Feature

The question of what role -- if any -- psychologists should play in the process of interrogating terrorism detainees continued to be a contentious topic at APA's Annual Convention again this year.

Last year, APA's Council of Representatives passed a resolution that specifically forbids psychologists from participating in at least 19 interrogation techniques, including waterboarding, hooding, forced nudity and stress positions.

In addition to setting forth this non-exhaustive list of forbidden techniques, the resolution stated that there is never a justification -- including war, threat of war or public emergency -- for torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The resolution stated that the conditions of confinement may constitute torture, and placed ethical obligations upon psychologists to abide by ethical standard 1.05 in the APA Ethics Code, Reporting Ethical Violations, and to cooperate with congressional oversight activities to examine the perpetration of torture and abuse against individuals in U.S. custody. The resolution also called upon courts to reject testimony derived from torture or abuse.

In addition, APA has called upon the Department of Defense and Congress to continue investigating the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and other sites to ensure that all professional ethical standards are being upheld. APA also supports the Supreme Court decision holding that Guantanamo detainees have a constitutional right to judicial review of their detentions.

But some APA members say these measures don't go far enough. At an APA convention session on the topic, for example, Northwestern University's Brad Olson, PhD, said APA's position violates psychology's mission to help, rather than harm.

"Many of us feel that every one of these policies serve to secure the role of behavioral scientists, who are largely psychologists, to use our tools, developed for mental health, developed for social welfare, against the most vulnerable," he said.

Art Kendall, PhD, president of the Capital Area Social Psychological Association, also voiced his concerns about APA's position. He said research shows that coercive interrogations aren't useful for gathering accurate information because people under duress will confess to anything. He also said that coercive techniques put captured U.S. personnel at risk for the same treatment, and mistreating prisoners scores a propaganda victory for terrorists.

"When ... it's all over the news that we're violating the basic tenets we espouse, it shows us as being bullies and hypocrites," he said.

But other psychologists -- who fully agree that coercion is both unethical and counterproductive -- argue that psychologists must continue their involvement in interrogations because they can help prevent interrogators from straying into brutality. Former Navy Capt. Morgan T. Sammons, PhD, for example, has argued that in his experience, psychologists have consistently acted to help improve detainees' treatment, both by opposing mistreatment and promoting safeguards.

Other psychologists maintain that psychologists' involvement helps ensure ethical and effective interrogations that are critical to national security.

The public also weighed in on the issue at this year's convention: On Aug. 16 about 100 protesters gathered outside the Boston Exhibition and Convention Center to call for an end to psychologists' involvement in questioning detainees and their presence at military-run detention centers worldwide.

Meanwhile, APA was waiting for the membership to vote on a related petition. In June, a group of psychologists who oppose the profession's role of consulting to interrogations brought a resolution directly to APA members for a vote. The resolution calls for psychologists to not work in settings where people are being held outside of, or in violation of, international law or the U.S. Constitution unless they are working directly for the people being detained or for an independent third party trying to protect human rights.

Other APA members have argued that the petition's language is overly broad and will have consequences extending beyond settings where interrogations take place, such as preventing psychologists from working in U.S. correctional and psychiatric facilities that have come under judicial scrutiny.

Voting on the resolution by APA members ended Sept. 15, and results will be reported in the November Monitor.