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American Psychological Association Sees No Evil

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June 16, 2009

The role that psychologists played in the Bush administration’s detention and interrogation policies is slowly being made public. Military psychologists, with the full support of their professional organization, the American Psychological Association (APA), advised, implemented, and sometimes initiated programs that are drawing harsh criticism and calls for an independent investigation. When other national and international professional health associations withdrew their support and implicit endorsement of these policies, the APA remained steadfast in their support of the government’s illegal practices. Meanwhile many, perhaps most, members of the APA were unaware of the policies that were being carried out in their name. I shall briefly describe how the APA aided and abetted the U.S. government in Guantánamo Bay and the CIA black sites, and the steps that a number of psychologists are taking to end this unholy alliance.

In Torture and Democracy, author Darius Rejali points out that many decent professionals leave their posts when the state begins to torture, while those professionals who continue to work for the state create a “culture of impunity.” In 2002, shortly after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the American Psychological Association altered its ethics code (PDF), thereby creating it own “culture of impunity.” To a clause that read: “If psychologists’ ethical responsibilities conflict with law, regulations, or other governing legal authority, psychologists make known their commitment to the Ethics Code and take steps to resolve the conflict, ” the following sentence was added: “If the conflict is unresolvable via such means, psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority.” (emphasis added). As Kenneth Pope, a former chair of the APA’s Ethics Committee who resigned from the APA in protest over these changes and other ethical breaches, recently wrote in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, the APA’s ethics code “now runs counter to the Nuremberg Ethic.” In other words, when American psychologists are charged with unethical conduct, they can claim that they were merely following orders, just as health care professionals in Nazi Germany did when they were prosecuted at Nuremberg.

When the American Psychiatric Association overwhelmingly voted to discourage its members from participating in the interrogation process in Guantánamo Bay, Steven Behnke, the Director of Ethics for the American Psychological Association, emphasized the “unique competencies” that psychologists bring to their role in interrogations, and claimed that psychologists who help military interrogators made a valuable contribution. Furthermore, he argued, psychologists play a vital role in safeguarding the welfare of detainees.

Human rights organizations and congressional oversight committees take a very different view of this collaboration. Physicians for Human Rights, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, and the Senate Armed Services Committee document cases of psychologists advising, and in some cases directing, the interrogation of detainees in enhanced interrogations techniques that constitute torture under international law.

With the release of the CIA torture memos and the publication of Jane Mayer’s book, The Dark Side, the central role that psychologists played in reverse engineering the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) program has been revealed. Originally developed to help American military personnel withstand torture, SERE techniques, adapted by psychologists, are now applied to detainees. Meanwhile, the presence of psychologists in interrogations lends a veneer of professional responsibility to the government’s illegal practices.

Waterboarding, one of the techniques adapted from the SERE program, has become the benchmark to measure the depths to which the Bush administration was prepared to sink in its wrong-headed belief that inducing terror is the best way to wrest information from uncooperative informants. Waterboarding has also become a litmus test for what can be called torture; however, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains that the conditions of detention in Guantánamo Bay, in and of themselves, are tantamount to torture. In a recent article in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Dr. Metin Basoglu, M.D., Ph.D., a renowned expert in the field of trauma studies, concurs.

Basoglu argues that considerations of what constitutes torture must take into account the setting in which those behaviors occur. Here too psychologists, by their presence in the chain of command, are implicitly and explicitly complicit in these human rights violations. At Guantánamo Bay, psychologists have shared responsibility for designing and implementing the “softening up” process through which prisoners were prepared for interrogation by being deprived of sleep, by having food withheld, and by being held in isolation to foster dependence and compliance, to mention only a few of the violations of human rights that are routinely practiced in Guantánamo Bay. Psychologists play a role in determining which detainees will be placed in solitary confinement and for how long. They have helped design a system in which detainees are humiliated, exposed to temperature extremes, and have their religious practices violated. In this system, personal items such as mail, pens, books, soap, and even toilet paper are considered “comfort items,” and are thus under the control of the mental health staff who dole them out in a system of rewards and punishment.

Psychologists at Guantánamo have routinely made psychiatric diagnoses that those of us who have had a chance to read the psychological profiles of detainees find highly questionable. For instance, in a recently published article, naval psychologist Lt. Commander Carrie Kennedy, writes that of approximately 50 individuals in treatment in Guantánamo, 43 to 45 percent were diagnosed with a personality disorder, 17 to 19 percent were diagnosed with a mood disorder, and 15 to 17 percent with an anxiety disorder. But bear in mind that some of these men have been involved combat, all of them have been summarily parted from their families and held virtually incommunicado for six years; they have all been subjected to random acts of violence, they have faced the terror of interrogation and — at the time these diagnoses were made — they had no idea how long they would be detained. Under these circumstances, it is clinically improbable that so few detainees should be exhibiting symptoms of anxiety and depression. However, legal arguments developed by the Bush administration claimed that harsh interrogation strategies could only be considered “torture” if the perpetrator intended to cause prolonged mental harm. Psychologists whose diagnoses emphasize pre-existing personality disorders and overlook more acute symptoms clearly allow the government to argue that torture has not taken place.

In recent years, as news about the American Psychological Association’s collaboration with Bush administration policies at Guantánamo Bay and CIA black sites spread through the media, through blogs, and through listservs, some members of the APA have come to acknowledge the fact that our elected and appointed leaders do not have the long term interests of American psychology at heart. It has become clear that our vision of psychology as a profession, and the vision embraced by our professional association, are starkly different. Like Ken Pope, many psychologists have resigned in protest, others have withheld their professional dues and mobilized against these policies.

In the summer of 2008, citing a previously unused bylaw that allowed 1 percent of the members of the APA to bring a referendum direct to the entire membership, thus bypassing the Council of Representatives (who had unwaveringly supported the APA leadership in these matters), Psychologists for an Ethical APA crafted a referendum resolving that psychologists may not work in settings where persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either international law (including the U.N. Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the U.S. Constitution (where appropriate), unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights.

The resolution passed by an 18-point margin, prompting then APA President, Alan Kazdin, to send letters to then President Bush and Secretary Gates informing them of a “significant change” in APA Policy. However, just as conditions in Guantánamo Bay remain the same in spite of President Obama’s intention to close the facility early in 2010, the new APA policy banning psychologists from working for the military in Guantánamo Bay (unless they are providing treatment to military personnel) is still not in effect. Furthermore, APA spokespersons, while paying lip-service to the intent of this new policy when it is politically expedient to do so, (for example, APA’s press release in response to the release of the torture memos) recently provided information for an editorial that was published in Nature — a leading scientific journal — last month, in which they reiterated the claim that the presence of psychologists in interrogations serves as protection for detainees.

Just as the ACLU is calling for an Independent Prosecutor to investigate Bush era violations of human rights, Psychologists for an Ethical APA is calling for an independent investigation of psychologists and psychological organizations involved and indirectly complicit in activities that culminated in the treatment of detainees that is now known to have been torture. We are also seeking modification of Ethical Code 1.02, the so-called “Nuremberg defense,” so that no resolution of a conflict between ethics and law or a governing legal authority may compromise ethical standards.

As public debate around accountability for torture heats up, the APA Ethics Committee is currently considering how to resolve the increasingly contentious issue of 1.02, and will report the outcome of their deliberations at the APA annual convention in August. We eagerly await their decision.

Ghislaine Boulanger,Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst and the author of Wounded by Reality: Understanding and Treating Adult Onset Trauma. In 2006, in reaction tothe American Psychological Association’s cooperation with the Bush administration’s interrogation practices of detainees at Guantánamo Bay and CIA black sites, Dr. Boulanger withheld her APA membership dues and began a listserv for like-minded psychologists. She is a founding member of Psychologists for an Ethical APA.

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