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APA on the Road to Damascus?

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There's nothing like defeat to demoralize the vanquished and embolden the victorious. But such clearcut victories or defeats, while they may happen in warfare, rarely happen in political battle. Due to repeated charges of torture of detainees, and the lack of elementary rights of prisoners in U.S. detention centers like Guantanamo, supporters and opponents of a proposed ban on U.S. psychologist participation in national security interrogations disputed their varying platforms at last August's convention of the American Psychological Association (APA).

The resulting resolution was a mixed affair. The document was touted as a "reaffirmation" of a 2006 APA resolution on psychology and national security, and was purportedly aimed "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'". Its text specifically banned psychologist participation in interrogations that included "water-boarding or any other form of simulated drowning or suffocation, sexual humiliation, rape, cultural or religious humiliation, exploitation of phobias or psychopathology, [and] induced hypothermia..."

The resolution also listed a number of contingently rejected coercive techniques, which centered around forms of psychological torture, such as use of psychotropic drugs, isolation, sensory deprivation, and sleep deprivation. The contingency? These techniques were not supposed to be used for information-gathering purposes. Some, like sleep and sensory deprivation were not to be employed if they caused "significant pain or suffering or in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm."

Why distinguish between techniques this way, a number of people wanted to know. I've previously explained that the latter techniques constitute a form of psychological softening-up preparatory to interrogation, which itself can then be conducted in traditional, "rapport-building" ways.

An Epistolary Intervention

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Subsequent to the passing of the resolution at the Council meeting of the APA, and the rejection of amendments meant to limit psychologist participation, APA President Sharon Brehm and Chief Executive Officer Norman Anderson wrote letters to President Bush, General Michael Hayden (Director of the CIA), and Senators Patrick Leahy and Arlen Spector of the Senate Judiciary Committee "calling on U.S. leaders to safeguard the physical and psychological welfare and human rights of individuals incarcerated by the U.S. government in foreign detention centers." (For full text of letters, click here.)

"The ongoing U.S. Senate confirmation process involving Attorney General nominee Michael B. Mukasey provides a timely opportunity," they write, "to expand the July 2007 Executive Order to clarify that "enhanced" interrogation techniques, such as forced nudity, waterboarding, and mock executions, which are defined as torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment by the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Convention Against Torture, shall not be used or condoned by the U.S. government."

In reply, psychologist-activist Stephen Soldz praised the APA statements for taking a stand against certain methods of CIA-style "enhanced interrogation", and for contending that "the government to disallow any testimony resulting from the use of these techniques." However, he also noticed "severe weaknesses" in these statements:

First, they ignore the core of the CIA's torture program, which, despite all the media attention now, is not waterboarding, but is, rather, prolonged isolation and sensory deprivation, that mind-numbing emptiness that removes all sense of humanity. While the APA's 2007 Resolution took an ambiguous and carefully nuanced and parsed position on isolation and sensory deprivation and many other techniques, the APA unfortunately chose to raise in these letters only techniques that are likely not in current use, despite the controversy about their legality.... the APA has chosen yet again to trail the numerous critics in the press and the Democrats in Congress, who also condemn waterboarding but fail to mention the techniques believed currently in use at the CIA's black sites....

Further, the letters, while implicitly criticizing the legality of the detention centers, expresses a rather odd approach to the role of psychologists serving there in abetting the human rights violations at the core of these facility's existence. The APA refuses to state that aiding these illegal institutions is unethical. Rather, it leaves tht decision up to each individual psychologist....

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These letters show that the APA has gone far from its early hear no evil defense at all costs of maintaining psychologists in interrogations. The organization's leadership finally acknowledges, albeit timidly and largely implicitly, that abuses are occurring. But it still refuses to come to terms with the systemic nature of that abuse, or with the crucial role that psychologists played in creating that system of abuse and maintains the fiction that psychologists' primary concern was the safety of the detainees. And the APA still refuses to acknowledge that psychologists serving as interrogation consultants in illegal prisons are abettors of that illegality.

An Accusation, A Clarification, and... An Apostasy?

And so the controversy settled down into the usual hubbub of blog entries, listserv interchanges, and spikes of e-mail traffic. Then like a blast of cold winter air, on November 18 an article by Scott Horton over at Harper's set APA brass back on their heels. The impetus for Horton's column was the leak of the Guantanamo Standard Operating Procedures manual, which showed that use of isolation, sensory deprivation, guard dogs, and other forms of coercive detention were in full play, despite all claims otherwise, at the U.S. facility in Cuba. It couldn't have soothed APA nerves to find Mr. Horton quoting yet another Soldz article (at OpEd News), and agreeing that it was more than coincidence that the contingently banned interrogation techniques described above were the same sort that were practiced at Guantanamo. The Harper's article continues:

As Soldz notes, it is now apparent that from the outset of the debate the APA leadership pursued a strategy of protecting the actual techniques of abuse which were being used in Guantánamo. And we have specific reason to believe that some in the APA leadership had actual knowledge of those techniques. The leadership pursued its plan by involving a key military officer who was probably an author of these processes as its voice in presenting the matter.

Scott Horton's article was followed two days later by a letter to Harper's from Stephen Behnke, APA's Director of Ethics. The key section of his letter follows:

With the recent posting on the Internet of what has been identified as the U.S. military's 2003 operating manual for the Guantanamo detention center, attention has been directed to the use of isolation and sensory deprivation as interrogation procedures. APA policy specifically prohibits using any such technique, alone or in combination with other techniques for the purpose of breaking down a detainee. In a recent, public exchange (found at with an author of APA's 2007 resolution, I directly addressed this issue: "Given the concerns that have been expressed let me state clearly and unequivocally the 2007 Resolution should never be interpreted as allowing isolation, sensory deprivation and over-stimulation, or sleep deprivation either alone or in combination to be used as interrogation techniques to break down a detainee in order to elicit information." This position builds upon a 2006 APA resolution, which stated that psychologists must act in accordance with human rights instruments relevant to their roles. (emphasis mine)

Furthermore, Dr. Behnke promised that APA's Ethics Committee, "with input from our members", would produce an interrogations casebook and commentary, complete with vignettes, that would clarify APA's position that "that 'enhanced' interrogation techniques (also known as 'no-touch torture' and 'torture light') are unethical and prohibited."

This strongly worded statement followed another attempt at clarification by Dr. Behnke, this time in reply to questions from the Council representative for APA's Division 39 (Psychoanalysis). In this letter, preceding his reply to Scott Horton by a little under two weeks, the Director of Ethics wandered a bit, noting that temporary isolation or sleep disruption may happen as part of normal security operations in a detention center like Guantanamo. He then said (no link):

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I want to identify and highlight an issue that I realize is of great concern to many members, that the 2007 Resolution creates a "loophole" that allows psychologists to participate in some "enhanced" interrogation techniques. As I mentioned earlier, I fully recognize that the language of the Resolution regarding these behaviors was not as clear as the authors hoped it would be and as many of our members closely following this issue believe is necessary. I want to say emphatically, however, that the intention of the Resolution is to prohibit participation in interrogations that involve abuse, torture, or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment through the use of isolation, sensory deprivation and over-stimulation and sleep deprivation. At no point was there any discussion of, or intention to create, a "loophole" that would allow psychologists to participate in abusive interrogations.

Given the concerns that have been expressed let me state clearly and unequivocally the 2007 Resolution should never be interpreted as allowing isolation, sensory deprivation and over-stimulation, or sleep deprivation either alone or in combination to be used as interrogation techniques to break down a detainee in order to elicit information as described in [Physicians for Human Rights and Human Rights First booklet] Leave No Marks. My strong sense is that the Ethics Committee, with input from our members, will be able to find language that makes clear the intent of this language in the 2007 Resolution, that these "enhanced" interrogation techniques, all other abusive techniques and techniques of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment are prohibited. Again, the Committee may well decide to adopt the language from Leave No Marks in relation to these terms. If members believe this or any other language in the Resolution is unclear or insufficient, I encourage them to communicate their concerns to the Ethics Committee as the Committee works on the casebook and commentary.

Whither the APA?

There is some debate within circles that have opposed APA policy on interrogations in the past whether Dr. Behnke's letters represent a real change of heart from APA, or more obfuscation, delay, and parsing of language. Certainly, there is no nascent call from APA leadership to withdraw psychologists from Guantanamo or CIA "black site" secret prisons and interrogation centers. There is also nothing about working in conditions where detainees are held in indefinite detention.

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I am a psychologist living in Northern California, who also blogs primarily on torture issues. I have taught History of Psychology, and also have worked clinically with torture refugees. I have most recently been active in the fight to change the (more...)
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