September 17, 2007

Congressional journal highlights APA torture debate

The struggle over the role of psychologists in military interrogations is reaching the halls of Congress. Today's issue of Congressional Quarterly features an article by Shawn Zeller, entitled "Torture Issue Ties Up Psychologists Association":

You'd think that psychologists, of all people, would know torture when they see it. But the leaders of the American Psychological Association, the profession's governing body, have been trying for more than two years to quell a faction of vocal dissidents who say the group tacitly condones U.S. military and intelligence use of coercive tactics.

The latest blow-up came last month at the association's annual meeting in San Francisco. The dissidents, calling themselves Psychologists for an Ethical APA, pushed for a moratorium on psychologist participation in military interrogations. The association's governing council eventually rebuffed that crusade, winning adoption instead of a new policy barring psychologists from participating in more than 20 kinds of torture techniques - including "mock executions, water-boarding or any other form of simulated drowning or suffocation, sexual humiliation, rape," or "cultural or religious humiliation."

But the dissident psychologists aren't satisfied, by a long shot. They're angry that the association "avoided saying outright that all aversive interrogation techniques are prohibited," says Steven Reisner, a leader of the disaffected group who's a New York University psychoanalyst. What's more, he says, the APA's vote means psychologists may still participate in aversive methods as long as they aren't employed in a formal interrogation - effectively condoning controlled use of methods such as sleep deprivation, which other groups have condemned as torture. It's the dissidents' belief that the APA is striving to protect the professional standing of members who work for the Pentagon or CIA - and to keep the association's own relationship with those agencies in good repair.

Reisner's group is fighting on two fronts. It's asking APA members to withhold their dues until the association produces a more forceful denunciation of torture and aversive interrogation techniques. And Reisner says he and his colleagues also plan to lobby state psychological associations to adopt stricter rules. They have also provided information about the APA’s internal debate on the issue to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The article continues at Congressional Quarterly's web site.