National News

Psychologists’ Group Maintains Ban on Work at Military Detention Facilities

Posted August 9, 2018 10:06 a.m. EDT

After an escalating debate about the role of psychologists in military prisons, the American Psychological Association voted Wednesday to reject a proposed change in policy that would have allowed members to treat detainees held at sites that do not comply with international human rights laws.

The proposed change would have reversed a 2015 determination by the association that prohibited such work, effectively blocking military psychologists from sites like the military detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, maintained by the United States.

That decision followed revelations that in the early 2000s the association had finessed its ethics guidelines so that psychologists could aid interrogations by suggesting lines of questioning, for example, or advising when a confrontation had gone too far or not far enough.

The APA still forbids psychologists from participating in interrogations. The newly rejected policy change simply would have permitted psychologists in uniform to provide therapy and counseling to detainees who asked for it.

The association has little direct authority to restrict members’ ability to practice. But state licensing boards can suspend or revoke a psychologist’s license for a variety of reasons, including violations of the ethics code or professional policies.

The current policy allows psychologists to work in detainment facilities deemed in violation of human rights standards only if they represent an independent organization, like the International Red Cross, or detainees themselves, not the military.

So far, psychological help from those sources has been slow to materialize for detainees, said Col. Sally Harvey, a past president of the association’s military division who had pushed for the change.

The military has other health care workers on staff at detention facilities, including nurses, doctors and psychiatrists, she noted. But under current policy psychologists, who provide talk therapy and other forms of guidance, cannot do so.

“If it’s 2 a.m. on a Sunday and a detainee in Guantánamo wants to talk to a psychologist, he should have that access,” she said. “It’s about their choice, in a situation where they don’t have any choices.”

Opponents of the change saw it as a dangerous retreat on a core ethical issue for the profession.

“Unfortunately, the profession was tainted when some psychologists moved into interrogation,” and others into torture, said Stephen Soldz, director of the social justice and human rights program at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis.

“This profession is built on trust,” he added. “How on earth is a detainee going to have trust when psychologists have been doing and recommending bad things?”

The association’s governing council of representatives voted the proposal down 105-57 after numerous delays and after rejecting a motion to withdraw the proposal for further discussion.

The debate over the role of military psychologists has persisted for many years and is not likely to be resolved soon.

After revelations about APA’s alterations of ethics guidelines became headlines — adding to the news that two psychologists who were CIA contractors developed methods of “enhanced interrogation” that many considered torture — the association has been on the defensive.

Its leaders denied wrongdoing and hired an outside investigator to conduct an independent review. The investigator, David Hoffman, a lawyer in Chicago, produced a blistering report, which resulted in at least one firing and resignations, or early retirements, at the APA.

Since then, current and former military psychologists have disputed the report, and the association has asked him to revisit his findings in light of new information. People named in the report have sued for defamation.

In the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s vote, human rights groups had pressured the psychologists’ association to reject the proposed change in policy.

“The United States has a president who has openly advocated for torture, and in January 2018 signed an executive order to keep Guantánamo open indefinitely,” read a letter signed by nine groups, including Physicians for Human Rights and Amnesty International.

“Even detainees long cleared for transfer appear to have no prospect of release.”