Psychology Protest Grows

6 departments have now distanced themselves from their professional association's stance on interrogations, which they consider ethically inadequate.
December 6, 2007

A movement that started in the psychology department at Earlham College -- seeking to push the American Psychological Association to take a stronger stand against its members participating in interrogations that might deny basic human rights to prisoners -- is growing.

Psychology departments at six colleges and universities have now endorsed resolutions saying that they believe it is unethical for psychologists to participate in any way in the interrogations of prisoners in facilities outside of the United States that lack the due process and other protections available to prisoners in the United States.

While APA ethics rules declare it unethical for psychologists to help any entity engage in torture, and the association recently strengthened those guidelines, the group left open the possibility of psychologists working in foreign prisons, assisting teams with certain kinds of interrogations. The refusal of the association to rule out such participation has angered many psychologists -- enough so that six departments involved have taken steps to disassociate themselves from the association's position.

After the drive started at Earlham, the departments at Guilford and Smith Colleges quickly signed on in October. Since then, measures have been adopted by the departments of California State University at Long Beach, the University of Rhode Island, and York College of the City University of New York.

At departments passing these resolutions, professors say that they believe strongly that any help for interrogating prisoners in settings where they lack due process rights is inherently unethical -- as there can be no assurances that such interrogations stop short of torture. At the University of Rhode Island, the only questions raised about the resolution related not to the determination that such conduct would be unethical, but came from some professors (in the minority) who thought it would be better to make individual stands on the issue, rather than departmental stands.

The dispute in psychology is in some ways similar to one raging in anthropology -- where the American Anthropological Association appointed a committee to consider the ethics issues raised by doing anthropology work for military or security agencies, and some rank-and-file scholars are saying that the panel did not go far enough in opposing ethically questionable activities.

In both disciplines, a key dispute is over whether any form of "engagement" can be helpful, when dealing with situations that could lead to torture or worse. APA leaders have said repeatedly that they agree completely with the departments that are passing resolutions that torture of prisoners is never justified, but that the involvement of psychologists in teams planning interrogation strategies could decrease the chances of torture taking place.

The APA has been making that argument -- without success -- to the professors bringing forward these resolutions. Michael R. Jackson, Earlham's psychology chair, released a letter he received from Sharon Stephens Brehm, the association's president and a professor at Indiana University at Bloomington. "There is strong support within APA for ethical interrogations that leave no room for abusive or harmful techniques," she wrote. "After many years of intense discussion, APA has chosen a strategy of engagement. The cost of disengagement is that one loses any ability to influence policy -- and the opportunity to prevent torture, humiliation or abuse in actual interrogations."

Jackson sent a reply to Brehm that cites the unlikelihood that the APA will manage to sell its position to its critics. While Jackson praised the APA for clarifying its opposition to torture, he said that the association was ignoring the impact of operating outside a judicial system where basic human rights are assured -- a point he said was more than theoretical in light of reports about how the Bush administration, with the assistance of some social scientists and their work, has managed prisoners outside U.S. borders.

"These rights, which include the right of habeas corpus and, more generally, the right to due process of law, are not currently being accorded to these detainees; and, indeed, the detainees are being held in secret and/or isolated locations precisely for the purpose of facilitating this deprivation," Jackson wrote. "When psychologists, with the acquiescence of APA, participate in illegal interrogations in secret facilities, not only does this personally harm detainees; it also violates APA’s General Ethical Principle E (Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity), undermines the moral stature of psychology, and weakens our system of jurisprudence by legitimizing the suspension of basic human rights."

He added that the psychology association may be exaggerating the ability of its members to influence what actually happens in interrogations after guidance is received from scholars.

Wrote Jackson: "APA hopes that psychologists’ participation in these illegal interrogations will help to protect detainees -- a hope which many find quixotic in light of the current administration’s open disparagement of internationally accepted standards of conduct and its infamous determination to carry out coercive interrogations. Quixotic or not, APA’s hope must be measured against the actual damage that is being done by its 'policy of engagement' to the one and only instrument that is specifically designed for the purpose of protecting these detainees, and all individuals, from abuses of authority: the rule of law."


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