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Home Featured American Psychological Association beats back military psychologists

American Psychological Association beats back military psychologists

After torture collusion report, humanitarian orgs and progressive members unite to support ban at psychologists in Guantanamo Bay, black sites.

Psychologist Dan Aalbers

On Wednesday the leadership council of the American Psychological Association (APA) voted by an overwhelming 61-33% to keep its current policy prohibiting members from working for the military in Guantanamo or any site where torture has taken place. Military psychologists had sought to rescind the policy during the APA convention meeting in San Francisco this week.

Several hundred APA leaders and rank and file members gathered for an intense debate in a hotel ballroom. They experienced parliamentary maneuvers and a decision to go into executive session in order to exclude the press.

Progressive psychologists supporting the ban had organized for several weeks, gathering letters of support from Amnesty International, and over a dozen other human rights groups and prominent individuals.  

Psychologist Dan Aalbers

“Support from the human rights groups played an important role in swaying the vote,” according to Dan Aalbers, a psychologist who helped form APAwatch: Alliance for an Ethical APA.

Fearing they might lose the vote, military psychologists attempted to postpone the decision by calling for a taskforce to study the issue. That parliamentary maneuver was defeated in a 55-45% vote.

Military psychologists argued that they simply wanted to change APA policy to allow military psychologists to counsel detainees in places such as Guantanamo. Sally Harvey, a former Army psychologist, said counseling is separate from interrogation.

“As a group we (military psychologists) are just as committed to ethics as anyone in this room,” Harvey said.

Upholders of the current APA resolutions argued that military psychologists must obey orders from their superiors and face an inevitable conflict of interest counseling detainees who are also being interrogated by the military and CIA, who sometimes used torture.

Political psychologist Arthur Kendall. Photo by Reese Erlich

“Psychologists should not work for the same boss as the guards,” said Arthur Kendall, a political psychologist who attended the discussion.

The APA has a sordid history regarding torture and abuse at Army and CIA prisons.

History of Torture

The U.S. military has a long history of using torture, dating back at least to the Spanish American war, when U.S. troops first used waterboarding.

The CIA widely used torture and murder as part of its infamous Operation Phoenix program during the Vietnam War.

Under President Bill Clinton, the CIA kidnapped and tortured suspected terrorists at secret prisons outside the United States. After September 11, the George W. Bush administration vastly expanded the program.

The CIA seized suspected terrorists, tortured and held them without trial in secret sites in Afghanistan, the Middle East and eastern Europe, a program euphemistically called “extraordinary rendition.”

Former Army psychologist Sally Harvey. Photo by Reese Erlich

Gina Haspel, now director of the CIA, oversaw a CIA black site in Thailand and later helped destroy video tape evidence showing the CIA use of waterboarding.

“People were caught up in the idea that everything is different after September 11,” said Alice LoCicero, president of the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict and Violence, a division of APA. “Psychologists were also caught up in that, and that was part of the problem.”

In 2002 the APA changed its Ethics Code to allow psychologists who faced a conflict between ethical obligations and military orders to participate in torture to chose either, depending on their own conscience.

But progressive psychologists fought back and over a period of many years managed to change APA policies. In 2010, they eliminated the 2002 resolution.

Progressives wanted to make sure that psychologists didn’t condone torture under the guise of providing counseling to detainees. In 2015 the APA passed a resolution prohibiting military psychologists from counseling detainees in facilities where international or U.S. law is violated.

Can psychologists insure against abuse?

In response, the Department of Defense (DoD) stopped military psychologists from counseling detainees in Guantanamo. The APA’s Committee on Legal Issues argued the APA should change its policy because the presence of trained psychologists will insure against abuse.

“Psychologists can provide guidance on best practices to promote the humane treatment of detainees during efforts to gather information from these individuals,” the Committee wrote in a memo to the Board of Directors.

Progressive activist Aalbers said, as a practical matter, individual military psychologists have not refused orders to participate in torture sessions.

“None of the people who served at Guantanamo or the black sites have been held responsible for witnessing or participating in torture,” he said.

The APA experienced a small example of those conflicting loyalties during the Council of Representatives debate. An active duty Navy psychologist was scheduled to speak to the Council, but refused because reporters would be recording her presentation. She needed to get permission from superior officers in order to be quoted in the media.

So the Council voted to go into executive session, thus excluding the press, and allowing the military psychologist to speak.


Freelance reporter Reese Erlich’s book The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story from Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with US Policy ­will be published in September. Follow him on Twitter, @ReeseErlich; friend him on Facebook; and visit his webpage.