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APA President responds to dissident psychology department

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Readers who have been following the struggle to change American Psychological Association policy allowing psychologists to participate in detainee interrogations will recall that a number of college psychology departments have passed a resolution asking the American Psychological Association to change its policy on psychologist participation in these interrogations. It appears that APA President Sharon Brehm, who never responded to the over 700 psychologists who signed an Open Letter to her last June, has changed her responded to the Earlham psychology department that began this movement. Here is Dr. brehm's letter and a response from Michael Jackson, Chair of the Earlham department:


November 6, 2007

Dr. Michael R. Jackson
Chair, Department of Psychology
Earlham College
801 National Road West
Richmond, IN 47374

Dear Dr. Jackson:

Thank you for your letter of October 20 regarding the American Psychological Association's position on interrogation of detainees.

While I strongly support your right to voice disagreement with the Association's position, I believe the resolution passed by your department understates APA's strict ban on psychologists' playing any role in abusive, inhuman and degrading interrogations. While it is true that APA has stopped short of a complete moratorium, the restrictions placed on psychologists' involvement in interrogations are unequivocal and are aimed at a goal I know we share: the protection of detainee welfare.

APA's objective in setting forth these rules regarding psychologists' participation in interrogations is simple: To prohibit torture and abuse. Torture and abuse are immoral, unethical and ineffective. APA has emphasized this point repeatedly and over the last two decades, has passed four resolutions and two statements addressing this issue.

APA's 2006 resolution regarding interrogations was the first of APA's numerous human rights resolutions to recognize explicitly that, as an accredited non-governmental organization at the United Nations, APA is committed to promoting and protecting human rights in accordance with the U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other U.N. conventions and international standards. The 2006 resolution draws its definition of torture directly from the U.N. convention's definition of torture, thus adopting the U.N. definition as APA policy. Accordingly, APA is calling upon the Bush administration and Congress to safeguard the welfare of detainees and to ensure the judicial review of their detention.

The 2007 resolution expresses APA's grave concern over settings in which detainees are deprived of adequate protection of their human rights, affirms the prerogative of psychologists to refuse to work in such settings, and calls upon APA to explore ways to support psychologists who refuse to work in such settings or refuse to obey orders that constitute torture.

There is strong support within APA for ethical interrogations that leave no room for abusive or harmful techniques. After many years of intense discussion, APA has chosen a strategy of engagement. The cost of disengagement is that one loses any ability to influence policy--and the opportunity to prevent torture, humiliation or abuse in actual interrogations.

While it is clear that you disagree with APA's stance, I encourage you to remain engaged in the dialogue. Thank you again for contacting me and please don't hesitate to do so again if you have other concerns.


Sharon Stephens Brehm, PhD

Here is Dr. Jackson's incredibly powerful response:

November 29, 2007

Dr. Sharon S. Brehm
American Psychological Association
750 First Street, NE
Washington, D.C. 20002-4242

Dear Dr. Brehm:

Thank you for your letter of November 6, 2007 and you thoughtful comments summarizing APA's current position on interrogations.

I am afraid I cannot entirely agree with the implication of your comments that APA has taken a clear and effective stance against coercive interrogations over the past two decades. As you know, in recent years human rights organizations have increasingly expressed concerns about psychologists' participation in improper interrogations and called upon APA to take stronger action; and a growing number of psychologists, both as individuals and in dissident groups, have voiced increasingly intense criticism of APA's stance on the interrogation issue. It has only been in the context of this rising outcry that APA has moved, especially in the past few months, toward a more clear and explicit condemnation of improper forms of interrogation. However, this is an extremely encouraging development, and I applaud this very important change in APA's policies and priorities.

Nevertheless, I believe that there is still a significant problem in APA's "policy of engagement." While you are correct that we share a concern for the welfare of detainees, another equally important issue concerns the legal structures protecting fundamental human rights--rights that are recognized in international treaty obligations and that are ordinarily accorded to prisoners by all nations that respect the rule of law. These rights, which include the right of habeas corpus and, more generally, the right to due process of law, are not currently being accorded to these detainees; and, indeed, the detainees are being held in secret and/or isolated locations precisely for the purpose of facilitating this deprivation. When psychologists, with the acquiescence of APA, participate in illegal interrogations in secret facilities, not only does this personally harm detainees; it also violates APA's General Ethical Principle E (Respect for People's Rights and Dignity), undermines the moral stature of psychology, and weakens our system of jurisprudence by legitimizing the suspension of basic human rights.

APA hopes that psychologists' participation in these illegal interrogations will help to protect detainees--a hope which many find quixotic in light of the current administration's open disparagement of internationally accepted standards of conduct and its infamous determination to carry out coercive interrogations. Quixotic or not, APA's hope must be measured against the actual damage that is being done by its "policy of engagement" to the one and only instrument that is specifically designed for the purpose of protecting these detainees, and all individuals, from abuses of authority: the rule of law.


Michael R. Jackson, Ph.D.
Chair, Department of Psychology

I must comment on this line in Dr. Brehm's letter:

The cost of disengagement is that one loses any ability to influence policy--and the opportunity to prevent torture, humiliation or abuse in actual interrogations.

Given the continuing nature of the Bush administration's torture regime, the APA has no evidence whatsoever that they have any ability to influence policy on torture gained from their playing nice with a regime openly committed to detainee abuse at any cost. How in the world could the APA's sanctioning the illegal detentions and often abusive interrogations lead to positive policy change? Or is the policy they want to change one that filters resources -- precious research and clinical funding -- to psychologists?

Any rational analysis would reveal the overwhelming evidence that psychologists were central to the creation, implementation, dissemination, and institutionalization of the American torture regime. The APA's concept of constructive engagement was to appoint a number of psychologists with direct involvement in interrogations at Guantanamo, Afghanistan, and the CIA black sites to formulate its "ethics" policy on psychologist involvement (the so-called PENS Task Force). the evidence has accumulated that many of these PENS members were in chains of command directly implicated, by government documents and reporters as playing major roles in abusive interrogations.

Until the APA leadership honestly comes to terms with this history, any claims that psychologist participation in Bush's abuses contributes to positive policy change will ring silly.

In the meantime, we can interpret the fact that Dr. Brehm responded to the Earlham psychologists as an indication that the APA leadership is afraid that our movement of dissident psychologists who put ethics above access to the powerful will continue to grow. Lets make their fear come true!


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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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