US psychologists snub CIA but scrap total ban

After much debate at the American Psychological Association conference a resolution was passed that condemns torture, bans psychologists from taking part in certain abusive activities, but still leaves significant grey areas for participation in contested CIA interrogation techniques.

The key section of the APA resolution is the following:

This unequivocal condemnation includes, but is by no means limited to, an absolute prohibition for psychologists against direct or indirect participation in interrogations or in any other detainee-related operations in mock executions, water-boarding or any other form of simulated drowning or suffocation, sexual humiliation, rape, cultural or religious humiliation, exploitation of phobias or psychopathology, induced hypothermia, the use of psychotropic drugs or mind-altering substances used for the purpose of eliciting information; as well as the following used for the purposes of eliciting information in an interrogation process: hooding, forced nakedness, stress positions, the use of dogs to threaten or intimidate, physical assault including slapping or shaking, exposure to extreme heat or cold, threats of harm or death; and isolation, sensory deprivation and over-stimulation and/or sleep deprivation used in a manner that represents significant pain or suffering or in a manner that a reasonable person would judge to cause lasting harm; or the threatened use of any of the above techniques to the individual or to members of the individual’s family;

The resolution is widely being interpreted as a snub to the CIA, but notably, participation in detainee “isolation, sensory deprivation and over-stimulation and/or sleep deprivation” are not specifically banned unless they are judged to cause “lasting harm” – without any clear definition of what this amounts to.

Salon points to a publicly available CIA interrogation manual from the 1960s that notes that these techniques quickly provoke hallucinations and stress that become “unbearable for most subjects” although the manual also notes a “profound moral objection to applying duress past the point of irreversible psychological damage.”

Some members were pressing for an outright ban in participation in all CIA interrogations, citing the whole process of internment without due process unethical, but this was not adopted by the APA, meaning the guidelines fall short of those already adopted by psychiatrists and physicians.

One notable aspect of this story is just how important it’s become. At the time of writing, Google News lists over 300 news items on the decision.

Much of the credit for this has to go to Salon who have followed the story since the beginning, at times catching APA with their pants down.

Their dogged investigations have obviously touched a nerve as they report that the APA president refused to answer questions from the publication when approached after a panel session.

Link to APA resolution.
Link to Salon article ‘Will psychologists still abet torture?’.
Link to APA press release on resolution.

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