Counseling torture

Pub date August 22, 2007
WriterRachel Stern


Ruth Fallenbaum, a private psychologist based in Berkeley, decided to withhold her annual dues to the American Psychological Association this year. She told us her "gut reaction" was to withhold support from the 148,000-member organization because it allows — and even advocates — the participation of its members in coercive prisoner interrogations at CIA-run sites like Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

While the American Medical Association, the World Medical Association, and the American Psychiatric Association have banned doctors and psychiatrists from participating in these interrogations, many American Psychological Association members argue that psychologists can help ensure subjects are treated in an ethical and humane manner. Others — like Fallenbaum and members of the group she helped form, Psychologists for an Ethical APA — feel that an "ethical interrogation" is an oxymoron.

At the APA’s 115th annual conference, held at San Francisco’s Moscone Center on Aug. 17 to 20, Fallenbaum and many other psychologists and activists spoke — and rallied at the Yerba Buena Gardens — in favor of a rule that would have banned psychologists from engaging in military interrogations at US military prisons "in which detainees are deprived of adequate protection of their human rights."

The moratorium they advocated — which only recently made it onto the APA’s agenda — was overwhelmingly voted down Aug. 19 at the APA Council meeting after an hour of public comment that was mostly in support of the moratorium. A competing motion that reaffirmed the organization’s position against torture "and other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment" was unequivocally passed, leaving a schism between the organization and the rejected resolution’s supporters.

For the latter, concerns remain about what role — if any — psychologists should play in detention centers, which are notorious for human rights violations that are tantamount to torture. Can these health professionals, abiding by the medical field’s basic tenet of "do no harm," retain their integrity in such lawless centers?

According to the APA, the new resolution frames a context for interrogations that is free of fear tactics and actually prevents abuse. Psychologists conducting interrogations can assist in "rapport building with the detainees rather than abuse," Rhea Farberman, the organization’s spokesperson, told the Guardian.

In its approved resolution, the APA for the first time lays out 14 forms of inhumane treatment that it opposes. The list includes mock executions, water boarding, sexual humiliation, isolation, exploitation of phobias, and induced hypothermia — all of which have reportedly been employed by American interrogators. In May the Department of Defense released a previously declassified report detailing the Army’s use of psychological techniques on Guantánamo Bay detainees in 2002.

The approved APA resolution also calls on the US government to reject acts of torture and limits the psychologist’s role to providing therapeutic benefits, ideally keeping the centers in compliance with international human rights law.

As US Army Col. Larry James, who serves as a psychologist at Guantánamo Bay, told the crowd before the vote, "If we remove psychologists from these facilities, people are going to die."

But that point simply reinforced the concerns many have about sanctioning torture. "If psychologists have to be there so detainees don’t get killed, those conditions are so horrendous that the only moral and ethical thing is to leave," Laurie Wagner, a psychologist from Texas, said at the meeting, eliciting cheers from many audience members.

Another debate raged over the APA’s Ethics Code 1.02, which says that psychologists — when in conflict with their own ethics and the law — can choose to abide by the governing authority. Fallenbaum and other psychologists we interviewed felt that the code has an eerie resemblance to pre–<\d>Geneva Convention sentiments of crimes committed on the basis of "just following orders." But the APA states that the code, which was last modified in 2000, was originally intended to settle domestic debates, namely whether or not a psychologist should have sex with a client.

The approved torture resolution includes loopholes, according to Dr. Neil Altman, a former member of the APA Council who proposed and drafted the defeated moratorium. For example, it could still allow sleep deprivation prior to interrogations as a way to soften prisoners up. And its reference to "significant harm" is one Altman finds ambiguous. "It still leaves wiggle room," he told us.

Stephen Behnke, the APA’s ethics director, remains adamant that psychologists play a key role in a safe and sound interrogation process, something that might not occur if they are not present. "Some people say that a psychologist’s role should be picking up the pieces [of trauma]. Some say it should be preventing it," Behnke told us. The resolution "was a very clear affirmation that we support both roles."

Bruce Crow, head of the Behavioral Medical Department at the Brooke Army Medical Institute in Texas, assigns psychologists to detainee centers, although he was undecided about their participation. "I don’t have an answer about whether they should or shouldn’t be there," he told us. Nonetheless, the newly passed resolution "will provide better guidelines for psychologists assigned to detention centers."

On July 20, President George W. Bush issued an executive order to relaunch a coercive interrogation program at CIA "black sites." Mike McConnell, director of national intelligence, said psychologically manipulative techniques — subject to medical oversight — will be part of the program.

Taking this recent history into account, the conference hosted eight workshops — before and after the votes on the APA resolution and Altman’s counteramendment — with a theme of "Ethics and Interrogations: Confronting the Challenge."

A few hours after the torture measure was defeated, many of the workshop participants gathered for two hours of heated discussion at an ethics town hall. When media outlets videotaping the event were asked to leave by APA officials after a 10-minute time limit, an outcry for "more transparent practices" resonated throughout the room, and the journalists were allowed to stay for the remainder of the session.

Another moratorium could take more than two to three years to get on the APA’s agenda, according to Altman. But Dr. Steven Reiser, a senior faculty member in the International Trauma Studies Program at Columbia University and the founder of Psychologists for an Ethical APA, remains hopeful.

"We have to stand up for human rights," Reiser told us after the town hall meeting. "If we can’t stand up to risks, then we’re colluding with the forces that [deny] human rights."<\!s>*