Psychologists Reject the Dark Side: American Psychological Association Members Reject Participation in Bush Detention Centers

The movement against U.S. torture experienced a significant victory last week. The members of the American Psychological Association [APA] rejected the policies of their leadership, policies that abetted the Bush administration’s program of torture and detainee abuse. By a vote of 59%, the members passed a referendum stating that APA members may not work in U.S. detention centers that are outside of or in violation of international law or the U.S. Constitution “unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights.” Passage of this referendum is a significant milestone in a years long effort by activist psychologists to change policies that encouraged participation in detainee interrogations because psychologists, the APA leadership claimed, helped keep those interrogations “safe, legal, and ethical.”

Since 2004, news reports and government documents have provided evidence of the central role of psychologists in designing, implementing, and disseminating the administrations’ program of abusive interrogations, whether conducted by the CIA in its secret “black sites” or by the Defense Department at Guantánamo, and in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Vanity Fair reporter Katherine Eban described the CIA side of this equation:

“I… discovered that psychologists weren’t merely complicit in America’s aggressive new interrogation regime. Psychologists, working in secrecy, had actually designed the tactics and trained interrogators in them while on contract to the C.I.A.”

On the Defense Department side, the Senate Armed Services Committee reported in June 2008 on the role of military psychologists in helping design the harsh interrogation techniques used at Guantánamo. As Senator Levin described in his opening remarks:

“a… senior CIA lawyer, Jonathan Fredman, who was chief counsel to the CIA’s CounterTerrorism Center, went to GTMO, attended a meeting of GTMO staff and discussed a memo proposing the use of aggressive interrogation techniques. That memo had been drafted by a psychologist and psychiatrist from GTMO who, a couple of weeks earlier, had attended the training given at Fort Bragg by instructors from the JPRA SERE school.

While the memo remains classified, minutes from the meeting where it was discussed are not. Those minutes (TAB 7) clearly show that the focus of the discussion was aggressive techniques for use against detainees.”

The minutes from that meeting show this psychologist and psychiatrist recommending creating an atmosphere of “controlled chaos,” which would “foster dependence and compliance,” through the creation of “psychological stress” by means of using such techniques as ” sleep deprivation, withholding food, isolation, loss of time.” This strategy was implemented and became standard operating procedure.

For example, in September 2003, young (16 or 17 year old) Mohammed Jawad became upset during interrogation, talking to pictures on the wall and crying for his mother. A military psychologist, a behavioral science consultant, was brought in for guidance. She recommended Jawad be placed in a month of “linguistic isolation” while the interrogator ratcheted up the pressure to break him down. This treatment apparently contributed to a suicide attempt by Jawad.

Evidence has accumulated of psychologists designing and contributing to detainee abuses sometimes amounting to torture. Despite the overwhelming evidence, the APA has steadfastly insisted that psychologists should not participate in torture; they argued, rather, that psychologists were vitally needed to help interrogators better obtain information while simultaneously, according to the APA, preventing detainee abuses. The APA used a multitude of techniques to defend their policy. They appointed a task force to formulate ethics policy around national security interrogations without informing the membership or the public that the majority of members were from the military-intelligence establishment. The APA passed anti-torture resolutions while rejecting attempts to withdraw psychologists from sites that violated human rights or even from the interrogations at Guantanamo and the CIA’s black sites.

The APA also ignored Open Letters from hundreds of their members. At times these efforts became ludicrous doublespeak. An APA Board member, for instance, sent around an email claiming that the very Senate Armed Services hearing that implicated military psychologists in the design of torture techniques actually exonerated the psychologists and the discipline. The association’s ethics director even claimed documents released by the ACLU showed the APA’s “policy of engagement” was working to protect detainees when the document in question apparently merely reported that one psychologist in Iraq once stopped an interrogation prior to the detainee dying or, perhaps, suffering serious physical damage. Through it all, the APA maintained its close ties to the military-intelligence establishment.

While the APA leadership resisted all challenges to its position, the members and other psychologists and their allies did not remain silent. Dissident members worked tirelessly to change the organizations’ position. Some worked within official association committees. During 2006-2007, members pushed a Moratorium resolution that would have temporarily halted participation in interrogations at the detention sites; the measure was undercut by APA organizational manipulations, and a derivative effort was decisively defeated by the associations’ Council of Representatives in August 2006. A number of prominent psychologists – including a former ethics committee Chair, a former Executive Director of one of the associations’ major divisions, and a former division President – resigned in protest. New York Times bestselling author Mary Pipher returned an award to the APA. Hundreds stopped paying membership dues, aided by a policy that allowed dues withholders to remain members for two years. Colleagues in other countries expressed their disapproval of APA policies. Physicians for Human Rights documented U.S. psychological torture and many times called for changes in APA policies permitting participation in the settings where that torture occurred.

After years of failing to effect real change through the associations’ Council of Representatives – which infrequently challenges the APA leadership on issues of vital importance to those leaders – dissident members and allies turned in 2008 to new strategies designed simultaneously to take advantage of, and to bypass, the official structures. Members of the withholdapadues group found a never before used provision in the association by-laws allowing for a member-initiated policy referendum. Three psychologists – Dan Aalbers, Brad Olson, and Ruth Fallenbaum – got to work writing a referendum rejecting the participation of psychologists at detention centers operating outside of [as in the Geneva Conventions don't apply] or in violation of [as in enhanced interrogations are approved] international law or the Constitution. APA rules require that one percent of the active members’ signatures be obtained on a petition in order to get it submitted to the members for a vote. It took only a matter of weeks to obtain more than the necessary numbers.

The campaign generated amazing grassroots activism. People never before heard from were found emailing their successes in convincing other colleagues to vote. Several brief videos were made by members and distributed on YouTube and Google Video. Two APA divisions lined up in support. Conversation about the referendum on psychologist-run listservs was greater than that on any other topic in memory.

The opposition raised concerns, especially among forensic psychologists; they were concerned that the language could somehow be misunderstood to ban psychologists working in domestic prisons where abuses are prevalent. This possibility was problematic for many referendum supporters. Many of those actively supporting the referendum are deeply concerned about the horrific conditions in much of the U.S. criminal justice system. Yet, it seemed impossible to tackle all issues at once, and the referendum was designed to focus only upon “national security” detainees, held in abusive conditions, with few or no rights. Thus, the referendum sponsors issued a statement that clarified the applicability of the referendum. Nevertheless, this statement failed to allay the concerns of some that the referendum could cost psychologists their jobs.

In an unprecedented development, illustrating the high stakes involved in the potential policy change, the Defense Department issued a press release with “talking points” opposing the referendum. The first two of these talking points unintentionally emphasized the need for the referendum:

“Humane treatment and ensuring detainees are not subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment is required in accordance with U.S. law.

Behavioral science consultants do NOT support interrogations that aren’t in accordance with applicable law.”

U.S law, as interpreted by the present administration, redefines traditionally proscribed detention and interrogation procedures as “humane” and “legal.” Therefore, referendum supporters pointed out, this requirement to follow “applicable law” does not protect military, or CIA, psychologists from participating in abuses that would be inhumane if judged by international standards.

The referendum ballots went out by mail on August 1st and were due back on September 15th. Two days later, the results were announced. The referendum won with 59% of the vote. Furthermore, the turnout, at nearly 15,000 members, was among the highest in any APA election.

The passage of the referendum constitutes a giant step toward creating a united front of health professions opposed to detainee abuse. While the APA referendum policy differs from policy statements by other associations in significant details-its focus on settings as opposed to the interrogations themselves-it follows previous policy statements from the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association opposing participation in interrogations. This united front will increase the pressure on the administration to remove health professionals from their roles aiding these abusive detention policies. It will also escalate the accumulating pressures for a radically different detention policy under the new U.S. presidential administration and Congress next January.

Referendum passage constitutes a giant step forward for those psychologists who have been fighting to change the APA’s policies on involvement in the detention centers. But the struggle of dissident psychologists is far from over. First, there is a disagreement with APA leadership as to when the policy change goes into effect; the leadership claimed initially that the bylaws state that the change doesn’t go into effect till next August, while referendum supporters believe this claim is an egregious misreading of the bylaws. Discussions continue regarding the details of referendum implementation.

Moreover, while the APA’s policy is in the process of changing, the organizational and policy conditions-the culture that allowed the APA to advocate for years in support of psychologist participation in detainee interrogations-have not changed. Activists are focused upon several additional steps to bring about a rejuvenation of their association and their professions.

There is a strong campaign afoot to elect one of the activists as APA President to make sure the new policy is firmly implemented and backed by the organization, as well as to push other efforts making human rights and social justice more central within the profession of psychology. Steven Reisner, a New York psychologist is running an active campaign. In the first nomination phase of the campaign, he received the highest number of votes among the five winning candidates. Passage of the referendum should provide an even stronger boost to his campaign. Ballots go out to the APA membership this October and are due back November 15.

APA members have been deeply disturbed by another prior action of the Association. In 2002, its ethics committee placed a clause in the ethics code, allowing laws, regulations, and government orders to override professional ethics. These members are concerned that the clause provides an offensive loophole that is a variation on the Nuremberg defense – “I was just following orders” – into the ethics code.

The APA Council of Representatives called on the ethics committee to address this problem in 2005. Despite these instructions, the association has resisted clarifying this clause by adding a phrase as simple as “except when violating fundamental human rights”. Other disturbing 2002 modifications to the APA ethics code weakened protections for research participants, such as removing a requirement for informed consent from participants “where otherwise permitted by law or federal or institutional regulations.” Such a clause could, for example, allow experimentation on detainees without their permission, a disturbing violation of professional guidelines and international agreements.

Activist psychologists and their allies also are pushing for accountability for past abuses by psychologists. While some psychologists, including APA members, have been documented to have participated in abuses likely constituting torture, the APA ethics committee has consistently stalled action against or refused to open cases against these psychologists. This needs to stop.

Another form of accountability is a ‘setting right’ of the historical record. Given the known facts regarding psychologists and their roles in detainee abuse, and given the extensive denial of these facta and their significance by APA leadership, it is critical to create a detailed public record of the contributions of psychologists to the dark side over the last seven years. It is imperative that a Psychologist Truth Commission be created that will examine all materials, existing in the public record or available through investigation, and construct such a permanent record. Also necessary is a careful examination of the many other organizational, ethical, and policy issues that allowed the psychological profession and its major professional organization to become complicit in detainee abuse over the last seven years. Clinical psychologists often encourage their clients to face harsh truths. It is similarly necessary for our profession to face these somewhat cold and difficult realities. Only this will prevent us from recreating this sad episode in our profession’s history when the next national or international crisis hits.

The implications of passage of the referendum extend beyond the APA and psychology. The referendum will put additional pressure on the DoD to remove psychologists from their roles aiding interrogations and behavior management. It will also create additional pressure for the development of a mental health system for detainees that is completely isolated from chain of command pressures. While the DoD is not necessarily bound by APA policy, it generally follows professional ethics policies; to do otherwise could make its efforts to recruit and retain psychologists and other professionals substantially more difficult. The implications for the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program are less certain, given the secrecy under which that program is conducted. Yet, even there, the APA referendum will increase pressure for a new administration and Congress to shut down the program.”

Finally, passage of the referendum is being heralded by the wider public as a sign of an impending rejection by U.S. citizens of the “dark side” which has taken over so much of our government and country in recent years. This feeling was expressed by the conservative commentator, anti-torture activist, and blogger Andrew Sullivan who headlined his posting on the referendum’s passage with “Know Hope.” Congratulatory emails from around the world have indicated that many find hope in our psychologist colleagues’ rejection of the dark side. “Finally, good news from the U.S.” one email said. These correspondents join us in hoping that this rejection of official torture and abuse will be followed by a wholesale rejection from the American public and government.

Stephen Soldz, Ph.D. Cert. Psya., is the Director, Center for Research, Evaluation, and Program Development, Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis & Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. He can be reached at: ssoldz@bgsp.edu. Brad Olson is an applied social and community psychologist at Northwestern University in the School of Education and Social Policy. He is former president of the APA Divisions for Social Justice (DSJ), a founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, a steering committee member of withholdAPAdues, and a co-sponsor of the recently passed APA referendum. Read other articles by Stephen Soldz, or visit Stephen Soldz's website.

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  1. Lloyd Rowsey said on September 24th, 2008 at 3:18pm #

    Ahhhhh. Some good news among the daily infamies! May the members of the APA live long and…proudly.

  2. cg said on September 24th, 2008 at 9:20pm #

    “The doctors sailed to America on a North Lloyd liner named the George Washington. As their ship entered New York harbor, Freud, Ferenczi, and Jung watched the approach of envy-green Lady Liberty, the ghost necklace of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the panoply of downtown scrapers circa 1909. Tired and ill after their ten-day passage, they floated through the East River mist toward the approaching land mass of America. Suddenly, Freud turned to his companions and said, “Don’t they know we’re bringing them the plague?”