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Letter to Senate Intelligence Committee: Psychologists out of Abusive Interrogations

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Concerns About Policies of the American Psychological Association on Interrogation Involvement

In addition to our dismay as citizens at these types of actions by our government, we are concerned as psychologists that psychologist involvement in abusive interrogations is in violation of established national and international norms of medical and psychological ethics4. In its Declaration of Tokyo Guidelines for Physicians Concerning Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment in Relation to Detention and Imprisonment, the World Medical Association stated: "The physician shall not use nor allow to be used, as far as he or she can, medical knowledge or skills, or health information specific to individuals, to facilitate or otherwise aid any interrogation, legal or illegal." Similarly, the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, and the American Psychiatric Association have taken clear unequivocal positions affirming the primacy of the health-promoting missions of their respective professions. These organizations have all emphasized the central tenet of the ethics of all health professions: the injunction to do no harm.

It is with distress, and indeed shame, that we psychologists note that the American Psychological Association [APA] alone among the national health professional associations has failed to take an unequivocal stand prohibiting participation of its members in potentially abusive interrogations. As was evident in its testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the APA explicitly allows members to participate in the infliction of harm, as long as that harm does not exceed a certain threshold – causing "significant pain or distress" or of being "lasting". This policy, sadly, echoes the word-parsing of the Bush Administration's "torture memos" and other official policies and documents justifying the administration's harsh interrogation strategies. Word-parsing may have a political rationale, but it is antithetical to professional ethics in that it indicates an intent to deceive or obscure. When this is the intent with regard to an issue as significant as torture, it brings into question the profession’s, and the nation’s, genuine commitment to human rights.

Like psychologists in any institutional setting, military or CIA psychologists, asked to participate in interrogations, need clear ethical guidance. These psychologists, in the heat of high-profile operations, cannot be expected to successfully parse words as to whether the pain or distress is sufficient to meet the APA's standard for being "significant." Nor can these psychologists be expected to predict whether a particular technique, used perhaps in combination with other techniques, will cause "lasting harm." Thus, the APA policy leaves military and intelligence psychologists at risk of committing unethical and perhaps illegal actions and fails to protect members who are military and intelligence psychologists.

Ambiguities in the roles of psychologists also threaten the abilities of military and intelligence-agency psychologists to perform their primary health-promoting activities. To the extent that uncertainty exists around the roles of psychologists and whether or not psychologists' primary responsibility is to promote health, the trust upon which all psychological and medical treatment depends will be severely damaged. As a result, potential patients may become reluctant to seek needed psychological care. At a time when many thousands of our soldiers are suffering severe psychological trauma, often requiring intensive psychological treatment, this loss of trust can hardly be risked.

We are also deeply concerned that the 2007 Resolution by APA Council makes it ethical practice for psychologists to participate in the violation of international human rights standards. In particular, the resolution allows psychologists to practice and support interrogations in sites that operate outside the protections offered by the Geneva Conventions and other international human rights instruments such as the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment [CAT]. As the illegal, indefinite detention of people at these sites itself constitutes a violation of international law and human rights standards, psychologists’ operational activities at these sites only legitimates these human rights violations.


We therefore ask Congress and this committee to take the following steps to clarify the status of psychologists in the military and intelligence agencies:

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1. Conduct a thorough investigation of the role of psychologists, and of psychological knowledge and expertise, in the abusive interrogations carried out by this Administration. This investigation should clarify for the public the roles of SERE psychologists and SERE-based techniques in these interrogations. It should clarify the processes whereby SERE and other psychological knowledge and techniques were implemented at the CIA's "black sites" and in military detention facilities at Guantanamo, and in Iraq and Afghanistan. This investigation should clarify the degree to which psychologists helped turn these abusive techniques into standard operating procedures at these facilities. It should also clarify the extent to which psychologists and psychological knowledge and expertise are currently being utilized in support of the CIA's "enhanced interrogations" program. Further, clarification is needed as to whether psychologists have ever participated in the "medical supervision" of interrogations at Guantanamo or of the "enhanced interrogations" that Director McConnell described.

2. Clarify that the infliction of harm of any degree is never an appropriate role for psychologists, their trainees and supervisees, or any other health professionals in national security contexts. Our military and intelligence colleagues need the warrant of Congressional mandate to identify and refrain from unethical participation in abusive or coercive interrogation practices.

3. Ban the use of enhanced interrogation techniques going beyond those authorized by the Army Field Manual, which itself needs revision, at any U.S. detention facility, whether run by the military, CIA, or any other government or private agency.

4. We would also like to add our voice to those urging Congress to act immediately to restore habeas corpus and other basic human rights, as defined in the Geneva Conventions, the UN CAT and other relevant international instruments, to all those sought or detained by the U.S. as "enemy combatants." The CIA's secret detention and rendition practices and CIA-run prisons are of particular concern. We urge Congress to take action speeding the closure of Guantánamo Bay, CIA-run prisons, and other secretive detention sites; Prisoners held at these sites should be transferred to sites in the U.S. that transparently observe due process & other international human rights standards & laws. Concomitantly, Congress should ban the practice of extraordinary rendition of detainees to countries documented by the State Department to use torture or other abusive interrogation techniques. Respect for human rights is a fundamental aspect of what makes us a civilized society.

We thank you for this opportunity to assist your vital efforts to rectify this sad chapter in our nation's history.

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Institutional Signers:

Coalition for an Ethical Psychology
Psychologists for Social Responsibility
The Center for Victims of Torture, Minneapolis, MN
Psychologists for an Ethical APA
Withhold APA Dues (www.withholdapadues.com)
Monterey Bay (CA) Psychological Association

Individual Signers:
[Affiliations for identification purposes only].

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Stephen Soldz is psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. He was a psychological consultant on two of (more...)

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