Ruth Fallenbaum, Phd Speaks Against Torture

Speaking Out Against Torture

Jan. 22, 2008, Oakland CA

Ruth Fallenbaum, Phd, Ethical APA

You may be wondering what shrinks have to do with the so-called "war on terror."  It's a long story, and at my conclusion, you will find websites with links to books, articles, and other materials for the full story.  But in any event, I will try to give you a capsule account of how psychologists like me became involved in one aspect of the struggle against torture.  

Over the past few years a number of my colleagues and I have become increasingly aware of a rather unholy alliance between our profession as represented by our venerable national organization, the American Psychological Association,  and what has to be the nastiest government this country has suffered in my lifetime - and that's saying something.  That alliance is manifested in the utilization of psychologists for the purposes of assisting in the planning and implementation of methods of interrogation that must be described as torture.   And though we psychologists tend to be a relatively mild-mannered bunch, we"re pretty angry.   In truth, the history of psychological expertise being used for military and CIA purposes, mainly nefarious, dates back at least to the post-World War II era.  The Bush Administration did not invent coercive interrogations and torture.  Nor did APA approval of such use of psychologists begin with the "War on Terror".   But somehow, this dirty little side of our beloved profession did not make it onto the radar screens of most of our members, myself definitely included.   Most of us in APA paid our dues to the national organization, maybe purchased our malpractice insurance through the APA system, attended conferences, and gave and read papers and journals within our divisions of interest within the larger parent organization.  The ins and outs of national APA politics and certainly of the relatively small branch of military psychology within APA were of zero interest. 

 Many of us, like you, however, did react with disgust and anger as the news about the abuses at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and secret CIA black sites emerged.  So that when, in 2005, the New England Journal of Medicine and the NY Times revealed that mental health professionals were serving as consultants on Behavioral Science Consultation or  BSCT teams to advise interrogators, some of my alert colleagues took notice.  It seemed clear that with all we knew about the illegality and cruelty of the detention facilities being operated by the US in this war, psychologists did not belong at any of them and were outraged that the professional credibility of our discipline was being given to these abusive enterprises. They leapt into action and went to the leadership to push for the APA to prohibit the presence of psychologists at these detention sites.  It seemed like a no-brainer. Discussions were held, a task force appointed to look at the issue.  Discussions and a task force.    As you might be able to predict, this "no-brainer" was confronted with a politely resistant but mule-like opposition.   It began to become evident that APA at its upper levels had no intention of taking such a stand and that, to the contrary, it was fully committed to the continued use of psychologists by the government for these purposes.  In a 2005 report by its task force on psychological ethics and national security, known as the PENS task force, APA took the position that, "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."  We later discovered that this appointed task force was comprised of a majority of military-affiliated psychologists, representing a tiny minority of the APA membership, and most of whom had actually been involved in the interrogation business. In other words, the task force was preselected and rigged to come up with a pro-military position. 

In contrast, it should be noted, that by the summer of 2006, the American Psychiatric Association had endorsed a policy absolutely prohibiting psychiatrists from taking part in interrogations at  Guantanamo or elsewhere.

Slowly the word among psychologists began to spread.  I actually first heard about psychologist involvement at Guantanamo on Democracy Now in 2006.  I was shocked and enraged.  "No way am I going to continue to pay my dues to this organization!" After nearly 20 years of APA membership, I wrote a letter indicating my intention to withhold my dues, until APA reversed its stand.  I began talking to colleagues to find out what others thought and were doing.  Through my own division in the APA, the Division of Psychoanalysis, I connected with others who were similarly outraged.  A dynamo in NY named Ghislaine Boulanger, who, not coincidentally, has recently published an excellent scholarly book on her work with victims of  adult-onset trauma, had begun a fledgling group of dues withholders.  A listserv and website were set up, and was launched.  From our work together, we did what we could to spread the word.  Panels were set up, letters to professional journals and newsletters written.  And when APA held its annual national convention in San Francisco in August 2007, we had formed a coalition of Psychologists for an Ethical APA and  were ready with volunteers distributing flyers throughout the four-day convention.  We held a lively rally and teach-in, endorsed by about two dozen mental health and social justice organizations,  across the street from the convention at the Yerba Buena Gardens.

By the end of the convention, the ACLU had written a public letter to APA urging it change its stance.  And author and psychologist Mary Pipher, who wrote Reviving Ophelia, had publically turned in her APA medal.  News of the protest spread through the bit of media coverage we received, so that many more APA members became aware of what their organization was doing. The number of people deciding to withhold their dues or outright resign increased and continues to do so.  Our list has grown 10-fold from inception.    That's the good news.

The bad news is that when it came time at the convention for the Council of Representatives to vote on a proposed ban on psychologists participating in interrogations at sites where human rights are violated, we were back to square one:  a resounding defeat.  Instead, the council passed an APA-drafted substitute resolution that did bar psychologists from participation in torture, and listed all sorts of specifics, but because of seemingly innocuous little qualifiers inserted at the last minute, and over which APA leadership refused to budge, the resolution passed with loopholes designed to keep psychologists in the interrogation and torture game.  The qualifiers were the phrases, "that cause significant pain" or "that cause lasting harm,"  put at the end of lists of torture techniques like sleep deprivation, isolation, sensory overload or deprivation. Thus left in was wiggle-room to suggest that, for instance, not all sleep deprivation or sensory overload will meet the bar of causing lasting harm, and that which doesn't reach that bar, as determined by "a reasonable person," is fine for psychologists to work on.  The techniques aren't banned outright.  Sounds very Bushy, doesn't it.

To put these word games in perspective, consider the first line of the first principle of our Code of Ethics:  "Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm."  Does it say, "Do no lasting harm?"  No, it does not. It says "Do NO harm."   How then does the APA square their position of supporting psychologists" participation in interrogations at Guantanamo with their ethical code?  Well, they think they"ve got that covered.  In 2002, a committee was convened to go over the ethics code and make some changes.  Not unusual.  Apparently revisions are periodically made to tighten or adjust the code to changing situations etc.  However one change made in 2002 is relevant here.  Section 1.02, dealing with Conflicts Between Ethics and Law, Regulations, or Other Governing Legal Authority, was amended as follows:  "If the conflict is unresolvable via such means (i.e. bringing to attention the ethical conflict to the authorities), psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority."    As Stephen Soldz, a Boston psychoanalyst who has been tireless in this campaign, has said, "What sorts of experts on ethics write the Nurenberg defense into their code of conduct?" 

You have probably been wondering, as I often have, what's in it for the APA leadership to protect this cozy relationship with the Bush regime?  Why, in 2002, adjust the ethics code in such a way as to read that a psychologist can abandon her or his code of ethics, including or perhaps especially, the principle of  "do no harm," in order to follow "legal" orders ?  I don't know. Is it a genuine belief in Bush and his war on terror, as occasional quotes from some of its defenders seem to indicate?  Maybe.  Is it as venal as turf , funding, and jobs?  Probably.

So where are we now?  Officially, APA continues to maintain that psychologists belong in interrogations, and claim that, in fact, psychologists" presence promotes what they refer to as "safe and ethical interrogations."  At that council vote that defeated our resolution to bar psychologists from interrogations, one military psychologist claimed, apparently convincingly given the vote, that if psychologists were removed, "people will die."  APA apologists blithely ignore the obvious fact that there can be no such thing as an ethical interrogation in settings where people are detained indefinitely with no protection of law or due process.  So our work continues.

 We are struggling to find ways to reach the entire membership of APA. We continue to reach out to colleagues, speaking, writing, and more speaking and more writing.  An exciting recent development for those of us in California, completely independent of our efforts, has been the work of American Friends Service Committee and Physicians for Social Responsibility.  They have worked diligently with Calif. State Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas of the L.A. area, and chair of the state senate Committee on Business Professions and Economic Development, who has introduced a resolution that calls on the licensing boards of Calif. Health professionals to bar their practitioners from participating in interrogations, based on the history of abuse and torture surrounding those interrogations.  The

first hearing before his Committee took place January 14, and the senator eloquently linked the timing of his introduction of the bill as appropriate - the day before Martin Luther King's birthday.  Testimony in support of the resolution was powerful, with witnesses citing the evidence of the destructive impact of psychologist participation in interrogations to both detainees and practitioners, who are so vulnerable to the Zimbardo phenomenon of ethical drift in the abusive environment of a detention center.  Of all people, psychologists should know this.  The resolution passed, but the committee later met to consider amendments to the wording proposed at the January 14 hearing, and - you guessed it - APA sent its flak from Washington to the Sacramento hearing to propose inserting just one teeny-tiny qualification to Senator Ridley-Thomas" resolution:  that the bar be against participating in interrogations "that involve torture."  More letter-writing, this time to Senator Ridley-Thomas, urging him NOT to accept APA's proposed changes in the wording. I am happy to report that the committee made some minor changes to wording, but rejected the APA amendment.  The next step is for a vote in the full State Senate.  Keep your ears perked for this one, because if the licensing boards become involved, the threat of losing one's license for participating in interrogations becomes a powerful tool in getting psychologists out of the torture and interrogation business.

For more than a decade now I have worked with survivors of torture and persecution, and I have learned two things:  1. In the chaos and lawlessness of environments like the civil war in El Salvador, or the struggles between Ethiopia and Eritria, and the US global war on terror,  people are picked up and detained, beaten, tortured, etc in the most arbitrary ways.  You can be fingered by a jealous neighbor, you can be mistaken for a cousin with the same name,  you can be stopped with a flyer stuffed in your pocket that was handed out at a rally, or basically you can be at the wrong place at the wrong time.  These are our "suspected terrorists."  In other words, they are us.    2.  The shape of torture is sickeningly similar world-wide and it affects people in universally tragic ways.   It breaks people, and often they can never really be repaired again, which is difficult for a psychotherapist to admit.   Should they be able to start life over in relative physical safety, and if they have the right support and the assurance of ongoing mental health treatment (and often medical treatment as well), they may have a manageable chronic condition, and be able to lead productive and satisfying lives. 

By going to, you will find links with plenty of good material and background on this issue. will also give you information on our movement.

Ruth Fallenbaum, Ph.D.



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World Can't Wait mobilizes people living in the United States to stand up and stop war on the world, repression and torture carried out by the US government. We take action, regardless of which political party holds power, to expose the crimes of our government, from war crimes to systematic mass incarceration, and to put humanity and the planet first.