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Psychological warfare

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Psychological warfare


Psychological warfare

Angered that their professional organization has adopted a policy condoning psychologists' participation in "war on terror" interrogations, many psychologists are vowing to stage a battle royal at the APA's annual meeting.

By Mark Benjamin

Jul. 26, 2006 | The 150,000-member American Psychological Association is facing an internal revolt over its year-old policy that condones the participation of psychologists in the interrogations of prisoners during the Bush administration's "war on terror."

Last summer, the APA adopted new ethical principles drafted by a task force of 10 psychologists, who were selected by the organization's leadership. That controversial task-force report, which is now official APA policy, stated that psychologists participating in terror-related interrogations are fulfilling "a valuable and ethical role to assist in protecting our nation, other nations, and innocent civilians from harm."

But Salon has learned that six of the 10 psychologists on the task force have close ties to the military. The names and backgrounds of the task force participants were not made public by the APA; Salon obtained them from congressional sources. Four of the psychologists who crafted the permissive policy were involved with the handling of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, or served with the military in Afghanistan -- all environments where serious cases of abuse have been documented.

APA president Gerald Koocher, who handpicked the task-force members along with the organization's former president Ronald Levant, said in an interview that the psychologists' military and national-security backgrounds did not raise conflict of interest or broader questions about the task force and its report. He defended choosing psychologists with such backgrounds, saying "they had special knowledge to contribute."

The 10-member task force enunciated the new principles for interrogations in a June 2005 report. The 11 pages of ethical obligations include 12 statements on interrogations, including one directing psychologists to report abuse and remember that suspects may be innocent. But detractors say its ban on "torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment" is pro forma, an insufficient safeguard in the post-9/11 atmosphere.

Critics of the APA's interrogation policy are planning an all-out assault during the organization's annual meeting Aug. 10-13 in New Orleans, using tactics that include taking out a full-page advertisement in the local newspaper.

Opponents argue that when psychologists use their technical training to help break down the resistance of a prisoner, they are performing in a role diametrically at odds with their professional mission to serve as a healer. "I do not believe that psychologists should be involved in interrogations which are intrinsically coercive and inherently harmful to the person being interrogated," said Steven Reisner, a psychologist and senior faculty member at Columbia University's International Trauma Studies Program.

Joining in this chorus of dissent, former APA president Philip Zimbardo said psychologists used "the wrong model" to come up with the interrogation ethics principles. As the architect of a famous 1971 Stanford prison experiment in which students who were instructed to pretend they were guards in a mock prison quickly began to exhibit sadistic behavior, Zimbardo has more than a passing familiarity with the dynamics of cruelty. He warned against "abandoning the high moral ground in unquestioned support for ideological banners of 'national security.'"

Reisner said in an interview that the revelations of the close ties between the Department of Defense and a majority of psychologists on the task force would help galvanize opposition to the policy. The biographies of the task force members underscore these extensive and questionable connections.  ......


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