American Psychological Association Presidential Candidates on Coercive Interrogations

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by Stephen Soldz
 
During the campaign for the 2008 Presidency of the American Psychological Association the candidates were asked a series of questions, based on the most frequent submissions from members. One of these questions concerned APA policy toward psychologist participation in coercive interrogations. The question was:
Do you think APA should have an explicit policy, including sanctions, against members enabling/participating in/advising about the coercive interrogation of prisoners/enemy combatants?

The good news is that all five candidates tried to appear be against participation in coercive interrogations. This suggests that all these candidates assumed that the APA membership is clearly against psychologist participation in coercive interrogations.

UPDATE 1-22-2007 5:00PM EDT:

Stephen Ragusea sent the following to me:
I did not try to “subtly” change the topic. In an imperfect transcript, I may be seen as responding as best as possible during a late night conference call. I don’t think that psychologists should be involved in either torture or interrogation and all my written statements for years have been both consistent and clear. And furthermore, what I said that night is: “Psychology should have nothing to do with torture. We should be seen as the antithesis, the antonym to it, not in anyway synonymous with the concept of torture.” I think that is a very strong, clear position. I’m appalled that my response is being distorted in this manner. If Stephen Soldz needed clarification of my position, I wish he would have asked for it rather than defaming my name. Sometimes social responsibility and personal responsibility go hand in hand.

If there’s any way you can post this response, I’d appreciate it.

I’m glad to hear that I was wrong and that he doesn’t “think that psychologists should be involved in either torture or interrogation.” As my comments indicates, being against “torture” isn'’t enough. I’m glad that Dr. Ragusea is against participations in interrogations. This was not clear from his comments. I apologize for the misunderstanding on my part.
 
However, two of the candidates -- Stephen Ragusea and James Bray -- subtly changed the topic to whether APA was against "torture," a policy long adopted by APA and reiterated in their 2006 Resolution Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. As usual, the devil, and in this case it is a real devil, is in the details. The question is what actually is going on at Guantanamo and elsewhere and whether it falls under the terms of the Resolution. According to the UN Committee on Torture, unlimited detention without trial is itself an instance of torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment:
The Committee, noting that detaining persons indefinitely without charge, constitutes per se a violation of the Convention, is concerned that detainees are held for protracted periods at Guantánamo Bay, without sufficient legal safeguards and without judicial assessment of the justification for their detention.
In contrast, the APA has used fine-sounding its Resolution Against Torture as a fig leaf to cover psychologist participation in coercive interrogations while resolutely refusing to conduct any kind of investigation of what psychologists actually are doing to detainees.
 
As the evidence mounts that the purpose of psychologists in the Behavioral Science Consultation Teams [BSCTs] is precisely to exploit detainee weaknesses to break down detainees [see The Experiment, Torture Teachers, Inside the Interrogation of Detainee 063, Secret Orcon Interrogation Log Detainee 063, Gitmo Interrogations Spark Battle over Tactics, and Can the ‘20th hijacker’ of Sept. 11 stand trial?], the APA maintains a fiction that they are struggling against interrogator "behavioral drift" into torture or other abusive behavior. In fact, the APA went even further: it secretly appointed several of the trainers of these BSCTs to a special Presidential Task Force [the PENS task Force] to form association policy on interrogations.
 
Thus, the details matter greatly, and Ragusea's and Bray's good-sounding but equivocal responses would have had the effect of allowing the status quo of psychologist participation in abusive interrogations to have continued unhindered. What is needed now is not fine-sounding words against "torture," that sound like mom and apple pie, but clear, unequivocal action against the continuing participation of psychologists in the the insult to human rights that occurs daily in Guantanamo and numerous other detention centers around the world.
 
One of the advocates of a strong, unequivocal approach, Alan Kazdin, won the election and is now President-Elect, set to take the Presidency in January 2008. Hopefully the APA membership will have exerted so much pressure that the issue of psychologist participation in coercive interrogations will be settled by then. But if not, we must be ready to keep the pressure on Dr. Kazdin to make sure he keeps his promises as he becomes part of the APA leadership and is subject to the multiple pressures that will undoubtedly be exerted upon him to "become reasonable" and not threaten the numerous ties between the APA and the military and intelligence communities.
 
It is encouraging that during the campaign, Dr. Kazdin responded to an email from me on this issue by stating:
I agree with you. We needed swifter an unequivocal action. Among the issues, the organization of APA, i.e., how it is structured, can dilute action and swift action and we look like we are not doing much. I am eager to take a stronger position--there is only one moral ground here and it hurts us not to lead.
I am eager in hearing more from you in relation to this issue but also other issues. Not so clear what a president can do at APA, but I have the energy to try to make a difference and to bring issues to the fore that will genuinely help people world wide.
An APA President may not be able to accomplish much on his own. We have to make sure that President Kazdin has an energized membership behind him on this issue.
 
Here are the responses of the five candidates:
"Dr. Pauline Wallin: Now onto our last question and I want to thank the audience who is with us and again the recording will be posted on the APA website and you will get notification of that. Our last question is quite complex so please listen: Do you think APA should have an explicit policy, including sanctions, against members enabling/participating in/advising about the coercive interrogation of prisoners/enemy combatants? Dr. Ragusea.
Dr. Stephen Ragusea: The short answer is absolutely yes. I think that APA tried to provide a complex answer to this issue a few months ago and got ourselves in a public relations mess even though our heart and minds were in the right place. People who are listening should know that in August, at the Convention, the Council Representatives passed a very complex resolution addressing this issue that essentially clearly established that APA is against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatments or punishment. I think that we need to send as clear and concise a message as we can to the world that we are against these things. I think the resolution that was passed by the Council should become integrated with our ethical standards and people who violate that ethical standard as well as all the other ethical standards have steps that are taken against them to address that violation of our standards. This is a critically important issue. Psychology should have nothing to do with torture. We should be seen as the antithesis, the antonym to it, not in anyway synonymous with the concept of torture. Thank you.
Dr. Pauline Wallin: Thank you, Dr. Ragusea. Dr. Bingham, do you think APA should have an explicit policy, including sanctions, against members enabling/participating in/advising about the coercive interrogation of prisoners/enemy combatants?
Dr. Rosie Phillips Bingham: Yes, psychologists should not be engaged in any kind of coercive interrogation. We are a healing science and practice profession. We should not be participating in and/or advising in anyway coercive practices. In fact, we should be issuing statements on peace. We should be telling people how to get along and how to help each other. We should make even stronger the resolution that we passed. And I stood on Council. We should make that even stronger. We need to stand up and stand out and be against torture. We do need to go through our ethical process and right now there are members of the division of social justice working on some wording to offer up to the membership to put into our ethics code and I firmly believe that what we must do then is follow the ethics code. We can’t sanction without having it in the code. And do you know the other thing I absolutely believe is that the threat of sanctions should not be the thing that helps us live up to what we believe in as psychologists. We ought to be well beyond a sanction. We really need to take seriously our call to do no harm. Psychologists must do no harm and beyond that we must light the way to peace.
Dr. Pauline Wallin: Thank you, Dr. Bingham. Dr. Bray, do you think APA should have an explicit policy, including sanctions, against members enabling/participating in/advising about the coercive interrogation of prisoners/enemy combatants?
Dr. James Bray: Yes, the APA has a long history of being on record against this as we have already heard APA Council reaffirmed this during the August 2006 meeting and I strongly support this policy. As a family psychologist, we know that from both research and practice that coercive behavior is destructive and does not lead to good outcomes for any human being. It’s my belief that psychologists should be about enhancing people’s lives and not tearing them down and we should take a strong stance about this issue. This question exemplifies some of the important social policies work that psychologists engage in. Through the work of the Public Education Directorate at APA, divisions like the division for social justice and state associations, we need to continue to provide research based support for changes in social policy that improve the health and well-being of our nation and I look forward to doing that as APA president and I thank you for hanging in there and listening us.
Dr. Pauline Wallin: Thank you Dr. Bray. Dr. Kazdin, do you think APA should have an explicit policy, including sanctions, against members enabling/participating in/advising about the coercive interrogation of prisoners/enemy combatants?
Dr. Alan Kazdin: I think that APA definitely should have a policy and this is in keeping with our long history of concern for human rights. The violations in the world in general that are going on are apart from torture are so extensive that we need to get this policy worked out and handle the abuse of women world wide, the abuse of children world wide. This is a part of a larger issue for me. We need a policy and, of course, we need sanctions as part of our ethical codes as well. I would like to see APA have such a policy that it’s a guideline that is really adopted by other organizations. The APA Publication Manual, as it were, of the ethical guidelines moving to a higher level and a higher plain. I think we need to really integrate this and take an unequivocal look on what we are doing. At the same time, there is more we should do on the other side, as Dr. Bingham said, which is a stronger commitment to peace, a stronger commitment to non-coercion. What can we do to help achieve world-wide peace, national goals that do not involve coercion at all and this is what psychology can do to fill out the other side of this. Thank you. Dr. Pauline Wallin: And finally, Dr. Newcombe, do you think APA should have an explicit policy, including sanctions, against members enabling/participating in/advising about the coercive interrogation of prisoners/enemy combatants?
Dr. Nora Newcombe: Yes. Some time ago Mike Dukakis got himself in a lot of trouble by saying he was a card carrying member of the ACLU, but I am proud to say, and I think I won’t get in trouble with this audience, that I have been for many years a card carrying member of Amnesty International and I was actually quite shocked to find that this was a matter of any kind of debate within APA and to realize that over the winter there was an APA taskforce that actually did not recommend what I considered to be a strong enough position for the APA, so I was very heartened to hear and to read what came out of Council this past August. Even so I think there is a remaining area of ambiguity that concerns the issue of what extent we’re subscribing to the current laws and practices in the United States which I consider far too weak and far too lenient and far too allowing of torture. But rather, we could instead subject ourselves to the commandments of the Geneva Convention and the international bodies that regulate this. I think that we should unequivocally go with the international standards. I was quite dismayed actually to see in the Council resolution any mention of the McCain amendment and so forth, all of that is too weak in my opinion."

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