Two cells at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, one designated as a library and the other as a gym.

Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo

U.S. psychology group set to modify rules on interactions with military detainees

The American Psychological Association (APA) will have a chance next month to modify its policy prohibiting military psychologists from conducting interrogations at the Pentagon’s detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and other national security facilities. It is the latest twist in a long-running and contentious dispute within the Washington, D.C.–based professional society over how to respond to revelations that psychologists were involved in abusive interrogation practices in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The current policy is based on the idea that military interrogations are inherently coercive and thus, violate the profession’s code of ethics to help people. The new policy would retain the ban on participating in interrogations but would allow military psychologists to provide mental health services to detainees at national security sites. The measure—labeled a “clarification” of previous resolutions adopted in 2009, 2013, and 2015—will come before APA’s Council of Representatives on 8 August at the society’s annual meeting in San Francisco, California.

The measure’s advocates say the current rule, which went into effect in 2015, has unfairly restricted their ability to practice their profession. “It was the first time I can recall that APA outlawed a setting rather than a behavior,” says Mark Staal, president of APA’s Division of Military Psychology (Division 19), which drafted the latest resolution.

“Nobody is in favor of illegal interrogation techniques, and [the ban] may have sounded good at the time. But it was an overreaction,” says Staal, who is retired from the U.S. Air Force and is based in Southern Pines, North Carolina, where he consults for U.S. Special Operations Command.

Those opposed to the new language say it would weaken the intent of a 2008 referendum opposing torture that was approved 59% to 41% by APA members, and pave the way for psychologists to resume conducting interrogations for the military. “This change would undermine the expressed will of the membership,” says Stephen Soldz, a clinical psychologist at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis in Brookline, Massachusetts, and president of APA’s Division on Psychoanalysis.

“Clinical psychologists are already allowed [to provide mental health services] under the current policy, but they must be working directly for the detainee or a human rights organization,” notes Soldz, a co-author of a 2015 report titled All the President's Psychologists: The American Psychological Association's Secret Complicity with the White House and US Intelligence Community in Support of the CIA's 'Enhanced' Interrogation Program.

“Part of our job”

The resolution, labeled New Business Item #35B in the council’s agenda—is meant to remove the stigma facing psychologists in military settings who are simply carrying out their duties, Staal says. (The current ban does not affect those who work with local police or domestic law enforcement agencies.) “We were put between a rock and a hard place,” he says about the 1100 members of Division 19. “International law requires the [authorities] to provide health care to detainees under their control. And it’s part of our job.”

“We weren’t doing anything illegal or unethical,“ Staal adds. “So I’m not sure that it’s appropriate for a professional guild to restrict free trade like that.”

The new policy would also benefit those being held at Guantanamo and other military prisons, says Sally Harvey, a past Division 19 president, and current council member, who introduced the measure at the 2017 annual meeting. “35B gives detainees the option of having a military psychologist provide them with care,” says Harvey, a retired U.S. Army psychologist now living in New Braunfels, Texas. “Right now, they don’t have that choice.” The Department of Defense, she adds, does not allow third-party psychologists into its detention facilities to treat detainees for security reasons.

A mixed reaction

Harvey’s resolution was referred to several standing APA panels for comment. The groups took differing stances that reflect the society’s diverse membership and the various factors bearing on the issue.

APA’s Ethics Committee found the resolution consistent with the association’s existing ethical principles and standards. Those include safeguarding human rights, avoiding harm, and respecting a person’s autonomy and right to informed consent of treatment.

The Board on Psychology in the Public Interest said it failed to address the issue of whether military psychologists could develop a genuinely therapeutic relationship with detainees when their employer is detaining them. It also said military psychologists “may lack the competence to treat this severely traumatized population.”

The Board of Professional Affairs took a middle course. It accepted the view that the new rules would “address an unintended consequence” of the previous policy. But its members worried about a public backlash if the new rules were seen as “providing a back door for … exposing detainees to potential further harm, or endorsing torture.” The board urged APA to think harder about the “consequences of this change.”

In contrast, the Committee on Legal Issues was four-square behind the changes. In fact, it proposed APA go further, suggesting language that “more explicitly allows” psychologists to participate in “the practice and policy of humane interrogations.” The current prohibition, the committee said, “is inconsistent with the APA mission to promote public welfare by removing psychologists from contributing their expertise.”

The road ahead

Staal would like to see a return to pre-2008 policies on where military psychologists can work and what they can do. Writing in a recent division newsletter, he said, “We welcome those who would support the return of these services, and we seek to enable voices that encourage free and open trade for our practitioners in all areas of ethical practice.”

Soldz disagrees. “There are no clear boundaries between interrogation and providing mental health services,” he argues, adding that secrecy, the need to obey orders, and pressure to conform to workplace norms all compromise a psychologist’s ability to act ethically and make it necessary to retain the ban now in place.

Harvey would also like to see APA change its policy to allow members to participate in interrogations but doesn’t expect it to happen anytime soon. “It should be the next step, at some point,” she says. “But APA is a very liberal organization, and the current administration isn’t helping our cause.”

Last week, APA’s board of directors adopted a slightly tweaked version of the Division 19 resolution and recommended that the council approve it. Soldz fears such a high-level endorsement will carry the day, saying the council is unlikely to buck the board’s stance on an issue that is so complicated and that may be unfamiliar to newer members.

Staal says he’s “pensively optimistic” that the council will agree with the division’s arguments. “I think it’s the right thing to do, restoring rights to people who had them taken away.”