychologists to prescribe. (In an article on psychologists and torture in Vanity Fair last year, Katherine Eban looked at the possibility of a "quid pro quo" between APA and the military, in which APA would give "its stamp of approval to military interrogations" in agreement for the Pentagon allowing "psychologists -- who, unlike psychiatrists, are not medical doctors -- to prescribe medication, dramatically increasing their income.")

McGrath's opposition to pulling psychologists out of Guantánamo and other military/CIA interrogation centers is manifest. Reading his letter, psychologist Martha Davis, a visiting scholar at John Jay School of Criminal Justice, was struck by how APA's position has totally changed the way psychologists view their professional role when it comes to interrogations. "The APA has so successfully finessed this business," Davis wrote on a listserve of APA critics, "that most people hearing about the interrogations and psychology controversy, including psychologists, think that psychologists 'do' or supervise interrogations of criminal suspects in the US. THEY DO NOT … There is no mention of interrogation work in the ethics code. You won't find panels on doing interrogations in forensic psychology conference programs. Psychologists do not have the authority to 'do' interrogations or to supervise them in the US."

The Military Nominee?

The author of Jews in Blue: The Jewish American Experience in Law Enforcement, and consultant "for the police and law enforcement community since 1983," Jack Kitaeff, Ph.D, JD, was a military psychologist (as a Major) in the late 1970s to early 1980s. Both his psychological internship and postdoctoral residency were in military settings. Currently, he is Secretary-Treasurer-Elect for the Police and Public Safety Section of Div. 18 (Psychologists in Public Service).

While Dr. Kitaeff does not appear to have made a public statement on the current controversy on APA and interrogations, he did speak about his work and his views of himself as a "patriot" in an interview in 2006 at FrontPage Magazine, a well-known right-wing neo-conservative outlet run by David Horowitz's Freedom Center. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to guess where Kitaeff, who received 1,128 votes and third place in APA voting, probably stands on psychologist staffing of military interrogations.

The Insiders

Rounding out the final five nominees are Ronald H. Rozensky, PhD and Carol E. Goodheart, EdD, who received 1,057 and 134 votes, respectively. Goodheart was a last-minute write-in candidate; last year she came in second in the nomination balloting, behind eventual presidential winner, James Bray. Reisner, who also ran, failed to make the top five in 2007. Reportedly, Goodheart wasn't going to run in 2008, but she appears to have changed her mind. According to one APA insider, many on APA Council see her as a major competitor to Dr. Reisner in the upcoming election.

Goodheart is, as Steven Reisner once labeled her, an "APA stalwart." A psychotherapist in private practice, and a clinical supervisor in the psychology training program at Rutgers, she has served on the APA Board of Directors, and most recently was APA Treasurer. Currenly, she's working with APA President-elect Bray on his 2009 Presidential Task Force on the Future of Psychology Practice. Is part of that future staffing the BSCTs for the military at Guantánamo and elsewhere?

When psychologists mobilizing to withhold their dues from APA in protest against APA's interrogation policy queried Dr. Goodheart about her position, she replied:
I know that some psychologists in good conscience and good faith want APA also to prohibit psychologists from any participation whatsoever in military interrogations. There is serious debate within APA about the appropriate role for psychologists and I do not know if we will ever be able to reach total agreement. I, along with the majority of the Council of Representatives, voted against a moratorium, after listening carefully and considering all views seriously. As my own act of personal conscience, in the hope that we will be able to influence policy and practices related to interrogations, I believe that we must support psychology's promotion of ethical interrogations to prevent violence, safeguard detainees' welfare, and facilitate communications with them. We must stay engaged and work with the people, both military and non-military, who are working with great dedication to prevent torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and punishment.
In other words, as one prominent member of APAs Division of Psychoanalysis put it:
She feels that to exclude psychologists from morally problematic places may leave prisoners even more vulnerable, and she argues that defining psychologists' presence as unethical would jeopardize ethical professionals who have been in this situation.
This makes Goodheart's stance on psychologists and interrogation a mirror image of APA's official position: psychologists make interrogations safer for detainees. Yet overwhelming evidence implicates psychologists in both the construction and implementation of a torture paradigm that emphasizes sensory deprivation and overstimulation, sleep deprivation, inculcation of debility, psychological regression, and dependency. Furthermore, psychologists have been specifically singled out as the agents responsible for reverse-engineering the military's torture resistance program, SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape), in order to teach military interrogators coercive forms of interrogation. This was documented, no less, by the Department of Defense's Office of the Inspector General in a report on detainee abuse, declassified last year.

The news hasn't gotten through to a final candidate, Ronald H. Rozensky, Ph.D. Dr. Rozensky has a resume a mile long. Former Chair of APA's Board of Professional Affairs, President of the Illinois Psychological Association, award-winning Outstanding International Psychologist, and co-author of Psychological Assessment in Medical Settings, Rozensky is a major lobbyist for governmental money for psychologists, supporting especially research in neuroscience, functional MRI and space programs. Concerned, like the APA honcho he is, in expanding the role of psychologists in particular societal institutions, he is worried that the controversy over military interrogations will spill over to domestic correctional settings, considered by APA a "proliferating" source of psychologist jobs. According to Dr. Rozensky:
...current discussions about psychologists' roles in interrogation in the military have implications within organized psychology for those psychologists working within the correctional system. It is key that our field recognize the important role that psychologists in the correctional system play in assuring ethical treatment of individuals remanded to the system and that information obtained from those individuals is factual and useful.
Whither APA?

Steven Reisner's candidacy for president represents a significant challenge to the status quo of APA governance. While all the other candidates for APA president support the continued presence of psychologists as an integral part of Defense Department and CIA interrogations, Reisner says no:
When leaders of other health professions reject all participation in detainee abuse, and our leaders justify participation, I am ashamed of our profession....

My candidacy calls for a clear departure from the complicity of psychologists in state-sponsored abuses of human rights, whether these take place at Guantánamo, CIA black sites, or domestic supermax prisons.

I have been told that psychologists might fear for their jobs if we hold to a principled stance on detainees' basic human rights. I fear for our nation and our profession if we don't.
Whether Steven Reisner's candidacy for APA president represents the high-water mark for opposition to the pro-military APA bureaucracy, or the beginning of a real sea change within the civil institutions of U.S. society regarding complicity in torture and other criminal, unethical practices of the government, remains to be seen. If Reisner is able to carry the presidential vote, he will still have to contend with a ruling apparatus that remains committed to cementing its ties with the Department of Defense and the CIA.

But these are challenges that lie in the future. Right now, Dr. Reisner and his supporters are riding a wave of optimism that things can change. His electoral showing demonstrates that, within APA, critics of torture and interrogations are making a real impact. In the big picture, the future of APA is likely tied to how these same issues play out in the larger society, especially the U.S. presidential race. For now, however, Reisner's supporters can give themselves a hearty congratulations, even as a longer, larger, higher hill to climb lies before them.

[Much thanks to AlterNet editor Liliana Segura for editorial help on this article.]

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