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Psychologists Reject the Dark Side: American Psychological Association Members Reject Participation in Bush Detention Ce

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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:

"Humane treatment and ensuring detainees are not subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment is required in accordance with U.S. law.

Behavioral science consultants do NOT support interrogations that aren't in accordance with applicable law."

U.S law, as interpreted by the present administration, redefines traditionally proscribed detention and interrogation procedures as "humane" and "legal." Therefore, referendum supporters pointed out, this requirement to follow "applicable law" does not protect military, or CIA, psychologists from participating in abuses that would be inhumane if judged by international standards.

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The referendum ballots went out by mail on August 1st and were due back on September 15th. Two days later, the results were announced. The referendum won with 59% of the vote. Furthermore, the turnout, at nearly 15,000 members, was among the highest in any APA election.

The passage of the referendum constitutes a giant step toward creating a united front of health professions opposed to detainee abuse. While the APA referendum policy differs from policy statements by other associations in significant details-its focus on settings as opposed to the interrogations themselves-it follows previous policy statements from the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association opposing participation in interrogations. This united front will increase the pressure on the administration to remove health professionals from their roles aiding these abusive detention policies. It will also escalate the accumulating pressures for a radically different detention policy under the new U.S. presidential administration and Congress next January.

Referendum passage constitutes a giant step forward for those psychologists who have been fighting to change the APA's policies on involvement in the detention centers. But the struggle of dissident psychologists is far from over. First, there is a disagreement with APA leadership as to when the policy change goes into effect; the leadership claimed initially that the bylaws state that the change doesn't go into effect till next August, while referendum supporters believe this claim is an egregious misreading of the bylaws. Discussions continue regarding the details of referendum implementation.

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Moreover, while the APA's policy is in the process of changing, the organizational and policy conditions-the culture that allowed the APA to advocate for years in support of psychologist participation in detainee interrogations-have not changed. Activists are focused upon several additional steps to bring about a rejuvenation of their association and their professions.

There is a strong campaign afoot to elect one of the activists as APA President to make sure the new policy is firmly implemented and backed by the organization, as well as to push other efforts making human rights and social justice more central within the profession of psychology. Steven Reisner, a New York psychologist is running an active campaign. In the first nomination phase of the campaign, he received the highest number of votes among the five winning candidates. Passage of the referendum should provide an even stronger boost to his campaign. Ballots go out to the APA membership this October and are due back November 15.

APA members have been deeply disturbed by another prior action of the Association. In 2002, its ethics committee placed a clause in the ethics code, allowing laws, regulations, and government orders to override professional ethics. These members are concerned that the clause provides an offensive loophole that is a variation on the Nuremberg defense - "I was just following orders" - into the ethics code.

The APA Council of Representatives called on the ethics committee to address this problem in 2005. Despite these instructions, the association has resisted clarifying this clause by adding a phrase as simple as "except when violating fundamental human rights". Other disturbing 2002 modifications to the APA ethics code weakened protections for research participants, such as removing a requirement for informed consent from participants "where otherwise permitted by law or federal or institutional regulations." Such a clause could, for example, allow experimentation on detainees without their permission, a disturbing violation of professional guidelines and international agreements.

Activist psychologists and their allies also are pushing for accountability for past abuses by psychologists. While some psychologists, including APA members, have been documented to have participated in abuses likely constituting torture, the APA ethics committee has consistently stalled action against or refused to open cases against these psychologists. This needs to stop.

Another form of accountability is a 'setting right' of the historical record. Given the known facts regarding psychologists and their roles in detainee abuse, and given the extensive denial of these facta and their significance by APA leadership, it is critical to create a detailed public record of the contributions of psychologists to the dark side over the last seven years. It is imperative that a Psychologist Truth Commission be created that will examine all materials, existing in the public record or available through investigation, and construct such a permanent record. Also necessary is a careful examination of the many other organizational, ethical, and policy issues that allowed the psychological profession and its major professional organization to become complicit in detainee abuse over the last seven years. Clinical psychologists often encourage their clients to face harsh truths. It is similarly necessary for our profession to face these somewhat cold and difficult realities. Only this will prevent us from recreating this sad episode in our profession's history when the next national or international crisis hits.

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The implications of passage of the referendum extend beyond the APA and psychology. The referendum will put additional pressure on the DoD to remove psychologists from their roles aiding interrogations and behavior management. It will also create additional pressure for the development of a mental health system for detainees that is completely isolated from chain of command pressures. While the DoD is not necessarily bound by APA policy, it generally follows professional ethics policies; to do otherwise could make its efforts to recruit and retain psychologists and other professionals substantially more difficult. The implications for the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" program are less certain, given the secrecy under which that program is conducted. Yet, even there, the APA referendum will increase pressure for a new administration and Congress to shut down the program."

Finally, passage of the referendum is being heralded by the wider public as a sign of an impending rejection by U.S. citizens of the "dark side" which has taken over so much of our government and country in recent years. This feeling was expressed by the conservative commentator, anti-torture activist, and blogger Andrew Sullivan who headlined his posting on the referendum's passage with "Know Hope." Congratulatory emails from around the world have indicated that many find hope in our psychologist colleagues' rejection of the dark side.  "Finally, good news from the U.S." one email said. These correspondents join us in hoping that this rejection of official torture and abuse will be followed by a wholesale rejection from the American public and government.


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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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