August 22nd, 2007
Back from the struggle at the American Psychological Association to change their policies abetting abusive interrogations, I’ll start posting material on the Convention. Here is the resolution APA adopted on Sunday, declaring certain interrogation tactics as unethical, but carefully circumscribing this condemnation to protect the use of the CIA’s favorite venerable abusive techniques of isolation, sensory deprivation, and sensory overstimulation.
The best press article so far on the APA decision is Mark Benjamin’s Will psychologists still abet torture?. Benjamin explicitly questions, as do many of us, whether the APA’s resolution was subtly modified to protect the CIA’s contemporary version of its “enhanced techniques.” During the negotiations on the APA resolution, numerous mysterious changes, never mentioned to those negotiating from our side, were introduced into texts that allowed psychologists to continue abusing detainees.
The final version of the clause allowing this was a prohibition on psychologists using “isolation, sensory deprivation and over-stimulation and/or sleep deprivation used in a manner that represents significant pain or suffering or in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm.” It was the addition of the phrase “in a manner that represents significant pain or suffering or in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm” that was of concern. The second clause — “or in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm” — was actually added on the night before the final vote, allowing no time to even notify members of Council what was going on. Further, restraint on the use of these techniques applies only to use in interrogations, whereas, as Valtin points out, they are usually used as part of the detention environment to soften detainees up for interrogation. Thus, again, APA has parsed words to maintain psychologists right to abuse.
Lets take a look at the wording of this entire section, which forbids psychologist participation in :
“the following used for the purposes of eliciting information in an interrogation process: 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; and isolation, sensory deprivation and over-stimulation and/or sleep deprivation used in a manner that represents significant pain or suffering or in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm”
The APA here is protecting the ability of psychologists to participate in “forced nudity,” “physical assault,” use of temperature extremes, etc., as long as these are used outside of interrogations. Thus, the Resolution seems to affirm that psychologists can participate in abuse, as long as they aren’t using it to get information. This is perhaps one of the most warped ethical statements I have ever seen.
The APA ethics code states as its Principle A that “Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm.” The Convention decisively abandoned this Principle without any discussion.
Nonetheless, some readers of the final Resolution feel that, despite the loopholes, it can be seen as a condemnation of the CIA’s”enhanced techniques” used in the black sites. Physicians for Human Right, in a press release, argued that the APA had, indeed, condemned the CIA techniques:
“The American Psychological Association’s (APA) ‘unequivocal condemnation’ of enhanced interrogation techniques used by the CIA such as water-boarding, mock execution, exploitation of phobias, exposure to extremes of heat and cold reinforces the urgency of abolishing the use of these methods in all intelligence-gathering activities conducted by the US government, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) said today.”
It remains to be seen if the PHR approach is justified, or if the APA deliberately left such huge holes in their resolution as to give the CIA a Get Out of Jail Free card. It makes sense to press the interpretation of the APA resolution as far as we can, while simultaneously pointing out its limitations and pressing to fix them. But, given the influence of the military-intelligence establishment on the APA, I’m not sure that anything less than a takeover of the APA could bring significant change.
The other major issue up at the Convention was an amendment that stated that psychologists should not work in any role other than a health provider in detention centers where fundamental human rights are violated. This amendment was a derivative of Neil Altman’s Moratorium Resolution, which the APA successfully destroyed with a parliamentary maneuver in violation of their own Council Handbook. However, the vote was so lopsided, with less than 20% of the approximately 165 Council members voting in support, that the Moratorium clearly never stood a chance. [See Psychologists oppose torture yet vote to attend terror interrogations] Few members were willing to buck the leadership on an issue considered vital in APA’s efforts to curry favor with the military-intelligence establishment. Physicians For Human Rights urged future adoption of this provision:
” ‘It is an illusion to believe that psychologists can act ethically in situations, particularly in an interrogation support capacity, where such severe violations of human rights are taking place,’ said Rubenstein. ‘At Guantanamo and elsewhere, detainees deprived of due process and subject to indefinite detention experience cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment as a consequence of the terms of their detention.’ “
Human rights concerns were clearly trumped by military-intelligence ties, raising the question as to whether the APA can be rescued. It may be too sunk in the quagmire of the National Security State to have any positive role to play in the future.
For another take on the Convention events and their meanings, see Valtin,’s analysis in Daily Kos: Postmortem: APA Torture Resolution Puzzle (Bookmark this).
Mark Benjamin’s article is reproduced here:
Will psychologists still abet torture?
At their annual convention, psychologists officially condemned some brutal interrogation techniques, but critics decry a resolution they say isn’t stringent enough.
By Mark Benjamin
Aug. 21, 2007 | The American Psychological Association has adopted a new resolution on the interrogation of detainees in the so-called war on terror, denouncing a list of specific interrogation techniques including some allegedly employed by the CIA.
The move comes after months of revelations that exposed how psychologists helped develop coercive interrogation programs after 9/11 for the intelligence agency and the military, and weeks after the White House announced the renewal of the CIA’s “black site” interrogations — likely to be overseen by psychologists.
But it was a step still mired in controversy. At their annual meeting in San Francisco over the weekend, the psychologists voted against a proposal that would have aligned them with the position taken by the equivalent associations of American medical doctors and psychiatrists, which have banned their members altogether from participating in interrogations at places like the military prison in Guantánamo Bay. Moreover, the group’s new condemnation of nearly 20 specific interrogation techniques, in a 174-line resolution that “unequivocally condemns torture,” contains gray areas that left some psychologists wondering if the APA played right into the CIA’s hands.
The APA has condemned torture in the past. But this year the organization was responding, in part, to intense internal pressure from some members who were angered by the Bush administration’s permissive interpretation of prohibitions on abuse. The new resolution aims to be more precise and detailed, articulating “an absolute prohibition for psychologists against direct or indirect participation” in brutal interrogation methods, from mock executions to waterboarding.
“The APA came in line with the minimum of its responsibilities by condemning, in certain circumstances, the most egregious forms of torture being committed in our name,” said Steven Reisner, a psychologist who has been pressing the organization to withdraw from detainee interrogations. “But they left huge loopholes that permit these techniques to be used in other circumstances.”
For example, the resolution denounces isolation and sleep deprivation only when “used in a manner that represents significant pain or suffering or in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm.” Yet, isolation and sleep deprivation are hallmark interrogation techniques reportedly used by the CIA at the black sites, and they have been honed with eerie precision by decades of practice. The CIA’s infamous 1963 KUBARK interrogation manual describes sensory deprivation and the disruption of sleep patterns as central tenets of coercive interrogations, quickly provoking hallucinations and stress that become “unbearable for most subjects.” That manual also notes the “profound moral objection to applying duress past the point of irreversible psychological damage.”
What worries psychologists like Reisner is that the potential loophole in the APA’s resolution echoes a similar one in the Military Commissions Act, which had a provision allegedly inserted into it at the behest of the Bush administration. President Bush signed that bill into law last October, setting new definitions in U.S. law for violations of the Geneva Conventions, which ban torture internationally. The potential loophole in the law comes with the criminalization of mental pain and suffering, but only damage that is “serious and non-transitory.” Bush said last fall the new law would allow the CIA to continue its interrogations at the black sites.
Interrogations were clearly the hot topic at the convention, with at least a dozen packed meetings on ethics and interrogations. The convention drew protesters, including people staging Abu Ghraib-style stress positions both inside and outside the premises.
There is disagreement about whether the language adopted by the APA with Sunday’s vote really does give psychologists carte blanche to keep helping the CIA use brutal mental coercion against al-Qaida suspects. Leonard Rubenstein, the president of Physicians for Human Rights and a lawyer, first suggested the explicit condemnation of CIA tactics in a June 14 letter to APA president Sharon Stephens Brehm. Rubenstein wrote that the list would provide “explicit, operational guidance” to psychologists. After the vote, he said that the long-term mental damages of psychological techniques such as long-term sensory deprivation are well documented. “We interpret this as a condemnation of the CIA’s interrogation program,” Rubenstein said after the vote.
But getting a straight explanation from the APA leadership on the loophole issue was not easy. Brehm, the APA president, would not discuss the interrogation issue with Salon at all when confronted after a conference panel on Saturday. Stephen Behnke, the director of the APA’s ethics office who drafted the resolution, insisted on Saturday that Physicians for Human Rights had suggested some qualifying language with respect to sleep and sensory deprivation. In fact, PHR had fought vigorously against any qualifying language, including a letter sent to Behnke asking for the removal of any “qualifications” regarding sensory and sleep deprivation.
But Rhea Farberman, an APA spokeswoman, dismissed the idea of a CIA loophole. “We want to step in and say these enumerated acts are unethical and should not be happening,” Farberman said. “In being specific in what we think would be unethical, we are trying to add specificity where it has been lacking, to the detriment of some detainees.”
But the new resolution remained a disappointment to psychologists who believe the profession should not support the interrogation of so-called unlawful enemy combatants at all, not least because detainees have been robbed of due process at places like Guantánamo. “These detention centers by their very nature impose cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment on detainees,” argued Bernice Lott, a member of the APA’s council.
What’s at stake with the APA’s role was made clear when President Bush signed a new executive order last month reauthorizing the CIA interrogation program: The White House emphasized that all interrogations would be overseen by medical officials, as a way of ensuring the safety of prisoners. Since doctors and psychiatrists have ruled themselves out as professional groups, that leaves the psychologists to do the work. And some of them worry that the APA’s latest position will still allow the abuse of detainees psychologically, so long as the pain doesn’t last too long.
Notice that, in addition to interpreting the bizarre APA resolution, Benjamin documents that the APA’s “Ethics Director” directly lied to him regarding where the reservations on banning certain techniques originated:
“But getting a straight explanation from the APA leadership on the loophole issue was not easy. Brehm, the APA president, would not discuss the interrogation issue with Salon at all when confronted after a conference panel on Saturday. Stephen Behnke, the director of the APA’s ethics office who drafted the resolution, insisted on Saturday that Physicians for Human Rights had suggested some qualifying language with respect to sleep and sensory deprivation. In fact, PHR had fought vigorously against any qualifying language, including a letter sent to Behnke asking for the removal of any “qualifications” regarding sensory and sleep deprivation.”
PHR, in facy, had twice sent APA letters demanding that any qualifiers be removed. Our Coalition for and Ethical APA also wrote Dr. Behnke demanding changes in this pro-abuse language.
The question on the table is whether there is any point in further work inside the APA. Most members of its governing structures seem accepting of its role as an auxiliary of the military-intelligence establishment. Most members seem oblivious to this corruption of our professional organization. The choices now are launching a massive effort to remake the organization, to work on creating a new organization for psychologists, or to give up and accept the dominance of the military-intelligence forces, and of the accompanying daily corruption of lies and deception that characterize the APA today.