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Referendum on Torture: Debate Over Role of Psychologists in Military Interrogations Comes to a Head at APA Annual Convention

StoryAugust 18, 2008
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The debate over the role that psychologists should play in military interrogations heated up this weekend at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association. After years of back-and-forth discussion and several resignations from the association, APA members are now voting on a referendum that could make any participation in coercive prisoner interrogations a violation of their code of ethics. Meanwhile, California became the first state in the nation to officially condemn the participation of health professionals — including psychologists — in coercive interrogations of prisoners in the so-called war on terror. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: The debate over the role that psychologists should play in military interrogations heated up this weekend at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, or the APA. Over a hundred people were at a rally Saturday urging the APA to explicitly ban its members from participating in interrogations of prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, Afghanistan and the secret CIA black sites.

After years of debate and numerous resignations from the association, APA members are now voting on a referendum that would make any participation in detainee interrogations a violation of their code of ethics.

Dissident psychologist Steven Reisner, a co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, is also one of the leading candidates for the APA presidency. He spoke at Saturday’s rally in Boston.

    DR. STEVEN REISNER: […] exists for one reason. It exists to prohibit psychologist participation at sites, by their very existence which violate international law and human rights and perpetrate war crimes. The sites — let me give you an example. In the fall of 2002, the CIA were looking to capture Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and when they went to where they thought he was, they found his two children there instead, two boys, aged seven and nine, whom they captured instead and brought them to a CIA black site, where they were held both, at first, to pressure their father to give up, to get information from them about his whereabouts, and later on, after he was captured, they kept them there to pressure their father into talking. When the people who were holding the children of Mohammed were asked about their care, they said, “They are being overseen by child psychologists. They are being given the best of care.”

    When I hear that story, when I hear about psychologists participating in CIA black sites in the kidnapping of children, I know that something is wrong in the state of psychology and how psychology is being used. At this moment, there is no policy at the APA that prohibits psychologists from being present and behaving in that manner at CIA black sites, even though — and I have this on the word — I spoke to the UN rapporteur on torture from the UN Committee Against Torture, and I asked him whether participating in the operations, whether participating in what is taking place at CIA black sites, where people are being disappeared, is that a war crime? And he said that is prosecutable as acquiescence to a war crime. And yet, to this day, that is not a violation of APA policy or ethics on psychologist behavior. This referendum has a clear intent, and it is to stop participation in war crimes and human rights violations in the name of national security and psychology around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Psychologist Steve Reisner, running for presidency of the American Psychological Association. He was speaking at a rally outside the APA convention this weekend in Boston. This year’s convention comes on the heels of a string of revelations that psychologists played a key role in designing the CIA’s so-called “enhanced” interrogation techniques.

Last week, lawyers for the Afghan Guantanamo prisoner Mohammad Jawad asserted that a psychologist had recommended a month-long isolation program that allegedly drove Jawad to attempt suicide. But the psychologist refused to testify, invoking the military equivalent of the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Independent filmmaker and writer for The Nation, Ross Tuttle, asked APA Ethics Office director, Dr. Stephen Behnke, about the significance of this development.

    DR. STEPHEN BEHNKE: There’s been a report that has appeared that there was a psychologist who was involved in an abusive interrogation. I think we’re deeply concerned about that. We’ve been very clear that the acts, as they have been reported on a blog, would be against our professional rules, and we will take a very close look at that. We have jurisdiction only over our members. But whenever a psychologist is involved in any torture or abuse, that reflects on the entire profession.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Behnke and the APA leadership are opposed to the referendum that has currently been put forward.

We’re joined now by two guests who support the referendum. Stephen Soldz is a faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. He blogs at And Brad Olson is a faculty member at Northwestern University, also a member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. They join us from Boston. We’re also joined in Washington, D.C. by Leonard Rubinstein, who is the head of Physicians for Human Rights.

I want to first go to Brad Olson. You’re one of the authors of this referendum that the APA leadership has opposed that is now being voted on by the members of the American Psychological Association. Can you explain what it is?

DR. BRAD OLSON: Yes. The referendum is focused on the problem in Guantanamo Bay and the CIA black sites. I mean, these are settings that are against the law. I mean, they’re extralegal, extra illegal. And what we’re basically saying in this referendum, that psychologists should work in these settings, but psychologists should not work in these settings when they’re working for the chain of command. We’d like to see psychologists from human rights organizations working with the International Committee of the Red Cross. So, basically, what the referendum is saying is that psychologists should work independently for the detainee or should not be at these settings at all.

JUAN GONZALEZ: If the referendum were passed, what direct effect would it have on the individual practices of these psychologists?

DR. BRAD OLSON: Well, the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association, back prior to the American Psychological Association’s policy, they made very similar policies that basically said physicians and psychiatrists should not play a role in these national security interrogations. And we had the Department of Defense say that they preferred psychologists in these behavioral science consultation roles. So, what we’re hoping to is we’re hoping in 2008 to get back to where we should have been in 2005.

AMY GOODMAN: Leonard Rubinstein in Washington, D.C. with Physicians for Human Rights, the significance of this referendum in the broader picture in this country around the issue of torture?

LEONARD RUBINSTEIN: Well, the referendum, in the broad picture, is really whether we’re going to have psychologists and other health professionals participate in disorienting, breaking down, destroying detainees as part of the interrogation process. We know very clearly now from documents from the Pentagon that the behavior management plans at Guantanamo were designed to exploit and enhance disorientation or disorganization of the personality, and that was done through isolation and other means and that psychologists were at the center of this.

The problem is that it’s not enough, as the APA has said, “Don’t participate in torture, don’t use these techniques.” We have had a system in which the entire purpose of the system was to break people down. It’s like telling people to go to a slaughterhouse and advise the people killing the animals and advise them not to hurt the animals. It’s an impossible position to say, “You can participate, so long as you don’t harm,” when the entire system is designed to inflict harm.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Leonard Rubinstein, what about the issue of the liability or the responsibility of psychologists, in terms of the Geneva Conventions or internationally accepted rules of behavior for psychologists?

LEONARD RUBINSTEIN: Well, the problem is that the structure and the system invited violations of all those standards, whether they were international ethical standards or international legal standards like the Geneva Conventions. And try as the association might to carve out a role that enables psychologists to participate without being engaged in the violations is an impossible task.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and when we come back, we will also be joined by a California state legislator, Mark [Ridley- Thomas], who sponsored a resolution that just got passed by the California legislature that prohibits members of the health profession from participating in coercive interrogations. This is Democracy Now!,, the War and Peace Report. We’ll be joined by all of our guests in just a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: California has just became the first state in the nation to officially condemn the participation of health professionals, including psychologists, in coercive interrogations of prisoners in the so-called war on terror. Senate Joint Resolution 19, which passed in the state legislature Thursday, instructs the state’s licensing boards to inform California health professionals they may one day be subject to prosecution if they participate in interrogations that don’t conform with international standards of treatment of prisoners.

The resolution was introduced by Democratic State Senator from Los Angeles, Mark Ridley-Thomas. Senator Ridley-Thomas joins us now on the phone from Los Angeles.

Can you talk about what inspired you to introduce this legislation and the significance of the state legislature adopting it?

SEN. MARK RIDLEY-THOMAS: Well, thanks very much. I’m glad to do so. This was brought to our attention by the American Friends Services Committee, the Physicians for Social Responsibility and a campaign sponsored by Californians to Stop the Torture. And it seems to me that it is entirely appropriate, in light of the radical departure from international, federal and state law initiated by the Bush administration, that made it more possible and tolerable for physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, dentists, nurses, just the whole range of those in the helping profession, health professions, to become complicit. And we deemed it appropriate to call it to the attention of the nation and start in the California state legislature, and I’m pleased that my colleagues, albeit on a partisan vote, chose to send this message to all our licensees. And it will be significant.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, this was a resolution. Would it have any actual impact on the licensing of psychologists in California who violated it, the spirit or the intent of the resolution?

SEN. MARK RIDLEY-THOMAS: The resolution is very clear in that regard. It makes it abundantly clear that any California licensee is subject to prosecution, and obviously then they could lose their license, pursuant to it being determined that they participated in any way in acts of torture.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Steve Soldz, faculty member at Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, co-founder of Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. Can you talk about the significance of what California has done and then the significance of this referendum that is now being voted on by members of the American Psychological Association?

DR. STEPHEN SOLDZ: Well, the California resolution is a landmark one. It establishes a clear line that health professionals have no role in this organized system of abuse that our government has been perpetrating these last number of years. It is — though it is a resolution, it makes a clear public statement that the legislature and the citizens of California repudiate both the system of torture and the role of health professionals in it. The referendum in the American Psychological Association is a similar and parallel effort to try and get members of that association, psychologists, to make a similar statement, that we will not cooperate with this organized system of abuse that our country has constructed.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn back to Stephen Behnke, the director of the APA Ethics Office. He spoke near the rally on Saturday.

    DR. STEPHEN BEHNKE: Taking as a starting point everyone is against torture and abuse — there’s complete consensus on that point — the question then becomes, do you pursue a strategy of engagement or disengagement, of involvement or non-involvement?

    That question is the subject of deep debate within the association. Some of our members, many of whom are here today, feel that any engagement implies complicity with an illegitimate administration. Other members say, no, we must be very present for the very reasons that we have been called rebuking the administration’s policies, that we have to be clear and present where interrogations take place that an interrogation, ethical interrogation, never involves torture or abuse.

    Then we need to ask the question, can an interrogation be done in an ethical manner? If the answer to that question is no, the conversation stops, because if an interrogation can’t be done in an ethical manner, no one should be doing interrogations. If an interrogation can be done in an ethical manner, then we pose the question, what is the appropriate role for a psychologist in that process?

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dr. Stephen Behnke, a member of the APA leadership, which has opposed this referendum. Your response, Dr. Stephen Soldz?

DR. STEPHEN SOLDZ: Well, clearly interrogations can be done in an ethical manner. Veteran military interrogators that we have talked to — and we’ve talked to many of them — are aghast at what this administration is doing. But what they also say is many of them do not want psychologists there. They say they don’t help. And what one of these veteran interrogators I’ve talked to said, and I think it’s so clear, he says, “As a citizen, I don’t want psychologists. Your profession is based on a principle of ‘do no harm.’ Your job is to help people, to serve the public and help distressed people. If we have you here, that violates your professional ethics of ‘do no harm,’ and it’s a loss for all of us, because we can no longer count on your profession to uphold the highest ethical standards.” The medical doctors and psychiatrists have said that participation in interrogations violates the standard of “do no harm.” And psychologists have to do the same thing. We need that as citizens.

We’re hearing from soldiers in Iraq that they will not go to psychologists, some of them, because they’ve heard about their participation in interrogations, and there’s a lack of trust. Our profession needs that trust, that we will always look out for the good of people and not participate in efforts to break them down.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Brad Olson, assistant research professor at Northwestern University, about ten colleges and universities have gone on record as — the psychology departments — as opposing this kind of participation by psychologists in coercive interrogations, including Guilford College, Smith College, University of Rhode Island, California State at Long Beach. But that’s a very small group compared to the number of universities out there. Why have not more university psychology departments not taken a stand on this issue?

DR. BRAD OLSON: Well, those departments, really are just brave great people at those universities who decided to organize their own efforts in their departments. We really haven’t pushed an initiative in that area. But I think that’s exactly what’s happening here, that we’re seeing, and what we’re trying to do with the referendum is we’re really trying to bring it to the membership, because we know that the American Psychological Association’s governing body, council and their board are just really not — have come up with policy after policy that secures psychologists in these detention sites and in the interrogation role.

AMY GOODMAN: How is this different from last year when you put forward a resolution? How is this referendum different? And what does it mean that you’re now bringing it directly to the membership? How are people voting?

DR. BRAD OLSON: People are voting by September 15th. They’re getting a ballot in the mail right now, as we speak, and then they’re supposed to send that in September 15th. And the difference from the past resolution is this one focuses on settings. These are — I mean, the CIA black sites and Guantanamo Bay have, as we all know, just systemic harm. And so, what this is saying is that there is no role for psychologists at those sites unless those psychologists are focused directly on the detainees.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go back to the state legislator, Ridley-Thomas. Are you saying that, given the current guidelines, the American Psychological Association, a psychologist could be brought up on charges for participating in coercive interrogations at, say, Guantanamo?

SEN. MARK RIDLEY-THOMAS: That’s essentially what the resolution asserts, and it’s been transmitted by the secretary of the Senate to all of the boards that govern health professions. And we have sent this in a rather unequivocal way. It is also being sent to the federal government to cause them to know that we stand against torture and the participation of those whose oath causes them to do no harm. Yes, the resolution is being taken seriously by all the boards who are specifically affected by state law, in this instance, first, and then federal law and then obviously international law. We are very serious about this issue.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, at a hearing this June, the Armed Forces Senate Committee released a series of previously classified documents detailing how the Pentagon and the CIA transformed the military’s SERE resistance training program into a blueprint for interrogating terrorist suspects. Committee chair, Senator Carl Levin, explained the timeline of implementing the SERE, or Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape, techniques and the role of military psychologists in devising these routines.

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: On October 2nd, 2002, a week after John Rizzo, the acting CIA general counsel, visited Gitmo, a second senior CIA lawyer, Jonathan Fredman, who was chief counsel to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, went to Guantanamo, attended a meeting of Gitmo staff and discussed a memo proposing the use of aggressive interrogation techniques. That memo had been drafted by a psychologist and psychiatrist from Gitmo who a couple of weeks earlier had attended that training given at Fort Bragg by instructors by the SERE school.

AMY GOODMAN: Leonard Rubinstein, we only have about thirty seconds, but can you sum up right now the significance of the special role that psychologists have played, as opposed to medical doctors and psychiatrists?

LEONARD RUBINSTEIN: It’s been very unfortunate that psychologists were at the very heart of the design and implementation of the techniques of torture that have been used at Guantanamo and by the CIA and that that was part of an effort that was quite deliberate to destroy people as a way of getting information. It’s good that the American Psychological Association has come out against torture in very explicit ways, but their policy now is asking people to be heroic, that is, going to places where the policy is to destroy people and say —

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. Leonard Rubinstein, thanks for joining us, also Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas, Steve Soldz and Brad Olson.

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