Psychologists group weighs ban on military interrogations


The nation’s largest group of psychologists is set to decide what role, if any, its members can play in interrogating terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. military detention centers.

The American Psychological Association, which is holding its annual meeting in San Francisco, is scheduled to vote Sunday on two competing measures concerning its 148,000 members’ participation in military interrogations.

One proposal, which is backed by APA’s board of directors, would reaffirm the group’s opposition to torture and prohibit members from taking part in more than a dozen specific practices, including forced nakedness, mock executions and simulated drowning.

An APA member who violates the torture resolution could be expelled from the Washington-based organization, which could lead to the loss of the professional’s state license to practice, said spokeswoman Rhea Farberman.

The other measure would bar members from any involvement in interrogations at U.S. detention facilities where foreigners are held. The moratorium would not be backed by sanctions, but it would carry the APA’s “moral authority,” said psychologist Neil Altman, who wrote the proposed resolution.

The association’s vote follows reports that have implicated mental health specialists in prisoner abuse scandals at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Among other things, psychiatrists and psychologists are accused of helping interrogators increase prisoners’ stress levels by exploiting their fears.

A recently declassified Defense Department report said that since 2002 psychiatrists and psychologists have helped military interrogators develop new techniques to extract information from detainees.

Military interrogation has become a dominant issue at this year’s meeting of the APA, which represents most of the nation’s psychologists.

Psychologists for an Ethical APA, which supports the moratorium, rallied Friday outside the Moscone Center, where the conference is being held. Supporters wore buttons that read “Do No Harm” and carried signs condemning torture. A person in an orange jumpsuit and black hood stood in the middle of the crowd.

Moratorium backers say psychologists should not assist with interrogations where foreigners are held indefinitely and could be tortured because their involvement discredits the profession.

“We will not be satisfied until we get a resolution that says psychologists cannot be part of interrogations at sites where detainees’ human rights are being violated,” said New York psychologist Steven Reisner.

Supporters of the moratorium say they want the APA to follow the examples of the American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association, which have said their members have no legitimate role in interrogations at detention centers like Guantanamo. The U.S. military has indicated it would favor using psychologists, who are not affected by the other groups’ policies.

Critics of the moratorium say the presence of psychologists helps ensure interrogations are not abusive.

APA spokeswoman Farberman said psychologists help interrogators build rapport with detainees, so they don’t have to resort to abusive behavior.

“We want to stay engaged in the discussion about appropriate and effective interrogation techniques,” Farberman said.