Thursday, October 2, 2008

Big Victory: APA Informs Bush -- No Psychologists at Military Interrogations

Readers of this blog know that dissident psychologists, along with human rights and anti-torture organizations and individuals have been working for years now to get the American Psychological Association to change its policy of supporting the use of psychologists in interrogations at Guantanamo, CIA black-site prisons, and other governmental sites involved in Bush's Global War on Terror.

Last month, a referendum that called for banning such participation was passed by a large majority of voting APA members. At first, APA bureaucrats mumbled something about instituting this new policy come August 2009! But large scale protest by the membership seems to have caused them to back down, and today, APA has released a letter to George W. Bush informing the head of the U.S. executive branch and commander-in-chief of U.S. armed forces of the new change in APA policy.

The letter was drafted collaboratively between APA staff and the primary authors of the referendum petition that led to the change in policy. Similar letters reportedly will be sent to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, CIA Director Michael Hayden, and to key congressional committees, including the Armed Services, Judiciary, and Intelligence committees.

What follows is the press release by APA on the change, and announcing the letter to Bush. The actual text of the letter can be found here.

The announcement by APA represents a major turnaround in their long-standing policy of backing the presence of psychologists at interrogations, and a victory for all who have fought to change that policy and fight back against U.S. torture.

Prohibits psychologist participation in interrogations at unlawful detention sites

WASHINGTON—The American Psychological Association sent a letter today to President Bush, informing him of a significant change in the association's policy that limits the roles of psychologists in certain unlawful detention settings where the human rights of detainees are violated, such as has occurred at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and at so-called CIA black sites around the world.

“The effect of this new policy is to prohibit psychologists from any involvement in interrogations or any other operational procedures at detention sites that are in violation of the U.S. Constitution or international law (e.g., the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention Against Torture),” says the letter, from APA President Alan E. Kazdin, PhD. “In such unlawful detention settings, persons are deprived of basic human rights and legal protections, including the right to independent judicial review of their detention.”

The roles of psychologists at such sites would now be limited to working directly for the people being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights, or to providing treatment to military personnel. The new policy was voted on by APA members and is in the process of being implemented.

For the past 20 years, APA policy has unequivocally condemned torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, which can arise from interrogation procedures or conditions of confinement. APA's previous policies had expressed grave concerns about settings where people are deprived of human rights and had offered support to psychologists who refused to work in such settings.

Noting that there have been credible reports of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees during Bush's presidency, APA called on the administration to investigate these alleged abuses. “We further call on you to establish policies and procedures to ensure the independent judicial review of these detentions and to afford the persons being detained all rights guaranteed to them under the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention Against Torture,” Kazdin wrote.

A copy of the full letter may be viewed at:
Whither APA
While this is a big victory, it doesn't mean torture will end at Guantanamo, CIA prisons, or elsewhere. Most psychologists working at such facilities, similarly to doctors, nurses, interrogators, etc., work under the chain of command and answer to the leadership of the military and the executive branch. But the new policy does explode a central pillar of the government's rationale for such abuse, i.e., that psychologists are present at such sites as "safety officers" to stop "behavioral drift" or abuse from taking place.

Now the APA has rejected this premise, and is lending its prestige to the withdrawal of behavioral health professionals from the CIA and the Pentagon's program of coercive interrogation.

Yet, the APA still widely collaborates with the national security apparatus. Their work on "deception", which I've written about here, is only one aspect of this far-reaching connectivity between U.S. behavioral science and the military. Nor should we believe that the APA apparatus, staffed by the same people who tried for years to make psychologists hand-servants for the worst aspects of military abuse, is suddenly composed of pacifists and anti-militarists. For instance, APA has not, to date, seen fit as an organization to call for the closure of Guantanamo Bay Naval prison.

It's clear that struggles around the interactions of the health professions, academia, and major scientific institutions with the organs of national security and the program of a militarist state, remain ahead of us. Furthermore, the cynic in me wonders if this turnaround by APA isn't too convenient, as it potentially cuts the ground out from under anti-torture activist Steven Reisner's campaign for APA president, with the election coming later this month.

One prominent APA activist noted on a listserv earlier today that Kazdin's letter fails to call for an immediate removal of psychologists from interrogations at Guantanamo (for instance). The policy wherein Behavioral Science Consulting Teams, including psychologists, assist in interrogation planning and procedures is supposedly about due for review. It is time to ratchet up the pressure on the government to shut down Guantanamo, to decommission (if that is the word) the BSCTs.

A big question remains around the use of torture and the participation of same at CIA sites. CIA "enhanced interrogation" techniques remain supposedly approved by the President. No one knows exactly how the CIA's prisons work, who is there, or what goes on. APA should call for an immediate withdrawal of all psychologists from such secret prisons. While they are at it, to show they are serious, they could stop taking advertisements for CIA employment in their journals and publications.

[Update: I want to add here some important comments from the CEO of Physicians for Human Rights, Frank Donaghue on APA's letter:
"While today is a proud day for the APA and its membership, the APA must now act to permanently prohibit direct participation by psychologists in interrogations and to ensure those psychologists who engaged in abuse and torture are held to account," said Donaghue. "The APA has taken a tremendous step forward but has not yet reached the ethical standards of the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, organizations which have banned direct participation by physicians in all interrogations. Also, the APA has not yet specified what rights abuses would render a detention facility illegal under its new policy."]
Despite all caveats, it is time to savor the victory, and spread the word. Congratulations to everyone who worked to win this battle. Tops among them must be the folks who pushed the referendum, when it looked like a long-shot, and the hard working members of Psychologists for an Ethical APA,, etc.

Bravo, my friends and colleagues. Good work!


Anonymous said...

Physicians for Human Rights CEO Frank Donaghue swiftly issued a statement in the wake of the APA's historic policy shift today.

Anonymous said...

What an achievement. At least your profession is returning to a decent starting place. Your work around this has been vital to the effort. I hope it brings some degree of relief and satisfaction.

I failed to get a single response relative to nurses' involvement and to get any response by the ANA.

Total and absolute failure.

Valtin said...


I've added a piece from Donaghue's statement to the original essay, as an update. Thank you.

Annie, I think it's time that many of us start looking to help you on this nurses' business. You are about the only one out there trying to hold them to account, that I know of (except maybe Steven Miles).

samflutch said...

Psychologists have traditionally played a part in questioning of U.S. captives done by the military or intelligence agencies. Some psychologists have criticized such work during the Bush administration's anti-terrorism effort as a code of ethics violation, while others say eliminating the psychologists' participation would make the interrogations more harmful for detainees.


william said...

This detention facility is one of the environments in which psychologists serve as consultants to interrogations. The American Psychological Association sees no ethical problems with psychologists serving there. We psychoanalysts know that understanding requires a historical perspective. The abuses being perpetrated on America's detainees in the War of Terror, and psychologists' roles in those abuses have a long history.
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Psychological Evaluation said...

Military always need a psychologist.

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