by Roy Eidelson and Dan Aalbers

Two years ago the American Psychological Association adopted its comprehensive “Policy Related to Psychologists’ Work in National Security Settings and Reaffirmation of the APA Position Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.” The stated rationale for this consolidation of previous ethics policies was that it would eliminate confusion and uncertainty. In turn, this heightened clarity would presumably facilitate greater adherence to APA policies and more effective enforcement of ethical violations.

To many, this seemed to be a sound and promising development. But on the ethics front, APA leaders have an abysmal track record when it comes to meaningful action that runs counter to the Pentagon’s own policies on detention and interrogation operations. Time and again in these situations, the APA has trumpeted its commitment to psychology’s do-no-harm ethics but then retreated into the shadows when those principled words required principled actions. A close look at the APA’s current stance toward the detention center at Guantanamo Bay sadly demonstrates that little has changed.

The first statement of the APA’s comprehensive policy document is drawn from a portion of the 2008 membership-initiated Petition Resolution:

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 comprehensive policy also states:

APA shall make information available on its website from the UN and its committees and other recognized authorities relevant to the identification of unlawful detention settings to the APA membership at large and other relevant parties.

These statements are noteworthy because on multiple occasions UN representatives—speaking in their official capacity—have publicly and directly asserted that the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay is in violation of international law. As one example, in April 2013—just a few months before the APA’s comprehensive policy was approved—the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement that included the following about Guantanamo:

The continuing indefinite incarceration of many of the detainees amounts to arbitrary detention and is in clear breach of international law.

We must be clear about this: the United States is in clear breach not just of its own commitments but also of international laws and standards that it is obliged to uphold. When other countries breach these standards, the US—quite rightly—strongly criticizes them for it.

Those who have been cleared for release must be released. This is the most flagrant breach of individual rights, contravening the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

More recently, in November 2014, the UN Committee Against Torture met in Geneva, Switzerland and reiterated:

The Committee expresses its deep concern about the fact that the State party continues to hold a number of individuals without charge at Guantanamo Bay detention facilities. Notwithstanding the State party’s position that these individuals have been captured and detained as ‘enemy belligerents’ and that under the law of war is permitted ‘to hold them until the end of the hostilities’, the Committee reiterates that indefinite detention constitutes per se a violation of the Convention.

Based on the APA’s 2013 comprehensive policy, it is clear that these statements from UN representatives should be available on the APA website. Yet a thorough search of the website indicates that they are not there.

It is equally clear that psychologists continue to work at Guantanamo. The Joint Task Force Guantanamo website currently describes the presence and responsibilities of psychologists who serve as Behavioral Science Consultants:

Behavioral Science Consultants (BSCs) are psychologists not assigned to clinical practice functions. Instead, they provide consultative services to support authorized law detention and intelligence activities. BSCs employ their professional training, not in a provider-patient relationship, but in relation to a person who is the subject of a lawful governmental inquiry, assessment, investigation, adjudication or other proper action.

In light of the transgressions of international law noted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Committee Against Torture, these BSC psychologist positions directly and indisputably violate the APA’s 2013 comprehensive policy and the 2008 membership-initiated petition resolution. Yet APA officials have failed to take even the minimal step of issuing an unambiguous statement prohibiting members from working at Guantanamo.

That the APA has failed to honor its latest public commitment is not surprising given the Association’s history of equivocation. Despite a membership-wide vote over six years ago, the APA leadership has always found some reason to avoid implementing the petition resolution. The excuses for inaction have included claims that violations identified by the UN were not current, that conditions at the detention center had improved, that the APA had notified government officials of the Association’s policies, and that the APA is unable to monitor the activities of psychologists there.

Today the APA’s stance toward psychological ethics in national security settings is receiving heightened scrutiny. In particular, an investigation is underway examining evidence of the Association’s possible collusion with the Bush Administration in supporting psychologists’ involvement in abusive and torturous detention and interrogation operations. So this might reasonably be viewed as an opportune time for the APA to demonstrate that it is serious about efforts to enforce its comprehensive policy in regard to Guantanamo. But that has not happened. Based on past performance as well as comments made at the most recent Council of Representatives meeting, it is more likely that the ongoing investigation will be used as yet another excuse for inaction. Regrettably, too many APA leaders seem comfortable prioritizing polite speech, cautious expediency, and a “wait and see” mantra over the urgent protection of human rights.

In a recent editorial on ethics in organizations, Ken Pope, a former chair of the APA Ethics Committee, wrote:

Any steps to make organizational ethics stronger can succeed only if we actually take the steps. Taking action requires us to leave our role as passive bystanders (aka enablers) when we learn of questionable or unacceptable behavior, especially when the welfare of others is at stake. We must often teach ourselves how to leave the comfort and safety of “it’s not my problem,” “someone else will take care of this,” “it’s probably not as bad as it looks,” or “speaking up won’t make any difference.”

APA members should embrace these words, leave the sidelines, and demand that their leadership take immediate action. It is time for the APA to devote as much energy to getting psychologists out of Guantanamo as it has devoted to getting psychologists into the halls of power.

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Roy Eidelson is a clinical psychologist and the president of Eidelson Consulting, where he studies, writes about, and consults on the role of psychological issues in political, organizational, and group conflict settings. He is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, associate director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College, and a member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology.

Dan Aalbers is co-author of the APA's anti-torture referendum and a member of Psychologists for Social Responsibility and Psychologists for an Ethical APA.

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