Psychologists keep policy on U.S. detainees, but issue remains open wound

The headquarters of the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C. OAKSTREETSTUDIO/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The American Psychological Association (APA) in Washington, D.C., has decided to retain a policy banning military psychologists from working with detainees at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and other national security detention facilities. But the political machinations surrounding a decisive vote this week by APA’s governing body suggest the 115,000-member organization is still far from resolving a decadelong debate over the ethical rules of conduct for psychologists in the U.S. government’s ongoing war against terrorism.

APA’s current policy is a response to revelations that psychologists were involved in abusive interrogation practices at the Cuban detention facility and elsewhere in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Last year, a group of military psychologists asked APA’s Council of Representatives to ease that blanket prohibition so they could provide mental health services to detainees who requested their help. The measure would have kept the ban on participating in interrogations, an interaction seen as inherently coercive.

Various APA advisory panels were asked to comment on the proposal and were divided on its merits. Some psychologists began to actively campaign against the idea in the weeks before the 8 August vote, which preceded the official start of APA’s annual meeting in San Francisco, California.

In the runup to the vote on what was listed as item #35B, APA leadership tried to strike a compromise between the two factions. Its proposal would have delayed any specific action and established a task force to study the issue and report back to the 178-member council in February 2019.

The military psychologists jumped at the offer. “There remains a considerable amount of misunderstanding and misperceptions,” says Sally Harvey, one of the two council members from Division 19 (Military Psychology) who introduced #35B. Harvey, a retired Army psychologist in New Braunfels, Texas, saw the task force as “an opportunity to bridge the gap.”

But opponents didn’t like the idea, seeing it as a delay tactic. “We have been debating this issue for a decade, and we wanted a vote now,” says Stephen Soldz, a clinical psychologist in Brookline, Massachusetts.

When #35B came up for debate, Harvey immediately substituted the idea of a task force. After making the case for additional education of members, Harvey turned the microphone over to her Division 19 colleague, neuropsychologist Carrie Hill Kennedy. And that’s when the simmering tensions boiled over.

Council meetings are traditionally open to accredited outsiders, including the media. Even so, APA President Jessica Henderson Daniel took the opportunity to remind council members that reporters were present. Then Kennedy, who leads a mental health center within the Defense Health Agency in Falls Church, Virginia, said she wasn’t authorized by her superiors to speak to the press about #35B.

That statement led to a motion for the council to go into executive session. Such sessions are typically convened to discuss confidential financial or personnel matters. But APA bylaws allow an executive session to be called at any time, says Kim Mills, APA’s interim senior communications adviser. The motion passed by a wide margin, and what had been a public debate suddenly went behind closed doors.

Council members aren’t allowed to publicly discuss what happens in an executive session. But that cone of silence didn’t prevent APA from issuing a press release immediately after the votes.

“After an impassioned debate on both sides of the question, the council voted 95-76, with one abstention, against” the idea of creating a task force, the press release declares. It says #35B was also voted down, 105 to 57, with 11 abstentions. The discussion is believed to have lasted more than 2 hours, with the second vote following close on the heels of the first.

Soldz says it is rare for council to reject a motion to refer a matter for further study or to defeat a proposal backed by APA leadership, as was the case with #35B. “I hope this is a tipping point and that there are no more efforts to go back to where we were,” he says.

Looking ahead, Soldz said he hopes this week’s votes pave the way for APA to pivot away from the 40 men remaining at Guantanamo and toward a discussion of what psychologists can do to help the 731 men who have been released. These former U.S. detainees are scattered around the world and are often left without a passport, he says. Not surprisingly, he adds, many are in dire need of mental health services.

But Harvey doesn’t think Division 19 would be interested in being part of that discussion. “We have a full plate, and it’s just not in our wheelhouse,” she says. Developing a standard of care for treating future detainees “to prevent what happened at Gitmo” would be a much higher priority, she adds.

*Update, 10 August, 9:30 p.m.: This story has been updated include a final comment from Sally Harvey.