Independent news has never been so important.

Did you know that you can get Democracy Now! delivered to your inbox every day? Sign up for our Daily News Digest today! Don't worry, we'll never share or sell your information.

American Psychological Association Rejects Blanket Ban on Participation in Interrogation of U.S. Detainees

Media Options

The American Psychological Association (APA) has voted to reject overwhelmingly a measure that would have banned its members from participating in interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. detention centers. While not banning psychologists from participating in interrogations, the council approved a resolution prohibiting involvement in interrogations that use at least 14 specified methods, including sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation and mock executions. Democracy Now! was in San Francisco this weekend covering the APA convention. We begin with correspondent Mark Benjamin. [includes rush transcript]

Related Story

StoryJan 11, 2022Guantánamo Turns 20: Ex-Prisoner Moazzam Begg Calls on Biden to Close Site & End Legacy of Torture
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The American Psychological Association has voted to overwhelmingly reject a measure that would have banned its members from participating in interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. detention centers. The vote took place at the association’s annual convention this weekend here in San Francisco. With close to 150,000 members, the APA is the largest body of psychologists in the world. Unlike the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association allows its members to participate in detainee interrogations.

The issue came to a head this weekend during the association’s annual convention. A special series of sessions on ethics and interrogations was held over the three days with panel members that included psychologists, military interrogators, attorneys and human rights activists. The sessions led up to the vote on Sunday by the APA’s policymaking council.

While not banning psychologists from participating in interrogations, the council approved a resolution prohibiting involvement in interrogations that use at least 14 specified methods, including sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation and mock executions. APA representatives argue the presence of psychologists keeps interrogations safe and prevents abuse.

But in recent months a string of exposes in, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker have revealed psychologists have played a key role in designing the CIA’s torture tactics. Outraged APA members initially introduced a moratorium resolution that called for an outright ban on participation.

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for He has been closely following this story over the years and has attended this weekend’s APA conference. Mark Benjamin joins us now here in San Francisco. Welcome to Democracy Now!

MARK BENJAMIN: Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Mark, can you explain what exactly happened?

MARK BENJAMIN: Well, the first issue that the psychologists had to wrestle with is whether or not they will participate in interrogations outright. There are psychologists who believe that by participating in interrogations at places like Guantanamo, where there’s not due process, habeas corpus, that sort of thing, that that is contributing to a situation where there’s cruel and inhuman treatment. And, in fact, in 2006 doctors and psychiatrists barred themselves from those interrogations completely. The psychologists this weekend chose not to take that step. They chose that they would still participate in interrogations, arguing that they have this role as keeping interrogations safe, and so on and so forth.

But there was a separate issue happening this weekend at the psychologist convention. And the elephant in the room really was the CIA. And what has happened is, what psychologists chose to do was to come out and ban, as you mentioned, a series of specific interrogation methods: mock executions, waterboarding, that sort of thing. The $64,000 question that’s out there is: What is the significance of what is an apparent loophole in what the psychologists passed? People who follow the CIA’s interrogation tactics know that they specialize in two techniques that leave no physical marks: sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation. Now, for decades the CIA has been honing these into real frightening and brutal tactics. I mean, they can get somebody to hallucinate in 48 hours, and their sense of identity starts to break down.

What the psychologists have passed is a ban — there’s an outright ban on all these tactics, until it comes to those key techniques, sensory deprivation and sleep deprivation, where they’ve added — the psychologists have added, you can’t use them in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm or that represents significant pain or suffering. That language matches language, or is very similar to language, in a bill passed by Congress last year called the Military Commissions Act that contains a very similar loophole that attorneys believe has allowed the CIA program to continue. So the question here is: Have psychologists created a loophole that is going to allow the psychologists to continue to help the CIA use those tactics against detainees?

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re saying that what the APA passed actually goes along with the administration’s enhanced interrogation tactics?

MARK BENJAMIN: Well, that’s the question. I mean, the thing that the APA is not explaining very well is, why would you allow those tactics to be used at all. And, of course, if interrogations don’t work — and that’s what a lot of military interrogators believe — why would you put in language saying that the two techniques that the CIA relies on the most can be used, so long as the damage is not long-lasting? What’s long-lasting damage, mental damage? I mean, if I make you hallucinate and lose your sense of identity over three months, but I think you might recover in a lifetime, is that temporary damage? That’s the language that some attorneys believe that the CIA is going to exploit from last year’s Military Commissions Act, and similar language has appeared here in the APA’s ban, psychologists’ ban. So the question is: Have the psychologists played directly into the hand of the CIA?

AMY GOODMAN: Have they?

MARK BENJAMIN: That’s a good question. And this is not just an academic backwater debate. We learned a lot over the past year, as you mentioned, about psychologists’ role in developing the interrogation programs by the CIA. There are two psychologists who are under investigation by the Senate right now, Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, who allegedly helped reverse some brutal training tactics that we use on special forces soldiers — reverse, you know, sleep deprivation, mock executions, this kind of thing, waterboarding. They reverse-engineered those for use by the CIA, and those tactics also migrated to places like Guantanamo.

AMY GOODMAN: Their company based in Spokane, Washington.

MARK BENJAMIN: That’s correct. And so — and we also have a situation here, I would add, that the administration said recently in a new executive order last month, announcing that they would restart these CIA interrogations. One of the things that the president has emphasized is that there will be medical oversight for these coercive CIA interrogations. Now, the doctors and the psychiatrists have said they are not going to play ball. That only leaves psychologists. So the question of what the psychologists decide to do here is very, very important. Presumably, what the president is referring to in medical oversight is that psychologists will be in the room or outside the room, and now the psychologists have passed something that appears to allow them to help the CIA do what they want to do.

AMY GOODMAN: It might surprise people to know the extent of involvement in the military that psychologists have had over the years and the close connections between the APA — the staff, the American Psychological Association — and military intelligence. Why are they so intermeshed, or, as one psychologist said last night at the town hall meeting, which we’ll play excerpts of, “embedded” in the military?

MARK BENJAMIN: There was a very significant representation in the American Psychological Association of people who work in the military. I mean, there were people at this meeting, as you saw this weekend, in uniform, people that are consultants to the military. It’s a significant representation of what they do. And it’s not that they don’t have an argument. You know, there is a very compelling argument that in an interrogation that is not coercive, that is based on building rapport, a psychologist can help an interrogator build that rapport and get useful information. So it’s not that that’s a ridiculous argument. It’s that that argument is taking place in an atmosphere where the administration has stepped forward and said, we are bent on doing coercive interrogations, regardless of whether the military says they’re effective or not. And so, the question is, what is the role for psychologists?

AMY GOODMAN: The significance of Colonel Larry James coming to this from Guantanamo and who he is? He came to the APA meeting yesterday and spoke out.

MARK BENJAMIN: Well, Larry James is a psychologist who worked at Guantanamo during the year of 2003. He certainly has portrayed himself as a whistleblower down at Guantanamo, and there’s some debate about whether that’s true or not. You know, again, I think that the elephant in the room, as I said, is the CIA here. Now, we have to understand the military — some very bad things happened at Guantanamo and other places. But late last year, the military came out with a new interrogation manual, saying we’re out of the torture business. They’re embracing the Geneva Conventions. And we’ve got the CIA saying something arguably very, very different. The CIA argues it’s within the Geneva Conventions, but many, many, many attorneys disagree. So we’ve got these military people, you know, saying that they’re doing the right thing now, and that’s wonderful to hear. But we’ve got another branch of the federal government saying something very different. And the question is, you know, does the United States involve itself in torture and cruel, inhuman treatment, or doesn’t it?

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the ACLU released a letter calling on the APA, before it did not pass the — yesterday’s resolution, that said that psychologists who continue to be involved in these U.S. detention centers, like at Guantanamo, calling on the APA to stop, saying that they could be criminally prosecuted. Yet they did not go for any kind of moratorium on psychologist involvement.

MARK BENJAMIN: Yeah, and that’s one of the debates that happened this weekend. You know, so if a psychologist is participating in interrogations at Guantanamo, perhaps those interrogations are rapport-building, they’re perfectly peaceful, they’re not coercive, but you’ve got a situation where psychologists are supporting the military in an atmosphere where there is no habeas corpus, there is no due process, and so on and so forth. Are the psychologists simply supporting a regime established by Bush administration that doesn’t give people — that’s, you know, inhuman? And that was, I think, a really heated debate, and I think psychologists are really torn there. I mean, there’s an argument that they at least are helping those interrogations stay peaceful and helping them be productive. And then there are psychologists who really feel that they’re just contributing to a very bad situation.

AMY GOODMAN: Tremendous anger yesterday, as the moments were counting down to the council voting on this major decision about whether psychologists would be involved in interrogations, with the language continuing to change on the different drafts that people didn’t see at the very end.

MARK BENJAMIN: That’s right. And then I was very surprised at how little discussion there was. We talked about this loophole that could be interpreted as a CIA loophole, where you can do sensory deprivation and sleep deprivation, the CIA especially, unless the effects are long-lasting. Very little discussion about that.

I also would add that, you know, while some psychologists made some very compelling arguments about how they could help in peaceful interrogations, the APA has not done a good job, as far as I can tell, of explaining why you would do something. Why would you put an alleged loophole in there? There doesn’t seem to be any reason. They were under real pressure from human rights groups — Physicians for Human Rights was putting real pressure on these guys to take this language out, because they were afraid it was a CIA loophole. Nobody has explained, as far as I can tell, why you would put a loophole in a resolution like this. It doesn’t seem to make any sense.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Mark Benjamin, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Mark Benjamin writes for, has been exposing a lot around the issue of interrogations and psychologists’ involvement.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Next story from this daily show

APA Interrogation Task Force Member Dr. Jean Maria Arrigo Exposes Group’s Ties to Military

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation