Linda M. Woolf Ph.D.,

The Fight Against Hate

End Psychology's Role in National Security Interrogations

The time is now for APA to act on a Prohibition Resolution.

Posted Aug 04, 2015

Psychologists have been intimately involved in interrogations of suspected terrorists at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and “black op” sites since the U.S. engaged in the “global war on terror”  (GWOT). Questions remain: Should psychologists be involved in such interrogations or should psychologists be prohibited from either direct or indirect participation in such activities?  Does psychologist involvement in national security interrogations, even if devoid of “enhanced interrogations,” constitute a violation of APA policy and ethics?  Or does the presence of a trained behavioral expert insure that interrogations are “safe, legal, ethical, and effective for all participants” (Behnke, 2006)?

Linda M. Woolf
Source: Linda M. Woolf

In 2013, APA passed its most comprehensive anti-torture policy entitled, Policy Related to Psychologists' Work in National Security Settings and Reaffirmation of the APA Position Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.  Several key elements are outlined in this policy.

First, the Policy begins with the 2008 Petition Resolution passed by a vote of the entire membership of the APA.  The Petition Resolution states:

Psychologists may not work in settings where persons are held outside of, or in violation of, either International Law (e.g., the UN Convention Against Torture and the Geneva Conventions) or the US Constitution (where appropriate), unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights.

Second, the policy acknowledges that conditions of confinement alone can constitute torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Third, APA defines torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment in accordance with the United Nations Convention Against Torture as well as the U.S. Constitution. Violations of due process are included as elements of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment according to these definitions.

Fourth, APA policy “unequivocally condemns torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, under any and all condition” and notes that the policy is “applicable to all individuals, in all settings and in all contexts without exception.”

Fifth, the 2013 Policy states:

APA affirms that there are no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether induced by a state of war or threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, that may be invoked as a justification for torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including the invocation of laws, regulations, or orders. This policy statement is in keeping with Article 2.2 of the UN Convention Against Torture.

It is clear under APA policy that fundamental human rights are inviolate.

Sixth, APA policy acknowledges it commitments as an accredited NGO at the United Nations (UN) and as such has declared itself committed to the spirit, purposes, and principles of the UN and other relevant UN instruments, inclusive of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Finally, there is an extensive research literature noting the debilitating and long-term effects of both psychological and physical torture.  As stated in the APA 2006 Resolution Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment:

Torture victims and victims of other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment may suffer from long-term, multiple psychological and physical problems (e.g., Carlsson, Mortensen, & Kastrup, 2005; Gerrity, Keane, & Tuma, 2001; Hermansson, Timpka, & Thyber, 2003; Kanninen, Punamaki, & Qouta, 2003; Somnier, Vesti, Kastrup, & Genefke, 1992).

The research literature also clarifies that prisoners held without due process of law, particularly indefinite detention, may suffer long-term psychological and related harms (Morishima, 1982; Potts, 1994; Robbins, et al., 2005).

Conditions of Confinement in National Security Settings

Early on in the GWOT, the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other human rights organizations identified sites such as Guantanamo as a source of human rights violations.  For example, in 2006, Human Rights Council stated, "the United States has the obligation to fully respect the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment. The Special Rapporteur on torture notes the reservations to the Convention and ICCPR made by the United States, indicating that it considers itself bound by the prohibition of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment only to the extent that it means the cruel, unusual and inhumane treatment or punishment prohibited by the Fifth, Eighth and/or Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States" (p. 14-15).

Moreover, the 2006 United Nations Human Rights Council determined that indefinite detention constitutes "inhuman" treatment. The report states "uncertainty about the length of detention and prolonged solitary confinement, amount to inhuman treatment and to a violation of the right to health as well as a violation of the right of detainees under article 10, paragraph 1, of ICCPR to be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person" (p. 24).

There is certainly much debate about whether abusive interrogation practices are currently operating in national security settings, both during and prior to interrogations.  There is substantial evidence that torture and other abuses, both physical and psychological, have been practiced routinely in national security settings as part of interrogations processes since 2002. Regardless, the conditions of confinement alone constitute torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment under international law and as defined in APA policy.  As such, psychologists should be prohibited from participating, either directly or indirectly, in national security interrogations, and the Petition Resolution should be implemented with a call for psychologists to leave such settings unless working directly of the wellbeing of the prisoner or working independently to protect human rights.

“Safe, Effective, and Legal”

In 2007, Col. Larry James, a former psychologist at Guantanamo Bay spoke before the APA Council of Representatives, and stated, not once but twice, "If we remove psychologists from these facilities, people are going to die." This statement is frightening in its implication. It essentially argues that psychologists are the primary protectors of prisoners--they stand between life and death.

The phrase “safe, effective, and legal” is a common phrase used by those who argue for psychologist continued involvement in national security interrogations. They maintain that the presence of a psychologist insures not only good intelligence gathering but also provide the ultimate protection of the prisoner.  This argument is faulty for several reasons.

First, psychologists are being asked to play a dual role.  Is their first obligation to the prisoner and his/her protections? Or, is their obligation to the nation-state to gather actionable intelligence?  It is highly likely that their primary obligation as a military professional is to the protection of their country. Even those psychologists working in national security settings with the best of intentions and with the strongest sense of duty to protect human rights may feel pressure to use their psychological knowledge to the detriment of a prisoner.

Second, psychologists are being asked to serve as protection for prisoners, a role generally assumed by legal counsel. The right to legal counsel is a fundamental component of due process and attorneys are best trained to protect rights and interests in situations of detention. Currently, failures of due process place prisoners at risk for harm and constitute a violation of human rights according to the UN Convention Against Torture, inclusive of U.S. policy in relation to the Convention. 

Third, psychologists working in U.S. detention centers may be at risk due to an expectation that they can make judgments outside of their area of expertise. The legality of interrogation techniques and whether a particular technique constitutes a violation of law (e.g., whether a technique is abusive or not) is the role of legal counsel and the courts. Currently, psychologists are asked to insure that interrogation techniques are non-abusive, safe, and legal. This represents a position outside of their area of training and expertise and is a by-product of the lack of detainee due process of law.

Fourth, situational pressures can overwhelm even the best among us. In a highly classified, closed environment, perspective can be lost, groupthink can be triggered, and anyone, including psychologists, can engage in faulty decision-making. Psychologists in ethically challenging contexts are mandated to reach out for support but such consultation may not be acceptable or legal in classified settings.

Finally, regardless of the positive motives of psychologists involved in working with the CIA or at sites such as Guantanamo Bay, they are at best treading water.   They do not have the power to reform a broad, destructive context. If psychologists truly want to protect prisoners, their only role at national security settings should be to work “directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights.”

Final Thoughts

APA must institute a prohibition against psychologist involvement in national security settings and implement the Petition Resolution as approved by the membership of the Association.

Much like those historically who found themselves in similar situations of human rights abuses, psychologists working at Guantanamo Bay, previously at Abu Ghraib, or other detention sites will be forever marked simply by association with these abusive contexts regardless of their individual actions. Psychologist continued involvement in interrogations at these settings will be perceived as and, more importantly, will have functioned as support for these inherently destructive environments.  Sadly, the APA and the psychology profession has become historically linked to atrocity and torture. Although there are those who have argued that we have chosen to "stay at the table" to insure that interrogations are “safe, effective, and legal,” I think our presence at that table, perhaps despite the best of intentions, has come with a price, a stain, and significant shame.


Behnke S. H. (2006). Psychological ethics and national security: The position of the American Psychological Association. European Psychologist, 11, 153–155.

Morishima, J. K. (1982). American Psychological Association statement on wartime relocation and internment of civilians. AAPA Journal, 7(1), 6-12.

Potts, M. K. (1994). Long-term effects of trauma: Post-traumatic stress among civilian internees of the Japanese during World War II. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 50, 681-698.

Robbins, I., MacKeith, J., Davison, S., Kopelman, M., Meux, C., Ratnam, S., Somekh, D., & Taylor, R. (2005). Psychiatric problems of detainees under the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act 2001. Psychiatric Bulletin, 29, 407-409.

United Nations Human Rights Council (2006). Economic, social and cultural rights, civil and political rights, situation of detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

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