December 7, 2011

New critique of APA’s detainee interrogation policies

Interrogation of Canadian citizen Omar Khadr, age 15, at Guantanamo
Prominent psychology ethicist Ken Pope, a former chair of the American Psychological Association's Ethics Committee who resigned from the APA in 2008, has authored a new article critiquing the APA's controversial policies on detainee interrogations.

Pope said his purpose is to "highlight key APA policies, procedures, and public statements that seem in urgent need of rethinking and to suggest some questions that may be useful in a serious assessment."

He questions the ethical legitimacy of standing behind policies and practices that can cause harm to individuals -- such as detainees -- based on the stated desire to do "the most good for the most people."

Pope provides a history of the APA’s controversial 2002 decision to reject the so-called "Nuremberg Ethic" by permitting psychologists to forego ethical responsibilities when they conflict with government authority (Ethics Code Section 1.02).

Psychologists came under intense criticism from human rights proponents in the wake of 9/11 for their critical role in detainee interrogations. Unlike organized psychiatry and other medical professions, the American Psychological Association promoted its role in detainee interrogations as contributing to national security in a time of crisis.

"APA promoted support for its interrogation policies in its press releases, its journals, its web site, its Internet lists, its conventions, the APA Monitor on Psychology, and other venues," Pope noted. For example, it "submitted a statement on psychology and interrogations to the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence explaining that 'psychologists have important contributions to make in eliciting information that can be used to prevent violence and protect our nation's security'; that 'conducting an interrogation is inherently a psychological endeavor'; and that 'psychology is central to this process.' "

Accordingly, psychologists under contract with the CIA were given a green light to design aggressive interrogation techniques to break down detainees, while other psychologists on the outside assured the public that techniques such as waterboarding were safe and would not cause lasting mental harm.

The article, "Are the American Psychological Association's Detainee Interrogation Policies Ethical and Effective? Key Claims, Documents, and Results," is slated for publication in the journal Zeitschrift fur Psychologie / Journal of Psychology, the oldest psychology journal in Europe and the second oldest in the world.

Pope's critique is timely. For one thing, the policies authored by the APA's controversial Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS Task Force) remain in place. Additionally, the issues he raises have broader implications for current ethical practice of psychologists in other custodial settings, such as prisons, jails, and mental hospitals.

Pope has made the article available at his website (HERE), which also has many other useful resources on ethics and interrogations.

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