Gitmo is a "Rights-Free Zone": Dissident Psychologists Speak Out on APA Role in CIA-Pentagon Torture

August 07, 2015

We broadcast from Toronto, Canada, site of the annual convention of the largest group of psychologists in the world, the American Psychological Association. Ahead of a vote on a resolution to bar psychologists from participating in national security interrogations, the Psychologists for Social Responsibility hosted a town hall meeting. We feature highlights.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: "Waterboarding" by Jonathan Mann. In 2009, he wrote a song a day for the entire year. This is song 109. The lyrics are from the actual torture memos of the Bush administration.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from Toronto, Canada, the site of the convention of the largest group of psychologists in the world, the American Psychological Association. The group’s Council of Representatives is scheduled to vote today on a resolution to bar psychologists from participating in national security interrogations. Ahead of the vote, Psychologists for Social Responsibility hosted a town hall meeting at Saint Andrew’s Presbyterian Church here in Toronto last night. These are some of the voices from the gathering. We begin with Widney Brown of Physicians for Human Rights.

WIDNEY BROWN: There needs to be a very strict rule excluding psychologists, as other health associations have done, from participation in interrogations. It’s quite simple. A concept of a harm reduction model simply does not work when one person is trying to hurt another. That is why doctors do not engage and monitor to keep torture victims alive, why they do not engage in helping with executions. When the underlying act is about harm to another, harm reduction models simply do not work. And it is critically important that no one in a health professional engage in that.

The second thing that the American Psychological Association really needs to do is, I think, in particular, revise its ethical standards to be the highest possible standards. The weakening in the standards was utterly unconscionable, and the time now is to really say that the American Psychological Association needs to lead in what the standards should be to be the absolute strongest and the best.

I want to talk about why it matters for people who have not particularly engaged in this issue. In the healing profession, we can never be silent witnesses to human rights violations and abuses of other people. I work for an organization that is both about people in the health professions and about human rights. And human rights is ultimately about the inherent dignity and equality of everyone. It is not about torture. It’s not about corruption. It’s not about self-aggrandizement. It is about that inherent respect for everyone.

Which brings me to the third point, which is really justice for the victims. We’ve mentioned Abu Ghraib today. We’ve mentioned the black sites run by the CIA. We’ve mentioned Guantánamo. And of course there’s also Bagram Air Force Base, where so much of this torture happened. In Guantánamo Bay alone, 780 men and boys, children in their early teens, have gone through Guantánamo Bay. And every one of them, including those who have been cleared for release and released, have been denied any access to justice for what happened to them. And to be absolutely clear, Guantánamo Bay is a rights-free zone. It remains a rights-free zone. And the interrogations that happened there are unlawful because the entire system of detention in Guantánamo Bay is unlawful.

In human rights, it is absolutely clear that torture is not just completely prohibited, along with cruel and inhuman, degrading treatment and punishment, but there is an imperative of all states to investigate and prosecute those responsible for torture. That’s how strong the prohibition is. And yet, we have this language about moving forward, recognizing the circumstances in which this happened, people being patriots, the defense of their engaging in torture. What that sends is a message of, "Yes, we know it’s unlawful. Yes, we know it’s absolutely prohibited. But, wink wink, when you need to, you can get away with it. And the next time it has to happen, you’ll get away with it again." That is not the United States that I want to live in. It’s not a world I want to live in. I want a world in which people’s dignity and equality is what is valued, and when those who abuse their power use their power to harm people, that they are held accountable. It’s the only way we will create a truly just world. Thank you.

BRAD OLSON: You all know about Roy Eidelson’s writings, and you’ve probably seen his videos, and he even has a political cartoon. I’m hoping he’s going to do more of that. And so, Roy Eidelson.

ROY EIDELSON: Two hundred years ago, Mary Shelley wrote a novel about a young doctor who pursues a reckless path of science unmoored from values and ambition unrestrained by conscience. Dr. Frankenstein brings to life a hideous monster, made of body parts collected from slaughterhouses, dissecting rooms and graveyards. And it does not end well. In certain ways, and not alone, over a decade ago, the leaders of the American Psychological Association also unleashed a monster, and for much of the same reason—the seemingly unbridled pursuit of greater power, influence and prestige. And as we know, this, too, has not turned out well at all.

The damage was first apparent in the anguished cries from the dark cells of CIA black sites in Guantánamo Bay, and it has radiated from there, eating away at our once proud profession. Human rights and psychology’s "do no harm" ethics go hand in hand, but both are fragile, and only one can protect the other. After 9/11, the APA may not have been able to single-handedly stop the government’s bull rush toward brutality, but it didn’t have to feed the beast. In painful and indisputable detail, the long-awaited Hoffman Report has carefully documented the APA’s collusion with the Department of Defense in support of operations profoundly at odds with our profession’s respect for human dignity. Yet, in recent days, and perhaps not surprisingly, we’ve witnessed a concerted effort by some to discredit the Hoffman Report, and to thereby resurrect the wobbling reputations of the colluders it has named. Among the defenses now being offered is a familiar one: "We must not forget the context of the times," they say.

Well, if those seeking to escape accountability want us to recall the context, let’s do just that. For example, picture the White House Rose Garden almost a decade ago. That morning, a reporter asked a question about torture, in light of the Supreme Court’s Hamdan decision. And this was President Bush’s response: quote, "The Supreme Court’s ... said that we must conduct ourselves under the Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention, and that Common Article ... says that, you know, there will be no outrages upon human dignity. That’s like—it’s very vague. What does that mean, 'outrages upon human dignity'? That’s a statement that is wide open to interpretation." That’s an example of the context, plain and simple, in which APA leaders locked arms with the Pentagon and CIA, and embraced our government’s abusive interrogation program.

According to reliable accounts, years ago, peace activist Daniel Berrigan gave the world’s shortest commencement speech—only seven words—to a graduating high school class in New York City. What he said was this: "Know where you stand, and stand there." I feel very thankful to everyone who has helped us reach this crucial moment of truth, this fork in the road together. And I look forward to working together to overcome the obstacles and challenges that undoubtedly still lie ahead. As we do so, let’s continue to know where to stand, and stand there. Thank you.

ALICE LOCICERO: My name is Alice Locicero. I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’m a clinical psychologist, and I have taught, trained, supervised thousands of psychology students. I personally would like psychologists completely out of the military. I’d like us to end recruiting. I find it very disturbing that a high percentage of the recruiters at APA conventions are military and security agencies. I’ve also been very interested with some of my colleagues over the inconsistencies within APA regarding psychologists working in military settings and military psychologists. Just to be really clear, 7 percent of psychologists are paid completely by the Department of Defense and 5 percent by the Veterans Administration.

The American Psychological Association in recent years has been very, very active in encouraging students to become military psychologists. They have advocated for huge signing bonuses. The internship salaries are enormous for military psychologists. And at the same time, what I’ve learned—some of my colleagues and I have done some studies, and what we’ve learned is that clinical psychology doctoral students are not—by and large, not being taught anything about ethics in military settings. And they’re also not being taught how to deal with conflict between—what to do if you’re given an order that is to do something that’s unethical. And they’re not being taught anything about the international treaties and how those might guide psychologists, provide guidance if they were given in order that was unethical.

I would say very quickly that if you’re a military psychologist, your allegiances are often split. And just to keep perspective on size and budget, the American Psychological Association budget for 2014 was $112 million. The Department of Defense budget was over $500 billion, and that’s without special allocations. It’s an order of magnitude of about one to 4,000. So, you know, when we think about doing moral leadership, which is what I understand people here are doing, it’s a big job, and it really requires a lot of inspiration. Thank you.

DEBORAH POPOWSKI: My name is Deborah Popowski. I’m an attorney. I’m a human rights lawyer. I teach human rights at Harvard Law School. This movement and this moment is pivotal, not only for psychology, but for the entire movement of accountability and against torture and for justice and, I think, for this country.

As I was saying, I hitched my wagon to you because I saw that you were visionary, and I thought you were effective—and I’m glad to know that I was right—but also because as a student of—a scholar of transitional justice and torture accountability and post-torture moments, I saw that what you were doing made sense. I’m from Argentina originally. I’m the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. So the story of medicalized torture is something that I grew up learning about. And the idea that you need to wrestle with the professions as a key component to ending and to preventing torture just made sense.

So I came here today because I was hoping to see history being made. When I tell my fellow advocates, other attorneys, other human rights lawyers what is on the table on the vote tomorrow and the enormous achievements that you all have been able to achieve, people are starstruck. And I think that you just need to know that you have our—that all eyes are on you, and you have—a lot of hope is with you. So I hope that you will do that, that you will pass the proposal.

And also, to the question—a gentleman earlier said, "Why bother?" And we talked about why bother with the APA, and there’s a lot of talk about the profession, which I think makes a lot of sense. But I would say if you’re not doing it for the profession, do it for the people who were tortured. There are men who have long been released whose lives are still devastated, some men who cannot seek mental help because of the sense of betrayal of psychologists, and their understanding and their knowledge of the role of psychologists. And that is wreaking havoc on them and their family. So, I would say, do it for them, and stay in the fight for them and for their families. And then, also, really, as you move forward with this fight, think about what else we all can do to help repair the harm that goes beyond reforming these codes and beyond the policies, and also how we can bring their stories, their presence. I mean, I wish Omar Khadr could be here today or tomorrow speaking to the council about his story.

BEN DAVIS: My name’s Ben Davis. I’m a law professor in Toledo, Ohio. I was teaching a class on 9/11 down in Fort Worth, Texas, which is where the American Airlines hub is. I had students who had families on planes, who were pilots, who ran out of class. It was a dispute resolution class. They were very troubled, worried, obviously, about what happened to their family members. I had the choice as a professor to cancel the class in the middle of this, but I got this idea in my head to tell the students, "OK, in the book today, we talk about how do you negotiate with Middle Eastern terrorists, and now you’ve got to go talk to George Bush and advise him on what he should do. And we’re all under the emotion of 9/11 here."

And various people wanted to beat people up and all that stuff, but I was always struck by this older student who was a Navy veteran, who said, "The first thing we have to do is figure out what our values are, and then we can decide on the kind of strategy that we want to take." And the thing that I think that has been very unfortunate with all this since that day was that that first step of actually looking at what are our American values was not taken, in the panic that these people who were running the government had. And the dark side always shows its face quickly then, and they went down that path.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ben Davis of the University of Toledo College of Law and others speaking at a town hall meeting here in Toronto, Canada, last night, hosted by Psychologists for Social Responsibility. Today, the American Psychological Association, that’s the largest association of psychologists in the world—over a 130,000 of them—their Council of Representatives is scheduled to vote on a resolution to bar psychologists from participating in national security interrogations. The discussion has just commenced as we broadcast this program. You can get an update at through the day.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the Republican presidential debate. Stay with us.

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