Torture Critics, Ethics Games, and Institutional Corruption

Dr. Michael Wessells, one of ten members of the American Psychological Association’s 2006 Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS), has released a letter to APA strongly condemning the position taken by that organization regarding psychologist participation at national security interrogations at sites like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib prison.

Dr. Wessells is Professor of Clinical Population and Family Health at Columbia University, and also Professor of Psychology at Randolph Macon College. He is the psychosocial advisor for the Children’s Christian Fund, and “regularly advises U. N. agencies, donors, and governments on policies regarding child protection and well-being”. Dr. Wessells is the author of Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection.

The PENS Task Force, of which Dr. Wessells was a member, was ostensibly organized to address the controversy over psychologists working in national security settings. As the APA/PENS June 2005 Report described it, PENS was to

[E]xamine whether our current Ethics Code adequately addresses [the ethical dimensions of psychologists’ involvement in national security-related activities], whether the APA provides adequate ethical guidance to psychologists involved in these endeavors, and whether APA should develop policy to address the role of psychologists and psychology in investigations related to national security.

The report, and the subsequent 2006 APA Resolution Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, came in for a lot of criticism. At their 2007 annual meeting, the APA passed a “Reaffirmation” of the 2006 resolution. The new resolution did not stem the tide of criticism regarding APA policy, both within the organization, and without.

The main sticking point for the opponents of official APA policy has been that APA allows psychologist participation at sites where human rights, such as habeas corpus, are denied. Furthermore, despite banning participation in a number of odious forms of torture, such as waterboarding, APA resolutions have threaded the legal needle in allowing some forms of modern psychological torture under some circumstance, such as isolation, sensory deprivation, sensory overload, and use of drugs. The APA states that it is resolutely against torture, but it consistently misrepresents the position of its opponents, and spins the truth around what its policy allows.

Mike Wessells is not the only original member of PENS committee to speak out against the process that led APA to its current position, and at least one APA insider has also written publically about the corruption of the APA decision-making bodies around the interrogation issue. But Dr. Wessells was notably the only PENS member to resign, in January 2006, from the task force. In a letter to PENS chair Olivia Moorehead-Slaughter, he explained:

Out of ethical concerns, I have decided to step down from the PENS Task Force because continuing work with the Task Force tacitly legitimates the wider silence and inaction of the APA on the crucial issues at hand. At the highest levels, the APA has not made a strong, concerted, comprehensive, public and internal response of the kind warranted by the severe human rights violations at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. The PENS Task Force had a very limited mandate and was not structured in a manner that would provide the kind of comprehensive response or representative process needed.

A Letter to the President

Dr. Wessells new letter, dated yesterday, and addressed to current APA President Sharon Brehm, shows the same concerns over APA policy. It is reproduced here in full (originally published on-line at Stephen Soldz’s blog Psyche, Science, and Society):

September 25, 2007

Dr. Sharon Brehm
American Psychological Association

Dear Dr. Brehm,

I am writing to you out of strong concern regarding the ethics of psychologists’ involvement in coercive interrogations. Events during and following the 2007 APA Annual Convention have created significant ethical questions regarding both the substance of APA’s position and the process through which APA leaders debate these complex issues.

Substantively, the main problem is that the 2007 Resolution by APA Council makes it ethical practice for psychologists to violate international human rights standards. In particular, the resolution allows psychologists to practice and support interrogations in sites that operate outside the protections offered by the Geneva Conventions and other international human rights instruments such as the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). The illegal, indefinite detention of people at these sites itself constitutes a violation of international law and human rights standards, and psychologists’ presence at these sites only legitimates these human rights violations. No profession should put itself above international human rights standards as the APA has done in this matter. In fact, international human rights standards ought to be the foundation of any professional Code of Ethics. By allowing psychologists to practice in ways that flaunt international human rights standards, APA has committed itself to an unethical course of action.

The process of the communications following the APA Convention is also cause for significant concern. The recently released statement of the APA Communications Office on APA’s position on torture presents a view that falls short of accepted standards of full, accurate disclosure. In particular, the statement conveniently fails to mention the aforementioned point that illegal, indefinite detention itself violates the CAT and that psychologists who practice at sites operating outside international human rights protections thereby enable a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. A more balanced, honest statement would outline the important steps that the APA has taken on these issues and also point out the ongoing debates within the Association and the issues that warrant further analysis. Stronger concern arises out of the statement made by former APA President Gerald Koocher in which he attempted to use in public sensitive, psychological disinformation (most of it was false) to discredit the statements and activities of a former PENS Task Force member who criticized the PENS process. Such misuse of sensitive, personal information by an APA leader is ethically questionable, diverts attention from the wider issues that warrant much discussion, and could have a chilling effect on the open discussion and debate that are badly needed on these complex issues.

I urge you to exercise leadership in helping the APA to act in an ethical, responsible manner in addressing these issues of substance and process. Your leadership is needed to bring the APA in line with international human rights standards and to enable the processes of accurate disclosure, dialogue and mutual learning that will promote ethical action within the APA.


Michael Wessells, PhD
Columbia University

Is Change Possible?

So far, the response from President Brehm and her colleagues has been to disseminate letters critical of their APA opponents. And APA has also released a Frequently Asked Questions webpage to answer their critics. This is what Dr. Wessells refers to in his letter as a “recently released statement of the APA Communications Office”. Full of half-truths and self-serving misrepresentations, internal APA opponents to the mainstream policy of support to Bush’s “war on terror” interrogations and abrogation of interntional law, are promising a thorough rebuttal in coming days.

It is my opinion that the APA is not reformable, at this point. The integration of APA leadership, and much of the academic psychological community and university departments, into the national security apparatus of the United States government is far too advanced to admit significant change. While I respect those who fight to change APA, and restore trust to the field of psychology, I cannot see how that change can take place. At the very least, a real movement towards change would mean severing the organizational links of the Society for Military Psychology (Division 19) from the APA. Military psychologists are subject to the command structure of the Pentagon before they are subject to an ethical oversight process of the APA. No other entity within organized psychology is allowed such special status, and this special relationship, which goes back to the foundation of the American Psychological Association, must end. I’ll note that it was members of Division 19 that introduced and led the argumentation at APA Council for the current insufficient policy resolutions on torture and cruel, unusual, and inhumane interrogations passed by that body.

How They Do It

Mike Kimmel’s article, “Reflections from Panama”, in an upcoming newsletter of APA Division 48 (Peace Psychology), “Paul Kimmel writes of how APA sidelined a 2004 report from an APA task force he chaired, the Task Force on the Psychological Effects of Efforts to Prevent Terrorism“.

In his article, Dr. Kimmel describes how the work of the many psychologists honestly involved in study of this issue had that work bureaucratically suppressed at the last minute (much as in 2007, APA proponents of a moratorium against psychologist participation in national security interrogations were broadsided by last minute “substitute” resolutions, substitute “substitute” resolutions, word changes, etc., and very little time to debate issues on allowed amendments). The entire article is worth viewing, but I close here with this excerpt, which tellingly portrays the futility of action in an organization, like APA, whose leadership is dedicated to collaboration with the forces of the government, and who practice the dread arts of bureaucratic suppression.  The quote begins with Dr. Kimmel describing why he submitted his report to last minute requests by APA heavyweights Ron Levant, Rhea Farberman, and others for further “review”, which was supposed to make reception of the report even more “powerful”:

My expectation was that by going through the review process, the Report would be stronger and the Association would act upon it more quickly and comprehensively after Council approved it in February 2005.

Attending the meetings and responding to the suggestions of the many Boards and Committees involved a lot more work for me and our authors, as these groups had different interests and points of view regarding our findings and recommendations.

When we finished revising our Report in light of their suggestions, the APA Board of Directors recommended it be rejected as lacking “peer review” in spite of the fact that it was a policy piece and not an academic journal article.

It was also suggested that our findings and recommendations were too “political” (it seems that only the status quo is not “political” or “politically correct” at the Association).

We brought our responses to the Board of Directors’ objections to the February 2005 Council meetings, only to find our item being moved down the agenda by Ron Levant (presiding as President) until there were just 10 minutes left in the final afternoon session.

This was barely enough time to go over the main item and no time for discussion of or response to the Board’s critique.

Our first speaker was cut off by Levant (there were several others ready and able to address their issues) and a vote was called.

We were voted down – as Representatives were leaving to catch flights and other Convention activities – and the Report was never received by the APA.

Crossposted at Invictus


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    • Valtin on September 26, 2007 at 8:52 pm

    I’m talking about me here, not APA — I’m going to try posting and participating here more often. There are so many interesting and good sites on the Net, that if you’re strapped for time, it’s hard to get to them all.

    Meanwhile, I hope readers here will find the issues around torture and how it’s organized, and the role of medical and psychological professionals in the implementation of same, to be an important topic for discussion.

    • pico on September 27, 2007 at 12:39 am

    your points on severing the APA from the SMP are particularly important.  I can see how you got to the conclusion that the APA is un-reformable, given that the SMP’s ties to the Pentagon – as well as, I’m sure, federal funding that members of the APA across the board enjoy – render more minor adjustments functionally useless.

  1. the people of the APA should be filled with shame.

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