Open Letter in Response to the American Psychological Association Board

For Immediate Release

Open Letter in Response to the American Psychological Association Board

WASHINGTON - On June 18, 2009, the American Psychological Association
[APA] Board issued an Open Letter on the subject of psychologists' involvement
in abusive national security interrogations. The letter is among the first
formal acknowledgements from APA leadership that psychologists were involved in
torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. We welcome this
progress.

Similarly, the letter acknowledges APA’s member-initiated
referendum prohibiting psychologist participation in detention centers that are
in violation of international law and overturning APA Council’s repeated
refusals to do so. This is an improvement over very recent messages from APA
officials that characterized press descriptions of APA policy as supporting
psychologist participation in such interrogations as "fair and balanced." 

Nevertheless, the letter is profoundly
disappointing.  It continues the
long tradition of APA leaders minimizing the extent of psychologists’
involvement in state-sanctioned abuse as well as APA’s own defense of such
involvement.  The authors speak as
though the information about psychologist’s involvement in torture is fresh news
even though it has been available for a long time. Even now, the Board relies on
the Bush Administration tactic, employed in the Abu Ghraib debacle, of blaming
the abuse on a "few bad apples." This minimization of the greatest ethical
crisis in our profession’s history by those who claim to lead the profession is
unacceptable. Similarly the APA Board continues to take no responsibility for
its own grievous mismanagement of this issue.  Instead, the tone of the letter suggests
we should all come together and “reflect and learn,” because this has been
difficult for all of us, collectively. The Board also presumes the authority to
continue to speak for psychologists in the future with neither redress nor
evidence of remediation for what they have done:

This has been a painful time for the association and one
that offers an opportunity to reflect and learn from our experiences over the
last five years. APA will continue to speak forcefully in further communicating
our policies against torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or
punishment to our members, the Obama administration, Congress, and the general
public. [Board letter, June 18, 2009.]

Any meaningful approach to this issue must start by
acknowledging the fact that psychologists were absolutely integral to our
government's systematic program of torture. When the Bush administration decided
to engage in torture, they turned to psychologists from the military's SERE
[Survival, Evasion, resistance, and Escape] program for help in designing and
implementing the torture tactics. This fact was first reported in 2005, within
days of the release of the APA's PENS [Psychological Ethics and National
Security] report and was officially acknowledged by the Defense Department in
its Inspector General's Report, declassified in May 2007. Other psychologists
monitored torture to calibrate how much abuse a detainee could tolerate without
dying.  Nonetheless, APA leaders
continued, and still continue, to pretend that psychologists' participation in
abuse was the behavior of rogue members of the
profession.

Similarly, the APA Board still refuses to acknowledge the
evidence of apparent collusion between APA officials and the national security
apparatus in providing ethical cover for psychologists’ participation in
detainee abuse. This collusion was most notable in the creation of the
military-dominated  PENS task force.
Only a policy that comes to terms with this APA collusion can begin to reduce
the furor among APA members, psychologists, and the general
public.

APA leadership has much work ahead to begin to repair the
harm they have caused to the profession, the country, former and current
detainees and their families.  At a
minimum the APA leadership should do the following:

 

1. Fully implement the 2008 referendum as an enforceable
section of the APA Code of Ethics. This entails a public announcement that APA
policy and ethical standards oppose the service of psychologists in detention
facilities at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, Bagram Air Base, CIA secret
prisons, or in the rendition program.

2. Annul the June 2005 PENS Report due to the severe and
multiple conflicts of interest involved in its
production.

3. Bring in an independent body of investigative
attorneys to pursue accountability for psychologists who participated in or
otherwise contributed to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. APA
should also: (a) clarify the status of open ethics cases and (b) remove the
statute of limitations for violations involving torture or cruel, inhuman, or
degrading treatment, so as to allow time for information on classified
activities to become public.

4. Develop a clear and rapid timetable to remove Sections
1.02 and 1.03 [the "Nuremberg defense" of following orders] from
the APA Code of Ethics. [We note that the
APA Ethics Committee has stated that they will not accept a defense of following
orders to complaints regarding torture; this statement is a welcome improvement
but it is clearly inadequate as it is not necessarily binding on future
committees nor does it cover abuses falling under the category of cruel,
inhuman, or degrading treatment.] 
Revoke the equally
problematic Section 8.05 of the Code, which dispenses with informed consent
"where otherwise permitted by law or federal or institutional regulations," and
Section 8.07, which sets an unacceptably high threshold of "severe emotional
distress" for not using deception in the ethics of research
design.

5. Retain an independent investigatory organization to
study organizational behavior at APA. Due to potential conflicts of interest,
independent human rights organizations should be enlisted to select this
investigatory entity. The study should address, among other things, possible
collusion in the PENS process and the 2003 APA-CIA-Rand conference on the
Science of Deception, attended by the CIA's apparent designers of their torture
program [James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen] during which "enhanced interrogation"
techniques were discussed.  The
study should explore how the APA governance system permits the accumulation of
power in the hands of a very small number of individuals who are unresponsive to
the general membership.  It should
also propose measures to return the APA to democratic principles, scientific
integrity, and beneficence, including restructuring for greater transparency and
the assimilation of diverse
viewpoints.

These five steps will not
remove the terrible stain on the reputation of American psychology. However, by
taking these steps the APA leadership would make both symbolic and substantive
progress toward accountability for psychologists' contributions to detainee
abuse and the APA's failure to adequately respond to the public record. These
actions would constitute an important step toward rehabilitating the Association
and restoring the good name of
the profession
itself.

Signed by:

 

Coalition for an Ethical
Psychology

Physicians for Human
Rights

Psychologists for Social Responsibility

Center for Constitutional
Rights

Bill of Rights Defense
Committee

Network of Spiritual
Progressives

National Lawyers
Guild

Amnesty International USA

Program for Torture Victims, Los
Angeles

American Friends Service Committee, Pacific Southwest
Region

Physicians for Social Responsibility, Los
Angeles

Massachusetts Campaign Against Torture
(MACAT)

New
York Campaign Against Torture
(NYCAT)

 

###

Share This Article

More in: