When APA policy is not

Despite a referendum condemning psychologists' involvement in torture, little has been done to actually prevent it.

By Frank Summers

As most members of Division 39 are aware, in the fall of 2008, an American Psychological Association (APA) referendum was passed by a 60% majority of those voting that prohibited psychologists from working in settings where “persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law (e.g. The U.N. Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the U.S. Constitution (where appropriate), unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights.” In accordance with APA bylaws, any such referendum passed by majority vote becomes APA policy and is entered into the minutes of the next meeting of the Council of Representatives, which in this case took place in February 2009.

Both psychologists and those outside of the field aware of this vote have tended to assume that this official change in APA policy ended the bloodletting controversy around psychologists’ involvement in illegal detention centers that had been going on since 2004. For example, when I mentioned that the struggle continued, my very liberal Congresswoman, Jan Schakowsky, asked incredulously, “Didn’t you win that?” I answered with the age-old distinction between de jure and de facto.

Four years after the passage of the referendum, which is, after all, official APA policy, there is incontrovertible evidence that psychologists remain at Guantanamo, Bagram Air Force Base, sites that continue to operate in violation of international law, as outlined in the referendum. First, one must consider that if psychologists had been withdrawn from these sites, that information would be public and the APA would be the first to trumpet such a move as proof of its ethical stance. But, we need not rely on the obvious. Despite the fact that much of the relevant information is classified or redacted from unclassified documents, the American Civil Liberties Union, under the Freedom of Information Act, has been able to obtain policy and legal documents that mention the presence of psychologists at these sites. Behavioral Science Consulting Teams (BSCTs), which include at least one psychologist and other behavioral health personnel, are referred to in some detail outlining their specific roles and responsibilities. For example, in a document on the disposition of a detainee named Kahid Mujtaba dated December 2, 2011, a BSCT evaluation was used in the judgment to recommend transfer to Afghanistan on June 3, 2010.

Unimpeachable evidence of psychologists’ continued involvement comes from the Obama administration’s Medical SOP at Bagram. An undated “Secret/Noforn” memorandum on Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) at Bagram included “Appendix 18. Annex B (Behavioral Science Consultation Team to the CJTF-101 Standard Operating Procedures (SOP).” Although the document has no date, it stands as the SOP protocol for Bagram to this day. The name of the appendix is sufficient to provide foolproof evidence of psychologists’ involvement. The Appendix Annex B states “The BSCT is comprised (sic) of two behavioral science consultants (BSCs who are licensed clinical psychologists (USAF 42P3 or USA 73B) and two behavioral science technicians….The senior psychologist serves as the Team OIC.”

The appendix describes the psychologists’ role as monitoring interrogations and staff-detainee interactions, consulting on policies for “ensuring the safety of the detainees and BTIF personnel and the assessment of ‘psychological risk factors’ as well as providing environmental consultation to assist in interrogations and detention operations.”

In the four plus years that the referendum has been APA policy, there is scant evidence of any effort by APA to implement it. The only known official response to the passage of the referendum by the APA has been to send a letter notifying the President and the Pentagon of its passage. However, psychologists remain active in detention settings while neither the APA Central Office nor the Ethics Office has made any effort to have psychologists removed from settings prohibited by its own policy. Further, members have informed these official APA organs of the evidence of psychologists’ continued involvement, and no action has been taken.

There is a common misperception that since President Obama was elected, torture is no longer American policy and consequently the need to withdraw psychologists from Guantanamo and other detention sites has been obviated. It is true that conditions in Guantanamo have improved considerably under the Obama administration, but there are reports of force-feeding, which is torture under international law. More to the point, the detainees are still kept without legal representation, many have not been charged with any malfeasance, and they are being held indefinitely with no way to defend themselves against what in many cases are nonexistent charges. All of this is illegal under international and U.S. law. As a result, any psychologist who is working in these sites, unless specifically for the benefit of the detainee or a neutral third party, is in violation of APA policy.

The APA’s inaction should be a surprise to no one, because the APA’s stance from the moment this issue surfaced has been to protect the right of psychologists to work in Guantanamo and other detention centers even after proof of torture taking place at those settings was demonstrated. The APA initially denied psychologists’ involvement in torture without any investigation and only admitted that a “few” psychologists were involved in “enhanced interrogations” when outside agencies, journalists, and independent members brought forth incontrovertible evidence. The APA leadership opposed the referendum it now trumpets as proof of its ethical policies. Furthermore, several ethics complaints have been lodged formally against some of the known participating psychologists dating back more than six years; the Ethics Committee under the leadership of Dr. Stephen Behnke has been silent on these complaints while claiming to be willing to investigate any formal accusations.

Most recently, several members of APA, with the support of the APA Central Office, have formed their own Member-Initiated Task Force (TF) to Reconcile Policies Related to Psychologists' Involvement in National Security Settings with the alleged purpose of “consolidating” APA policies on psychologist consultations in “national security settings.” Formed by members who opposed the referendum, such a TF can only have the goal of obscuring the reality that we already have a member initiated and member passed official policy of APA. Decisions and policies of the Central Office are routinely defended as “official APA policy” Apparently only when policy opposes psychologists working in unconstitutional detention centers is APA policy not determinative. When the referendum was passed, the APA’s response was to note that only a minority of members participated in the voting. In every APA presidential election, a minority roughly equivalent to the numbers who voted in the referendum cast a ballot, yet the APA has never questioned the legitimacy of any such election. It is only when the vote expresses the will of the membership to refuse to grant psychologists the right to participate in illegal detention centers that APA policy is not policy.

So, once again the APA has demonstrated through its actions and inactions that it has no interest in taking any steps to enforce its own policy against psychologists’ involvement in detention centers. What could it do? First, the APA leadership could, I would venture to say, even should send a message to the Secretary of Defense and the Pentagon reminding those in charge of the American military that psychologists are not allowed to work in detention centers and to provide the names of any psychologists currently on duty in Guantanamo, Bagram Air Force Base, or any other black sites. If there were an admission of the presence of psychologists at these sites, the Pentagon would then be informed that such a presence violates the policy of the APA. Any evidence of psychologists’ involvement in these sites should become cause for a communication with the Pentagon that the military is violating APA policy, which it said it does not do. It is the APA’s responsibility to make a public demand for withdrawal of psychologists from these sites, to ask for specific dates for that withdrawal, and to ask to visit the sites to be assured that psychologists are no longer there. If there is no satisfactory response to these demands, public pressure should be brought to bear through public statements, press releases, letters to the editor of major publications, and the social media. If all else fails, the APA should consider filing a lawsuit against the Pentagon.

Finally, it is incumbent on all of us to ply a similar kind of pressure against the APA. As indicated in my talk with Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, most knowledgeable people think the issue is dead. They do not realize that 95 % of the detainees at Guantanamo have not been captured on the battlefield, most have not had any charges drawn against them, and those who have been charged, have neither the right nor the means to defend themselves. The conditions under which they are held have improved, but they are still incarcerated for years without charges, under bare minimum survival conditions. The APA, like the Pentagon, tends to do nothing unless public pressure is brought to bear. Perhaps it is time to remind the APA leadership and the membership that we do have a policy against psychologists’ involvement in detention centers, and we would like to see policy become policy.