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Psychologists Close Loopholes: Leave Ethics Problems in Detainee Interrogations

By Stephen Soldz & Brad Olson  Posted by Stephen Soldz (about the submitter)       (Page 1 of 2 pages)   1 comment
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On Friday, the 22nd of February, the American Psychological Association (APA) Council voted unanimously to modify a crucial paragraph in the August 2007 APA resolution entitled the Reaffirmation of the American Psychological Association Position Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and Its Application to Individuals Defined in the United States Code as "Enemy Combatants". The modified paragraph was indeed an improvement. It removed significant loopholes in the resolution that had allowed the psychologists continued use of some of the 19 harmful interrogation techniques the resolution was ostensibly banning. Despite pushing hard over the last six months for these loopholes to be closed, we found ourselves, upon hearing the loopholes were closed, experiencing decidedly mixed emotions.

In the August resolution these loopholes had attached curious conditions to the language allegedly banning the use of these techniques. These conditions eerily echoed the legal arguments made by Bush administration attorneys who authorized the CIA's "enhanced Interrogation" (aka, "torture") program. While some techniques, such as waterboarding, were prohibited outright in the 2007 APA resolution, others were prohibited only when "used for the purposes of eliciting information in an interrogation process." Thus, if not technically used in interrogations, psychologists could still participate in "hooding, forced nakedness, stress positions, the use of dogs to threaten or intimidate, physical assault including slapping or shaking, exposure to extreme heat or cold, threats of harm or death." In order for yet a third category of techniques – namely "isolation, sensory deprivation and over-stimulation and/or sleep deprivation" – to be banned by the resolution, they needed to be (a) used "in an interrogation process," but also (b) "in a manner that represents significant pain or suffering or in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm."

We remember clearly our shock at first observing this careful parsing of allowed degrees of suffering. We remember such insertions mysteriously occurring overnight before the Council vote. We recall how upset we were with this new language that was in such brazen contrast to the APA Ethics Code's injunction to "do no harm." We also remember our group of APA critics not being able to keep ourselves from wondering "Who pulled strings to get these phrases inserted?" Reporter Mark Benjamin of, who before the convention had written an article entitled "Psychologists to CIA: We condemn torture," was led to ask after the mysterious insertions in the resolution: "Will psychologists still abet torture?" Psychologist and New York Times bestselling author Mary Pipher read the resolution and was moved to return a Presidential Award she had received from the APA. "You could drive a Mack truck" through those loopholes, Pipher told one of us.

Our suspicions last August were not allayed when, after the Council vote, we asked APA leadership numerous times if the resolution condemned the CIA's enhanced interrogations program. Each time the question was met with silence. For several months, all APA statements simply reiterated statements in the resolution, suggesting that this document was yet another in a long line of vacuous "anti-torture" resolutions, resolutions that sounded fine, but that would have no impact on psychologists' aid to the Bush administration's abusive interrogations or to that administration's gross violations of human rights at Guantanamo and elsewhere. After all, that same Council meeting rejected a simple statement, that the role of psychologists in detention centers that violated human rights and international law should be restricted to that of healthcare providers.

In the months following the convention the APA took a massive drubbing in the press and the blogosphere to the point that APA and torture were irrevocably linked in the minds of many human rights advocates and other informed citizens. Finally, in November, three months after the convention, APA wrote mildly critical letters to the President, CIA, and the Senate Judiciary Committee. (See Soldz' comments on these letters here.) These letters, however, neglected to acknowledge the fact that the President's administration was engaged in a widespread program in violation of precisely those statements to which the APA referred.

But most disturbingly, the APA in these letters continued its long-standing practice of ignoring the abundant evidence that psychologists played a central role in designing, conducting, standardizing, and providing training for the administration's regime of abuse. Instead, the APA has steadfastly maintained its fiction that "having psychologists consult with interrogation teams makes an important contribution toward keeping interrogations safe and ethical," as former APA President Sharon Brehm stated in a letter to the Washington Monthly. While government agencies acknowledged -- and reporters found -- that many "[p]sychologists consulting to the military and intelligence communities" used their expertise to develop diabolical ways of making detainees suffer (see here, here, here, here, here, and here, among many others), the APA claimed, contrary to all evidence, that these psychologists "use their expertise to promote the use of ethical, effective, and rapport-building interrogations, while safeguarding the welfare of interrogators and detainees." Furthermore, the APA has up to this day pointed to figures like Col. Larry James as evidence that psychologists opposed abuse when as much evidence exists suggesting their role was to cover up or close their eyes to abuse and illegal activities.

So now we are left experiencing a deeply ambivalent reaction to the APA Council's action, which is a small, but positive step. The loopholes were closed at last. The APA modified the critical paragraph in their 2007 resolution to one that apparently leaves little wiggle room:

BE IT RESOLVED that this unequivocal condemnation includes all techniques considered torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the Geneva Conventions; the Principles of Medical Ethics Relevant to the Role of Health Personnel, Particularly Physicians, in the Protection of Prisoners and Detainees against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners: or the World Medical Association Declaration of Tokyo. An absolute prohibition against the following techniques therefore arises from, is understood in the context of, and is interpreted according to these texts: mock executions; water-boarding or any other form of simulated drowning or suffocation; sexual humiliation; rape; cultural or religious humiliation; exploitation of fears, phobias or psychopathology; induced hypothermia; the use of psychotropic drugs or mind-altering substances; hooding; forced nakedness; stress positions; the use of dogs to threaten or intimidate; physical assault including slapping or shaking; exposure to extreme heat or cold; threats of harm or death; isolation; sensory deprivation and over-stimulation; sleep deprivation; or the threatened use of any of the above techniques to an individual or to members of an individual's family. Psychologists are absolutely prohibited from knowingly planning, designing, participating in or assisting in the use of all condemned techniques at any time and may not enlist others to employ these techniques in order to circumvent this resolution's prohibition;

This paragraph is a good, strong statement that psychologists participating in detainee interrogations are forbidden from participating in abuse. It clearly puts the APA on the side of those opposing the Bush administration/CIA enhanced interrogation programs. Therefore we feel that this revision is a major victory. We firmly believe it would not have happened without the amazing movement of hundreds of psychologists: protesting, resigning, withholding dues, signing letters, passing resolutions, and writing articles expressing their outrage at the unacceptable APA policies in this area. It was also a victory for those select APA Council members, several from the Divisions for Social Justice (DSJ), who worked tirelessly throughout the winter to get the APA leadership and Council to act in this way.

If the APA were to publicize their action and this statement, which they to our knowledge had not done in the week after the vote, it will aid the attempt to shut down the CIA's enhanced interrogations. The statement is certainly a forward step for the APA in that it, for the first time, puts them unequivocally against the basic paradigm of US abusive interrogations. This paradigm consists of combining extreme isolation with sensory deprivation, enhanced at times with sleep deprivation, sensory overload (e.g. prolonged very loud noises), self-inflicted pain via "stress positions," sexual and cultural humiliation, and use of temperature extremes. Calling attention to these techniques is critical at a time when the public discourse is actually discussing (no, dishearteningly debating) whether waterboarding, the paradigmatic torture technique, is (or should be considered) illegal. This APA statement does not condone participation by psychologists in any of these abusive techniques. Indeed, the revised resolution also bans the use of techniques that exploit detainee fears, which is especially crucial for a profession that is supposed to be dedicated to avoiding harm and reducing suffering and psychological fears, putting the APA in opposition to sections of the current Army Field Manual (AFM) guiding military (but not CIA) interrogations. The AFM allows "fear up harsh" (exploiting a source's real or imagined fears), which should certainly be off limits for psychologists. We hope this resolution signals a willingness of the APA to play an active role in efforts to revise the AFM, which also allows isolation and sensory deprivation in certain circumstances.

A further positive aspect of this revision is that it is much clearer than the previous version, which contained complex clauses that psychologists in the field were in no position to interpret. With this new version, these psychologists are no longer required to determine what degree of sensory isolation is likely to be considered to cause long-lasting harm. The previous version failed to provide clear, unequivocal guidance to these psychologists. In this regard, the new version is dramatically improved.

So why are we not in a completely celebratory mood? Are we just old curmudgeons who arenever satisfied? Being psychologists, we've pondered these questions over the last several days.

So why are we not in a completely celebratory mood? Are we just old curmudgeons who are never satisfied? Being psychologists, we've pondered these questions over the last several days.

Our conclusion is that we derive only limited satisfaction from this victory because we do not believe it signals a genuine change in the thinking of the APA. Rather, it seems to constitute a concession under substantial member and public pressure. In many ways we were never expecting a sudden transformation in the values of the APA leadership. Policy change often begins as compliance and only after time becomes an internalized set of beliefs. But we think many other sociocultural events are also occurring, and we very much welcome the national desire for change, and are glad to be working with the Zeitgeist rather than against it.

Nevertheless, on another level the APA action in this context signals the same disappointment we have felt all along. The revision in this sense is an acknowledgement by the APA leadership that their job carrying water for the Bush administration is ending as that administration winds down. Their task now, we suspect, is to change their image in order to transition more effectively into the good graces of a post-Bush, most likely Democratic, administration. An administration will be here soon that will feel a need to publicly distance itself from the most overt abuses of its predecessor. Most particularly, the new administration, and thus the APA, will distance itself from this administration's overt public support for detainee abuse. It will reject the "torture we don't define as torture" paradigm. These changes are already underway as the Defense Department is currently shedding its connections to overt torture and its supporters in the administration and falling in line behind the still troublesome but nonetheless improved Army Field Manual. We can only repeat, we welcome these changes. And yet we also believe a mental health organization can and should do better.

In another source of ambivalence, we were pleased that the Military Psychology Division actively negotiated and supported the changes. In fact, as in all other instances, if this division had not supported the change, there is little chance that this revision would have come up for a vote, much less been supported by APA leadership. As has been the case throughout, the APA leadership gave the 500 odd members (out of 150,000 total, or 1/3rd of one percent) of the Military Psychology division a major role, and potentially even a veto power, over any changes. The fact that this division is repeatedly given such power out of all proportion to its numbers indicates the importance the APA places upon maintaining good ties to the military and the Defense Department.

But our mixed reactions also have to do with the limitations of the amended resolution as a policy for psychologists. Here are our policy-related concerns:

First is the absence of an adequate enforcement mechanism for this policy. The only mechanism that ever exists is for members (or others) to file ethics complaints against particular psychologists. Such a procedure is extremely limited in dealing with events that are often undertaken under orders, or certainly have been at times encouraged by high officials in the U.S. government, and that are conducted in secrecy. While reports of abuse, and of psychologists' roles in this mistreatment have regularly surfaced in the media, only a few individual names have been identified. Even in these select cases, meaningful action is difficult. Thus, ethics charges have been filed against at least two specific psychologists, dating back to August of 2006 at least. And yet, to this point, in February of 2008, no action has been taken. Due to confidentiality of proceedings, only if these psychologists are sanctioned will those filing complaints or the public ever hear anything at all. These policies and procedures, as currently implemented, are clearly inadequate to deal with systematic abuse.

Critics of APA policy have long advocated a policy prohibiting psychologists from participating in interrogations in detention facilities, such as Guantanamo and the CIA "black sites," where fundamental human rights are being systematically violated. To participate in any operational, as opposed to health provider, role in such facilities is to collude in those human rights abuses. Such a prohibition would also solve the enforcement problem as a ban is far easier to enforce than are subtle restrictions on particular activities. We, and many others, strongly support this policy and believe we must keep struggling until the APA adopts it as its core policy on these issues.

Many of us would go further, supporting a bright line that psychologists, like the AMA has decided for medical doctors, should not participate in any way in the interrogation of individual detainees. This belief is based on the concept of psychology as a profession similar to medicine, based, as Principle A of the APA's ethics code states, on obligations to use our knowledge and expertise to promote good and not harm:

"Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm. In their professional actions, psychologists seek to safeguard the welfare and rights of those with whom they interact professionally and other affected persons."

This bright line, we admit, is not universally supported even by those otherwise critical of APA's interrogations policies. Many psychologists are afraid that it will create a "slippery slope" in which other activities in which psychologists engaged are also prohibited. While we believe this fear has been deliberately exploited to undercut support for such a policy regarding interrogations, we understand that our profession faces difficult questions regarding how psychological knowledge and expertise can and should be utilized. These particular interrogations, we believe, are likely contrary to the interests of those being interrogated and in no sense are aimed at benefiting those individuals. There are many other areas where similar concerns arise. As psychological knowledge increases, we will increasingly be faced with complex dilemmas as to when and to what degree it is ethical or acceptable to use that knowledge to manipulate human beings to further institutional aims over the best interests of certain disenfranchised individuals. We certainly don't presume to have answers to all these questions. But we do know that the profession will not be able to avoid facing them, full square. These dilemmas are not going to go away, and they will remain at the moral heart of psychology.

Organizationally, APA ethics policy has a weak and ambiguous attitude toward human rights. In the 2002 revision of the ethics code, the APA inserted the infamous clause in standard 1.02 regulating "Conflicts Between Ethics and Law, Regulations, or Other Governing Legal Authority":

"If psychologists' ethical responsibilities conflict with law, regulations, or other governing legal authority, psychologists make known their commitment to the Ethics Code and take steps to resolve the conflict. If the conflict is unresolvable via such means, psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority."

Previously the ethics code required adherence to the code or, if ethics and law conflicted, adherence to the code accompanied by an attempt to resolve the conflict. Thus, at the beginning of the 21st century, the APA wrote the Nuremberg defense – "I was just following orders" – into the ethics code. The origins of this change remain murky. Yet, indisputably, when psychologists started participating in these interrogations, this clause was interpreted to mean that these psychologists could follow any orders, no matter what the content. In 2005, the APA Council commanded the Ethics Committee to investigate adding the phrase "in keeping with basic principles of human rights" into standard 1.02. Whereas the Ethics Committee and APA Board managed to approve a task force report supporting detainee interrogations in less than a week, the Ethics Committee has taken no action on this human rights injunction for over two years.

There is one source of possible optimism in the 1.02 saga. The 2007 Resolution stated that no laws or orders can override the ban on participating in torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. We felt that the addition of this language was decided progress. But some experts in APA ethics argue that a resolution statement, unlike the ethics code, is not enforceable. In any case, this change only applies to torture and other detainee abuse, and not to the broad spectrum of potential human rights violations that may occur in the military, intelligence agencies, or elsewhere. Nor does this seemingly counter language to 1.02 deal with disturbing parallel changes in the latest ethics code relating to psychologists in forensic roles or to informed consent in research. Research on vulnerable populations such as foreign prisoners of war is a topic that has received too little attention. The 2002 code states:

"Psychologists may dispense with informed consent… where otherwise permitted by law or federal or institutional regulations."

Thus, the ethics code would allow involuntary research on detainees, for example, if authorized by the military or CIA. These clauses need a complete overhaul. Sixty years after Nuremberg, the Nuremberg defense does not belong in psychological ethics. Further, decades of revelations of official abuses in the name of scientific research require vigilance on the part of our professional organization toward any loopholes condoning participation in abuses.

Finally, missing in all of APA's actions is a coming to terms with the central role of psychologists in designing, conducting, and standardizing the present U.S. regime of abusive interrogations. Instead, the APA continues to maintain the fiction that psychologists make "an important contribution toward keeping interrogations safe and ethical." Any real change will require the APA to abandon this factually inaccurate fable. Just as our society must come to terms with our role as a torturing nation, so must our profession come to terms with our role in torture and abuse. We must, together with other health professions, come together as part of a truth and reconciliation process to publicly clarify the roles of psychologists and other health and mental health professionals in the production of harm. We must publicly admit and apologize for the use of psychological knowledge and expertise in detention and interrogation abuses. Until we clarify and personally accept the extent to which our profession and our professional association has condoned or abetted these and other abuses committed during this so-called "war on terrorism," we will have done little to learn what went wrong, and we will have done nothing to make the moral and institutional changes necessary to prevent their recurrence.

Stephen Soldz is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He is one of the founders of the Coalition for an Ethical APA. He maintains the Psyche, Science, and Society blog, providing extensive coverage of the issue of psychologist involvement in interrogations.

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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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