September 4th, 2007
The hronicle of Higher Education has an article on the APA controversy:
A Policy on Torture Roils Psychologists’ Annual Meeting; Critics say a new resolution allows mistreatment of prisoners
by David Glenn
For nearly three years, the American Psychological Association has been consumed by internal debates about psychologists’ roles in the interrogation of suspected terrorists held at detention centers in Iraq; at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; and at so-called black sites operated by the Central Intelligence Agency in Europe and elsewhere.
Critics of the association — roughly a hundred of whom have publicly pledged to withhold their dues in protest — are angry because the association’s interrogation-related ethics policies are less stringent than the policies adopted by other professional groups, notably the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association. Those two organizations have enacted outright bans on participation in interrogation of military detainees.
The APA’s looser standard “has given some psychologists the opportunity to take the position, Look, our client is not the detainee,” says Michael G. Wessells, a professor of psychology at Randolph-Macon College. If you act as a consultant to the Pentagon, he says, “your job is not to protect and minister to the well-being of the detainee. Your client is the Department of Defense. In the end, I think psychology has allowed itself to be manipulated as a political tool for purposes that are really quite evil.”
The debates intensified earlier this year after reports emerged about a Spokane, Wash., psychological-consulting firm that has allegedly advised the Central Intelligence Agency on the use of extreme sensory deprivation and other methods widely regarded as torture.
But other scholars insist that psychologists can play crucial and positive roles at interrogation centers. People with training in psychology, they say, are best equipped to give advice about how to use nonviolent, noncoercive techniques to gain information from detainees suspected of terrorism. The abusive techniques associated with the Spokane consultants, they say, were an unfortunate aberration.
“I can’t offer any hard proof, but I am absolutely confident that countless lives have been saved because of information that we’ve obtained with those techniques,” says Michael Gelles, a former Navy psychologist who served at the detention facility in Guantanamo. (He is now in private practice in Maryland.) Mr. Gelles says that psychologists can help interrogators develop rapport with detainees and understand their motivations.
The debate reached a crescendo last month at the association’s annual meeting in San Francisco. There the association’s governing board rejected a proposal for a moratorium on psychologists’ participation — direct or indirect — in interrogations of foreign detainees held by the United States.
Instead, the association passed a compromise resolution that affirms an “absolute prohibition against psychologists’ knowingly planning, designing, and assisting in the use of torture and any form of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”
The resolution lists more than a dozen techniques that are specifically prohibited, including “water-boarding or any other form of simulated drowning or suffocation, sexual humiliation, rape, cultural or religious humiliation,” and “exploitation of phobias or psychopathology.”
Those new requirements significantly tighten the association’s ground rules, but they are still not as stringent as the rules of the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association. For some critics, the new language is still not strong enough.
The psychology association “is trying to sound like they oppose torture and abuse anywhere, but the new resolution still has serious loopholes,” says Steven Reisner, a psychoanalyst who is a senior adviser to the International Trauma Studies Program at New York University.
Among the loopholes, Mr. Reisner says, is that the resolution qualifies its prohibition against “isolation, sensory deprivation, and overstimulation and/or sleep deprivation.” It implies that those techniques may be used if they are not “used in a manner that represents significant pain or suffering or in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm.”
That qualifying phrase was the subject of intense negotiations in the days leading up to the association’s business meeting in San Francisco. Mr. Reisner’s faction won one small victory: The association had proposed the phrase “severe pain or suffering,” but Mr. Reisner and others persuaded them to alter that to “significant.”
Two days after the resolution’s passage, Mary Pipher, a Nebraska-based psychologist who is best known for the book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (Ballantine Books), returned an award that she received from the association in 2006. In an open letter to the APA’s president, Ms. Pipher argued that the compromise resolution was seriously inadequate.
“I do not want an award from an organization that sanctions its members’ participation in the enhanced interrogations at CIA black sites and at Guantanamo,” she wrote. “The presence of psychologists has both educated the interrogation teams in more skillful methods of breaking people down and legitimized the process of torture in defiance of the Geneva Conventions.”
Mr. Gelles, the former Navy psychologist, fought extensively with his military superiors about what he saw as abusive and counterproductive interrogation practices at Guantanamo. Despite that track record, however, he disagrees with many of the arguments put forward by Mr. Reisner and his allies.
In an interview, Mr. Gelles referred to Guantanamo as a “disaster” and a “quagmire,” but he said that it would be an enormous mistake to restrict psychologists’ roles there and at similar sites to providing health care. Psychologists have done valuable work, he said, in teaching interrogators to use noncoercive, rapport-based techniques to extract information from detainees.
During a panel discussion at the association’s meeting, Charles A. Morgan III, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale University, complained that Mr. Reisner’s group tended to “falsely conflate terms, equating all interrogations with torture.”
“I know great people who do military interrogations,” Dr. Morgan said. “There may have been a few bad eggs. But I have to tell you that if, in the end, you do discover that you have a few colleagues that have behaved badly, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should have nothing to do with this process. It would be like saying because a few psychotherapists sleep with their patients, therefore no psychotherapists should ever treat patients who are compatible with their sexual orientation. It’s just flawed thinking.”
During the conference, psychologists frequently pointed to a recently declassified Pentagon report on detainee abuses. That report was prepared by the Department of Defense’s Office of the Inspector General. The report noted that psychologists had participated in a September 2002 conference on the use of so-called SERE techniques in interrogations of suspected terrorists.
SERE is an acronym for a military program known as Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape, in which soldiers are trained to endure trauma in the event that they are captured behind enemy lines. Recent articles in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker have reported that the two Spokane- based psychologists working as consultants to U.S. intelligence agencies “reverse engineered” the SERE program to develop coercive techniques for extracting information from suspected terrorists.
“These guys are selling their professionalism to a bunch of gullible military people,” says Eric W. Anders, a psychoanalyst in Oakland, Calif., and a visiting scholar at Stanford University. Mr. Anders underwent SERE training when he attended the Air Force Academy in the mid-1980s. He says the training was one of the most grueling experiences of his life, and that he was reminded of it when he saw the images of abuse at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in the spring of 2004 because both involved humiliation.
During the association’s conference, speakers on both sides of the moratorium debate deplored the use of SERE techniques in interrogations. “I had a problem with my SERE counterparts from the beginning,” said Steven M. Kleinman, a retired U.S. Air Force Reserve colonel, during a panel discussion at the conference.
SERE specialists “were trained in what used to be called the Communist interrogation model,” Colonel Kleinman said. “That’s what we thought was the worst-case scenario for our young men and women if they were detained by a foreign power. SERE was never, and I repeat never, designed as a method of effectively gathering intelligence.” It was nonsensical, he said, for such techniques to be introduced in interrogations of suspected terrorists.
But Colonel Kleinman added that he opposed the idea of a moratorium on psychologists’ participation in detention centers, saying that he believed psychologists could play a constructive role in developing interrogation techniques based on rapport rather than intimidation. He suggested that the SERE model has been thoroughly rejected, at least within the Department of Defense.
Mr. Reisner says that the new resolution is so inadequate that he sees no reason to suspend the Withhold APA Dues campaign. “I’m convinced that I have to resign from the APA,” he says. “But at the same time, I don’t want to back down from the fight.”
One lingering question is whether the new resolution will have any effect beyond the symbolic. During a panel discussion at the conference, Corann Okorodudu, a professor of psychology at Rowan University, noted that a pair of antitorture resolutions passed by the association during the 1980s had apparently been forgotten. “APA has a host of policies, many of which are human-rights-based, that many of us in this room know nothing about,” Ms. Okorodudu said.
“It seems to me that these resolutions cannot have impact unless they are widely publicized,” she said, “and made the basis of our work on public policy.”