After media allegations of psychologists’ role in torture, senior resignations, accusations of rigged committee votes and underhand tactics, a partial condemnation, a clarification, an ‘anti-torture’ candidate standing for the presidency and the forcing of a referendum, the American Psychological Association has finally and unequivocally banned participation of its members in military interrogations after a popular vote.
The debate has largely been sparked by the existence of psychology-led Behavioural Science Consultation Teams (aka ‘biscuit teams‘) in Guantanamo Bay who study inmates and recommend ‘personalised’ interrogation techniques – some of which were described as “tantamount to torture” in a leaked report from the International Committee of the Red Cross and explicitly condemned as torture by the United Nations.
The text of the new resolution states that “psychologists may not work in settings where persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law (e.g., the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the US Constitution (where appropriate), unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights”.
The effect of the ban on these practices is questionable, however, and the influence is more likely to be at the organisational level.
Despite the psychiatric and medical associations’ immediate and unequivocal ban on their members’ participation in ‘war on terror’ interrogations, the complicity of medical staff is widely reported.
The fact that APA membership is optional for many psychologists and that most of the contested interrogations occur in secret or closed facilities means that disciplining individual psychologists will remain difficult at best.
However, the ban will mean that the APA will find it difficult to show any public support for the role of psychology in interrogations, and, perhaps more importantly, to make explicit organisational links between the psychologists’ governing body and the US intelligence services.
Some have speculated that the two years of APA heel dragging suggest a more chummy relationship with the military than has been admitted publicly and this new ban may be a bigger blow than is obvious if this turns out to be true.