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Monday, September 22, 2008

Insurgent Psychologists Win Key Anti-Torture Vote

Posted by Valtin at 12:50 AM |

The Election Committee of the American Psychological Association announced today that the referendum of APA members, in regards to prohibiting psychologist participation in settings where human rights violations take place, has passed with almost 60% of the vote. The total vote, which took place by mail ballot and closed officially on September 15, exceeded the total number of votes cast in the 2005 and 2007 APA presidential elections, and recent by-law votes. The vote turnout clearly indicates a great deal of interest in the interrogations issue by the membership.

The vote for the referendum represents an important victory for anti-torture, civil liberties forces, both inside and outside the APA. Dan Aalbers, one of the authors of the referendum text, and who along with psychologists Ruth Fallenbaum, Brad Olson, and Ghislaine Boulanger, was one of the members of Psychologists for an Ethical APA who worked hard to secure the measure's passage, in a phone interview called the vote "a decisive victory.... Now we have to work to ensure that APA bows to the will of its members."

The election also included a ballot for APA president. Steven Reisner was running a candidacy that uniquely targeted the APA position on allowing psychologists to act in support of military and national security interrogations. There is currently no word on the results of the presidential race.

Meanwhile, the APA Office of Public Affairs has released a statement, "APA Members Approve Petition Resolution on Detainee Settings." (A link is not yet available.) In their press release, APA's leadership, who had largely opposed the resolution, noted the results and then reminded everyone they would move forward on this member-initiated policy change with all deliberate slowness:
Per the Association's Rules and Bylaws, the resolution will become official APA policy as of the Association's next annual meeting, which will take place in August 2009. At that time, the APA Council of Representatives will also determine what further action may be necessary to implement the policy.
The Art of Spinning

Per their press release on the matter, the APA recognizes the new resolution represents "a significant change in APA's policy regarding the involvement of psychologists in interrogations." At the same time, an attempt is made to link this new policy to APA's previous flawed anti-torture resolutions. Again, per APA's press release (emphasis added):
This new petition resolution expands on the 2007 APA resolution, which called on the U.S. government to ban at least 19 specific abusive interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, that are regarded as torture by international standards. The 2007 resolution also recognized that "torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment can result not only from the behavior of individuals, but also from the conditions of confinement," and expressed "grave concern over settings in which detainees are deprived of adequate protection of their human rights."
"Grave concern"? Not enough to pull psychologists out of such settings where the U.S. government still practices psychological torture techniques, including isolation, manipulation of environment, threats, sensory manipulation, sleep deprivation, and rendition to countries that torture.

The APA leadership should consider this: their membership has decisively voted to end the policy of bogus "concern" and implement a policy of withdrawal and prohibition. Not to act on such a clear statement by the membership -- especially on a matter concerning basic human rights and the suffering of individuals -- places the leadership in a moral and possibly legal morass from which the membership may yet choose to extract them, and sooner rather than later.

At the very least, we should now see statements from Stephen Behnke, Ethics Director at APA, promoting the new policy of APA. According to a Q&A to members about the petition resolution made last July, here's what's supposed to happen when/if the resolution passed:
Q: If adopted, would this resolution become APA policy?

Yes, if adopted the resolution would become official APA policy.

Q: If adopted would the petition amend the APA Ethics Code?

The petition as written has been interpreted as an attempt to set forth new APA policy but not amend the Ethics Code....

Q: If adopted would the petition be enforceable by APA?

As explained above, the petition would not become part of the APA Ethics Code nor be enforceable as are prohibitions set forth in the Ethics Code. Such amendments to the Ethics Code require a more deliberative process and by rule must include review by the full APA governance and a public comment period. However, the resolution would become APA policy. APA communicates its policy statements broadly to media, legislators and the public. Policy statements can be considered by the Ethics Committee in adjudicating cases. They may also be considered by third parties in their engagement of, interaction with or employment of psychologists.
Upon initial examination, it seems the APA is spinning the the referendum as somehow a logical extension of previous APA policy (when in fact it opposed it), while attempting to shelve the new policy as long as it can. They say the resolution cannot be submitted to APA Council for consideration until the next "annual meeting," i.e., next August. But the Council of Representatives always has a meeting in February (see this APA Governance webpage).

Of course, APA leadership will try to convince the unwitting that it is too late to get this matter on the February meeting agenda. But then, the APA bureaucracy is expert in delay tactics and obfuscation and double-talk. As it is, their current position now gives APA and military/CIA lawyers another 11 months to try and figure out how to minimize or distort this new APA policy the best they can. APA members should not allow this to happen.

What Happens Now?

To understand what the vote means, let us revisit the language of its text. Here is the key section:
Be it resolved that psychologists may not work in settings where persons are held outside of, or in violation 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.
A footnote to this section adds, "It is understood that military clinical psychologists would still be available to provide treatment for military personnel."

One thing the resolution does not mean is an immediate pullout of psychologists from sites where human rights violations take place. Psychologists like U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Diane M. Zierhoffer, a former but now resigned APA member, still staff the Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCT) at Guantanamo and elsewhere. Lt. Col. Zierhoffer exercised her Fifth Amendment rights not to answer questions about her participation in the interrogation of controversial "child soldier" Guantanamo prisoner Mohammad Jawad. Her refusal to answer questions about her actions -- Zierhoffer is accused of signing off on keeping Jawad in solitary confinement, despite his mental deterioration -- was widely noted and condemned,
The psychologist’s testimony would have marked the first time that a member of the secretive Behavioral Science Consultation Team (known as BSCT or “biscuits”) had been called to testify in a detainee hearing. The BSCT program has been highly controversial among psychologists and other health professionals....

“The fact that the BSCT Psychologist now apparently recognizes that her conduct was criminal in nature is very significant,” said Maj. Frakt. “We have alleged, based on classified government records that the BSCT psychologist's recommendation led directly to the illegal abuse and inhumane treatment of Mohammad Jawad. This invocation of the right to remain silent seems to confirm that.”
If the resolution won't get Zierhoffer and her cohorts out of the BSCTs, or kicked out of CIA secret prison sites, or pulled from operational interrogation roles with U.S. Special Operation teams, what will it do?

The resolution is aimed at changing the official policy of the American Psychological Association when it comes to supporting the presence of psychologists at U.S. detention sites in the "war on terror." APA leadership has long maintained that the presence of psychologists at sites like Guantanamo help make prisoners safer, less prone to abuse. In their official statement in support of the petition, the referendum authors defended the need for change in APA policy.
Psychologists, as “consultants”, have been active in interrogations that have brought about extreme forms of torture. In at least one of these cases, the psychologist advocated for an escalation to even more extreme 'enhanced interrogation techniques.'

Psychologists have also played a critical role in this administration's legal defense of torture. Justice Department lawyers have argued that torture can only take place if the perpetrator intends to cause 'prolonged mental harm' which, in turn, is measured by a subsequent diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder. Psychologists instead routinely provide diagnoses other than posttraumatic stress disorder, thus giving the illusion of safety and legal cover in otherwise objective instances of “torture”. Moreover, psychologists play a role in maintaining the conditions of detention, for instance, by removing “comfort items” such as toilet paper, toothpaste, and soap.

In settings that fail to meet basic standards of international law, it is unrealistic to rely on psychologists to challenge their superiors, report on violations, and protect abused detainees. We know, from decades of psychological research, that good people do bad things in bad situations. Psychologists are no less vulnerable to “behavioral drift” than others, particularly when subject to the chain of command in the closed environment of a geographically isolated detention center.
It is now incumbent upon APA as an organization to implement the policy voted upon by a notable majority of their membership via free election. The APA must notify all relevant parties -- the Pentagon, the President, the CIA -- that it is now the position of the APA that psychologists not be utilized at settings where detainees are not allowed rights such as habeas corpus, and where abusive conditions of detention and coercive interrogation are well documented.

More, the APA should communicate the new policy statement broadly to media, legislators and the public. This APA has previously promised to do. They must not be allowed to bury the will of the APA membership. Members who have been withholding their dues in protest of APA policy should wait to see if APA has any real intention of implementing this new policy.

I suspect that APA will continue to procrastinate, as they have done with the so-called ethics casebook called for multiple times over the years (last at the 2007 APA convention). (The deadline for submissions of suggestions for such an ethics casebook was recently extended until the end of 2008.)

The reason for all the delays? The APA is deeply enmeshed in the governmental apparatus of military and intelligence organizations, while also serving varied private consultation and "scientific" organizations, and academia, all under the auspices of serving the national security state. Hence, APA belongs to a wide-ranging set of special interests, which forms an extremely formidable opposition to those who would fundamentally change the policies and personnel responsible for the institution of a world-wide network of secret prisons and institutionalized torture.

My congratulations on the referendum vote extends beyond those activists who wrote and campaigned for it to APA members, who showed themselves, in their majority, ready and willing to oppose the unethical and pro-military stance of their organizational leadership, and call for an end to the cooperation of the medical and psychological professions with Bush's illegal and inhumane interrogation program.

Also posted at Invictus

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