Vote Against Torture Collusion: Psychologists Vote on Referendum Against Participating in Bush Regime Detention Centers

The American Psychological Association has been racked with controversy over the role of psychologists in Bush regime detainee interrogations. Unlike other health professions, which have determined that participation in the interrogations is unethical, the APA leadership has defended psychologists’ involvement in interrogations at Guantanamo and the CIA “black sites.” Psychologist opponents of the APA position have, for the first time in APA history, organized a referendum to change APA policy. They are asking the APA membership to reject psychologists’ participation when such sites are in violation of international law or the Constitution. The ballots are currently arriving in members mailboxes.

After reviewing the disturbing background of psychologists crucial role in U.S. torture and detainee abuse, the referendum’s crucial clause states:

Be it resolved that psychologists may not work in settings where persons are held outside of, or in isolation of, either International law (e.g., the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the US Constitution (where appropriate), unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights.

Jean Maria Arrigo, the psychologist who served on the APA’s PENS [Psychological Ethics and National Security] task force in 2005 and exposed the PENS report as a rubber stamp for an already determined government policy, has succinctly explained the importance of a “Yes” vote on the referendum:

The ballot arrived today from APA, and I just voted Yes on the Referendum. To my mind, the timeliness of the Referendum as social action supersedes the problem of misinterpretation of the text.

My thinking on this matter has been most strongly influenced by military and intelligence personnel I know, including senior interrogators.

At an emotional level, I was much affected by audience responses to my February presentations to anti-torture symposia at two universities in Sao Paulo and the regional psychological association. Audiences were outraged by the APA endorsement of psychologists at military interrogation centers (people standing up and shouting) and truly horrified that I had agreed to the PENS report. (In Brazil, the word “interrogation” is virtually synonymous with “torture.”) If the APA leadership accommodates current government policy on interrogations, well, Brazilian psychologists can understand…, but if the APA membership defeats the Referendum, at this point in our history, that sends a bad message I cannot explain away. They are worried about the passivity of the APA legitimizing torture by our government, which legitimizes torture by their government and delegitimizes their own protests as psychologists.


Jean Maria Arrigo

In response to the rferendum, the APA has launched a strong effort to convince members that they should not support this “well-intended” referendum because it would restrict the ability of psychologists to work in domestic prisons and mental hospitals. Although legally informed psychologists have opined that any such risk is extremely far fetched, the referendum authors have issued a clarifying statement that would put these concerns to rest for those sincerely concerned about the domestic application of the referendum:

This referendum is focused on settings such as Guantánamo Bay and the CIA ‘black sites’ set up by the U.S. as part of its ‘global war on terror’; settings where the persons being detained are denied the protections of either constitutional or international law, settings which have been denounced by the United Nations, the Council of Europe, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

We are well aware of the harms and legal struggles facing certain prisons and jails inside the domestic U.S. criminal justice system. However, the referendum takes no position on such settings where prisoners have full access to independent counsel and constitutional protections; nor does the referendum take a position on settings that now exist within the domestic mental health system where clients and patients also possess these basic rights.

The campaign of confusion has, however, only intensified since this clarification was issued.

Psychologist and attorney Bryant Welch, who founded the organization’s Practice Directorate and then served as its Executive Director for eight years, has himself penned a piece explaining what is at stake in this referendum [included here with permission]:

Vote to End the Shame APA has Inflicted on all Psychologists

By Bryant L. Welch, J.D., Ph.D.

In the eyes of the world psychologists are being seen as aiders and abettors of torture. The damage to the profession grows day by day, and the shamefulness of it reflects on all of us, whether we like it or not.

This is the third consecutive annual convention in which APA has presented new reasons for refusing to explicitly state that psychologists are not to participate in detention centers where torture is being used. In 2006 we were told, among many things, that torture was not occurring, and that it was sufficient for APA to reiterate its 1986 resolution “opposing torture.” Last year we were told that psychologists’ presence at the detention centers was actually necessary to prevent the torture whose very existence these same APA officials denied the previous year. Bizarrely, APA outlawed nineteen specific forms of torture, as if in some way the large number of proscribed techniques would cripple torture efforts.

As a result, for the first time in APA history, APA rank and file members have secured the necessary signatures to petition the APA and force APA to submit the torture issue to a referendum by the membership.

Persisting in its support for psychologists’ participation in Bush detention centers and appearing insensitive to the moral concerns of its members, APA leaders are now advising APA members to oppose the referendum because the language of the referendum might be interpreted to preclude psychologists working in certain institutional settings. This argument is based on scenarios that are extremely far fetched and could readily be addressed even were they to occur. To the public, of course, the message would be that psychologists are not willing to stop torture now if there is even a remote risk of losing jobs in the future.

Since the Bush Administration will be out of office by the next time APA meets, this will be the last opportunity psychologists will have to remove this terrible stain from our reputation and our history

Torture is not a nuanced issue.

Vote No to torture. Vote YES on the referendum.

For more information see Why Did the American Psychological Association Do It?.

Several nationally prominent and respected organizations which have long been active in the anti-torture struggle have spoken out in support of the referendum. The Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International has issued this statement in support:

The Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC) is an organization each of whose members is a survivor of torture. Our mission is two-fold: to support torture survivors in any way we can and to oppose torture wherever it may be practiced.

We understand the petition submitted by Ethical APA Psychologists to be entirely consistent with this mission. That such a petition is necessary seems, at the very least, distressing but since it is, we express our support for it and thank psychologists for this action.

In solidarity,
Harold Nelson
Advocacy Coordinator
Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International (TASSC)

School of the Americas Watch also has expressed support for the referendum:

We at School of the Americas Watch are all too familiar with the practice of institutional secrecy in which torture and brutality thrives. We therefore recognize and support the vital role that Psychologists for Social Responsibility and Psychologists for an Ethical APA have played in the fight to end torture and other human rights abuses.

We further support Psychologists for an Ethical APA’s petition and referendum with the American Psychological Association (APA). We urge the American Psychological Association to put an end to the unhealthy relationship between psychology and the torture by removing all APA psychologists from the secret detention centers where torture and cruelty prevail. We stand in solidarity with all of those psychologists who are working to advance human rights throughout the world and who support survivors of torture.

Mike Baney
Operations and Development Coordinator
School of the Americas Watch, Washington, DC

TASSC and School of the Americas Watch understand all too clearly what is at stake here. Let’s hope that, despite the campaign of confusion and fear, the members of the APA grasp this opportunity to heed the words of Drs. Welch and Arrigo and vote for this referendum. This would send a strong message to those in the forefront of the anti-torture struggle — like TASSC and School of the Americas Watch — that psychologists will no longer give their tacit or active consent to torture and other detainee abuse. Neither the profession nor the country can afford to miss this opportunity to issue a rebuke to the Bush administration and to those in our profession who have abetted it. As Dr. Welch states: “Vote No to torture. Vote YES on the referendum.”

Stephen Soldz is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He maintains the Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice web page and the Psyche, Science, and Society blog. He is a founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, one of the organizations leading the struggle to change American Psychological Association policy on participation in abusive interrogations. He is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility and a consultant to Physicians for Human Rights. Read other articles by Stephen.

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  1. Lloyd Rowsey said on August 11th, 2008 at 6:31am #

    I have never been a fan of the American Psychological Association, but clearly it has a last opportunity to clear its name regarding torture while the Head Torturer remains in office.

    Thank you for this trenchant and timely piece, Stephen Soldz.

  2. Sigrid Laitin said on November 11th, 2008 at 7:21am #

    The APA needs to be outright about this. The Nuremburg Trials were an example for all of us. It is shameful that we have to actually discuss this in 2008.

    We need to also stop psychological abuse utilizing violence and abuse. I have been the recipient of a coercive persuasion program that was endorsed by the local academics. What occurred was so disgusting I had a very hard time speaking about it. I even pleaded for a protective order and received nothing. As I am sure you know, prolonged psychological abuse can be just as lethal and leaves many scars.

    Please be sure that these forms of abuse are stopped.