End Psychologists' Role in State Torture

Go here for information on how to protest psychologists' role in state-sanctioned torture.

When most people think of psychologists, they think of a professional helping them with life's emotional difficulties, or of a researcher studying human or animal behavior. Since the Bush administration and the war on terrorism have transformed our country, however, a new, more ominous image of psychologists has slowly seeped into public consciousness.

Psychologists have been identified as key figures in the design and conduct of abuses against detainees in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay, the CIA's secret "black sites," and in Iraq and Afghanistan. Psychologists should not be taking part in such practices.

Yet a steady stream of revelations from government documents, journalistic reports, and congressional hearings has revealed that psychologists designed the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" techniques, which included locking prisoners in tiny cages in the fetal position, throwing them against the wall head first, prolonged nakedness, sexual humiliation, and waterboarding.

Jane Mayer, in her new book, The Dark Side, reports that the central idea was the psychological concept of "learned helplessness." Individuals are denied all control over their world, lose their will, and become totally dependent upon their captors.

At Guantanamo, the Red Cross described a system of psychological abuse as "tantamount to torture." Psychologists, and some psychiatrists, helped interrogators "break down" detainees by exploiting information in their medical records. Thus, someone with an intense fear of dogs would be threatened with snarling dogs, while a person with a fear of being buried alive might be threatened with being sealed in a coffin.

When reports of these abuses surfaced, we psychologists looked to our largest professional organization, the American Psychological Association, to take the lead in condemning them and taking measures to ensure that they would not recur. After all, these actions by psychologists violate the central principle of the APA's ethics code: "Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm."

The APA, however, failed to take clear action. While the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association quickly and unequivocally condemned any involvement by its membership in such activities, APA leaders quibbled over whether psychologists had been present at the interrogations and questioned the motives of internal critics.

When the leadership appointed a task force on the ethics of psychologist involvement in interrogations, the report was strangely unsigned, and the members' names were kept secret from APA members and the media. Finally, it was revealed that a majority of members were from the military-intelligence establishment, with four having served in chains of commands implicated in detainee abuses. Three of the four nonmilitary members have since denounced the task force process and two have called for the report to be rescinded.

The APA has since passed several antitorture resolutions - all of them full of loopholes - but has failed to take ethics enforcement action against a single psychologist for participating in abuses, despite publication two years ago of a detailed interrogation log showing the participation of a military psychologist in the abuse amounting to torture of a Guantanamo detainee.

Not surprisingly, unrest among APA members is growing. Many members, including the founder of the APA's Practice Directorate and the former head of its Ethics Committee, have resigned in protest.

This month, ballots went out for a first-ever referendum to call a halt to psychologist participation in sites where international law is violated. And dissident New York psychologist Steven Reisner, a founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, is running for the APA presidency. His principal campaign platform is for psychologists to be banned from participating in interrogations at U.S. military detention centers, like Guantanamo Bay, that violate human rights and function outside of the Geneva Conventions. In the nomination phase Reisner received the most votes of the five candidates.

At our annual convention in Boston this month, other APA members and I will rally against association policies encouraging participation in detainee interrogations. We will be joined by community activists, human rights groups, and civil libertarians to demand that APA return to its fundamental principle of "Do no harm." Psychologists owe it to their profession and to the cause of human rights to oppose abuses, not participate in them.

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