Trump Ordered Guantanamo to Stay Open, Now APA to Vote on Overturning Ban on Psychologists at Guantanamo
The American Psychological Association’s Board of Directors and Council Leadership team have endorsed a new agenda item for APA’s upcoming national meeting in early August. Labelled New Business Item (NBI) 35B, the resolution would overturn a 2015 APA decision calling for the removal of all psychologists from Guantanamo, stating psychologists may not work in “settings where persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law…or the US Constitution.”
An exception had been made for non-military or independent psychologists who could treat detainees when “they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights.”
The proposed change comes after President Trump issued an executive order in January 2018 reversing President Obama’s stated, but unfulfilled, promise to close Guantanamo. Trump has announced that he intends to send newly captured “terrorists” to the Cuba-based military prison, though none have been sent there as yet.
[Update, August 10, 2018: On August 8, at a vote by APA’s Council of Representatives, the proposal to allow psychologists to return to sites like Guantanamo, that are considered illegal and stand outside of international law, or where human rights abuses routinely take place, was defeated by a vote of 105 to 57, with 15 abstentions.]
Psychologist Participation in Torture
The current APA policy prohibiting psychologists from working at Guantanamo followed a series of scandals relating to the participation of psychologists in torture by both the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency. In August 2017, two CIA contract psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, settled a lawsuit brought by the ACLU on behalf of two CIA torture victims and the family of one CIA detainee who died in custody. The terms of the settlement have been kept confidential.
In 2008, a referendum was first proposed by rank-and-file members of the APA that called for removal of psychologists from Guantanamo and CIA “black sites” where torture and other human rights violations were conducted. APA fought that referendum and delayed its implementation.
But in the aftermath of a 2015 report by an independent investigator, Chicago attorney David Hoffman, which documented numerous contacts between APA officials and DoD and CIA contacts, particularly pertaining to the development of APA’s “Psychologists in National Security” policy, APA fired some officers, and others resigned, while the banning of psychologists at sites like Guantanamo was finally made official APA policy.
This author has contended the Hoffman report soft-pedaled the influence of CIA on APA affairs, noting that David Hoffman previously worked with and still has “limited, occasional contact” with former CIA special counsel, Kenneth J. Levit, and George Tenet, who was CIA director during the time CIA’s “enhanced interrogations” torture program was implemented.
But the loudest criticism of APA and Hoffman came from a number of people named in the Hoffman Report itself, who have sued David Hoffman and APA, contending the report made “false claims,” defamatory statements, and omitted key documents that would show APA officials were not involved in any unethical or illegal activity.
In a February 2018 open letter to APA membership, key members of the lawsuit turned to APA for assistance. “We ask APA members to press the Council and the Board to take control back from the lawyers’ hands, and to bring this painful chapter in the APA’s history to a fair and prompt end,” they wrote.
It would seem that help was already on the way. In August 2017, two members of Division 19, the Society for Military Psychology, a small but influential group within APA, put forward a new resolution meant to undo the banning of psychologists from treating detainees at Guantanamo and similar “illegal” sites.
The authors of the new resolution are Sally Harvey, a past president of the military psychology division, and Carrie Kennedy, Division 19’s representative to APA Council and the former Chief of Behavioral Health Services for detainees at Guantanamo.
Harvey is also a co-mover of another resolution up for consideration at the upcoming APA council meeting next month (NBI 13D). This resolution would remove the Hoffman report from the APA’s website for alleged “inaccuracies.”
Inside APA, there’s some fear of unknown legal repercussions if the report were taken down. The APA’s ad hoc Committee on Legal Issues (COLI), which styles itself the “think tank” for APA’s Board of Directors, has recommended rejecting this particular resolution.
“Outside the Law”
Meanwhile, NBI 35B, the resolution that would bring psychologists back to Guantanamo, has COLI’s support. In a May 25, 2018 letter to the Board, COLI “unanimously” supported the change that would let psychologists treat detainees “held outside of…either International Law…or the US Constitution,” i.e., outside customary legal detention. Some have said “outside the law” itself.
Even more, COLI told the Board, “Beyond approving the amendment, COLI encourages broadening the provision to also allow psychologists to be involved in the practice and policy of humane interrogations…. [COLI] recommends that the Resolution be revised to more explicitly allow for the inclusion of psychologists in the practice of humane information-gathering approaches.”
Dan Aalbers, the author of the original APA membership referendum calling for the psychologist ban at Guantanamo, told me via email, “This bill must be defeated. Not only would it return psychologists to Guantanamo, it would signal organized psychology’s willingness to participate in Trump’s interrogation program. Indeed we know that one section of APA leadership decided to endorse the bill exactly because it held out the promise that psychologists could once again be involved with interrogations in sites that violate international law.”
Five other psychologists have added themselves as cosigners to 35B, including Robert Resnick, PhD; Jeffrey Younggren, PhD; Deirdre Knapp, PhD; Avi Kaplan, PhD; and Keely Kolmes, PhD. Dr. Younggren is a highly public figure in APA who for many years gave APA public continuing education courses on ethics to psychologists, while Dr. Resnick is a former APA president.
This return to participation of psychologists in interrogations would rewind the clock back to the darkest days of the Bush administration’s torture program, and a period when DoD renditioned hundreds of detainees from around the world to Guantanamo. Forty detainees still remain in indefinite detention at Guantanamo, the majority of them never charged with any crime after 15 or so years imprisonment.
According to the Kennedy-Harvey resolution, a change in APA policy is needed because otherwise APA is in violation of anti-trust laws. Even more, they claim that denying military psychologists access to detainees at places like Guantanamo puts the U.S. at risk of violating Geneva Conventions protocol, which maintains “Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated…. Prisoners of war shall have the attention, preferably, of medical personnel of the Power on which they depend and, if possible, of their nationality.”
The new resolution seems to ignore the fact the policy begun by President Bush, and continued by every President since, asserts the detainees at Guantanamo are “unlawful” or “unprivileged” combatants meriting the designation “detainee,” but not “prisoners of war,” with its attendant rights and privileges in the Geneva Conventions.
A “Back Door” for “Potential Further Harm”
Not every group within APA agrees with changing the “no detainee treatment” policy. According to APA materials provided to Council members, APA’s Board of Professional Affairs (BPA) worried “that any change could be perceived as APA providing a back door for psychologists assisting in exposing detainees to potential further harm or endorsing torture.”
BPA didn’t think that was the intent of the new resolution, but believed “there is insufficient information to properly assess the consequences of this change” and “insufficient evidence to assess consequences of approval.” BPA officials worried about issues surrounding psychologists having to respond to chain of command within a “black site.”
In addition, the Board of Psychology in the Public Interest (BAPPI) opposed amending the previous APA policy to allow psychologists to treat detainees at Guantanamo and “black sites.”
Besides issues surrounding detainee confidentiality (detainee medical information had previously been used by interrogators to pressure detainees, leverage phobias, etc.), BAPPI pointed out that military psychologists are subject to the military chain of command:
“ It is impossible to provide a therapeutic relationship when the psychologist involved works for the organization (i.e., the Military) that is detaining the individual…. Psychologists in military service at isolated detention centers are likely to be particularly vulnerable to conflicts because of both physical isolation and national security constraints.”
On the other side of the issue, the APA Ethics Board essentially signed off on the proposed new policy. Allowing psychologists to treat detainees was “consistent with the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct.”
In particular, the Ethics Board said the policy would be consistent with APA’s principles concerning Beneficence and Non-Maleficence, as well as Ethics Standards 3.01 (Unfair Discrimination), and 3.04 (Avoiding Harm).
The standard regarding avoiding harm reads, in part, “Psychologists do not participate in, facilitate, assist, or otherwise engage in torture, defined as any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person….”
But according to medical experts, the policy of indefinite detention, alone, at Guantanamo is tantamount to torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. According to an article in the International Review of the Red Cross, “indefinite detention may raise issues under the peremptory international law rule against torture….the International Committee of the Red Cross… has access to the detainees at Guantánamo Bay and has observed their deteriorating psychological condition, leading to a high number of suicide attempts.”
In this author’s own research via Freedom of Information Act, one detainee who supposedly killed himself at Guantanamo in 2006, Mohamed Al Hanashi, explicitly cited the actions of the Chief Psychologist at Guantanamo for leading him to take his life. I believe this event occurred during the time Carrie Kennedy was operational at Guantanamo (though she was not the “Chief Psychologist” there).
Another detainee who allegedly died by suicide, Adnan Latif, cited the lack of confidentiality between himself and a nurse as a reason for his wanting to die. Moreover, numerous detainees over the years have complained about the actions of medical personnel, including psychologists.
Supporters of current APA policy intend to fight the military psychologists’ bid to amend the policy denying psychologists access to detainees for the purposes of either care or assisting interrogations.
Aalbers told this reporter: “Never again should psychologists be involved in the business of torture, never again should organized psychology aid violations of fundamental human rights.”