APA Rules on Interrogation Abuse

Steven Reisner spoke at a rally Friday in San Francisco protesting the American Psychological Association's collaboration in military interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and other facilities.
Steven Reisner spoke at a rally Friday in San Francisco protesting the American Psychological Association's collaboration in military interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and other facilities. (Jeff Chiu - AP)
By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 20, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO, Aug. 19 -- The American Psychological Association ruled Sunday that psychologists can no longer be associated with several interrogation techniques that have been used against terrorism detainees at U.S. facilities because the methods are immoral, psychologically damaging and counterproductive in eliciting useful information.

Psychologists who witness interrogators using mock executions, simulated drowning, sexual and religious humiliation, stress positions or sleep deprivation are required to intervene to stop such abuse, to report the activities to superiors and to report the involvement of any other psychologists in such activities to the association. It could then strip those professionals of their membership.

The move by the APA, the nation's largest association of behavioral experts, is a rebuke of the Bush administration's anti-terrorism policies. Many of the techniques deemed unacceptable have been widely reported to be used at military facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as in Iraq and at various CIA detention centers.

But it also has practical effects. Psychologists who have their membership revoked can lose their license, since many state licensing boards require psychologists to be in good standing with the national association.

Also ruled out of bounds are the exploitation of prisoners' phobias, the use of mind-altering drugs, hooding, forced nakedness, the use of dogs to frighten detainees, exposing prisoners to extreme heat and cold, physical assault and threatening the use of such techniques against a prisoner or a prisoner's family.

Several psychologists declared that these methods are not only physically and psychologically damaging to both inmates and captors but also counterproductive for obtaining useful intelligence. Data from several wars and from a range of criminal justice settings show that once prisoners start to fear for their lives and safety, they start trying to guess what their captors want to hear, and the resulting bad information is often worse than having no information at all, several psychologists said.

The move follows similar decisions by other professional associations, such as the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association. But psychologists play an unusual role in that they widely serve both in a clinical role -- involving the treatment of sick prisoners -- and as researchers of human behavior. The decision came after days of heated protests at the 115th annual meeting of the APA. Protesters, some wearing orange jumpsuits, urged the experts to disassociate themselves entirely from the Bush administration's detention facilities.

The association decided against a blanket measure that would have kept psychologists from working in interrogation facilities altogether. Many critics of that measure, including several government experts, said that psychologists play an essential role in these settings, both in terms of safeguarding detainees and in helping to debunk the belief that coercion and humiliation are effective interrogation tactics.

"If we lose psychologists from these facilities, people are going to die," said U.S. Army Col. Larry James, chief of the department of psychology at the Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, just before the APA's Council of Representatives took a vote.

There were several references to the hit television show "24" in the psychologists' debate. It routinely depicts abusive techniques used to elicit information from prisoners, usually in "ticking time bomb" scenarios.

"I find the interrogation scenes in the television show '24' repulsive, absurd and even idiotic," said Katherine Sherwood, a civilian interrogator for the Department of Defense who spoke at the convention. "If I am talking to a bombmaker, I am not trying to get him to tell me he is a bombmaker. I want him to tell me what students he trained, what their nationalities are, what materials he used and who was funding the project."

Such Hollywood scenarios, Sherwood said, fail to recognize that the central utility of interrogations is in building a lattice of interconnections that can inform military and civilian policymakers.

"Interrogations are about gathering breadth or depth of information," Sherwood said. "It is not about getting to a single moment of a confession."

Several other experts at the psychologists' convention, including Stephen Behnke, director of the APA's ethics office, said successful interrogations are almost always about building a relationship with a prisoner -- a relationship that is impossible to build when the prisoner is being subjected to stress, humiliation or abuse.

Interrogation policies at U.S. detention facilities went astray when officials decided to apply techniques developed to train U.S. troops to deal with torture if they were captured, said Air Force Reserve Col. Steven Kleinman.

Such techniques, developed under a military program known as SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape), were meant to toughen soldiers against abuse. The techniques were never designed to help interrogators elicit useful information from prisoners, added Eric Anders, a psychoanalyst at the convention who is a graduate of the SERE program.

Neil Altman, a clinical psychologist at New York University, who had pushed to get psychologists out of detention facilities altogether, praised the APA for laying out what was prohibited. But he said the measure still allows psychologists to remain in facilities that are inherently "cruel, inhumane and degrading."

Leonard S. Rubenstein, executive director of the group Physicians for Human Rights, said the psychologists had fooled themselves into thinking their continued presence at detention facilities would make a difference when they were actually playing only a support role.

"It is unfortunate the APA did not recognize you cannot practice ethical psychology in interrogation settings in the context of pervasive violation of human rights," he said.

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