Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Role of Psychologists in Overseeing Torture

I recently interviewed Roy Eidelson, a psychologist who studies the role of psychological issues in political, organizational, and group conflict settings. In the interview, I asked him to speak to the significance of the role that psychologists (and the American Psychological Association) have played in overseeing interrogations (and the torture) of prisoners in U.S. custody. Here was the exchange:

CJ: The group Physicians for Human Rights has recently called for an investigation into the role that the American Psychological Association played in the torture of prisoners in U.S. custody. Physicians for Human Rights claims that newly released documents indicate that the APA's ethics task force altered their policy to adhere to governmental interrogation policies. Can you speak to the significance of psychologists playing a role in overseeing these interrogations?

RE: The role of psychologists in detainee settings is an issue of great importance to me. I support the call for investigations by Physicians for Human Rights. Indeed, as president-elect of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, I have contributed to PsySR’s issuing a similar call. The details surrounding the American Psychological Association’s involvement in the Bush administration’s detainee practices are complex and much of this story is yet to be told (six key questions that PsySR has posed to the APA are available at But at a very basic level, the ethical code of psychologists is built upon the principle of “do no harm”--and there is troubling evidence that this principle was ignored by individual psychologists working at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. As one instance, psychologists played a lead role in reverse-engineering the military’s SERE training program (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) so that it could be used instead for the harsh interrogation (and torture) of detainees. In the eyes of many psychologists, the APA has been too slow to take forceful action to curtail or prevent such abuses of psychology. Fortunately, a membership referendum last fall has recently led to a new APA policy prohibiting psychologists from working “in settings where persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law…or the US Constitution…unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights.” I believe this is an important step in the right direction.

Just last week, the APA published an open letter in which they advocate the Association's opposition to policies that are cruel and inhumane and expressed regret that psychologists participated in the oversight of torture:

Information has emerged in the public record confirming that, as committed as some psychologists were to ensuring that interrogations were conducted in a safe and ethical manner, other psychologists were not. Although there are countless psychologists in the military and intelligence community who acted ethically and responsibly during the post-9/11 era, it is now clear that some psychologists did not abide by their ethical obligations to never engage in torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. The involvement of psychologists, no matter how small the number, in the torture of detainees is reprehensible and casts a shadow over our entire profession. APA expresses its profound regret that any psychologist has been involved in the abuse of detainees.

This has been a painful time for the association and one that offers an opportunity to reflect and learn from our experiences over the last five years. APA will continue to speak forcefully in further communicating our policies against torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment to our members, the Obama administration, Congress, and the general public. In so doing, we will continue to highlight our 2008 petition resolution policy, Psychologists and Unlawful Detention Settings with a Focus on National Security. APA will ensure that association communications convey clearly that the petition resolution is official association policy and must be central to psychologists’ assessment of the appropriateness of their roles in specific work settings related to national security. Our association’s governing body, the Council of Representatives, will soon be receiving guidance from various governance groups regarding further steps to implement this resolution.

While the condemnation of such practices seems like a no-brainer for an organization of the APA's stature, it has not always been so clear-cut. Democracy Now! was one of the few news outlets that has been covering the APA's role in supervising torture throughout the years and one only needs to look back to an interview that host Amy Goodman conducted with Dr. Stephen Miles, professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School, on September 28, 2007 to remember how slow the APA has been to condemn the role of psychologists in supervising torture:

AMY GOODMAN: We have been doing extensive coverage of the debate in the American Psychological Association. They, this year, ultimately did not pass a moratorium on psychologist involvement in coercive interrogations. Can you talk more about what is going on there and the contrast with the American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association?

DR. STEVEN MILES: Essentially, what the American Psychological Association has said is that psychologists may work with interrogators to break persons down. And it turns out that that was the specific agenda all the way from the beginning, including when military people were stacked on their interrogation policy committee.

The directive from then-President Koocher, as expressed in his emails, said as follows: the goal of such psychologists’ works will ultimately be the protection of others, innocents, by contributing to the incarceration, debilitation or even death of the potential perpetrator, who will often remain unaware of the psychologists’ involvement.

And then, a month later he said to that same American Psychological Association policy committee, “I have zero interest in entangling the American Psychological Association with nebulous, toothless, contradictory and obfuscatory treaties that comprise ‘international law.’ Rather, I prefer to see the American Psychological Association take principled stand on policy issues where psychology has some scientific basis for doing so.” Well, the irony of this is that the scientific evidence weighs against course of interrogation, and the psychologists should have put the brake on the CIA, but in fact they worked with the CIA to develop these techniques, which then spread through the Army, and it resulted in enormous damage.

Dr. Stephen Soldz also reacts to this delayed response by the APA on his blog last week:

Unfortnately, the styatement, while an improvement on recent communications from APA, is still deeply flawed. Notice that they fail to mention that among the “some psychologists[that] did not abide by their ethical obligations to never engage in torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment” were likely several members of their PENS [Psychological Ethics and National Security] task force that formed ethics policy for the association. Any claim that the APA leadership acted in good faith as they confronted this isssue is belied by that leadership’s actions in creating and long standing behind this deeply flawed unethical task force with multiple conflicts of interest at its core.

Also relevant to this discussion, and turning back to Roy Eidelson, is a video that he recently produced that does a good job at summarizing the role of psychologists in supervising the torture of detainees. I think the video does a good job in giving an overview of the evolution of this story and will allow for a clearer picture to be painted surrounding this issue. You can view the video below or on Roy Eidelson's blog:

This piece is crossposted here

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