US psychologists are returning to the debate over participating in military interrogations. After humiliating revelations that members of the profession had colluded in abusive techniques during the “war on terror” after 9/11, the American Psychological Association (APA) banned participation in interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and other national security facilities.
But some psychologists feel that the new rules went too far. “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. “Nobody is in favor of illegal interrogation techniques, and [the ban] may have sounded good at the time. But it was an overreaction,” he says.
“We were put between a rock and a hard place,” Staal observes says about the 1100 members of his specialty. “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, So I’m not sure that it’s appropriate for a professional guild to restrict free trade like that.”
There is strong opposition to the proposed changes. “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,” says Stephen Soldz, a co-author of a 2015 report, 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. He believes that the line between mental health treatment and abusive interrogation could easily be overstepped.
The Pentagon would also like to see a change in the APA’s policy. In 2016, a Defense Department spokesman put the case for participation:
“The context of future conflicts — whether a traditional international armed conflict like World War II or the Korean War, a defense of the homeland against international terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or something entirely unpredictable — is today unknown. A code governing psychologists’ ethics in future national security roles needs to fit all such contexts. We respectfully suggest that a blanket prohibition on participation by psychologists in national security interrogations does not.”
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