Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Psychology's little ethics problem

If you haven't seen Rorschach and Awe, over at Vanity Fair's website, it's worth reading. Next read the press release from The Psychologists for an Ethical APA. The issue of the role of US psychologists and the profession of psychology in researching and perpetrating torture is something that I've remained keenly aware of and have periodically highlighted here. From my summary of Alfred McCoy's book, A Question of Torture, last summer:
Of more pertinence to psychologists is McCoy’s coverage of the shift in focus by the CIA from developing mind control drugs to researching key behavioral components of psychological torture. The ground-breaking work by psychologist D.O. Hebb on sensory deprivation in particular would inspire many of the torture techniques currently utilized by US-run military prisons. The second key element that was researched and developed by CIA-backed psychological research was self-inflicted pain based upon techniques pioneered by the KGB (such as forced postures for lengthy periods of time). The third key element of interest to the CIA regarded the situational factors needed to produce torturers. As McCoy notes, Stanley Milgram’s (1974) research on destructive obedience – research that turned out to be funded covertly by the CIA – demonstrated that practically anyone could be turned into a torturer. These elements would be refined by the CIA and put into practice beginning in the 1960s.
One thing that McCoy covers in his chapter on psychological research is the persistent lapses in ethics. Many human participants in these various experiments were subjected to sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain techniques served involuntarily and had no means of escaping the experimental environment. Psychiatric patients and prisoners in particular were targeted for such experimentation. Experiments relying on voluntary human participants often failed to provide adequate informed consent to these individuals, as in the case of Milgram’s experiments on obedience. As McCoy notes, the negative psychological consequences (such as amnesia) for human participants as a result of being exposed to extreme sensory deprivation or self-inflicted pain was often long-lasting – even in experiments relying on voluntary participation.
McCoy goes on in subsequent chapters to outline how the CIA put these new torture techniques into practice, as well as efforts to export these techniques to various other US client states, as well as the human toll exacted on the victims. In addition McCoy provides us with a context for understanding the persistence of the use of psychological torture in the years after the end of the Cold War, as the US government shifted ultimately to a new War on Terror. Although some effort was made by the US government in the 1990s to cease the use of torture, the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks provided cover for torture’s advocates including Alberto Gonzales (now Attorney General), John Yoo, Donald Rumsfeld, and General Geoffrey Miller.
In late September of last year, I pointed out a terrific essay by Valtin that examines more closely the science upon which contemporary torture is based. Valtin, among others, has also been highly critical of the American Psychological Association's failure to take a strong stand against torture, instead opting to leave plenty of wiggle room for psychologists employed in America's notorious gulags, such as the one at Guantánamo Bay.

Going back to the PEA's press release:
Since 2005, multiple press reports and government documents have clearly demonstrated that US military and intelligence service psychologists were involved in developing a regime of psychological torture for use on suspected terrorists. In May, the Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General (OIG) declassified a report revealing that psychologists from the military's SERE program worked with US military psychologists at Guantanamo tasked with "developing the standard operating procedure" for interrogations using tactics that violate the Geneva Conventions. The OIG report also documented that these SERE psychologists played a role in bringing abusive interrogation techniques to Iraq and that the SERE-based techniques also migrated to Afghanistan.
My emphasis added. Further from the PEA website:
A recently declassified August 2006 Department of Defense report confirms that psychologists were directly responsible for the development and use of techniques defined by the International Red Cross as “tantamount to torture.” These techniques continue to be employed against enemy combatants in Guantanamo and other military and CIA run facilities.

The current APA Ethics Code (Ethical Standards Section 1.02) allows psychologists to violate its principles, including that of “do no harm,” in order to “follow orders.” Such a loophole in the ethics code permits unethical behavior, including torture, if orders so require. The APA Council of Representatives has requested that our ethics code be changed to ensure that any exceptions to the standard code are “in accordance with basic human rights.” No changes have been made.

The American Medical Association, The World Medical Association, and the American Psychiatric Association have declared that there is no legitimate role for their members to consult in individual interrogations in unlawful detention sites such as Guantanamo. Yet the American Psychological Association condones the use of its members acting as consultants to coercive interrogations in Guantanamo and other detention centers, despite the fact that these camps hold detainees indefinitely without charges and deny them due process in clear violation of the Geneva Convention. In this way the American Psychological Association gives credibility to unacceptable detention and interrogation practices, and undermines the integrity of American psychologists throughout the world.
Those psychologists who do engage in organizational and structural violence are currently given cover by one of our major umbrella professional organizations, much to the detriment of the rest of us working in psychology.

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