The American Psychological Association (APA) is holding a referendum to decide whether its members can associate themselves with military interrogation.
The immediate provocation for the first such poll in the history of the APA is the conditions of the prisoners held in the Guantanamo Bay.
Declaring that torture is an abhorrent practice, the resolution points out that the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Mental Health and the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture have both determined that "treatment equivalent to torture" has been taking place at the United States Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay and that psychologists have taken part in the interrogations there.
"As psychologists, our first ethical principle is to do no harm; yet substantial documentation reveals that American psychologists have systematically designed and participated in interrogations that amount to torture. In addition, they have helped to legitimize cruel and abusive treatment in Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the CIA blacksites," he says.
Olson, representing a group called Psychologists for an Ethical APA, points out that several resolutions passed in the past barring psychologists from participating in cruel, inhuman ,and degrading treatment have not had the desired impact
"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 ....
"We do believe that psychologists working independently, and outside of the institution's chain of command, can and should be available to detainees, through NGOs such as the International Committee of the Red Cross. In abusive settings, clinicians working in the chain of command cannot know whether they are helping detainees recover only to return them to more abusive interrogations; and detainees cannot gauge whether the information being gathered by the clinician will be used against them—as has been documented on several occasions. Instead, the proposed referendum policy places psychology and psychologists squarely on the side of the most vulnerable.
We stress that the referendum does not exclude any psychologist from working in any settings where international law and human rights are fundamentally upheld. Imperfect as our U.S. domestic justice system may be, people held within the present system have basic legal protections, including the right to know the charges against them, meet with an attorney, receive family visits and, most importantly, to be free of torture. This is in sharp contrast to the individuals gathered up and illegally taken to CIA blacksites."
He also argues, "For the past 60 years, international law has held professionals responsible for upholding basic human rights. This referendum would thus protect psychologists from risk of future prosecutions."
Speaking for the opposing faction, Robert J. Resnick said, "As psychologists, we are dedicated to serving vulnerable and at risk individuals and populations. Were this petition adopted, APA members who work in hospitals, correctional facilities, and rehabilitation programs across the country would now need to assess whether they are out of compliance with APA policy. This burden will neither promote ethical practice nor protect vulnerable populations
"There's no doubt that the psychologist's presence can be abused," said Resnick, who is in private practice in Santa Monica, California, "but if there's no presence at all, then there's no accountability, and you walk away feeling noble and righteous, but you haven't done a damned thing."
The deadline for returning ballots is close of business, September 15, 2008.
The APA has long had a close relationship with the military, which is one of the country's largest employers of psychologists. In recent years, the APA has generally encouraged "engagement" — or involvement in national security interrogations — for the purpose of stopping "interrogations that cross the bounds of ethical propriety."
After the American Psychiatric Association voted in 2006 not to allow psychiatrists to be part of the military's behavioral science consultation teams, which are called "biscuit teams" and advise interrogators, the military began staffing the teams with psychologists alone.
At a hearing in the Guantanamo court a few days ago, it was revealed that a military psychologist, who had been asked to testify about the treatment of a detainee, would be invoking her right under the Fifth Amendment privilege to not self-incriminate. The fifth amendment to the American constitution guanantees to anyone, witness or not, the right to remain silent when asked about participation in a criminal activity. The psychologist's name is protected by court order.
It is the first time a military psychologist belonging to a biscuit team is publicly known to have been asked to give testimony in a Guantanamo court proceeding. The woman's response suggests that military psychologists are concerned about either their professional licenses or criminal liability.
Court papers filed on behalf of the detainee, Mohammad Jawad, say the psychologist had, in 2003, advised an interrogator to put Jawad in isolation in an effort to facilitate interrogation.
Jawad, now about 24, is accused of throwing an grenade at American forces in Afghanistan while in his late teens.
The interrogator had sought out the psychologist's advice because of a concern that Jawad's mental state was deteriorating. Jawad had been observed speaking to posters on his wall. The psychologist apparently rejected that layman's diagnosis and believed Jawad was faking and recommended isolation, a source told the New York Sun.
Nine weeks after Jawad was removed from a month of isolation, he tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide by either hanging himself or repeatedly banging his head.
"What is so disturbing about the Jawad case," the source said, is that the psychologist "is calibrating the level of harm."
The effect, if any, of a move by the APA to forbid its members from participating in interrogations is uncertain. While the APA has no control over the licensing of psychologists, which is done by the states, the ABA can censure members on ethics charges. State licensing bodies could consider the APA's findings in deciding license applications.
The issue has also spurred a New York psychoanalyst, Steven Reisner, to run for president of the APA on a platform of banning psychologists from involvement in national security interrogations "at sites where the conditions violate international law."