HungryBlues: Torture Experts Write APA Policy on Interrogations

HungryBlues states that both the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association — two very large, prestigious associations of professionals within the U.S. — ban their members from participating in interrogations of detainees. But taking an actual look at the similarities and differences on their torture policies shows quite the opposite. Indeed, there appears to be little significant difference between the APA and AMA positions. The AMA states,

“Questions about the propriety of physicians participation in interrogations and in the development of interrogation strategies may be addressed by balancing obligations to individuals with obligations to protect third parties and the public.”

The APA article goes on to observe,

From rules that APA and AMA share comes what both associations allow: Psychologists and physicians may consult to interrogations under strict ethical guidelines—namely, that the interrogation is not coercive and that the roles of health-care provider and consultant are never mixed.

Specifically, the AMA states,

Physicians may consult to interrogations
by developing interrogation strategies that do not threaten or cause physical injury or mental suffering and that are humane and respect the rights of individuals.

while the APA states,

It is consistent with the APA Ethics Code for psychologists to serve in consultative roles to interrogation and information-gathering processes for national-security related purposes.

As you can see, those aren’t significantly different. Both associations prohibit their members from directly participating in interrogations.

The psychiatric association didn’t bother to elucidate a theoretical framework for their ethical stance, so their report on the matter is much briefer and focuses on simply “doing no harm.” (Psychiatrists appear to be less concerned about contributing to society as a whole by preventing harm.)

The summary from the APA article pretty much sums up the three associations’ positions:

[…T]he psychiatrists’ position statement is not “an ethical rule” and that a military psychiatrist following orders “wouldn’t get in trouble with the APA [American Psychiatric Association]” for participating in interrogations. This clarification from the president of the American Psychiatric Association places the psychiatric association alongside APA and AMA in terms of enforcement actions: Military psychologists, physicians and psychiatrists, following orders, abiding by clear prohibitions against coercive interrogations, acting strictly as consultants to interrogations and not as caregivers, and reporting coercive or abusive acts to the appropriate authorities, will not be subject to discipline from their professional associations.

So why does the HungryBlues blog article suggest that the three associations have completely different stances on this issue as a foundation for its argument that somehow the APA stance was formed solely because of the makeup of the members of the committee that helped formulate it?

Understanding how large organizations work sheds light on the APA’s committee choices. If you need to study and formulate a response to a situation in an organization, typically you assign a subgroup of people to work on it. Most people choose that subgroup of people based upon their experiences and background. You wouldn’t want a sensation and perception psychologist necessarily on a panel about interrogation — that’s not the psychologist’s expertise and it makes no sense for the purpose of the panel.

The APA’s choices for the committee appear appropriate, tapping psychologists whose expertise would be valuable to understanding the issue under consideration.

Another misperception is that psychologists and doctors are governed by only one principle — do no harm. But in fact, psychologists are governed by five main principles, two of which are relevant to this discussion:

Principle A — psychologists do no harm

Principle B — psychologists use their expertise in, and understanding of, human behavior to aid in the prevention of harm to society (The Principle doesn’t explicitly say this last part, but it can be taken away from the principle in intent, at least according to the APA itself.) Psychologists consult with, refer to, or cooperate with other professionals and institutions to the extent needed to serve the best interests of those with whom they work.

So taken within this context, it’s not surprising to see that:

1. The APA endorses members who consult with the military (or work for them) on interrogation techniques

2. The APA sees this as a part of psychologists’ role within society

3. The APA’s position is not significantly different from the AMA, and not as different as you might believe from the American Psychiatric Association (an association made up mostly of practitioners, not researchers and clinicians like the APA).