APA logoThe 2009 convention of the American Psychological Association (APA) opens in Toronto Today, August 7. Behind all the busy poster events, interest group parties, speeches and academic get-togethers, the fine wheels of bureaucratic resistance are grinding slowly and inexorably.

Anyone who has ever seen their dream killed by administrative indifference and authoritarian obstructionism will sympathize with the betrayal felt by the leaders of a referendum drive inside the APA to condemn psychologist participation in prison sites that are in violation of international law, say, by torturing their prisoners, or holding them in indefinite detention.

The referendum passed last summer by nearly 60% of voting members. Subsequently, APA revved up their bureaucratic resolution-killing machinery. [In an important update, added at the end of this article, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has weighed in on the APA referendum issue.]

This was not the first time APA leadership has moved against an anti-torture measure. At the 2007 convention, for instance, they pulled some tricky maneuvers at the Council of Representatives meeting and ensured a motion on banning psychologists from torture interrogations would never come to a vote. In response, APA anti-torture activists discovered a never-before-used rule allowing for a member-initiated referendum. They leaped over all the barriers put in their way, and as noted above, by late last summer had passed the anti-torture, pro-human rights measure against the protests of military psychologists and others who worried (they claimed) that psychologists would thereby lose jobs in non-military settings, such as jails and nursing homes.

But APA leaders had other methods of obstruction ready. They noted that organizational by-laws made the referendum unenforceable. Furthermore, even as a statement of policy, it couldn’t become official policy until August 2009. After much protest, they backed down and decided a different approach might be more politic. As APA put it in their recent Compilation of Comments Submitted by Relevant APA Boards and Committees Related to the Implementation of the Petition Resolution:

In February of 2009, the APA Council of Representatives voted to render the petition resolution approved earlier by the membership as fully in effect and adopted the following title for the resolution, "Psychologists and Unlawful Detention Settings with a Focus on National Security."

As directed by Council, APA Central Office forwarded the report of the APA Presidential Advisory Group on the Implementation of the Petition Resolution to relevant Boards and Committees for their "review and appropriate action."

What did these "relevant Boards and Committees" have to say? The Board of Scientific Affairs complained "it wasn’t very clear exactly what was expected from" them. The Committee for the Advancement of Professional Practice wailed that it "did not have detailed knowledge to sufficiently support the options outlined in the report," and fretted about the "financial implications for Practice."

The award for major abstentionism, though, goes to the APA’s Committee on International Relations in Psychology (CIRP), who reported:

In general, CIRP believed that neither CIRP nor the Office of International Affairs (OIA) possesses the expertise or resources to ‘provide guidance’ to psychologists. They did believe that the OIA could serve as a conduit for contact information….

CIRP did not believe that APA has the expertise or resources to provide…consultation [to psychologists working in sites potentially in violation of the policy].

In other words, no board or committee wanted to touch the referendum policy with a ten-foot pole. But the new policy had already been snuffed for the most part, for while the report approving it was "in effect," APA added a disclaimer, noting that "APA reports… do not constitute APA policy nor commit APA to the activities described therein."

"Don’t Let Democracy Die in Committee"

As the annual convention gets underway, some of the original organizers of the referendum have written an open letter to the membership of APA, asking psychologists not to let "democracy die in committee." What follows is the text of the letter:

Dear APA member,

Last year you, the membership of the APA, passed the first referendum in our history. By a margin of 59 to 41, rank and file members of the APA voted to walk away from the dark side.

All the evidence has that emerged since the September vote has confirmed the soundness of the decision we made. Newly declassified memos make it crystal clear that psychologists have designed, overseen, and participated in torture sessions. Psychologists were so deeply integrated in the U.S.’s legal defense of torture that nearly any act – including those resulting in organ failure or death – was considered legal if a psychologist assured the interrogators that the action would produce information. The role that psychologists played in the U.S.’ torture program was a central one.

Yet, despite this historic vote and despite the evidence confirming the soundness of our decision, psychologists continue to work in places like Guantanamo Bay.

In the 10 months that has passed since the passage of the referendum the leadership of the APA has done very little to implement the will of its members. While the APA has received a report detailing numerous ways the referendum could be implemented, the various boards and committees of the association have not recommended taking any concrete actions.

Democracy is dying in committee – but we can change that. We are asking you to contact President Bray and your council member and ask them implement all of the items included in the Presidential Advisory Group Report (PAG report). Please also ask President Bray to immediately inform psychologists working at Guantanamo Bay and Bagram Airbase that they are violating APA policy.

You can contact President Bray at: [email protected] and you can find the contact info for your representative on this website:
http://cor.apa.org/corlist.cfm

Together we can change things for the better,

Dan Aalbers
Brad Olson
Ruth Fallenbaum

The authors of the letter are to be commended for trying to make APA live up to its promises, but it’s my belief they are pumping a dry well. As I wrote upon resigning from APA, back in January 2008:

I view APA’s shifting position on interrogations to spring from a decades-long commitment to serve uncritically the national security apparatus of the United States. Recent publications and both public and closed professional events sponsored by APA have made it clear that this organization is dedicated to serving the national security interests of the American government and military, to the extent of ignoring basic human rights practice and law….

The sordid history of American psychology when it comes to collaboration with governmental agencies in the research and implementation of techniques of psychological torture is one that our field will have to confront sooner or later.

APA and Nuremberg Ethics

APA’s alliance with national security interests is also exemplified by the years of foot dragging over promises to change the text of their Ethics Code standard 1.02. This portion of the code addresses conflicts between professional ethics and organizational demands, stating that where such conflicts are "unresolvable… psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority." Recently, APA’s Ethics Committee resolved that no change in the language of 1.02 was necessary.

As Scott Horton at Harper’s noted last month, 1.02 "dovetails perfectly with a scheme introduced by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld to undercut the ethics standards of lawyers, doctors, and other healthcare professionals by binding them strictly to the laws and regulations as definitively interpreted by him as Secretary of Defense (DOD Policy Directive 3115.09)."

It is a full-throated repudiation of the rule fashioned at Nuremberg under which individuals involved in the torture or abuse of prisoners are not entitled to rely on a defense of superior orders. The APA was saying that Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney were free to suspend the organization’s ethics rules whenever they chose to do so.

If APA is ever to be "reformed," it will only come after a full and open investigation of its operations, such as that advocated by Physicians for Human Rights and Psychologists for Social Responsibility. Still, I wish Aalbers, Olson, and Fallenbaum the best in their struggle for accountability within APA. The membership would do well to follow their advice and contact APA President Bray today.

Important Update: In a major development on the issue of maltreatment at Guantanamo, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Nowak has written today to James Bray, President of the American Psychological Association, indicating that he has determined that Guantanamo prison is "outside, or in violation of, international law." Nowak cites ongoing arbitrary detention, forced feeding of hunger strikers, use of isolation, rough physical treatment, and past practice of torture as reasons for his decision. He concludes:

Given the now public record of psychologists’ involvement in the design, supervision, implementation, and legitimization of a regime of physical and psychological torture at US military and intelligence facilities, including Guantánamo, it is incumbent upon the APA to ensure that its standards comport with international law as well as the UN Principles of Medical Ethics Relevant to the Role of Health Personnel. These instruments require an absolute ethical prohibition of psychologists’ presence or involvement in these operations.

Thus, in keeping with both the APA’s own policy and relevant international law and ethical guidelines, I request that you do all that is necessary to:

a) invoke the referendum and immediately request that the Obama administration, the Department of Defense, and the US intelligence agencies remove psychologists from Guantánamo and any other sites where international law is being violated or where inspectors are prohibited from assessing that conditions are in compliance with international law.

b) Amend the APA ethics code (standards 1.02 and 1.03) where it permits psychologists to follow domestic law and military orders and regulations even when these conflict with international law, the United Nations Principles of Medical Ethics and the APA’s own ethics code.

Every day that you delay invoking the referendum is another day where psychologists are, by their presence and participation in these operations, acquiescing in human rights violations.