March 7, 2014

APA Informs Federal Officials of Policy Changes Related to Detainee Welfare and Interrogation in National Security Settings

Calls on federal agencies to avoid placing health providers in roles and situations that conflict with professional ethics

WASHINGTON — The American Psychological Association has sent letters to key federal agency officials, including the secretary of defense, U.S. attorney general and the CIA director, reiterating APA’s strict prohibition against psychologist involvement in torture or other types of inhumane treatment of national security detainees and informing them of recent modifications to the association’s longstanding policy related to psychologists' involvement in national security settings.

The letters, which were also sent to leaders of relevant congressional committees, call on the officials to “take all possible action to prohibit the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment in interrogations and any other detainee-related operations.” And they urge the leaders “to take affirmative steps to ensure that detainees in U.S. custody are treated fairly and humanely, while granted all rights guaranteed to them under the U.S. Constitution, the U.N. Convention Against Torture, and the Geneva Conventions.”  

The letters, delivered Feb. 28, were signed by APA President Nadine J. Kaslow, PhD, and APA CEO Norman B. Anderson, PhD.

The letters alert the officials to the adoption in July 2013 of the “Policy Related to Psychologists’ Work in National Security Settings and Reaffirmation of the APA Position Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment,” by APA’s governing body, the Council of Representatives. The policy unifies into a single document prior APA policies dating back to 1986 related to detainee welfare and interrogation. As part of the policy reconciliation process, the council also voted to rescind the 2005 Report of the APA Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) policy and two other APA policies dated 2007 and 2008. These policies had become outdated or rendered inaccurate with the passage of subsequent policies, most notably a 2010 revision of the APA Ethics Code.  

The 2013 APA policy prohibits psychologists’ participation in the torture or other abusive treatment of detainees, whether during an interrogation or as part of other operations. The policy defines torture according to the U.N. Convention Against Torture, cites additional international declarations, principles and conventions and provides examples of prohibited behaviors that are considered to be torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. It also reaffirms a 2009 APA policy that prohibits psychologists from working in unlawful national security detention settings unless they are working directly for the detainee, for a third party to protect human rights or providing treatment to military personnel.  

“APA has a strong, substantive and unified policy with detail and nuance rooted in the belief that human rights are necessary and inviolate,” said Linda Woolf, PhD, of Webster University, who chaired the task force that developed the 2013 policy. “The policy unequivocally condemns torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under any and all conditions and affirms that there are no exceptional circumstances whatsoever that justify the use of torture or other abuses against prisoners.” 

As Kaslow and Anderson stated in their letters, “In order to protect against abusive interrogation practices and to reduce the likelihood that unreliable and/or inaccurate information is entered into legal proceedings, APA continues to call upon the U.S. legal system to reject testimony that results from torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”

“The United States must once again become a beacon to the world through our efforts to safeguard individual welfare and advance the human rights of U.S. citizens and others at home and abroad,” added Kaslow and Anderson.

The letters were sent to: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel; CIA Director John Brennan; Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr.; and the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services, Intelligence and Judiciary Committees. A similar letter was sent in December to President Barack Obama. 

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. APA's membership includes more than 134,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people's lives.