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Detainee Interrogations: American Psychological Association Counters, but Questions Remain

Detainee Interrogations: American Psychological Association Counters, but Questions Remain

I am writing to correct several inaccurate assertions in the essay, “The American Psychological Association and Detainee Interrogations: Unanswered Questions” (Psychiatric Times, July 2008, page 16), by Kenneth S. Pope, PhD, and Thomas G. Gutheil, MD. I have enormous respect for Drs Gutheil and Pope. I have studied Dr Pope’s writings for many years, and I have had the opportunity to work with Dr Gutheil in Harvard’s Program in Psychiatry and the Law.

The authors are correct in stating that the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association differ on the issue of member involvement in interrogations. According to the American Psychiatric Association, psychiatrists should not be involved in interrogations even if the purpose is “identifying other persons . . . who may be planning to commit acts of violence.” According to the American Psychological Association, it is ethical for psychologists to consult with interrogators to prevent acts of violence. This fundamental difference sets our associations apart on this issue.

In characterizing the psychologists’ position, these authors assert—erroneously—that the American Psychological Association’s prohibition against torture is somehow not enforceable under the American Psychological Association’s Code of Ethics. The American Psychological Association’s Ethics Code absolutely prohibits torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and punishment, as the Ethics Committee itself has asserted. Moreover, the American Psychological Association has been public and emphatic that following orders is never a defense of torture. The American Psychological Association’s position is based on Article 2 of the United Nations’ Convention Against Torture and states:

"BE IT RESOLVED" that the American Psychological Association affirms that there are no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether induced by a state of war or threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, that may be invoked as a justification for torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including the invocation of laws, regulations, or orders. . . .

Following orders can never justify or excuse torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. The American Psychological Association has emphasized this point repeatedly in communications to US government officials and to the public.

The authors’ discussion of ethical standard 1.02 is misdirected. The relevant aspect of standard 1.02, on conflicts between ethics and law, was drafted in the fall 2000 and thus has no connection whatsoever to the events of September 11, 2001. Moreover, this standard was written largely in response to conflicts regarding confidentiality, arising most often when courts issue subpoenas for psychologists’ records (eg, psychological test data), usually in custody disputes. The drafters of the Ethics Code revision did not believe psychologists should be caught in a bind between a court and a licensing board or an ethics committee. They therefore concluded that psychologists should be able to follow a valid court order, were the psychologist’s attempts to resolve the conflict unsuccessful. This standard provides no defense to torture.

I would also emphasize that civil disobedience is entirely consistent with ethical standard 1.02. The American Psychological Association’s 2007 resolution—which the Washington Post deemed a “rebuke” of this administration’s interrogation policy —explicitly affirms the prerogative of psychologists to engage in civil disobedience under the American Psychological Association Ethics Code. The resolution then endorses civil disobedience specifically in the context of military interrogations.

BE IT RESOLVED that the American Psychological Association, in recognizing that torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment can result not only from the behavior of individuals but also from the conditions of confinement, expresses grave concern over settings in which detainees are deprived of adequate protection of their human rights, affirms the prerogative of psychologists to refuse to work in such settings, and will explore ways to support psychologists who refuse to work in such settings or who refuse to obey orders that constitute torture [emphasis added].

These aspects of the American Psychological Association’s position are to be read in conjunction with other ethical parameters of psychologists’ involvement in interrogations, such as the duty to intervene to stop torture or abuse, the obligation to report torture or abuse, and the absolute prohibition against mixing the roles of health care provider and consultant to an interrogation.

The authors make no mention whatsoever of psychologists who have used their professional positions to fight abuse. One stellar example is found in The Dark Side, in which author Jane Mayer reports that psychologist Michael Gelles, an American Psychological Association member, took heroic steps to fight abuse at Guantnamo. Another example comes from an unredacted government report (mentioned by the authors) that was recently obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, in which a psychologist is described as intervening to stop an abusive interrogation and calling in medical personnel to evaluate the detainee.

The American Psychological Association’s position is the result of informed and thoughtful debate that has continued for more than 3 years. Our membership has passionate feelings on this issue and the American Psychological Association has ensured that all voices and perspectives have been part of our dialogue. In the final analysis, psychologists all share the same goal: to end torture and abuse and to safeguard the welfare and human rights of everyone with whom we work.

Stephen Behnke, JD, PhD
Washington, DC


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