APA Fails to Ban Psychologists’ Participation In Detainee Interrogations

Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D. is a licensed Psychologist in the state of Ohio (License #6083). She received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from ...Read More

As I mentioned in an earlier blog (http://www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_index.php?idx=119&d=1&w=6&e=258), psychologists at the recent American Psychological Association convention discussed and voted on whether there should be a moratorium on engaging in the military interrogations of political prisoners.

To refresh your memory, there are basically two main sets of opinions surrounding the issue. Some people believe that psychologists are an integral part of interrogations (because they can ensure that prisoners/detainees are not treated cruelly or inhumanely). Others (myself included) believe that psychologists should not participate in any activity that may potentially violate international human rights standards and their professional code of ethics.

The moratorium, aligning psychologists with the positions taken by the equivalent associations of American medical doctors and psychiatrists, would have banned participation altogether in interrogations at detention centers like Guantánamo Bay. However, it was voted down.

Not all was lost. Members of The Council of Representatives passed the "2007 Reaffirmation of the American Psychological Association Position Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and Its Application to Individuals Defined in the United States Code as ‘Enemy Combatants’." The Reaffirmation (according to APA’s website) prohibits psychologists from "direct or indirect participation in unethical interrogation techniques including: mock execution; water-boarding or any other form of simulated drowning or suffocation; sexual humiliation; rape; cultural or religious humiliation; exploitation of phobias or psychopathology; induced hypothermia; and the use of psychotropic drugs or mind-altering substances for the purpose of eliciting information."

The Resolution goes on to state that "the following acts were banned for the purpose of eliciting information in interrogation: 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 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; or the threatened use of any of the above techniques to the individual or to members of the individual’s family." This resolution also called on the U.S. government to ban the use of these types of techniques.

My first response to this Resolution (that may coincide with yours) was "Yea….. progress." After further thinking (and reading some very well-written reactions to the Resolution by psychologists and journalists alike), my reaction was something more like "It’s a step in the right direction, but doesn’t do nearly enough." Let me explain why. First, if you look very carefully at the language of the Resolution, you will see that it doesn’t really represent a new stance by the APA. Rather, it is a more concrete set of guidelines that further clarify the 2006 Resolution Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment by extending the context to interrogations of enemy combatants.

In and of itself, clarification is not a bad thing. However, there are still several SERIOUS problems with the 2007 Resolution. First, as psychologist Dr. Linda Woolf (Professor of Psychology and International Human Rights at Webster University) suggests, prisoners can still be held in or subjected to conditions and interrogations defined as cruel, inhuman, or degrading. Psychologists would not technically be violating the Resolution if they continued to work in such settings, as long as they avoided participating in inappropriate interrogations. Woolf argues that this can provide tacit support for these types of techniques. I envision repeated scenarios where the psychologist who is treating a detainee for depression or some other mental illness, who has developed a helping relationship with the person, is sent out of the room (or not notified) when interrogations begin. The psychologist is then sent back in to "pick up the pieces" after the interrogation is over. Or worse, the psychologist (who will have likely have knowledge of a detainee’s personality, strengths and weaknesses, or "trigger points") can provide "helpful" information to an interrogation team. In both situations, the psychologist is technically following the Resolution because he or she is not directly or indirectly inappropriately interrogating the detainee. But, is that really an appropriate use of a mental health professional’s knowledge and expertise?

Second, this Resolution still does not fix the problem that I discussed in my first blog on this topic, which involves a "loophole" in the current APA Ethics Code, allowing psychologists to ignore their ethical code if a governing authority (in this case, the U.S. Military) asks them to do so. In other words, according to Dr. Woolf, although reporting is mandated when psychologists witness the use of inappropriate interrogation techniques, sharing this information with superior officers is meaningless if the techniques have been approved and are considered legal.

Third, another journalist pointed out a further loophole that exists in the Resolution itself. Current wording still allows the presence of psychologists in interrogations where more subtle interview tactics are used, so long as the damage is not significant and/or does not cause lasting harm. So, for instance, a psychologist could argue that they were witnessing the use of a technique that was effective, yet not damaging, and therefore were not violating the Resolution.

Fourth, the Resolution has not really taken a firm stand on the problems that currently exist in detention centers. The White House requires that all interrogations are overseen by medical officials (as a way of ensuring the safety of detainees). Physicians and psychiatrists are out of the picture (due to their Resolutions described above, which have passed), so psychologists are the only health care personnel "at the table" that can monitor and report abusive situations. U.S. Army Col. Larry James, director of the psychology department of a military medical center, said (at the APA meeting), "If we lose psychologists from these facilities, people are going to die." Oh my. If the situation is that bad at these facilities, simply hiring some psychologists who are banned from participating in certain types of interrogations to work there is NOT going to solve the problem.

My final reaction, as I continue to think through the ramifications of the APA vote and subsequent Resolution is one of sadness, despair, and disgust. I do think that some detainees will still experience torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. I also think some psychologists will indirectly participate in perpetuating this breach of professional and personal ethics. Finally, I worry that psychology as a profession will have a difficult time recovering from being linked to this type of behavior.


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