By Stephen Soldz & Brad Olson
The movement against U.S. torture experienced a significant victory last week. The members of the American Psychological Association [APA] rejected the policies of their leadership, policies that abetted the Bush administration's program of torture and detainee abuse. By a vote of 59%, the members passed a referendum stating that APA members may not work in U.S. detention centers that are outside of or in violation of international law or the U.S. Constitution "unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights." Passage of this referendum is a significant milestone in a years long effort by activist psychologists to change policies that encouraged participation in detainee interrogations because psychologists, the APA leadership claimed, helped keep those interrogations "safe, legal, and ethical."
Since 2004, news reports and government documents have provided evidence of the central role of psychologists in designing, implementing, and disseminating the administrations' program of abusive interrogations, whether conducted by the CIA in its secret "black sites" or by the Defense Department at Guantánamo, and in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Vanity Fair reporter Katherine Eban described the CIA side of this equation:
"I... discovered that psychologists weren't merely complicit in America's aggressive new interrogation regime. Psychologists, working in secrecy, had actually designed the tactics and trained interrogators in them while on contract to the C.I.A."
On the Defense Department side, the Senate Armed Services Committee reported in June 2008 on the role of military psychologists in helping design the harsh interrogation techniques used at Guantánamo. As Senator Levin described in his opening remarks:
"a... senior CIA lawyer, Jonathan Fredman, who was chief counsel to the CIA's CounterTerrorism Center, went to GTMO, attended a meeting of GTMO staff and discussed a memo proposing the use of aggressive interrogation techniques. That memo had been drafted by a psychologist and psychiatrist from GTMO who, a couple of weeks earlier, had attended the training given at Fort Bragg by instructors from the JPRA SERE school.
While the memo remains classified, minutes from the meeting where it was discussed are not. Those minutes (TAB 7) clearly show that the focus of the discussion was aggressive techniques for use against detainees."
The minutes from that meeting show this psychologist and psychiatrist recommending creating an atmosphere of "controlled chaos," which would "foster dependence and compliance," through the creation of "psychological stress" by means of using such techniques as " sleep deprivation, withholding food, isolation, loss of time." This strategy was implemented and became standard operating procedure.
For example, in September 2003, young (16 or 17 year old) Mohammed Jawad became upset during interrogation, talking to pictures on the wall and crying for his mother. A military psychologist, a behavioral science consultant, was brought in for guidance. She recommended Jawad be placed in a month of "linguistic isolation" while the interrogator ratcheted up the pressure to break him down. This treatment apparently contributed to a suicide attempt by Jawad.
Evidence has accumulated of psychologists designing and contributing to detainee abuses sometimes amounting to torture. Despite the overwhelming evidence, the APA has steadfastly insisted that psychologists should not participate in torture; they argued, rather, that psychologists were vitally needed to help interrogators better obtain information while simultaneously, according to the APA, preventing detainee abuses. The APA used a multitude of techniques to defend their policy. They appointed a task force to formulate ethics policy around national security interrogations without informing the membership or the public that the majority of members were from the military-intelligence establishment. The APA passed anti-torture resolutions while rejecting attempts to withdraw psychologists from sites that violated human rights or even from the interrogations at Guantanamo and the CIA's black sites.
The APA also ignored Open Letters from hundreds of their members. At times these efforts became ludicrous doublespeak. An APA Board member, for instance, sent around an email claiming that the very Senate Armed Services hearing that implicated military psychologists in the design of torture techniques actually exonerated the psychologists and the discipline. The association's ethics director even claimed documents released by the ACLU showed the APA's "policy of engagement" was working to protect detainees when the document in question apparently merely reported that one psychologist in Iraq once stopped an interrogation prior to the detainee dying or, perhaps, suffering serious physical damage. Through it all, the APA maintained its close ties to the military-intelligence establishment.
While the APA leadership resisted all challenges to its position, the members and other psychologists and their allies did not remain silent. Dissident members worked tirelessly to change the organizations' position. Some worked within official association committees. During 2006-2007, members pushed a Moratorium resolution that would have temporarily halted participation in interrogations at the detention sites; the measure was undercut by APA organizational manipulations, and a derivative effort was decisively defeated by the associations' Council of Representatives in August 2006. A number of prominent psychologists - including a former ethics committee Chair, a former Executive Director of one of the associations' major divisions, and a former division President - resigned in protest. New York Times bestselling author Mary Pipher returned an award to the APA. Hundreds stopped paying membership dues, aided by a policy that allowed dues withholders to remain members for two years. Colleagues in other countries expressed their disapproval of APA policies. Physicians for Human Rights documented U.S. psychological torture and many times called for changes in APA policies permitting participation in the settings where that torture occurred.
After years of failing to effect real change through the associations' Council of Representatives - which infrequently challenges the APA leadership on issues of vital importance to those leaders - dissident members and allies turned in 2008 to new strategies designed simultaneously to take advantage of, and to bypass, the official structures. Members of the withholdapadues group found a never before used provision in the association by-laws allowing for a member-initiated policy referendum. Three psychologists - Dan Aalbers, Brad Olson, and Ruth Fallenbaum - got to work writing a referendum rejecting the participation of psychologists at detention centers operating outside of [as in the Geneva Conventions don't apply] or in violation of [as in enhanced interrogations are approved] international law or the Constitution. APA rules require that one percent of the active members' signatures be obtained on a petition in order to get it submitted to the members for a vote. It took only a matter of weeks to obtain more than the necessary numbers.
The campaign generated amazing grassroots activism. People never before heard from were found emailing their successes in convincing other colleagues to vote. Several brief videos were made by members and distributed on YouTube and Google Video. Two APA divisions lined up in support. Conversation about the referendum on psychologist-run listservs was greater than that on any other topic in memory.
The opposition raised concerns, especially among forensic psychologists; they were concerned that the language could somehow be misunderstood to ban psychologists working in domestic prisons where abuses are prevalent. This possibility was problematic for many referendum supporters. Many of those actively supporting the referendum are deeply concerned about the horrific conditions in much of the U.S. criminal justice system. Yet, it seemed impossible to tackle all issues at once, and the referendum was designed to focus only upon "national security" detainees, held in abusive conditions, with few or no rights. Thus, the referendum sponsors issued a statement that clarified the applicability of the referendum. Nevertheless, this statement failed to allay the concerns of some that the referendum could cost psychologists their jobs.
In an unprecedented development, illustrating the high stakes involved in the potential policy change, the Defense Department issued a press release with "talking points" opposing the referendum. The first two of these talking points unintentionally emphasized the need for the referendum: