April 22, 2009

Saying it Again: Psychologists May Never Participate in Torture

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an opinion editorial by the president of the American Psychological Association responding to recent media reports surrounding Bush administration memos seeking to justify the use of harsh interrogation techniques. Feel free to reprint it in its entirety with credit to APA and Dr. James H. Bray .

Let’s set the record straight: It is a clear violation of professional ethics for a psychologist to have played a role in the torture of CIA detainees, as described in the recently released Bush administration memos. These Justice Department documents, which purport to offer medical and scientific justification for torturing detainees, are chilling in their dispassionate analysis of how far to push a human being for the purpose of eliciting national security-related information.

The central tenet of psychology’s code of ethics is, like that of medicine, to do no harm. It is unthinkable that any psychologist could assert that stress positions, forced nudity, sleep deprivation, exploiting phobias, and waterboarding—along with other forms of torture techniques that the American Psychological Association has condemned and prohibited—cause no lasting damage to a human being’s psyche. And yet an emerging record strongly suggests that some did.

APA has declared that psychologists have an obligation to intervene to stop torture or abuse, and a further obligation to report any instance of torture or abuse. In fact, the public record includes examples of psychologists behaving precisely how APA would expect. Unfortunately, two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, have been identified in media reports as proponents of using “reverse-engineered” SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) military training techniques for detainee interrogations. These techniques, when applied in this manner, are tantamount to torture as defined by APA and international law. Mitchell and Jessen are not members of the APA, and therefore the association has no jurisdiction to investigate their activities. The APA Code of Ethics however, should be a guidepost for the behavior of all psychologists regardless of the issue of membership status with APA, and we have a responsibility to voice our dismay at any psychologist’s reported role in detainee mistreatment. Furthermore, APA stands ready to adjudicate reports that any APA member has engaged in prohibited techniques.

Over the last 20 years, APA has expanded and further articulated its policy against torture to underscore its absolute prohibition against all forms of torture and abusive treatment. During the Bush administration years, APA’s governing Council of Representatives repeated and elaborated on this absolute condemnation by prohibiting the very techniques named in the torture memos. There is one ethical response to an order to torture: Disobey the order. Invoking language from the U. N. Convention Against Torture, APA rejected the “ticking time bomb” justification for torture and called upon U.S. courts to reject testimony derived from torture.

APA’s most recent policy statement on interrogation prohibits psychologists from working in detention settings where international law or the U.S. Constitution are violated, unless they are working directly for the people being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights. Psychologists may also provide treatment to military personnel in such a setting.

Ethical interrogations are based on building a relationship and forming rapport with the person being questioned, processes that require great skill and patience. Torturing an individual under the guise of an interrogation is neither ethical nor effective. Indeed, according to media reports, the only useful information that detainee Abu Zubaida provided was offered early in his imprisonment, when FBI officials employed humane interrogation tactics.

We applaud the Obama administration for acting quickly and decisively to prohibit cruel and abusive interrogation techniques that were employed by the Bush administration. It is also my fervent hope that the American people -- and the world -- will not judge all psychologists by the few who were involved in this sorry chapter in our history, but by the tens of thousands of psychologists who spend their professional lives working for the public good.

James H. Bray, Ph.D., is president of the American Psychological Association.

Learn more about APA's policies prohibiting torture and other forms of abuse.

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 150,000 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 psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.