No Comment — August 15, 2007, 6:55 am

The Professions Strike Back

The Bush Administration has finally achieved something unprecedented. The organized bar–with a vote just one short of unanimity–has declared one of Bush’s executive orders illegal and vowed to seek Congressional action to override it. And psychologists appear poised to join their legal colleagues in an equally harsh denunciation. It’s about torture. Remember Bush’s claim, “We do not torture”? Except, of course, we do, and on Bush’s personal orders.

Back on July 21, President Bush issued an Executive Order which gave cover to a series of brutal interrogation and detention practices to be used by the Central Intelligence Agency at black sites. Now the nation’s organized bar and its psychologists’ association are both saying: “no” and directing their members not to comply with the order. Jane Mayer’s recent article in the New Yorker furnishes an excellent description of the tactics at the bottom of this controversy. Here’s a sampling:

A former member of a C.I.A. transport team has described the ‘takeout’ of prisoners as a carefully choreographed twenty-minute routine, during which a suspect was hog-tied, stripped naked, photographed, hooded, sedated with anal suppositories, placed in diapers, and transported by plane to a secret location. A person involved in the Council of Europe inquiry, referring to cavity searches and the frequent use of suppositories during the takeout of detainees, likened the treatment to ’sodomy.’ He said, ‘It was used to absolutely strip the detainee of any dignity. It breaks down someone’s sense of impenetrability. The interrogation became a process not just of getting information but of utterly subordinating the detainee through humiliation.’ The former C.I.A. officer confirmed that the agency frequently photographed the prisoners naked, ‘because it’s demoralizing.’

In addition to these practices, some of which may constitute the felony of rape by instrumentality under various state statutes, other practices condoned by Bush’s order include waterboarding, long-time standing, hypothermia and sleep deprivation in excess of two days. These are all techniques considered to be “torture” under American criminal law, as well as under international human rights standards.

The Bush Administration has reckoned with the silence and complicity of professional organizations whose work is essential to permitting the implementation of the CIA torture scheme, including doctors, psychologists, behavioral scientists and lawyers. However, the silence of the professions is coming to an end.

The Lawyers
Yesterday meeting in San Francisco, the organized legal profession in the United States—the American Bar Association—took a firm stand on the president’s order, denouncing it as unlawful and calling upon Congress to override it. Of the more than five hundred delegates present and voting, one single delegate sided with the administration—the most devastating defeat ever suffered by any U.S. administration on what was essentially a vote of condemnation. Even the ABA committees that represent government lawyers involved in national security organizations and retired military officers led the charge in assailing the Bush order’s legality.

The Los Angeles Times reports:

The first resolution dealt with an executive order adopted by the Bush administration less than a month ago that Barbara Berger Opotowsky, president of the New York City Bar Association, said was clearly “inconsistent with U.S. obligations” under Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which requires humane treatment of detainees.

“The use of official cruelty has repeatedly been shown to be far from the best means of extracting truthful information,” said Opotowsky, who proposed the resolution. She noted that a U.S. Army field manual on intelligence interrogations issued last September barred the controversial interrogation techniques that will be available to the CIA. “Unfortunately, the executive order sets a lower standard for the CIA,” she said.

Memphis, Tenn., lawyer Albert Harvey, a retired Marine major general, also spoke in favor of the resolution, which passed by voice vote with only a single “nay” registering in the large meeting hall at the Moscone Center here. “When we put our troops in harm’s way, we expect other countries to treat our soldiers humanely. We can do no less,” said Harvey, who heads the ABA’s Standing Committee on Law and National Security. Like Opotowsky, Harvey quoted an article recently published by P.X. Kelley, a former Marine commandant, and Robert Turner, of the University’s Center on Law and National Security, who in the past have been supportive of the administration’s war on terror. In this instance, however, the duo wrote that they could not “in good conscience” support the executive order, saying it affords the CIA “carte blanche to engage in ‘willful and outrageous acts of personal abuse.’ “

By passing this resolution, the ABA has now committed itself and its resources to oppose the Bush Administration in court proceedings and in Congress. It also established an opinion within the profession that the executive order itself is unlawful. The ability of CIA officials and others to rely on the order in taking action and claim immunity based on that reliance has been strongly eroded by this action. And from this point, the view advanced by a small handful of “loyal Bushie” lawyers that the techniques themselves are lawful has to be understood as the perspective of of a tiny insular minority within the legal profession, a view which has now been forcefully denounced by the profession as a whole.

The Psychologists
Just as the lawyers acted, the professional organization of psychologists prepared to take similar steps. The American Psychological Association has long been a battleground, with the membership protesting an entrenched leadership filled with individuals who have tight interests with the Department of Defense and who have shielded psychologists who played essential roles in the development and implementation of the new torture practices. The critics among the membership now appear to have secured the votes necessary to affect a reversal, as Mark Benjamin reports this morning at Salon

The American Psychological Association, the world’s largest professional organization of psychologists, is poised to issue a formal condemnation of a raft of notorious interrogation tactics employed by U.S. authorities against detainees during the so-called war on terror, from simulated drowning to sensory deprivation. The move is expected during the APA’s annual convention in San Francisco this weekend.

The APA’s anti-torture resolution follows a string of revelations in recent months of the key role played by psychologists in the development of brutal interrogation regimes for the CIA and the military. And it comes just weeks after news that the White House may be calling on psychologists once again: On July 20, President Bush signed an executive order restarting a coercive CIA interrogation program at the agency’s “black sites.” Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell has indicated that psychological techniques will be part of the revamped program, but that the interrogations would be subject to careful medical oversight. That oversight is likely to be performed by psychologists.

In fact, given what promises to be the continuing involvement of psychologists in coercive interrogation, there is intense infighting within the organization about whether simply condemning abusive tactics is enough. Some of the APA’s 148,000 members think the anti-torture resolution put forward by APA leadership is too weak, and they are putting intense pressure on the organization’s leadership to go a step further and ban psychologists from participating in detainee interrogations altogether. They have introduced their own resolution proposing a moratorium. “I and others think that a moratorium is essential to try to tell the government that psychologists are not going to participate in the interrogation of enemy combatants,” said Bernice Lott, a member of the Council of Representatives, the APA’s policy-making body. Others oppose the moratorium because they think psychologists must be involved in the interrogations to prevent abuse — and because the government may just choose to use non-APA members for its interrogations, as has already happened.

The psychologists seeking a change in position are staging a rally outside the annual convention of the APA at the Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco, on Friday, Aug. 17, at 4 p.m. The organizers issued this statement:

Last year the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association declared unequivocally that there are no legitimate roles for psychiatrists or physicians in such interrogations; they insisted that participation violates basic international human rights and the
ethical imperative to do no harm. Noting the APA’s cooperation with the U.S. government, the American Anthropological Association voted unanimously to condemn the use of anthropological knowledge as an element of physical or psychological torture.

The APA’s position has been condemned by human rights groups, by Britain’s medical journal The Lancet, by journalists covering the story; and by many of its own members, but the elected and appointed leaders of the APA have defended their positions. To be clear, the official APA position, like the official position of our national government, condemns torture. Yet, as always, the devil is in the details, and APA policy has continued to maintain that psychologists have a legitimate role to play in interrogations of detainees, even in sites like Guantanamo and CIA prisons.

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 “adhere to the requirements of the law.” As APA member Stephen Soldz has asked, “What sort of experts on ethics write the Nuremberg defense into their code of conduct?” (The Washington Monthly, Jan/Feb 2007).

Soldz’s point is driven home by the ABA’s position, which makes clear that this “law” is not legal. It’s designed as a figleaf to cover conduct which is and always was criminal.

The essential next step for both professionals is self-policing. There is an urgent need to identify those individuals who, in violation of their professional and ethical responsibilities, collaborated with the torture regime. Once these persons have been identified, it will be up to oversight bodies to determine what sanctions are taken. Sanctions can include the revocation of professional practice privileges for severe violators.

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More from Scott Horton:

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