American psychologists against torture, write to Bush; American torture sites; documentaries online


Prohibits psychologist participation in interrogations at unlawful detention sites

October 2, 2008

WASHINGTON-The American Psychological Association sent a letter today to President Bush, informing him of a significant change in the association’s policy that limits the roles of psychologists in certain unlawful detention settings where the human rights of detainees are violated, such as has occurred at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and at so-called CIA black sites around the world.

“The effect of this new policy is to prohibit psychologists from any involvement in interrogations or any other operational procedures at detention sites that are in violation of the U.S. Constitution or international law (e.g., the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention Against Torture),” says the letter, from APA President Alan E. Kazdin, PhD. “In such unlawful detention settings, persons are deprived of basic human rights and legal protections, including the right to independent judicial review of their detention.”

The roles of psychologists at such sites would now be limited to working directly for the people being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights, or to providing treatment to military personnel. The new policy was voted on by APA members and is in the process of being implemented.

For the past 20 years, APA policy has unequivocally condemned torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, which can arise from interrogation procedures or conditions of confinement. APA’s previous policies had expressed grave concerns about settings where people are deprived of human rights and had offered support to psychologists who refused to work in such settings.

Noting that there have been credible reports of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees during Bush’s presidency, APA called on the administration to investigate these alleged abuses. “We further call on you to establish policies and procedures to ensure the independent judicial review of these detentions and to afford the persons being detained all rights guaranteed to them under the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention Against Torture,” Kazdin wrote.

A copy of the full letter may be viewed at:


For more on the APA against torture, see:

APA Votes to Ban Participation in Torture

NO TORTURE, NO COLLABORATION: Psychologists Rally Against Torture & U.S. War Crimes





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7 thoughts on “American psychologists against torture, write to Bush; American torture sites; documentaries online

  1. Dr. Pamela Arbor

    I have just reviewed a BBC video of the interrogation of Omar Khadr (in Guantanamo since 15yo and now 16yo). There is no doubt in my mind that he has suffered severe damage to his brain. What he is manifesting in that video that appears to be ‘mental illness’ is in reality an Acquired Brain Injury as the result of extreme and prolonged traumatic stress. His brain has literally cooked in cortisol… and there is now ample evidence that this sort of stress results in structural damage to several regions of the brain. This is especially the case with children as their brain is continuing to develop well beyond the age of 18yo and they are not physiologically prepared to deal with this kind of stress.

    This is clearly a case of torture… even as it has been so craftily and narrowly defined by John Yoo. Omar Khadr has suffered serious physical injury in the form of brain damage and accompanying organ failure as his brain is no longer functioning properly. Mr. Yoo may know the law… but he clearly has no understanding of the effects of traumatic stress and neurophysiology.

    The Bush Administration has committed both war crimes and crimes against humanity… and they should be swiftly brought to justice. It is also my understanding that Canadian interrogators were involved as well. Therefore… Stephan Harper should also be held accountable in a similar manner.

    Dr. Pamela Arbor
    Licensed Clinical Psychologist

    *Specialization in health psychology, experience in evaluating and treating patients with Traumatic Brain Injuries and growing expertise on Acquired Brain Injuries brought about by extreme traumatic stress.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Many thanks for your message Dr. Arbor. Incidentally, I should have one or more posts in the coming days on American psychologists and reactions to the use of psychology in practicing torture, which might interest you (although I suspect you know about what has going on within the APA far better than I do).

  2. allterrainjane

    Hello MF ~ I read your comment and question over at NeuroAnthropology regarding fear and brain damage. There’s an excellent summary of:
    “Stress and Neural Wreckage: Part of the Brain Plasticity Puzzle” over at

    excerpt: “…Cortisol, the most prominent of the glucocorticoids, does an excellent job of allowing us to adapt to most stressors which last more than a couple of minutes but under an hour. Short term it will actually enhance our immune system, memory and attention. Long term, past ½ hour to an hour, excessively elevated cortisol levels start to have detrimental effects. It seems we were designed more to deal with short spurts of high stress, such as beating back that attacking bear, rather than long drawn-out stressors…such as meeting deadlines.

    Our brains appear to be most vulnerable to the effects of excessive stress in a region called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a mass of neurons each with multiple branch-like extensions (dendrites and axons) which make connections (synapses) with other neurons all across the brain. Among other things, this region is important in dealing with emotions and consolidating new memories.

    thanks to the entry for “Sharp Brains Top 30”

    see also
    MRI and PET Study of Deficits in Hippocampal Structure
    and Function in Women With Childhood Sexual Abuse
    and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

    Hippocampal and amygdala volumes in children and adults with childhood maltreatment-related posttraumatic stress disorder: A meta-analysis
    “….Reduced bilateral hippocampal volume was found in adults with childhood maltreatment-related PTSD compared with healthy controls, but this deficit was not seen in children with maltreatment-related PTSD, suggesting hippocampal volume deficits from childhood maltreatment may not be apparent until adulthood. Greater left than right hippocampal volume was found in the adult healthy control group but not in the PTSD group. Amygdala volume in children with maltreatment-related PTSD did not differ from that in healthy controls. Hippocampal volume is normal in children with maltreatment-related PTSD but not in adults with PTSD from childhood maltreatment, suggesting an initially volumetrically normal hippocampus with subsequent abnormal volumetric development occurring after trauma exposure. However, longitudinal studies are needed to support these preliminary findings.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Fantastic, allterrainjane,

      another excellent response, filled with very useful notes and references, much appreciated. I am sorry that I knew so little about this subject, but thanks to you and I am learning far more. Many thanks again!

    2. Maximilian Forte

      As usual, any message with more than a couple of links gets marked as “spam” — sorry about that, normally your message would have appeared immediately. Apologies to Daniel and allterrainjane.

  3. dlende

    Max, thanks for bringing this to my attention. “Cooked in cortisol” is taking the metaphor of trauma and stress over the top. That said, it is clear that stress that is repeated, uncontrollable, overwhelming and uncertain (all things torturers excel at) can result in direct physiological damage.

    Still, I am wary of drawing on biology as justification in what are moral and legal debates, which is what Pamela Arbor implies with the line, “his brain is no longer functioning properly.” It brings us back to a biological determinism, rather than a more judicious consideration of what multiple lines of evidence and reasoning (including biological) tells us.

    If you are looking for more on stress, I have a series of posts that should help:

    I’ll also post a comment following yours on today’s round up (#44), as your mention of uncertainty and the Milgram experiments stimulated some thought.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Thanks very much Daniel!

      I am very glad I asked. Not knowing any better myself, I was prepared to take what I was given on face value, but I obviously had some doubts. Thanks for the links too, very useful.

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