THE BLOG
08/13/2015 04:52 pm ET Updated Aug 13, 2016

To Ensure No Harm, Shouldn't a Psychologist Be in the Interrogation Room?: The APA Ban on Torture

AP

Finally: Last week, after a ten-year internal struggle, the American Psychological Association voted to ban its member psychologists from any involvement in national security interrogations and, more to the point, in torture.

To rectify an ugly development, documented in the independent 542-page Hoffman report, of member psychologists advising CIA and military interrogators during the George W. Bush administration and approving "enhanced interrogation" techniques such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and "walling" (ramming a detainee's head against a wall)---corroborating what the ethical members of the APA had protested vainly for years (also here and here) as inhumane and anathema to the healing arts -- the APA's executive body, in a near-unanimous vote of 157-1, moved to ban members from any involvement in national security interrogations henceforward.

Specifically, the APA ban, as crafted by its Council of Representatives, states that:

"[P]sychologists shall not conduct, supervise, be in the presence of, or otherwise assist any national security interrogations for any military or intelligence entities, including private contractors working on their behalf, nor advise on conditions of confinement insofar as these might facilitate such an interrogation."

But, I wonder: In tending to its own reputational repair, has the APA, by its blanket ban on psychologists from the interrogation room, forsworn the welfare of another figure in that room, the detainee, the object both of the Geneva Conventions on prisoner treatment and, notionally, of the healing arts? If the first precept of the healer is "Do no harm," and if the healer is banned from the interrogation room, who will ensure that no harm is done there to the detainee?

Ideally, shouldn't a psychologist be present at such interrogations, to ensure their humane operation, and if they veer toward torture, he or she stops the proceedings or, failing to stop them, leaves the room and files a formal complaint? Of course, adjudication of such complaints would turn on interpretation -- of what was seen and done -- but at least the humane note would be struck and the psychologist could cite the new APA ethics code banning involvement in torture.

These are not moot questions, for while President Barack Obama outlawed torture his first full day in office, it remains the case that both the CIA and the military have yet to formally foreswear the brutal techniques exposed last December in the Senate Select Intelligence Committee's six-year study of the Bush interrogation program. Why is this? Because many of those interrogators could be liable to criminal charges if prosecuted. Current CIA director John Brennan, who reduces the already semantically ambiguous "enhanced interrogation techniques" to "EITs," in response to a reporter asking about restrictions on the CIA debarring torture, said, "I defer to the policy makers in future times." Meaning: A certified healer needs to be in the interrogation room.

That need is ongoing: The U.S. still holds at Guantanamo over a hundred detainees suspected of terrorism, some still not formally charged. Terrorist suspects continue to be captured and interrogated. And there could be a compelling future need if another 9/11 occurs and there is again, in reaction, a rush to brutality. A psychologist in the room could reinforce those CIA agents who try, without much institutional support, to practice rapport-based interrogation.

Understandably, reputational repair is vital to a profession, especially to a healing profession and especially to the ethical psychologists within it who never bought the Bush administration's argument that, after 9/11, America had to go to "the dark side" -- or profited in the multi-million-dollar military contracts enjoyed by some members, most notoriously the $81 million contract let to psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who were key to converting "enhanced" techniques into torture. To read the comments at the APA website and to press reports is to see how furious ethical psychologists are at the corruption of their profession for mere financial profit.

Ethical psychologists are also furious at how the APA's ethical guidelines were rejiggered and rewritten, as the Hoffman report describes, to permit members so inclined and incentivized to cross the line in their advisory capacity into torture, and how this permission to rewrite was granted by the Association's top officers, including its ethics officer (these individuals are now gone). Ethical psychologists, again to judge from their comments, want to see all these individuals cited with criminal charges and prosecuted, as one way to repair the profession's reputation.

I understand this urge to repair reputation. After news of Abu Ghraib broke, I protested in print for years against the Bush administration's use of torture, then have pressed during the Obama administration for accountability and a reckoning, all to restore America's moral stature. But also, as a humanist, I recognized more than national reputation was at stake.

Psychologists, likewise humanists who are also -- key advantage -- licensed to heal, could fortify both humanity and healing -- if they were present in the interrogation room.

These arguments may very well be under discussion now among APA members, following last week's vote on torture. And the lack of a codified Hippocratic Oath, like the one binding medical doctors to do no harm, whose absence in the psychology profession became obvious during this organizational struggle over the torture issue, may also at last be rectified. Psychologist: Heal thyself -- and heal the interrogation process.

Carla Seaquist has written extensively on torture, including in her book, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Her latest book, "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality," is now out. Also a playwright, she has published "Two Plays of Life and Death," which include "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."