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This weekend, a little-known group will meet in Washington, D.C. It's the American Psychological Association's Presidential Advisory Group on the Implementation of the Petition Resolution. The petition resolution, for those who may not have known or remembered, was the fruit of a successful campaign by anti-torture activists within APA to change that organization's policy of allowing psychologists to participate in interrogations at "war on terror" sites like Guantanamo or Baghram, which had been implicated in use of torture and human rights violations, like the use of indefinite detentions.

APA officialdom had long argued that the presence of psychologists protected the prisoners from abuse. Unfortunately for them, a wealth of documentation proved that in fact psychologists had been implicated in the organization and implementation of U.S. torture.

Subsequently, the membership voted to pass a resolution banning psychologists from Guantanamo and similar military sites, and participating in any way in the military and clandestine interrogations of prisoners "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)."

APA officially welcomed the new policy, while indicating that it was not enforceable, and that even as policy, the resolution could not become effective until the APA's next annual meeting in August 2009. This set off a storm of protest, and APA suggested the new policy could be implemented even sooner, after some consideration at a meeting of its Council of Representatives this coming February.

Additionally, as a good faith gesture, last month APA President Alan E. Kazdin, Ph.D., sent a letter to George W. 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." (The text of the letter can be found here.) Similar letters were to be sent to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, CIA Director Michael Hayden, and to key congressional committees, including the Armed Services, Judiciary, and Intelligence committees.

Meanwhile, Dr. Kazdin announced he would appoint an advisory panel to discuss how the resolution would be implemented, once it became "official" policy. The organization wrangled over the composition of the panel, and only recently announced its composition. Today, APA Senior Policy Adviser Ellen G. Garrison announced the membership of the new advisory panel in a letter to APA's Council of Representatives. It includes three members of the group who organized the successful petition campaign -- Dan Aalbers, Ruth Fallenbaum, and Brad Olson -- and eight others.

From Dr. Garrison's letter (no link):

Dr. Kazdin's appointments to the group are being made after an open nominations process and include the original petitioners, as well as members of the APA Council of Representatives and Board of Directors.  The advisory group members reflect the broad range of APA constituent groups with interest and expertise related to the petition resolution and its implementation.

The charge to the advisory group is to identify issues in need of clarification related to the petition resolution and to suggest ways that this might be accomplished, as well as to propose possible options to implement the resolution for Council to consider.

Members of the advisory group are:

Elena J. Eisman, Ed.D., Chair
Allen M. Omoto, Ph.D.
Daniel Aalbers                                    
Walter E. Penk, Ph.D.
Armand R. Cerbone, Ph.D.                          
William J. Strickland, Ph.D.
Ruth H.A. Fallenbaum, Ph.D.                      
Michael Wertheimer, Ph.D.
Corann Okorodudu, Ed.D.                          
Elizabeth C. Wiggins, J.D., Ph.D.
Bradley David Olson, Ph.D.

Advise and Consent

The eight non-opposition members of the panel represent a heterogeneous group, but have in common that most have served in some institutional capacity within APA. Some of the members were known opponents of the petition campaign, like William Strickland, a member of APA's Division of Military Psychology. Elizabeth Wiggins helped co-author, along with Strickland and another APA stalwart, APA officialdom's apologia for their insufficient 2007 interrogations resolution in the APA's house organ, the Monitor.

One advisory panel participant, Walter Penk, has a long association with the Veterans Administration. Other participants were involved in earlier iterations of APA policy on torture and interrogations, and opposed an earlier proposed moratorium against psychologists at sites like Guantanamo.

One of the stranger appointments to the panel is eminence gris, Michael Wertheimer. This retired University of Colorado professor is the son of famous Gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer. He is known to the UFO conspiracy crowd as a member of 1950s Air Force Condon Project on the existence of UFOs. He was also a co-editor of a book on perception in 1958 that included a number of articles about sensory deprivation, including some written by known members of the government's sensory deprivation research project, which was part of its mind control program at the time. While it would be a huge stretch to connect Michael Wertheimer to anything nefarious re the government, given his background (albeit it was many years ago), it is an odd choice to include him this panel. One wonders how he fits the criteria of being part of "the broad range of APA constituent groups with interest and expertise related to the petition resolution and its implementation."

A final strangeness inhabits this committee: its timeframe and its method of making decisions. The panel has just two days to make its deliberations and form a policy. What's the rush? Could it have anything to do with the fact that the organization awaits the results of it presidential election, and one of the candidates is Steven Reisner, a prominent supporter of the petition resolution and strongly associated with a change in APA's interrogations policy? Reisner won a plurality of votes during the nomination process earlier this year.

And just how will the decisions in the group be made? By majority vote? By consensus? Either way, it's looking like APA has stacked the panel with bureaucratic placeholders. As always in these instances, I wouldn't mind looking like I have egg on my face and be surprised with the outcome.

Still, it seems there are a lot of questions about this group's composition and work. The decision making process whereby the panel was selected has been anything but transparent. I count a majority as anti-referendum to begin with.

The Expectations Game

All expectations must take into account the larger political picture, as the GOP administration has been kicked out by a decisive victory by now-President-elect Obama. Already the potential closing of Guantanamo has returned to the headlines. Newsweek magazine has published an article describing various obstacles to any quick closure of Guantanamo by an Obama administration. Meanwhile, at least one member of the Obama advisory team has floated an idea of constituting a new judicial "hybrid" system to replace Bush's military commissions, but keep "enemy combatant" prisoners out of the regular justice system. Within the same day this idea was floated, Obama's transition team denied any such idea was in the works, or any specific idea, for that matter, as they await the final assembly of their national security team.

(For more on re predictions of Obama's possible intelligence policies and attitude towards interrogations and changing Bush's policies, see StanMO's interesting diary, Andrew Sullivan Asks: Obama's Policies "Torture Lite"?)

The APA is mostly concerned with keeping the flow of funding to psychologist research, and an open pipeline to government jobs for the profession. That means you will never find the organization straying too far from the policies of its governmental godfathers. The winds are blowing differently out of Washington these days, though the exact direction is yet to be determined, particularly on national security issues. Obama has not been one to challenge the national security establishment, though he has differed with them on a tactical level, e.g., the use of military commissions and overt torture.

One watches the upcoming work of the APA Presidential Advisory Group and wishes them good luck. We will see if the invitation to former opponents to participate in the proceedings is an attempt at real and open change within APA, an attempt at cooptation of a feisty opposition, or a repeat of the PENS fiasco from 2006, when that "Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security" was stacked with military psychologists, and gave a quick and pressured rubber stamp to the use of psychologists at military and CIA interrogation sites, despite reports of abuse, leading to the resignation or apostasy from the panel of leading non-military members. (I should add, I have great faith in the proponents of the new interrogations policy included in the Advisory Group's membership. They will not be easy to co-opt, should that be APA's intention.)

One thing is for sure: the impact of this small group meeting will have reverberations throughout Washington, as the fate of Bush's torture program -- itself descended from decades of U.S. use of coercive interrogation, especially by the CIA -- is debated and decided, for better or worse.

Also posted at Invictus

Originally posted to Valtin on Wed Nov 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM PST.

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