A Unhappy Day For Organized American Psychology

December 31, 2013 was a unhappy day for organized American psychology. That was the day the American Psychological Association, under the quiet cover of a pending holiday, announced it would not more investigate an ethics complaint towards a psychologist for his participation in a well-dcoumented brutal interrogation at Guantánamo Bay.

The APA letter announcing the decision was published by the Guardian. In response, Frank Summers, the existing President of the Division of Psychoanalysis (aka, Division 39) of the American Psychological Association, wrote a response. It plainly exposes the APA’s ethical failing. With Dr. Summers permission I am posting the full text of his letter here:

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February 12, 2014

Lindsay Childress-Beatty, JD, PhD
Director of Adjudication/Deputy Director, Ethics Office
American Psychological Association
750 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002-4242

Stephen Behnke, JD, PhD
Director Ethics Workplace
American Psychological Association

750 1st Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002-4242

Dear Drs. Childress-Beatty and Behnke:

I am writing on behalf of Division 39 to express grave concern over the choice of the Ethics Committee to take no action on the ethics complaint towards Dr. John Leso regardless of his role in directing the torture of Mohammed al-Qahtani.  I note that the letter to Dr. Trudy Bond explaining the choice does not dispute Leso’s involvement in the torture that left al-Qahtani in an incoherent, hallucinatory state that State Division representative Susan Crawford acknowledged was a “life threatening predicament.”  No 1 disputes the fact that Leso consulted on and directed the torture of Mohammed al-Qahtani.  Dr. Leso recommended the torturers in a assortment of techniques, like excessive heat, light, cold, darkness, and loud noise, as properly as sleep deprivation, isolation, forced nudity, prolonged anxiety positions, a variety of forms of humiliation, and other torture methods.  At times Leso was in the space offering directions to those implementing the torture.  The barbaric treatment of al-Qahtani is the most nicely documented situation we have of the US torture system begun under the Bush administration after 9/eleven and the clearest, most indisputable evidence of the participation of a psychologist in torture. As far as is recognized, his mental state has never returned to standard.

The only rationales for the selection had been: (1) Dr. Leso “did not request to grow to be involved with detainee interrogations but was rather informed that he would be in the part of behavioral science consultant only after he arrived in Guantanamo Bay in the summer of 2002,” (two) the military lacked a normal working process for the BSCT function, and the APA did not nevertheless have an articulated policy on interrogations and, (three) there was pressure from the Bush Administration to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” and Leso reportedly spoke out against their deployment.

To excuse Leso on the grounds that he did not know he was going to be concerned in interrogations is equivalent to saying that a psychologist guilty of sexual misconduct is to be absolved if he did not intend to abuse the patient sexually when he started to operate with her.  Nothing in the ethics code allows an ethical principle to be violated with impunity because the intent was not there from the commence.

The 2nd alleged mitigating circumstance is that neither the military nor the APA had presented a policy for interrogations at the level that Leso was torturing al-Qahtani.  But, the principle of “Do No Harm” was in operation given that the beginning of the Ethics Code.  The letter makes no mention of the fact that the APA Ethical Ideas of Psychologists and Code of Conduct starts with Principle A: “Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and consider care to do no harm.  In their professional actions, psychologists look for to safeguard the welfare and rights of these with whom they interact professionally and other impacted persons….” Absent from the Ethics Office letter is any mention of the harm Leso inflicted on Mohammed al-Qahtani.

Moreover, the basic principle of “Do No Harm” is fortified in Normal 3.04: “Psychologists get affordable steps to keep away from harming their clientele/sufferers, students, supervisees, analysis participants, organizational clients, and other people with whom they function, and to minimize harm in which it is foreseeable and unavoidable.”  That principle alone is enough to sanction a psychologist who participates in the torture of anybody, specifically illegally held detainees. To absolve Leso on the grounds that there was no policy on “enhanced interrogations” is equivalent to saying that a psychologist who locks a patient in a closet for two days without foods or water can not be sanctioned since the APA has no “closeting policy.”  How can it be that Leso’s participation in performing egregious, potentially irreparable, harm to al-Qahtani, does not render Leso guilty of violating each Principle A and Regular three.04, fundamental ethics concepts of the code?  Similarly, the truth that Leso allegedly “argued against” Bush Administration pressure to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” in no way mitigates the reality that he tortured al-Qahtani any much more than the truth that a Nuremberg defendant who after opposed the Nazi celebration would be discovered not guilty for crimes committed although a Nazi. The United States did not get critically the defense of “I was just following orders” at Nuremberg and nevertheless that identical excuse would seem to be invoked by the Ethics Office as a justifiable rationale for egregious violations of the Ethics Code in the situation of torture by a psychologist.

The APA has maintained from the inception of this situation that it would investigate any fees that psychologists have been concerned in unethical conduct.  The Leso selection proves with undeniable clarity that is not the situation. The refusal of the APA Ethics Workplace to apply even minimal standards of ethics and human decency to Leso’s participation in torture demonstrates with crystalline clarity that the APA Ethics Workplace has no significant intent of ever sanctioning a psychologist who takes part in torture.

The consequences of the Leso determination are far reaching.  It sends a clear signal to all APA members that they can seek the advice of and direct torture with impunity.  Anyone concerned in violating the APA ethics code by inflicting harm on detainees in unlawful detention camps want not fear action from the APA.  None can take significantly the APA pronouncement that it stands in opposition to psychologists’ involvement in torture now that it is clear the APA refuses to sanction psychologists whose torture participation is indubitable.  The APA speaks with its habits: it permits the use of techniques defined as torture below international convention in clear opposition to its claim to oppose psychologists’ participation in torture.

In addition, by refusing to hold accountable a psychologist who participated in a brutal, destructive torture approach that obviously, dramatically, and starkly violates the most standard rules of APA’s personal ethics code, the Ethics Workplace and Ethics Committee have relinquished their moral authority to pass judgment on ethical malfeasance.  It could hand down selections, but people judgments have tiny ethical force now that the Ethics Office has refused to take action towards egregious torture practices. Provided that refusal to enforce the ethics code in a clear case of torture, what basis could the Ethics Workplace or the Ethics Committee perhaps have for obtaining any psychologist guilty of violating other ethical principles, most of which are not as damaging as torture?  For example, psychologists have been located to have committed ethical transgressions for accepting costly gifts or forming dual relationships with patients.  None would get seriously a judgment of ethical misconduct for this kind of habits by an organization that enables its members to participate in torture with impunity.

Moreover, the APA’s willingness to allow psychologists’ participation in torture is becoming watched by the international psychological neighborhood.   The Leso situation demonstrates to the psychological globe that the American Psychological Association does not have the integrity to be a leader in the planet neighborhood.  The respect the APA as soon as commanded about the globe has been eroding by its facilitation of torture, and the Leso situation hastens that fall in stature.

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