Psychologists group still rocked by torture debate

In an angry response to Salon, the American Psychological Association defends its policy on participating in terror suspects' interrogation -- as some members still push for change.


Agitated members of the American Psychological Association are making final plans to challenge a policy that allows psychologists to participate in the interrogation of detainees during the “war on terror.” As Salon reported on July 26, the 150,000-member association has been embroiled in an internal revolt over the group’s year-old interrogation ethics principles. Detractors say those principles are so weak and vague that psychologists could become pawns in detainee abuse. Currently, they are drafting alternative proposals, one of which would outright bar psychologists from taking part in interrogations, to present at the association’s annual meeting Aug. 10-13 in New Orleans.

Salon revealed that six of the 10 psychologists that APA president Gerald Koocher helped select to draft the ethics report had close ties to the military, including four who’d been involved with the handling of detainees at Guanténamo or Abu Ghraib, or who’d served in Afghanistan. That revelation, subsequently reported by the Associated Press, further incensed some members of the association, said Steven Reisner, a psychologist critical of the current interrogation policy. “It generated a lot of energy in my circles,” he said, adding that an online petition against the interrogation principles has netted more than 1,400 signatures from members and other psychologists.

The association reacted angrily to Salon’s article, releasing a six-point response, distributed to APA leaders, alleging inaccuracies and biased reporting. APA spokeswoman Rhea Farberman said in a telephone call that Salon had an agenda and that the article lacked sufficient balance. However, when questioned, Farberman also acknowledged that a key ASA rejoinder was “technically” incorrect.

At issue is the year-old report by the APA’s 10-member Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) task force. The report states that psychologists can play “a valuable and ethical role to assist in protecting our nation, other nations, and innocent civilians from harm” by consulting with interrogators. It reflects the view that psychologists can use their insight and knowledge to help interrogators pry valuable information from prisoners. APA director of ethics Stephen Behnke said that psychologists also help prevent abuse. “Psychologists take advisory or consultative roles in relation to interrogations to help ensure interrogations are safe, legal, ethical, and effective,” he wrote in an e-mail.

The PENS report explicitly states that “psychologists do not engage in, direct, support, facilitate, or offer training in torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.” But some psychologists, including former APA president Philip Zimbardo, architect of the famous 1971 Stanford prison experiment in which students, as mock prison guards, quickly became sadistic, believe that claim is a pro forma protection easily circumvented in the post-9/11 atmosphere. Other opponents of the APA policy go even further, arguing that psychologists should refrain from interrogations entirely because interrogations fundamentally violate psychologists’ primary role in the healing profession.

In its original six-point response to Salon, the APA took exception to the use of the words “internal revolt” to describe the push against the association’s interrogation principles. It suggested the policy had been formally embraced by the elected members of the APA’s council, who have broad authority to develop APA policy. “The reality is that APA’s Council of Representatives endorsed the current policy at its last meeting,” the association leadership said in the response.

That raised some eyebrows among some members, who pointed out the claim was incorrect. In a relatively unusual move, they said, the interrogation report bypassed the council (described on the APA Web site as the “most important governance body of the association”) and became policy through the imprimatur of APA’s smaller 12-person board of directors. “Council was not asked to endorse or approve the PENS task force report,” said council member Bernice Lott.

Farberman, the APA spokeswoman, acknowledged that the original APA statement on the council’s endorsement was technically incorrect. She said that members of the council had made “laudatory” statements about the report at a council meeting last February. When called on this issue last week by her own members, Farberman admitted to the council in an e-mail, obtained by Salon, that “Council took no official action on the report.” Still, Farberman said in a telephone call to Salon that the APA leadership was not facing an internal revolt. She said that an Associated Press article was more accurate in describing the APA leadership as “under fire.”

The APA also bashed Salon for reporting that the names and biographies of the 10 psychologists who drafted the ethics principles, including those with military ties, were not made public by the APA because they did not appear in the PENS report and were not available on the APA Web site. (Congressional sources sent the bios to Salon.) The APA slammed that portion of the story as “totally false,” arguing that the names and biographies of the task force members “are, and have been for some time, available through the APA Web site.”

But a link to the biographies of those task force members appeared on the APA Web site only after the publication of Salon’s article. Farberman acknowledged that the APA did put the link to the bios of the task force members on its site after Salon published its story. But she added that one could have previously navigated to the Web site of the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict and Violence through the APA Web site. “We said that the bio statements have been available through the Web site for some time,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Maybe so. But Linda M. Woolf, president of the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict and Violence, said her organization’s Web site is “separate” from the APA Web site. In fact, her organization published the bios some time ago, with concerns about the PENS report. Woolf said the APA’s current interrogation policy, alone, “does not provide clear enough guidelines to keep psychologists out of situations involving abuse in the name of the war on terror.”

The APA also took umbrage with the suggestion that its interrogation policy was skewed because six of the 10 members of the task force who helped draft it had military backgrounds. “In terms of the membership of the PENS Task Force and any undue influence of the U.S. military — the PENS Report was a consensus document,” it said. “It openly reports on the three areas where consensus could not be reached amongst the Task Force Members.”

However, despite — or because of — its being a consensus document, one civilian member of the task force resigned in protest early this year. That member, Michael Wessells, a psychology professor at Randolph-Macon College, said there is nothing wrong with the report per se, but that the APA policy alone is inadequate for preventing psychologists from getting involved in abuse. He said he resigned when he realized that Koocher would not lead the association to make a clear denunciation of the interrogation tactics employed in the war on terror or explicitly tell psychologists what they can and cannot do.

Some psychologists have suggested that members of the task force with military ties would indeed not be inclined to buck an administration that has pursued tough interrogation tactics. “There likely would be implicit pressures on them to keep the scope of their recommendations restricted,” Zimbardo said. On the other hand, one of the association members with military ties does have a long history as a vocal critic of abuse. Michael Gelles, a chief psychologist for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, was reportedly shocked by what he saw in military interrogation logs from Guantánamo early in the war on terror and funneled that information through sympathetic Pentagon channels in an effort to put a stop to it.

Civilian psychologists and association members said they have been instructed by the APA not to discuss the task force’s internal debates. But some said confidentially they feel embarrassed that the APA has not taken a stronger stand against what has gone on during the war on terror. They point out that the American Psychiatric Association, in spite of the Pentagon’s wishes, has announced an outright ban on the participation of psychiatrists in interrogations.

In an apparent effort to tamp down the uproar, embattled APA president Koocher invited Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, the surgeon general of the Army, to address the APA leadership at the New Orleans convention. At the same, Koocher refused a request to invite Leonard Rubenstein, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights and a Harvard Law School graduate, to speak as a counterweight. “There is no ethical role for a health professional in the interrogation of an individual detainee,” Rubenstein said. “Despite a claim to rely on the same values — to take care to do no harm — the American Psychological Association not only allows, but encourages its members to advise interrogators how best to gain information from a particular detainee.”

The move to block Rubenstein further angered Koocher’s opponents. “A small number of people in the APA leadership are fundamentally circumventing the democratic process here,” said Brad Olson, chair-elect for the Divisions for Social Justice within the APA. He and other disgruntled APA members say the interrogation controversy threatens to overshadow the entire slate of issues at the upcoming convention.

(The following is the APAs response to Salons July 26 article on psychologists and interrogations. It has been reformatted by Salon from an email.)

APA Response to

June 26, 2006

The following summarizes a number of inaccuracies and biased reporting contained within the article, “Psychological Warfare” (posted July 26, 2006)

* The article opens by suggesting that the APA is facing an “internal revolt” against the Association’s current policy on the role of psychologists in military interrogations. The reality is that APA’s Council of Representatives endorsed the current policy at its last meeting. (February 2006) Furthermore, it is expected that the Council will consider adoption of a second resolution at its upcoming meeting in New Orleans. The new resolution reaffirms APA’s position against torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in all circumstances. This new resolution has the support of a broad group of APA constituencies from the Division of Peace Psychology to the Division of Military Psychology. (Note: the fact of this Resolution was brought to the Salon author’s attention, yet no mention of the Resolution is made in the article and the author apparently made no attempt to reach anyone involved in the drafting of the Resolution.)

* The article’s premise is one of guilt by association. It implies that anyone who has been present at any facility in which inappropriate activities occurred was therefore involved in unethical behavior. In fact, it is a matter of public record that one of the psychologists on the PENS Task Force intervened to stop abusive behavior. Once again, the reporter fails to report this information.

* The article identifies a “psychologist” as an opponent of APA’s policy and quotes this psychologist as saying that psychologists should not be involved in “inherently harmful” interrogations. This statement, rather then being in opposition to APA policy, is in total agreement with it. APA’s policy is first and foremost grounded in the “do no harm” principle of the APA ethics code.

* The article cites a number of examples of prisoner treatment that are clearly unethical and would be condemned by APA. For example, subjecting an individual to “extreme psychological distress” by forcing an individual to wear a leash and “to perform dog tricks.” Such treatment is a clear violation of the PENS guidelines. If information is brought to APA that a psychologist/APA member was involved in any such activities, an ethics investigation would be opened.

* In terms of the membership of the PENS Task Force and any undue influence of the U.S. military — the PENS Report was a consensus document. It openly reports on the three areas where consensus could not be reached amongst the Task Force members. The Report was reviewed by the APA Ethics Committee, adopted as APA policy by the APA Board of Directors and later endorsed by the over 160 person APA Council of Representatives. Furthermore, the next step in the process, the all important step of defining terms and applying the PENS guidelines to real world situations, has been turned over to the APA Ethics Committee by the Task Force itself. (Yet another fact that the author fails to mention in the article, even though it was called to his attention.) The Ethics committee is comprised of psychologists and a public member from a broad range of professional areas, including academics and practitioners. It should also be noted that two non-military members of the Task Force quoted in the article have each stated that they did not find the contributions of the military members of the Task Force problematic.

* The article states that APA has kept the names of the Task Force members secret. This is totally false. In reality, the names and composition of the Task Force is public information. The names and biographical statements of each of the Task Force members are, and have been for some time, available through the APA website.

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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