Anti-Torture Candidate for APA President

Steven Reisner is running for president of the American Psychological Association. He has been a central figure in the fight to break APA from their position that psychologists assist with national security interrogations, such as their work with the Behavioral Science Consultation Teams or BSCTs at Guantanamo and elsewhere. This collaboration by psychologists has not led to a lessening of brutality and psychological torture of detainees, but in fact has been implicated in its design and implementation.

Dr. Reisner’s campaign, as his election statement emphasizes, calls for “a clear departure from the complicity of psychologists in state-sponsored abuses of human rights, whether these take place at Guantánamo, CIA black sites, or domestic supermax prisons.”

I resigned from APA myself last month, in protest of the tight relationship that has grown between the APA ruling apparatus and the various governmental entities that define the national security state. The use of torture is only one of the ways psychologists have been utilized to promote the effectiveness of the U.S. war machine. While I came to the conclusion that APA cannot be reformed at this point, there is the possibility, of course, that I’m wrong. And if it turns out I am mistaken, it will be because the membership of APA will have chosen leaders like Dr. Reisner for their elected offices. If I were still in APA, I definitely would have cast my vote for Steven, and I recommend that any APA members reading this do the same.

Below is an email Dr. Reisner recently distributed, as posted at Psyche, Science, and Society:

Dear Colleagues,

Because of a printing error, the APA Presidential nomination ballots are in the mail again, and once again, I am asking for your support. Please put STEVEN J. REISNER on the first line when you receive the new ballot.

And, if it is possible, please spread the word to other psychologists, groups and listservs.

The issue remains the same: the APA must take a principled stance against our nation’s policy of using psychologists to oversee abusive and coercive interrogations of detainees and ‘enemy combatants’ at centers like Guantánamo and secret CIA black sites, that operate in violation of international law and the Geneva conventions.

For thousands of years, health professionals have been guided by the ethical precept, “Do no harm.” At the time the ethics code of the American Psychological Association was written, wise psychologists went even further, adding a further obligation: “to safeguard the welfare and rights of those with whom they interact professionally and other affected persons.”

Unfortunately, the recent record of the APA has been to undermine this fundamental principle. When the US government called for harsh interrogation strategies for detainees, psychologists answered the call. When psychologists’ roles in these abuses were exposed, the APA leadership first denied that these things actually took place. Even now, the APA defends its policy by claiming that APA should not interfere in the legitimate practice of other psychologists. While I agree wholeheartedly with this value, I do not believe it extends to a supposed ‘freedom’ for psychologists to participate in abusive detainee interrogations, or in any interrogations that take place in conditions where human rights and international law are being flagrantly violated

When, as recently as last week, the President of the United States re-asserted the right to continue to use waterboarding; when just this week, a sitting Supreme Court Justice publicly referred to such techniques as “so-called torture” (“It would be absurd to say you couldn’t…stick something under the fingernail, [or] smack him in the face.” – Antonin Scalia, BBC interview, 2/12/08), we, the health professionals dedicated to human health and welfare, must take a stand. Now is the time for us to reassert the humane standard that has guided health professionals in times of conflict: “Do no harm.”

But since 2002, our ethics code has permitted violations of those standards when they conflict with law or military regulation. In fact, guidelines drafted for Army psychologists providing psychological support for detainee interrogations reminds them: “The Ethics Code is always subordinate to the law and regulations.”

Right now, doing harm, violating the rights and welfare of others, abusing detainees are all legal (“We’ll make sure professionals have the tools necessary to do their job, within the law.” – President Bush, BBC News, Feb. 14, 2004). This is precisely the reason that a clear ethical standard is so important, so that psychologists may remind their superiors that they are required to adhere to the humane standard that has guided health professionals in times of conflict: “Do no harm.”

Many good psychologists have resigned or are withholding their dues because of this issue. Among them is Ken Pope, who wrote in his recent resignation letter from the APA: “APA’s creation of an enforceable standard allowing psychologists to violate these fundamental ethical responsibilities in favor of following a regulation, a law, or a governing legal authority clashes with its ethical foundation, historic traditions, and basic values…This new enforceable standard, in my opinion, contradicts one of the essential ethical values voiced in the Nuremberg trials. Even in light of the post-9-11 historical context and challenges, I believe we can never abandon the fundamental ethical value affirmed at Nuremberg.”

It is time for us to turn the APA around. It is time for the APA to join the other health professional organizations around the world, including the World Medical Association, the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, and the American Psychiatric Association, in upholding the United Nations Principles of Medical Ethics and in saying ‘no’ to participation in unethical interrogations and human rights violations.

I am asking for you to help me reverse the APA’s direction and restore our fundamental principles.

Please put STEVEN J. REISNER first when you receive the ballot in the mail. Please remember, these are substitute ballots, so even if you voted once, you must vote again!

And please, spread the word to other APA members, listservs, and groups.

My nomination statement can be read here or downloaded as a pdf here. It can also be read at… For a detailed history of the issue of psychologists, interrogations, and the APA, please see the ‘Commentary on the APA’s FAQ on Interrogations,’ prepared by the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology:

Thank you again for your time and your vote!

Steven Reisner, Ph.D.

Coalition for an Ethical Psychology

225 West 15th Street, Apt C

New York, NY 10011

phone 212-633-8391

email: [email protected]


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    • Valtin on February 19, 2008 at 18:34

    And the irony of leaving APA, only to turn around and endorse someone for APA president, is not lost on me.

    In any case, I think the points made above are worth repeating again.

    • Viet71 on February 19, 2008 at 18:44

    why APA members of course don’t disapprove torture.

    I understand, but don’t approve, lawyers and some physicians selling out to evil politcians.  For money, or power, or personal security.

    But what’s in it for APA members who don’t denounce torture?

  1. against torture and for human rights in the APA election.

    • kj on February 19, 2008 at 20:17

    This is one candidate diary I’ll read and rec (if there was a rec button!)  🙂

    I remember your essay when you resigned, Valtin.

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