Counseling torture

Psychologists' association rejects ban on participating in coercive interrogation -- but voices concern over cruel tactics

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.

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