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APA Members Hold Fiery Town Hall Meeting on Interrogation, Torture

StoryAugust 20, 2007
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After the vote by the APA Council of Representatives to reject the proposal that would have prohibited psychologists from participating in interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, several hundred APA members gathered for a town hall meeting on the issue. One by one dissident members took to the stage to voice their outrage. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go now to the town hall meeting that was held after the APA Council of Representatives voted to reject the proposal that would have prohibited psychologists from participating in interrogations at Guantanamo and elsewhere. Several dozen APA members gathered, a hundred in a room — more than a hundred. At the top of the agenda was the rejection of that measure and the adoption, instead, of a resolution.

The town hall meeting was kicked off by Douglas Haldeman, a member of the APA’s board of directors. He praised what he called a collaborative effort to pass the resolution.

DR. DOUGLAS HALDEMAN: The resolution that was ultimately passed today was one that included the Military Psychology Division, the Peace Psychology Division, the representatives from the Divisions for Social Justice, representatives from the New York State Psychological Association, and a number of other divisions, including consulting and counseling, and some consultation, as well, from the Ethics Committee.

AMY GOODMAN: While Dr. Haldeman painted the APA vote as a consensus, most of the members at the town hall meeting thought otherwise. One by one, they took to the stage to voice their outrage.

DAN AALBERS: My name is Dan Aalbers, and I am just another psychologist who thinks that the moral issue of our time has landed at our doorstep. I wanted to say just a few things. One, I think that there has not been today, or in these last number of years, enough discussion about the difference between the culture of science and the culture of an intelligence community. Scientists are committed to openness. Ultimately, what keeps us ethical is not our ethical code, is not our internal review boards, but it is that we publish our research, we present things at conferences, and ultimately, the last test on whether or not we have been ethical or not is public scrutiny. This is very different from an intelligence organization, which tends to want to control information. And there are these basic incompatibilities, I think, we have not addressed.

The second point I want to make is about this moratorium that did not pass. We have made an enormous mistake, and I think it’s — not only did we do the wrong thing morally, we did not act in our best interests. We are now standing against the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, the British Psychological Society, numerous human rights organizations, the U.N., the Council of Europe, and this detention and interrogation policy is going to go down. And once it does go down, we will find that we have secured the best cabin on the Titanic. Thank you.

DR. NANCY WECKER: Hi my name is Nancy Wecker. I’m in private practice in San Francisco. I just want to propose a conflict that we have. It’s like we’re embedded in the military, you know, like the journalists who are embedded in the war. That’s our problem. Most of our internships are all in the military, DOD or mostly the VA. So I think we have this problem with ethics are really highfalutin — you know, it’s hard for us to imagine people being tortured, for a lot of us. And then we have our affiliation and our loyalty. So, these are in conflict, and I think people couldn’t imagine, you know, withdrawing from our responsibilities and our teamwork with these people in the military, because of some highfalutin kind of ideals.

AMY GOODMAN: Not long after the town hall meeting had begun, the APA’s public affairs officer approached Democracy Now! and told us to stop filming. She said we could only tape 10 minutes and that we had passed our time limit. I got on the microphone and told the people gathered at the meeting what was happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Excuse me, just [inaudible] a point of procedure. We’re told that reporters are only allowed to record for 10 minutes, and Pamela Willenz of the APA said that she will call security on us now, because we’re going to be recording for more than 10 minutes. So I was wondering if there could be any sense of the meeting, or a rationale, since this is a town hall meeting, for not being allowed to record for more than 10 minutes.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: We want to vote.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: Can we vote to allow recording at the town hall meeting? Can we all vote to allow recording?


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: Can we vote to allow recording?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: We want the press to witness this.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 1: Can everyone who approves of allowing the reporters to record please raise your hand?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK, folks, the recording will continue through the session.

AMY GOODMAN: And with that we continued taping the town hall meeting. APA members were outspoken about their concerns. Retired Bay Area psychologist Carter Mehl criticized the APA leadership for not bringing the issue of interrogations to the forefront.

DR. CARTER MEHL: I don’t know quite where I stand on all of this, but I have to say I am more troubled by the fact — or the state is that I don’t feel that the leadership of APA made this very well known among the membership. This is a huge issue. It is, I think, the central issue of our country at this time, and I didn’t know about it. You know, I have to take responsibility. I didn’t dig. I will dig now. I will read this new resolution very carefully. I’m eager to see what it says.

But I’m most troubled by the things — I’ve been attending all of the sessions in this little workshop. And I was most disturbed by Jean Arrigo’s comments about her experience and the process of how the PENS report came about.

And I have to say I’m most disturbed at this meeting now about what we just experienced, about the press was going to be cut off. Why are we being secretive? I understand why the CIA needs to be secretive. We are a public organization. And I would like someone from APA leadership to explain their rationale, why they thought a town meeting like this should be cut off, that the press should be excluded after 10 minutes. I would really like to know. I’m trying to understand. That is my problem, is what is the leadership coming from? Thank you.

DR. STEVEN REISNER: My name is Steven Reisner. I’ve got a couple of questions. My first question — I just want to say that I’m sure many people in this room know that many of us are trying to grapple with the fact that the amendment wasn’t passed today, and I wanted to ask this group a question. I wanted to take another vote. The amendment states: “Be it resolved that the objectives of the APA shall be to advance psychology as a science and profession and as a means of promoting health, education and welfare. And therefore the roles of psychologists in settings in which detainees are deprived of adequate protection of their human rights should be limited as health personnel to the provision of psychological treatment.” How many are in favor? How many are opposed? I want to know why the Council of Representatives is so different in how it votes from the members of the American Psychological Association. So, that’s my first question.

My second question, following up on what Len Rubenstein asked. Len Rubenstein spoke about, if we are taking this resolution seriously, where we have to go as an organization. I would like to pose this differently. I would like to know, if we take this resolution seriously, where we are as an organization. I want to know — and there are ethicists in this room, there are people who were involved in the careful wording of this resolution — I want to know if passing this resolution prohibits psychologists from being involved in the enhanced interrogation techniques that the President of the United States authorized can take place at CIA black sites — enhanced. The APA leadership, many of the spokespeople for the APA position, has said that the APA only wants to use rapport-building interrogation techniques and that these techniques do no harm. Yet the President has authorized enhanced techniques, which means that they are more aversive than those techniques that are approved even in the Army Field Manual, which are no picnic. And I want to know from people here who know, the ethicist psychologists in this room who worked on this language: Does this resolution prohibit psychologists from participating in enhanced interrogations at CIA black sites?

I have 30 seconds. And I want to say one more thing. We, as an organization, have seen — the answer to this question of whether this resolution prohibits this participation goes to the essence of who we are as ethical psychologists. If we cannot say, “No, we will not participate in enhanced interrogations at CIA black sites,” I think we have to seriously question what we are as an organization and, for me, what my allegiance is to this organization, or whether we might have to criticize it from outside the organization at this point. I would very much like to be able to continue to call myself a member of the American Psychological Association, but it is only possible if the ethical standards of this association are something that I am willing to pay dues to.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Steven Reisner, a member of the Coalition for an Ethical APA, one of the leading voices calling for a moratorium on psychologist participation in interrogations. The APA leadership was largely absent from the town hall meeting, but finally, after numerous requests, the director of ethics at the APA, Dr. Stephen Behnke, got on stage to defend the resolution.

DR. STEPHEN BEHNKE: It’s clear that there is much difference of opinion about what APA should do, but please do read this document. I hope I can say that it is a positive step in the right direction. I know that it does absolutely not go as far as many people think APA ought to go. But I do think I can say on behalf of the association that we can all agree it is a step in the right direction.

And I just want to read one passage from that. It says — the passage I’d like to read says that: “Be it resolved the American Psychological Association affirms that there are no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether induced by a state of war or threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency that may be invoked as a justification for torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, including the invocation of laws, regulations and orders.”

But I also want to be very clear, that if you look at the language of the resolution — and again, I hope that everyone reads it — what it says is that, that this unequivocal condemnation includes all techniques defined as — and then is says, “This unequivocal condemnation includes, but is by no means limited to,” so that there are specific techniques identified, but that is not a closed set — very explicitly not a closed set.

One final point about the resolution. Again, I just encourage people to read it. But the Ethics Committee has been directed by counsel. It says: “Be it resolved that the APA Ethics Committee shall proceed forthwith in writing its casebook and commentary that shall set forth guidelines for psychology that are consistent with international human rights instruments.” And then it actually specifies what those instruments are. The first is Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention.

One of the things, the points in the discussion this morning that the chair of the Ethics Committee made very clear is that this issue is at the center of APA’s radar screen, and it is going to remain at the center for a very long time to come. And in writing the casebook and the commentary, the Ethics Committee is going to reach out to APA, to members and to you to get your involvement in that process. We realize that this has been an enormously difficult time for the association, that we want this process to be as open, as transparent and as participatory as it possibly can be.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Stephen Behnke, director of ethics at the American Psychological Association.

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