The issue of psychologists' involvement in torture and interrogation came to the fore for many Australian psychologists during the 2007 APS National Conference, with the presence of Dr Gerald P Koocher (past APA president) as a keynote speaker. To read more about this, click here (219kb)
As part of a response to Dr Koocher's presence, and the questions it raised for many APS members, a forum was held, titled "Lessons from Guantanamo: Ethical Issues for psychologists working in the military, intelligence and detention facilities." Forum participants were Dr Koocher, Heather Gridley (PFP and College of Community Psychologists member), Amanda Gordon (APS president) and Dr. Chris Lennings from the University of Sydney, who had been involved in research and advocacy in relation to the mental health of detainees in places like Villawood and Baxter detention centres. The forum was chaired by Professor Graham Davidson. To read Heather Gridley's forum presentation, click here (335kb).
Over the last few years, the APA has been involved in considerable controversy over the involvement of psychologists in interrogation. The question for many members was, why didn't the APA do the same thing as the other professional organizations, and tell psychologists "do not participate, do not be present, and do not advise in military interrogations"?
2005 Report of the Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS Report)
2006 Resolution Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
August 2007: Reaffirmation of the American Psychological Association Position Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and Its Application to Individuals Defined in the United States Code as "Enemy Combatants"
August 2008: Petition resolution to limit Psychologists' work in some detention settings
The PENS report (2005) states:
"the Task Force was unambiguous that psychologists do not engage in, direct, support, facilitate, or offer training in torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and that psychologists have an ethical responsibility to be alert to and report any such acts to appropriate authorities. The Task Force stated that it is consistent with the APA Ethics Code for psychologists to serve in consultative roles to interrogation and information-gathering processes for national security-related purposes, as psychologists have a long-standing tradition of doing in other law enforcement contexts. Acknowledging that engaging in such consultative and advisory roles entails a delicate balance of ethical considerations, the Task Force stated that psychologists are in a unique position to assist in ensuring that these processes are safe and ethical for all participants."
The PENS report concluded that "it is consistent with the APA Ethics Code for psychologists to serve in consultive roles to interrogation and information-gathering processes for national security related purposes." (PENS 2005)
The report specifically cited APA Ethics Standard 1.02, which states that, when faced with a conflict between ethics and laws or legal regulations, "psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority." (PENS 2005)
In addition, there was widespread criticism that the majority of the members of the PENS Task Force had strong links to the military.
In 2006, the APA passed a resolution against torture, and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment.
The resolution says:
The APA "unequivocally condemns torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, under any and all conditions"
This condemnation includes, "an absolute prohibition against psychologists knowingly planning, designing, and assisting in the use of torture and any form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment"
The resolution specifically prohibits psychologists from being involved in:
Many psychologists were disappointed at the PENS report and resolution, and argued that it held the following limitations:
Some of these techniques prohibited in the resolution were only prohibited when they were:
Zimbardo (2006) argued:
Olson, B. & Soldz, S. (2007) argued:
Miles (2007), argued that:
For further information, see:
Zimbardo, P. (2006) Commentary on Report Of The American Psychological Association's Presidential Task Force: On Psychological Ethics And National Security (PENS)
Psychologists for Social Responsibility November 2006 report: Rethinking the psychology of torture: A Preliminary Report from Former Interrogators and Research Psychologists (66kb)
Olson, B. & Soldz, S. (2007) Positive illusions and the necessity of a bright line forbidding psychologists involvement in detainee interrogations. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2007, pp. 1-10
Summers F. (2007) Psychoanalysis the APA and the involvement of psychologists at Guantanamo Bay
Miles, S. (2007) Science and Torture. Archives of General Psychiatry 64
On February 22, 2008 the APA adopted an amendment to the August 2007 resolution. The amendment closes the loopholes that many saw in the August 2007 resolution. It lists specific international agreements (such as the Geneva Conventions) and condemns all techniques considered cruel punishment or torture under those agreements.
APA policy condemns and absolutely prohibits psychologists from planning, designing, assisting in or participating in any activities including interrogations which involve the use of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Significant improvement, but it still leaves at some issues unanswered:
The most recent development has been the passing of a petition resolution to limit Psychologists' work in some detention settings. The petition, passed in August 2008, 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" was approved by a vote of the APA membership. The final vote tally was 8,792 voting in favor of the resolution; 6,157 voting against the resolution.
Further information on the APA policies and action related to detainee welfare can be obtained from: