2008 APA Petition Resolution Ballot - Pro Statement

In early June 2008, APA received a petition with the required number of signatures of full members in good standing concerning the issue of whether psychologists may work in certain settings that involve the detention of individuals.

A ballot mailing dated August 1, 2008 included the full text of the petition statement and the following pro statement.

Brad Olson, PhD

As psychologists, our first ethical principle is to do no harm; yet substantial documentation reveals that American psychologists have systematically designed and participated in interrogations that amount to torture. In addition, they have helped to legitimize cruel and abusive treatment in Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the CIA blacksites.

Responding to these revelations, the APA has passed several resolutions barring psychologists from participating in torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. These resolutions, however, are insufficient as they do not address the critical role that psychologists play in perpetuating harmful interrogation strategies and in maintaining conditions that the International Committee of the Red Cross has labeled “tantamount to torture.”

These concerns, which have propelled over a thousand APA psychologists to bring this referendum to the membership, are not hypothetical. Psychologists, as “consultants”, have been active in interrogations that have brought about extreme forms of torture. In at least one of these cases, the psychologist advocated for an escalation to even more extreme 'enhanced interrogation techniques.'

Psychologists have also played a critical role in this administration's legal defense of torture. Justice Department lawyers have argued that torture can only take place if the perpetrator intends to cause 'prolonged mental harm' which, in turn, is measured by a subsequent diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder. Psychologists instead routinely provide diagnoses other than posttraumatic stress disorder, thus giving the illusion of safety and legal cover in otherwise objective instances of “torture”. Moreover, psychologists play a role in maintaining the conditions of detention, for instance, by removing “comfort items” such as toilet paper, toothpaste, and soap.

In settings that fail to meet basic standards of international law, it is unrealistic to rely on psychologists to challenge their superiors, report on violations, and protect abused detainees. We know, from decades of psychological research, that good people do bad things in bad situations. Psychologists are no less vulnerable to “behavioral drift” than others, particularly when subject to the chain of command in the closed environment of a geographically isolated detention center.

We do believe that psychologists working independently, and outside of the institution's chain of command, can and should be available to detainees, through NGOs such as the International Committee of the Red Cross. In abusive settings, clinicians working in the chain of command cannot know whether they are helping detainees recover only to return them to more abusive interrogations; and detainees cannot gauge whether the information being gathered by the clinician will be used against them—as has been documented on several occasions. Instead, the proposed referendum policy places psychology and psychologists squarely on the side of the most vulnerable.

Some APA psychologists have argued that the presence of psychologists in these settings protects the detainee from abuse. Yet, in the six years since captives began arriving at Guantanamo, there have been few documented cases of psychologists speaking up on the behalf of detainees. There is significant evidence of many more cases of silence. While we commend anyone who has acted heroically, a reliance on individual heroism is an unsound basis for policy.

We stress that the referendum does not exclude any psychologist from working in any settings where international law and human rights are fundamentally upheld. Imperfect as our U.S. domestic justice system may be, people held within the present system have basic legal protections, including the right to know the charges against them, meet with an attorney, receive family visits and, most importantly, to be free of torture. This is in sharp contrast to the individuals gathered up and illegally taken to CIA blacksites. For the past 60 years, international law has held professionals responsible for upholding basic human rights. This referendum would thus protect psychologists from risk of future prosecutions.

Your vote in favor of the referendum will increase the independence of psychologists and protect the reputation of our discipline. The policy puts psychology and psychologists on the side of those who are the most vulnerable to mental harm. On behalf of Psychologists for an Ethical APA and all the APA members who have petitioned for this referendum, we strongly encourage you to research this topic through books, websites and articles, and to vote “yes” -- to support human rights and to restore the integrity of American psychology.