The profession of psychology is experiencing tremendous controversy and internal division over the issue of psychologists aiding interrogators in the United States’ “War on Terror.” Many psychologists object to the practice on ethical grounds, citing the ethical imperative to “do no harm” and protect the interests of individuals under their care. They contrast these ethical issues with the obvious risks of psychological harm inherent in the intense questioning tactics used by the military and intelligence agencies.
According to a report by the New York Times, other psychologists insist their presence protects detainees. They point to the risk of extreme harm that would be possible if no mental health professional were present. Opponents of the practice say this argument is a disingenuous cover for the highly-paid service of assisting questioners in “breaking” their subjects.
Amnesty International has condemned the practice of psychologists aiding interrogations, arguing that they are there simply to assist interrogators in finding ways to break their subjects’ will. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has joined the outcry. The organization has reiterated that the American Psychological Association (APA) “code of ethics mandates a respect for basic principles of human rights and holds psychologists ‘to a higher standard of conduct than is required by the law.”
The APA met in Boston this weekend, with 14,000 psychologists in attendance, and 200 some odd protestors outside calling for the APA to prohibit its members from participating in interrogations. Instead, the APA reiterated an earlier position with a statement that reads in part, “No psychologist – APA member or not — should be directly or indirectly involved in any form of detention or interrogation that could lead to psychological or physical harm to a detainee.” The statement continues, “Doing so would be a clear violation of the profession’s ethical standards.”
The policy also bans 19 particular techniques, now known to be used by American interrogators and their allies, including waterboarding, the use of hoods, and any physical assault. Whether this position will end the controversy is doubtful. And even if the APA strengthens this policy, it is questionable whether anyone will know when psychologists break the rules, as interrogations are, of course, quite secretive. Professionals who engage in aiding interrogations should be aware of risks to their reputation, career, and legal standing. A recent lawsuit by lawyers for a detainee named, for the first time, a psychologist as a defendant.
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