We are here beginning a new feature. Steven Reisner, candidate for President of the American Psychological Association, will be blogging on his campaign. Here is his initial entry:
By Steven Reisner
Estragon: Nothing to be done.
Vladimir: I’m beginning to come round to that opinion. All my life I’ve tried to put it from me, saying, Vladimir, be reasonable, you haven’t yet tried everything. And I resumed the struggle.– Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
So, how did it happen that I decided to run for the Presidency of the American Psychological Association? It seems a far cry from my familiar professional self – a psychoanalyst, a teacher, a supervisor, a writer, an occasional theater artist.
And how am I going to blog about this run, since my role, as an analyst, is usually to be circumspect in what I say and what I reveal about myself? I think that the answer is to borrow from that aspect of the experience and process of analysis that is usually hidden – the analyst’s free associations. In other words, I will try to reveal an internal process – of what thoughts, images, feelings, occur to me as I ‘listen’ to the stimuli of this campaign. One doesn’t have to look far for stimulation to respond to – the issues of my campaign continue to be the issues of the news – every day seems to bring another revelation of the Bush Administration’s campaign of torture and abuse of detainees and its continued attempt to simultaneously deny and justify that program (this impossible combination of deny and justify is very familiar to the analyst!).
The problem is that most people don’t understand how intimately involved psychologists have been in this campaign, and how the American Psychological Association, too, has been complicit in supporting psychologists’ operational role in the shameful interrogations and conditions at sites like Bagram, Guantanamo Bay and CIA ‘black sites.’
My involvement in trying to change APA policy began in 2005, not long after a report of the International Committee of the Red Cross was leaked to the New York Times. The report revealed that psychologists and other health professionals were directing interrogations in a manner that capitalized on the detainees psychological vulnerabilities, in, what the report called “a flagrant violation of medical ethics.” Every major association of health professionals in the country weighed in on the ramifications of the report. The nurses, psychiatrists, and physicians organizations, all stated unequivocally that participation in abusive or coercive interrogations is unethical. The APA convened a Task Force to assess APA ethics and policy for such interrogations. The APA’s Task Force came to a rather different conclusion, unique among the health professions. The Task Force Report concluded that “it is consistent with the APA Ethics Code for psychologists to serve in consultative roles to interrogation and information-gathering processes for national security-related purposes…” 
It turns out that the Task Force (how shall I put this?) was stacked. I don’t mean ’stacked’ to guarantee a certain viewpoint, although that would be bad enough (a majority of the voting members, after all, were in the employ of the Department of Defense). I mean stacked in a more insidious way. Certain members and observers to the Task Force meeting were or had been directly involved in:
- the CIA command that oversaw the use of SERE based torture techniques, including waterboarding, on detainees held at CIA black sites.
- the military command that introduced harsh interrogation, based on SERE techniques, into Afghanistan and Iraq.
- organizing an invitation-only APA-CIA conferences, to which CIA psychologist-torturers Mitchell and Jessen were invited and where interrogation techniques, such as drugging and sensory overstimulation were discussed.
- the military command that created the protocols for abusive interrogations, by teaching SERE techniques to Guantanamo interrogators.
- the military command that instituted and oversaw abusive detainee conditions at Guantanamo Bay.
- the DoD intelligence agency that offered “risk assessments” of Guantanamo detainees, researched the efficacy of detainee interrogation techniques, and relayed questions from the Defense Department to Guantanamo interrogators.
In other words, to fully understand the Bush administration’s program of interrogation abuse and torture, one must understand the role of certain military and intelligence psychologists in creating, disseminating, and researching the effectiveness of that program. And to understand the role of those psychologists, one would do well to begin with the resumes of those chosen by the APA leadership to determine APA policy on psychologists and interrogations.
There are many threads that we might follow to unravel this shameful story. In the coming weeks I will pull a number of these threads to reveal the extent of the interweaving of psychologists, the American Psychological Association, and the story of American abuses of detainees. But today, to introduce this story, I need to get back to how I, a psychoanalyst, found myself in this position.
After the news about the ICRC report broke, and after the APA PENS Task Force issued its report, a small group of psychoanalysts on a listserv (APA Division 39, Section 9, “Psychoanalysts and Social Responsibility”) began to share its concerns about the APA’s position. We debated what we might do to voice our protest. Should we write letters to APA leaders? Should we take out an ad in the New York Times? I took a first step, after an article in The New York Times revealed that the Pentagon had decided “that they would try to use only psychologists, and not psychiatrists, to help interrogators devise strategies to get information from detainees at places like Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.” According to the article, the decision was “a recognition of differing positions taken by their respective professional groups.”
I wrote a letter to then APA President Gerald Koocher:
I request that you, or another authorized spokesperson, issue a statement which makes clear unequivocally that psychologists are prohibited from participation in cruel and inhuman treatment of anyone held against their will in general, and in centers of abuse such as Guantanamo, in particular. I would suggest further that the statement make it clear that psychologists are prohibited from advising in coercive interrogations, and in environments where their participation gives the impression that psychologists approve or assist in such techniques.
Please examine press reports with healthy skepticism and seek facts, rather than reflexively engaging in letter-writing campaigns predicated on inadequate access to the data… In both domestic and national security-related contexts, these ethical principles converge as psychologists are mandated to take affirmative steps to prevent harm to individuals being questioned and, at the same time, to assist in eliciting reliable information that may prevent harm to others.
Other psychoanalysts on the lists followed with their own letters. One colleague, who had not gotten a response, wrote again, asking if he could expect one. The President of the American Psychological Association responded, “Don’t hold your breath.” Needless to say, this was enough to rouse the entire group of us from our consulting rooms.
A colleague forwarded my letter and Koocher’s response to Amy Goodman, whose show, Democracy Now! had been following the story of health professionals and interrogations. Goodman invited Dr. Koocher and me to debate the issue on her show.
Koocher immediately attempted to position our protest as naive, because we were psychoanalysts:
GERALD KOOCHER: I can understand why this would be confusing to a psychoanalyst, because psychoanalysis is essentially a human service, health service delivery. You’re providing psychotherapy to people. However, there are many other behavioral scientists who engage in types of interrogation that might be deemed coercive.
STEVEN REISNER: You’re right. I am a psychoanalyst. I do emphasize the richness of human experience and an understanding of the context of those experiences, and if we take the context of a psychologist on a BSCT [Behavioral Science Consultation Team] team training interrogators to get the most information from detainees in an environment where those detainees psychology is being threatened as part of the process, the plan — the aim — is to deteriorate their psychological state, then psychologists, as far as I’m concerned, are participating in a grandly unethical program.
Since that time the protest movement within the American Psychological Association has gathered enormous momentum. In the current election process for APA President, of the five nominees, I received the most nominating votes. And for the first time in APA history, a group of psychologists has gathered enough member signatures to bring a referendum on this issue to the entire APA membership.
And every day, information is being revealed that confirms our worst suspicions:
- that certain military and intelligence psychologists have been responsible for the design, training, implementation and dissemination of abusive interrogation techniques.
- that certain military and intelligence psychologists oversaw abusive conditions of detention, aimed at breaking down prisoners in order to make them more pliable and responsive to interrogations.
- that certain military and intelligence psychologists created a system of reward and punishment for prisoners, meting out or withholding religious items, books, toilet paper, and other basic necessities, as part of a program of interrogation.
- that certain military and intelligence psychologists used mental health diagnoses to support military and intelligence strategies, rather than as part of a humane program of care for detainees held under abusive conditions.
I am running for President of the APA because I believe that the Association has had its priorities wrong for the past decade, in supporting a national security strategy over the human rights and dignity of all individuals. In this way, the APA has acted more as an arm of the current administration’s military and intelligence strategy, and less as a voice for mental health and human welfare.
Over the coming weeks, I will be blogging on these issues, particularly as the news continues to break, exposing this national shame, and exposing the role of psychologists, with the support of the APA, in this national shame. I am encouraging all American psychologists to vote to change these policies, by supporting my candidacy for APA President, by supporting the Senate Armed Services Committee’s investigation into these practices, and by calling for a full investigation into the use of psychological knowledge and practices for purposes and abuse and torture, and for calling for a full accounting of the role of the APA in supporting these practices.
Please visit my website, at www.reisnerforpresident.com
 APA has since passed several “anti-torture” resolutions. However, each had reservations and limitations which limited its applicability. For an in-depth discussion of these limitations, see the Coalition for An Ethical Psychology’s Analysis of the APA’s Frequently Asked Questions Regarding…Interrogations, and Soldz and Olson’s Reaction to the APA Vote.
July 11th, 2008