Published on
the San Francisco Chronicle

Psychologists Oppose Torture Yet Vote to Attend Terror Interrogations

Jonathan Curiel

After a raucous debate about what role - if any - psychologists should play in U.S. government interrogations of terror suspects, the American Psychological Association voted overwhelmingly on Sunday to reject a measure that would have in effect banned its members from those interrogations.

0820 01Instead, the association passed a competing measure that reaffirms the organization's position against torture "and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment" of terror suspects.

For the first time on record, the resolution lists specific treatment that the association opposes, including mock executions, water-boarding, sexual humiliation, induced hypothermia, hooding, using dogs to threaten and intimidate suspects, and sleep deprivation.

In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, these techniques have been used by U.S. authorities against terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other U.S. prisons to extract information, according to military officials and human rights activists.

Sunday's vote by the association's 165-member legislative council took place at the APA's convention in San Francisco. With 148,000 members, the American Psychological Association is the largest body of psychologists in the world.

Psychologists have overseen past U.S. interrogation of terror suspects, and are currently in Guantanamo Bay working with military authorities, said APA member Bill Strickland, a former U.S. Air Force research director and one of many speakers on Sunday who urged voting against the measure that would have banned participation in those interrogations.

The presence of psychologists at Guantanamo Bay and other military-detention centers helps guarantee the well-being of the terror suspects because it adds a layer of official oversight, said Strickland and Army Col. Larry James, who was the chief military psychologist at the Cuba prison in 2003.

"If we removed psychologists from these facilities, people are going to die," James told the convention.

Supporters of the failed measure, which called for members not to cooperate with interrogations connected to prescribed practices, argued that psychologists' presence at these interrogations rubber-stamps various practices that are tantamount to torture.

"We're talking about places where people being interrogated don't have human rights!" said Neil Altman, a supporter of the moratorium.

In the large hall at the Marriott Hotel where the vote was taken, the speakers who advocated a ban were greeted with loud applause, as were those who argued in favor of the counter measure that reaffirmed the APA's stance against torture. But when two separate hand-votes were taken, an overwhelming number of council members rejected the ban and then supported the "reaffirmation" motion.

Steven Reisner, a New York City psychologist, said he would continue his effort to push for an outright ban.

He said the APA's listing of torture measures it opposes was an important first step, but that "this fight is going to continue as long as it has to."

"The APA named the abuses that are most widely used at CIA 'black sites' to torture detainees, and said they are unacceptable," said Reisner. "That is the positive thing I see here, and that will help the U.S. government to understand that this is unacceptable."

Before Sunday, other major health organizations, including the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association, had previously proclaimed their opposition to various abusive interrogation techniques.

The American Psychological Association had also gone on record stating its vehemence to torture during interrogations, but until Sunday, it hadn't defined what it considered these techniques to be.

Sunday's passed resolution includes "an absolute prohibition against psychologists' knowingly planning, designing, and assisting in the use of torture and any form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."

© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.

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