Blog of Rights

APA Just Says "No" to Torture

By Suzanne Ito, ACLU at 4:10pm

Good news! Yesterday, the American Psychological Association (APA) announced that its membership has voted to approve a referendum that prohibits APA members from working in detention facilities— like Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram — that operate in violation of international law, unless they are working to protect human rights (i.e. not help torture prisoners).

The APA was the focus of attention when it was revealed during military commission hearings in Guantanamo this summer that military psychologists belonging to Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs), known as "Biscuit teams," took part in crafting the techniques used to torture and mistreat prisoners there.

The ACLU's Jennifer Turner, who observed Mohammed Jawad's hearing, where much of this information about the role of military psychologists was revealed, wrote in August:

Since 2002 BSCT psychologists have evaluated prisoners’ fears and psychological weaknesses to craft individualized blueprints for torture and other mistreatment, which they passed on to the interrogators.  For instance, a Guantánamo psychiatrist advised interrogators to exploit one detainee's severe phobia of the dark by deliberately keeping him almost totally in the dark.
In August 2007, the ACLU wrote a letter to the APA on the eve of their national conference requesting that it prohibit its members from participating in the torture and interrogation of detainees. The APA never formally responded to that letter, but in May of this year, Dr. Stephen Behnke, Director of the APA's Ethics Office wrote ACLU attorney Amrit Singh after she received a bunch of documents — including the Yoo torture memo — in response to our torture FOIA lawsuit. Dr. Behnke writes in the letter:
We find what is revealed about abuse in the newly released documents abhorrent. The position of the American Psychological Association is clear and unequivocal: There is never a justification for torture or abuse...APA is committed to promoting the humane treatment of detainees...APA will adjudicate any allegation that an APA member has engaged in unethical conduct.
So the passage of this referendum is clearly a step in the right direction, but as Valtin writes for DailyKos:
One thing the resolution does not mean is an immediate pullout of psychologists from sites where human rights violations take place. Psychologists like U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Diane M. Zierhoffer, a former but now resigned APA member, still staff the Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCT) at Guantanamo and elsewhere. Lt. Col. Zierhoffer exercised her Fifth Amendment rights not to answer questions about her participation in the interrogation of controversial "child soldier" Guantanamo prisoner Mohammad Jawad.
Bmaz at EmptyWheel has more abour Dr. Zierhoffer. You can read the release about the passage of the referendum and the APA's history of assisting in the interrogations of detainees, on Dr. Stephen Soldz's blog.

It's also notable that last month, California became the first state in the nation to officially condemn the participation of health professionals, including psychologists, in coercive interrogations of prisoners in the “war on terror:”

As a result of [Senate Joint Resolution 19], state medical boards will inform health professionals of their obligations under both domestic and international law regarding treatment of prisoners and detainees. They will be warned that if they participate in interrogations that do not conform to these standards, they risk future prosecution.
The New York State Assembly is considering a similar bill, written by Assembly Health Committee chair Richard N. Gottfried. The APA's referendum decision and the California resolution may bode well for the passage of Gottfried's bill.

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