Olson & Davis: APA and the Myths and Costs of Endorsing Psychologist Involvement in Detainee Interrogations
the latest issue of the National Psychologist has an important article on the psychologist-interrogations issue by Brad Olson and Martha Davis. Unfortunately, it is not available online, except here:
APA and the Myths and Costs of Endorsing Psychologist Involvement in Detainee Interrogations
By Brad Olson, Ph.D. and Martha Davis, Ph.D.
[National Psychologist Editor's note: As with other opinion pieces carried over the years, publication of this article does not imply endorsement of the content by the National Psychologist. These views are presented only as a recognition that a growing number of psychologists object strongly and loudly to the position on psychologists' involvement in detainee centers taken by the APA Council of Representatives in 2004 and reaffirmed at last August's 2007 APA Convention]
The APA’s vigorous endorsement of psychologist involvement in detainee interrogations obscures critical problems that are rarely, if ever, acknowledged in its public statements. We submit that this policy fosters assumptions that, on close inspection, are little more than myths.
Myth # 1: If psychologists are restricted from involvement in detainee interrogations, they can be restricted from other work.
In August 2007, the APA Council of Representatives rejected an amendment to limit psychologists to helping roles in military and intelligence detention centers. The amendment applied only to contexts in which prisoners did not have basic rights such as due process, adequate legal representation, and habeas corpus. The defeated amendment would have prohibited unethical work in settings that violate the Geneva Conventions and international law, not ethical practice in legal settings. In addition to their potential for torture, interrogations at these sites are coercive. If detainees refuse to cooperate, they are more isolated and deprived of amenities given to more cooperative detainees. How can it be ethical for psychologists to be involved in coercive interrogations?
Myth #2: The presence of psychologists will protect detainees from abuse.
Psychologists involved in detainee interrogations, such as members of “Behavioral Science Consultation Teams” (BSCTs) at Guantanamo, are military officers who must follow the orders of their Commanding Officer(s). Their handbook, the Army Field Manual, includes such harassing techniques as “fear up harsh.” Their job, according to the Army Surgeon General’s report (2005), is to help intelligence gathering. Yet the APA says the role of “safety officer” is critical, even though it has no way to independently assess this seemingly contradictory function because detainee interrogations are held in the utmost secrecy. Meanwhile, UN and International Red Cross (IRC) inspectors criticize BSCTs for confounding interrogation procedures with psychological assessment and treatment of detainees, and continue to report increasing mental health problems in Guantanamo. There is no evidence from independent observers that BSCTs protect detainees any more than other military officers.
Myth #3: The APA arrived at its 2007 interrogation policy after extensive deliberation with a wide range of experts and has given these issues a fair hearing.
In 2005, the APA sped through deliberations with a PENS Task Force that was heavily weighted with psychologists affiliated with the U.S. military and the procurement of DoD contracts. They then limited public information on the PENS deliberations. All the while they conducted a campaign to defend psychologist involvement in detainee interrogations and administration-friendly interpretations of what is considered “non-abusive” treatment. Serious proposals that precisely followed all APA by-laws (e.g., a moratorium resolution, a call for a casebook, requests from Council to address serious problems in the 2002 ethics code placing local governing authority and regulations over professional accountability) have been continually stalled. Moreover, at the APA Council meeting in August, 2007, the amendment to limit psychologists to mental health services in settings that violate human rights was presented at the last minute and defeated after less than 30 minutes of floor discussion.
To its credit, the APA co-sponsored a mini-convention on Torture and Interrogations during the 2007 Convention — 8 panels of 4-6 accomplished speakers plus a Town Meeting. Based on the Council vote and subsequent APA reports, one would never know that those sessions were held in large rooms, filled to capacity, and that most of the presentations documented in vivid and scholarly detail why the APA’s policy is nothing less than a disaster for the discipline. In the meantime, some APA leaders have made unprofessional personal attacks on critics and whistle-blowers.
Myth #4: The APA’s policy on interrogations is as sound and rigorous as the policies of organizations such as the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association.
Direct involvement in interrogations and intelligence gathering jeopardizes any therapeutic or protective role a health care professional could possibly have with detainees. Thus the AMA, American Psychiatric Association, and the American Nursing Association will not let their practitioners be directly involved in detainee interrogations. Alone in its endorsement, the APA disregards this fundamental danger. The public learns that psychologists are involved in detainee interrogations and associates this with Abu Ghraib. They read about “torture-lite” in the same paragraph as “psychologist.” Can everyone but the APA governance — public, press, and other health care professionals – be so misguided?
In conjunction with the changes in the 2002 Code of Ethics, the APA’s interrogation policy erodes the firewall between clinical work and intelligence gathering. Psychologists become intelligence officers, answerable to the military chain of command, denied by the secrecy of special-ops both the oversight and the protection of their original profession. These conditions place institutional authority above the professional ethics of the individual psychologist. They thus eviscerate the psychologist half of the dual role of psychologist and military officer.
Additional changes in the 2002 code that enhance the ability of federal or institutional regulations to dispense with informed consent (Standard 8.05) further threaten already vulnerable detainee populations in these military settings. The political climate negatively impacts experimenter autonomy. For example, one of the authors conducted research on criminal confessions (Davis, Markus, Walters, Vorus and Connors, 2005) that was funded in part by the U.S. government. Given its focus (behavioral cues to stress and deception), it was of interest to investigators and intelligence officers. Fortunately, the study was completed before 9/11 and the increasing imposition of secrecy in the name of national security. Today, it would not be surprising for government funding sources to require that such research results be limited to intelligence agencies, trumping time-honored principles of transparency and the public nature of science. Researchers balking at such a requirement would not be well protected by the APA. After all, Standard 1.02 asserts that when conflicts exist between psychologist ethical responsibilities and orders, psychologists can defer to military regulations or even the on-the-spot decisions of a “governing authority”, however locally that is defined. In coordination, official APA policy statements, ethics code changes, U.S. redefinitions of torture and illegalities of detention, the interests of the individual client and the primacy of human rights among psychologists are all but abandoned. These actions have weakened any semblance of self-determination in professional and research psychologists funded or employed by the military, government, prisons, and law enforcement.
We do not hear from the APA about the terrible costs of its military/intelligence interrogations policy, yet many prominent psychologists are resigning and some have even turned their back on APA honors because of it. Every day, psychologists and graduate students are joining organizations such as withholdAPAdues.com to protest the APA policy. Several listservs keep psychologists up to date on reports from NGOs, the government, and the press on detainee treatment, as well as the ethical, political, and professional aspects of APA torture and interrogation policy. For information not found in APA postings on torture and detainee interrogations, readers of the National Psychologist can go to websites such as www.ethicalAPA.com.
Brad Olson, Ph.D. is a research and consulting psychologist at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL. He is on the steering committees for the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and Psychologists for an Ethical APA, as well as past chair of Divisions for Social Justice (DSJ), a collaboration of 13 divisions of the American Psychological Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Martha Davis, Ph.D. is a Visiting Scholar at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York involved in consulting with homicide detectives of the New York City Police Department. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.
Davis, M. Markus, K. A., Walters, S. B., Vorus, N. & Connors, B. (2005). Behavioral cues to deception vs. topic incriminating potential in criminal confessions. Law and Human Behavior, 29,683-704.
American Psychological Association (2002, August). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. www.apa.org/ethics/code2002.html.
Surgeon General Army, (2005, April). Final report assessment of detainee medicaloperation for OEF, GTMO and OIF.
1 comment February 4th, 2008