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Psychologist participation in interrogations at US detention centers: The Moratorium fight goes on

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In an attempt to get the American Psychological Association to come to terms with the moral crisis posed by psychologist participation in coercive interrogations at Guantanamo, Bagram, the CIA black sites, and elsewhere, psychologist Neil Altman last summer proposed a Resolution for a Moratorium on Psychologist Participation in Interrogations at US Detention Centers Holding Foreign Detainees, so-called “Enemy Combatants” [pdf; see also the draft justification statement; and other related materials.]

Here is the Summary and Overview of the resolution:

This summary and overview emphasizes aspects central to the proposed moratorium resolution. The points below will also address certain misconceptions that have arisen concerning the resolution.

1. The resolution does not allege that any psychologist has behaved in an unethical, illegal, or improper manner, or that any psychologists are currently engaging in harmful behavior. The resolution is prospective and preventative, not accusatory or punitive in purpose or in spirit, and will serve as a protection for military psychologists.

2. The resolution is not enforceable. If passed the resolution will amount to a position statement on the part of APA and will not be binding on any organization or any individual psychologist. In this respect it is similar to the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association resolutions, which are likewise not enforceable.

3. The resolution is necessary because of an ambiguous legal framework that surrounds the conduct of interrogations. The Military Commissions Act (MCA) of 2006 creates a conflict between US law and International Law over what constitutes an act of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. According to the MCA, only “grave breaches” of the Geneva Conventions are to be considered War Crimes under US law. Also under the MCA, the President is granted sole power to define what constitutes a “grave breach” as opposed to a less than grave breach of the Conventions. As a consequence of this uncertain legal framework, military psychologists do not have binding or even adequate guidance concerning what interrogation techniques are permissible, which is a critical flaw in the current situation that APA must address.

4. The resolution is intended to address a problem that has a political basis, i.e., the US Congress and President taking an action potentially at variance with International Law, when APA, as a Non-Governmental Organization accredited to the United Nations, is pledged to promote and support International Law. APA has been put in a position where it has to address the contradictions created by this political situation, despite its best intentions to restrict itself to scientific matters. APA must make clear that psychologists behave in accordance with international human rights instruments.

5. Psychologists must now assess whether interrogations are being conducted in a legal manner; thus psychologists are being put in a position of acting as attorneys. Psychologists are not qualified to make the legal judgments that they must now make by virtue of the passage of the Military Commissions Act. In the current situation, even a lawyer would be hard-pressed to address the legal contradictions and determine what interrogation techniques are permissible.

6. The resolution is based on considerable empirical data. The justification statement for the resolution summarizes these data. Further empirical data regarding torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment are to be found in the statement against torture put forward by Division 9, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues [; see Statement on the Use of Torture]. Further elaboration of the empirical basis for this resolution will be detailed in the future development of this resolution.

7. The moratorium will be lifted when United States law governing military interrogations states that orders relevant to the treatment of detainees may not violate the Geneva Conventions.

In the arcane APA system, unless the leadership decides otherwise, it takes a full year to bring most such resolutions to vote. During this time, various APA committees and constituencies weigh in on the issue.

After months of tireless effort, Dr. Altman has found out that none of APA governing committees (such as the Ethics Committee or the Committee on Legal Affairs) will support the Moratorium resolution. as a result, Dr. Altman has written the following letter to his cosponsors explaining why he will proceed to a vote in the August APA Council of Representatives meeting, despite all obstacles:

Thank you to those of you who made comments to me about how to proceed with the Moratorium Resolution. On Saturday I had a phone conversation with Steve Behnke, Olivia Moorehead-Slaughter, Robin Deutsch (current chair of the ethics committee) and Paul Donnelly (who consulted to us on procedural matters). I told them I want to proceed with the resolution and present it to the Board of Directors and then to the Council or Representatives, with or without the endorsement of the Ethics Committee. I want to explain why I came to this conclusion.

First, I found no basis in the comments of the Governance Groups for further negotiations. Objection was taken to a political basis for the resolution, and objection was taken to a legal basis for the resolution.

There can be no ethical basis for the resolution, since the current code of ethics of APA allows for the ethics code to be violated when a member is given a lawful order, or is following a lawful regulation (as per US law).

So, as far as I can tell, no basis for the resolution is recognized as legitimate by the governance groups. The primary justification for the resolution as set forth was a legal one, having to do with potential and actual discrepancies between US and international law that put those involved with interrogations in detention centers in an untenable legal osition. The Committee on Legal Issues held to their position that APA should not take a position on a legal issue despite my argument to the contrary at the Consolidated Meetings. There is not any quarrel with the justification itself; rather the objection is to the legitimacy of any legal justification. No group recognized that the 2006 APA resolution against torture affirmed that APA is now bound to promote international law as set forth in UN documents and resolutions, and no group recognized that the lack of due process for detainees is itself cruel, inhuman, and degrading as per the 5th, 8th, and 14th amendments to the US constitution, which is how the US itself defines torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment (in its ratification of the Geneva Conventions). So I see no reason to believe that further negotiations would lead to a compromise that would preserve the point of the resolution, nor was any such negotiation invited by the Committee on Legal Issues.

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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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