Even as the Senate Intelligence Committee released its scathing report last December highlighting the role of psychologists in designing and implementing the CIA’s torture of detainees, the American Psychological Association (APA) had already begun to distance itself from the two leading psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who created what the committee called the “ineffective” and “inhumane” $81 million program for the CIA. That program was also adapted by the U.S. military, leading to the horrors of Abu Ghraib. In an October, 2014 press release and public statements in response to James Risen’s book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War, the world’s largest psychology organization sought to rebut the damning confidential emails in Risen’s book about how the APA’s own leaders apparently colluded with the Bush administration’s top national security psychologists, including those with the CIA, to provide ethical and legal cover for psychologists’ involvement in “enhanced interrogation.”
The organization decried the book as “largely based on innuendo and one-sided reporting,” while flatly declaring: “Neither James E. Mitchell nor Bruce Jessen — the two alleged instigators of the CIA’s enhanced interrogations program — were (or are) members of APA.” That latter claim was echoed in a letter to The New York Times in December, 2014 written by the new APA president, Nadine Kaslow, asserting that she was “outraged” and “saddened” to learn that these two psychologists allegedly engaged in brutal interrogation methods.
Kaslow boldly proclaimed: “The two psychologists identified in the Senate committee report are not members of the American Psychological Association and are therefore beyond the range of our ethics enforcement program. But regardless of their membership status, if the allegations are true, they should be held accountable for inexcusable violations of ethical principles and legal standards . . . There is no place in the field of psychology for people who are not respectful of human dignity and committed to human rights.”
But, not for the first time, that was hardly the full truth about the response of the American Psychological Association over the last decade to the mounting allegations of psychologists’ involvement in torture — and the protection the organization has continually offered them.
James Mitchell, for instance, was a member of the APA until 2006. Yet following an internal revolt against the group’s pro-interrogation policies, the APA was moved to write a belated letter in 2010 to the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists condemning Mitchell. As one APA press release announced last December, “[the] APA noted that if an APA member had committed the deeds attributed to Mitchell, he or she would be expelled from the association.”
Yet even now, the APA hasn’t sanctioned a single psychologist for ethical misconduct related to interrogations — or acknowledged any wrongdoing by the organization or its members, despite a growing pile of well-documented official reports and media investigations. “They haven’t apologized for anything,” says Steven Reisner, a leader of dissident psychologists who ran for APA president three times and is seeking to end psychologists’ involvement in any interrogations — the position taken by the American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association for its professionals. “From the beginning, the APA has been denying it did anything other than support psychologists’ important role in the war on terror and protect the detainees,” he says. Indeed, even while two successive Popes have at least apologized for the much larger scandal of priestly pedophilia spanning decades, the APA remains unapologetic — although it reluctantly appointed last fall an outside counsel to probe its alleged connection to government torture.
“Our position is clear: any psychologists involved in any interrogations or punishments that amount to torture, or are cruel and inhumane, are engaging in illegal and unethical conduct that is prohibited,” insists Rhea Faberman, the APA’s director of communications. She is echoing APA claims has made for over a decade even as it has modified its written policies, but not its practice over psychologists’ involvement in either interrogations or alleged torture.
She adds, “There is no prohibition of psychologists participating in interrogations that are consistent with international law and US law.” In truth, it has yet to actually implement a 2008 member-driven referendum designed to prevent psychologists from being in unlawful “settings” as determined by international treaties and organizations, such as Guantanamo. Instead, it’s slow-walked the process of actually determining, for example, if Guantanamo, with its indefinite detention and other policies condemned by the UN, is violating international law.
Admittedly, the organization has listed since 2008 in various policy statements what it calls “absolute prohibitions” against certain techniques. They’ve included:
“…mock executions; waterboarding or any other form of simulated drowning or suffocation; sexual humiliation; rape; cultural or religious humiliation; exploitation of fears; phobias or psychopathology; induce hypothermia; the use of psychotropic drugs or mind-altering substances; hooding; forced nakedness; stress positions; the use of dogs to threaten or intimidate; physical assault including slapping or shaking; exposure to extreme heat or cold; threats of harm or death; isolation; sensory deprivation and over-stimulation; sleep deprivation; or the threatened use of any of the above techniques to an individual or to members of an individual’s family.”
In practice, though, even when alerted to extensive documentation of the involvement of psychologists in many such activities, as shown in this 10-year timeline of their involvement in apparent torture, the APA has failed to act.
But when it comes to ethics violations, Faberman insists, “Our role is to investigate claims of wrongdoing. We don’t have subpoena power, but if it’s brought to our attention that psychologists are acting unethically, we’ll look at the facts presented.” She also notes that the ethics office doesn’t need to wait to receive complaints, but can act on its own based on news accounts or reports they review.
The Guantanamo Psychologist Who Did Nothing Wrong, According to the APA
Even so, the APA has somehow managed to avoid actually initiating an ethics investigation or disciplining for more than a decade anyone involved in interrogations. Even the Catholic Church has a far better track record at defrocking or sanctioning accused pedophile priests and their protectors — over 3,400 disciplinary actions as of 2014 — than the APA has at sanctioning psychologists allegedly involved in torture. For instance, it declined in 2013 to even open a full investigation after a seven-year preliminary inquiry into a member complaint against Jonathan Leso, the psychologist who led the Behavioral Science Consultation Team [BSCT] at Guantanamo in 2002 and early 2003. In that role, he crafted guidelines that included some torture techniques “absolutely prohibited” by the APA, including exposure to extreme temperatures, sleep deprivation, scenarios designed to convince detainees they’d be killed and lengthy isolation periods hidden from international Red Cross monitors — all designed as part of an environment that aimed to “enhance capture, shock, dislocate expectations, foster dependence…”
In fact, as part of a three-member BSCT team, Leso directly observed and participated in an interrogation of suspected 9/11 hijacker Mohammed al-Qahtani so brutal that even the Pentagon official in charge of his military commission called it “torture.” As the logs of the interrogation first published by Time Magazine in 2005 and summarized by The Guardian show:
With Leso recorded as present for at least some of the session, Qahtani was forcibly hydrated through intravenous drips and prevented from using the bathroom until he urinated on himself, subjected to loud music, and repeatedly kept awake while being “told he can go to sleep when he tells the truth”.
At one point, Qahtani was instructed to bark like a dog.
“Dog tricks continued and detainee stated he should be treated like a man,” the log records. “Detainee was told he would have to learn who to defend and who to attack.”
During an interrogation on 27 November 2002, the log records a direct intervention by Leso: “Control puts detainee in swivel chair at MAJ L’s suggestion to keep him awake and stop him from fixing his eyes on one spot in booth.”
When I read to Faberman these sorts of incidents from the scathing critique of the APA decision by leaders of the Ethical Psychology Coalition, she insisted, “There wasn’t sufficient evidence to move forward.” She didn’t really have an answer for the larger questions posed by Reisner and the group’s leaders, starting with the open letter’s headline:” If Not Now, When?”
As Roy Eidelson, the former president of the allied Psychologists for Social Responsibility and a regular Psychology Today blogger on ethical issues, points out about the APA’s Leso decision, “This belies any claim by the APA that it is serious about such wrongdoing.” His column on the decision was headlined: “Guantanamo and the APA: Where Accountability Goes to Die.”
The APA attempted to justify in February, 2014 its refusal to even open a full-fledged investigation into Leso with a few questionable rationales. Although it reviewed 2,000 pages of documents regarding Leso’s alleged misconduct, it instead decided to side with the “primary sources” who didn’t substantiate the allegations and found “no evidence” of wrongdoing; indeed, the noble Leso, these admiring sources said, purportedly “argued against the use of abusive interrogation techniques and warned of harms that could come from the use of such techniques.” The APA also took into account Leso’s relative inexperience at the time and that he didn’t volunteer for the BSCT team whose horrific techniques he subsequently shaped. (Oddly, the December, 2013 letter dismissing the complaint, obtained by the Guardian, also contended — contrary to the APA’s long-standing boast that it has strongly opposed torture since the mid-1980s — that Leso’s involvement in interrogations predated by three years its opposition to such practices by the US.)
Much of the extenuating detail backing Leso came from “primary sources” who were, presumably, those chums and colleagues who had worked with him in military and other settings — and the government officials and advisors with classified access that the APA said it consulted. This chorus of support doubtless came from some primary “sources” who might themselves face potential sanctions from the APA and possible license revocation from state boards for their own roles in torture if Leso, then the best known public example of a psychologist-cum-torturer, became the first such person booted out of the APA for ethical misconduct in interrogations — and then their own actions later came to light.
Those APA arguments defending Leso — or in blunter terms, excuses — were dismissed by the critics of the APA’s decision. In a January, 2014 letter from Psychologists for Social Responsibility to the director of the ethics office, Stephen Behnke, their leaders wrote,”In the end, your office apparently decided that Dr. Leso’s months of involvement with the torture program were wholly mitigated because he did not volunteer to lead the Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) that formulated the protocol; he was an early-career psychologist; and he reportedly expressed unease with the assignment and a preference for ‘rapport-building’ methods. In reaching its decision the Ethics Office has set a stunning and disturbing precedent. Your office has provided another layer of protection to psychologists who engage in [continuing abusive interrogations, isolation tactics and other] ethical violations.”
They added, “As well, this logic suggests that psychologists who engage in insurance fraud or sexual relations with their patients can evade censure if they are relatively inexperienced and express discomfort in advance of or concurrent with their actions. ”
The APA’s Ethical Maneuvers: Making Torture Possible
Despite the assorted see-no-evil claims by APA leaders that ultimately gave psychologists like Jonathan Leso a free pass, the involvement of the more infamous James Mitchell and other psychologists in designing and implementing torture shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise to APA officials over the years. Indeed, the outrage over psychologists’ role in torture registered by APA leaders like president Kaslow in the New York Times has been likened by critics to the response of Captain Renault in Casablanca: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”
Such assertions by APA officials ring equally hollow because they helped craft as far back as 2002 the ethical framework that gave Mitchell and other boosters of the torture — i.e., “enhanced interrogation” — program the appearance of legality, an ethical imprimatur and, perhaps best of all, immunity from lawsuits. Several APA officials who crafted such dubious ethical maneuvers as stacking an “independent” 2005 APA ethics panel with government psychologists involved in interrogations and providing psychologists with the 2002 “Nuremberg defense” loophole for torture still work for the APA; their schemes have been described in James Risen’s book, the pioneering 2007 articles in Salon that first publicly identified Mitchell and Jessen, and my own 2007 Washington Monthly article, among numerous other media outlets. These influential leaders include APA’s Director of Science Policy Geoff Mumford and the APA’s ethical watchdog, Steven Behnke, the director of the APA Ethics Office.
Yet as Steven Reisner, the anti-torture psychoanalyst who is a leader of the Ethical Psychology Coalition, notes, “The presence of psychologists indemnified torturers.” The notorious “torture” memos by the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel attorneys John Yoo and later Steven Bradbury argued in part that such techniques as sleep deprivation, stress positions and even waterboarding shouldn’t be considered torture or covered by international law because they were “reverse-engineered” from a training program for U.S. servicemen that aimed to help them resist torture if captured; it was known by the acronym SERE for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. This loopy logic, Reisner points out, contended that psychologists had supposedly deemed that training program safe; on top of all that, the canny Bush lawyers also argued essentially that the presence of psychologists provided assurance that all interrogations were “safe, legal, ethical and effective,” as the APA’s own policies describe their role. In addition, Reisner observes, those memos argued that various brutal techniques didn’t even “cause lasting harm,” thanks again to the presence of all those caring psychologists and physicians to ensure detainee safety. (Tell that to the prisoners who were subjected to, as the New York Times quoted the Senate report, “with the approval of the C.I.A.’s medical staff … medically unnecessary ‘rectal feeding’ or ‘rectal hydration’ — a technique that the C.I.A.’s chief of interrogations described as a way to exert ‘total control over the detainee.’”)
All told, “interrogators were off the hook, “Reisner points out, as a result of the ethical carapace APA officials constructed to shelter government-sanctioned torturers.
Psychologists’ Drive for Prestige, Funds and Prescriptions: Pathway to Torture?
Risen’s important new addition to the curious tale of ethical guidelines run amok involve a flurry of emails and his fresh reporting on the scheming among influential psychologists working for the APA and government both before and after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in April, 2004. The emails and his interviews provide several smoking guns to add to what internal critics and investigative journalists have long argued: that the APA changed its ethical rules in 2002 to shield torturers in the case of potential conflicts between interrogation practices and the APA’s ethical code; and it packed the 2005 APA ethics task force with government-linked psychologists to ensure a justification for continuing involvement by psychologists in national security interrogations. The emails show essentially a pro-interrogation cabal at work: the CIA’s chief behavioral scientist, Kirk Hubbard, who brought Mitchell and Jessen into the CIA, and the APA’s science and ethics directors, Geoff Mumford and Steven Behnke, along with White House psychology advisor Susan Brandon — as well as Mitchell and Jessen themselves — brainstormed in 2003 and 2004 about the emerging national security interrogations. This was well before psychologists’ involvement in abusive interrogations was revealed through a secret International Committee of the Red Cross report leaked to the New York Times in November, 2004.
Mitchell and Jessen soon became known to APA leaders, especially science director Mumford. Using the emails of a now-deceased RAND consultant, Scott Gerwehr, active in national security circles, Risen demonstrates how APA leaders met with Mitchell and Jessen, among others, as early as a 2003 conference on deception detection and interrogation co-organized by Gerwehr, Mumford, Hubbard and Brandon.
There’s little doubt that all the participants in these secret meeting were aware of psychologists’ role in advising interrogators well before that November, 2004 Red Cross report scandal broke. After all, the government officials invited personally designed and implemented those programs — but it hasn’t been fully established yet precisely how much APA officials at that point knew just how brutal and potentially unlawful the techniques were on the ground.
Yet all these early meetings cast doubt on the claim made this week to me by APA spokesperson Faberman: “At the time of Mitchell’s resignation in 2006, APA had no knowledge of his involvement in the CIA torture program,” even though it was about two years after the New York Times broke the story about psychologists’ involvement in torture and well over three years after science director Mumford personally met with Mitchell and others to discuss interrogations.
What Did the APA Know About Torture and When Did It Know It?
If APA officials give truthful responses in the APA-commissioned independent investigation launched by former prosecutor David Hoffman, a Chicago attorney, then it’s possible a fuller response will emerge to this paraphrase of the Nixon-era question: “What did APA officials know about torture and when did they know it?” Sen. Howard Baker’s answer to his famous question about President Nixon’s role in Watergate might also apply to APA leaders: “Plenty and damn soon.” (Comparable to other public investigations commissioned by organizations or companies, Hoffman will have the broad scope to ask questions of staffers and obtain emails on the APA’s servers, but he won’t have the authority to compel testimony or the production of documents.)
But Risen provides far more damning email evidence of the APA’s apparent collusion with the government architects of the Bush administration torture program. In July, 2004, after Abu Ghraib put US torture on the world map, the APA leaders most concerned about providing assistance to the expanding interrogation program, Mumford and Behnke, invited Hubbard, Gerwehr and others from the Pentagon and CIA to a secret meeting. APA critic Reisner in Slate has aptly summed up the importance of that meeting:
Publicly the APA has claimed at various points that the meeting was to address challenges faced by domestic law enforcement investigations. However, the true goal of the meeting, according to the emails obtained by Risen, was to “bring together people with an interest in national-security” interrogations and to “ask individuals involved in the work what the salient issues” were and to “provide guidance” for the ethical issues that may come up with regard to those interrogations—the very interrogations so nauseatingly described in the [December, 2014] Senate report…
As a direct result of this secret meeting, Mumford and Behnke proposed the creation of an APA task force to determine APA’s ethics policy on psychologists’ participation in national security interrogations. The task force met in June 2005 and decided that “it is consistent with the APA Ethics Code for psychologists to serve in consultative roles to interrogation and information-gathering processes for national security-related purposes.” In this conclusion, the APA stood alone among health professions.
It turns out that the government insiders knew about the concept of an APA ethics task force before APA members learned about the proposed panel — and it was actually launched in part by the CIA official who oversaw the enhanced interrogation program, none other than Kirk Hubbard. That adds considerably to what I and others already reported about the sham task force in 2007:
There was an urgent concern driving the organization’s approach to interrogations: the possibility that APA members who worked on the BSCT teams, by following military orders, had already become embroiled in interrogation methods that were ethically—and even legally—questionable. Retroactively disowning such methods might leave those members vulnerable to prosecution.
The ideal stand for the APA to take, then, would be no stand at all — or at least one that wouldn’t inconvenience the Pentagon. And so, in February 2005, [influential board member Gerald] Koocher and APA president Ronald Levant led the creation of the blue-ribbon, 10-member Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) task force to study the problem. But they stacked the deck by ensuring that six of the 10 members were from the military…
The boldest choice of all was Col. Morgan Banks, the very man accused of helping to introduce SERE techniques to Guantanamo. “It was like a Monty Python spoof,” says Dr. Steven Miles, a professor of bioethics at the University of Minnesota medical school who followed the process for his book, Oath Betrayed. “At a certain level, you had to laugh.” Asked about charges that the APA stacked the deck, Koocher responded in an email that “the task force worked by consensus.”
APA officials and the military psychologists on the panel rebuffed the efforts of the outnumbered civilian members to ensure that international law on torture trumped Bush Administration policies approving enhanced interrogation. The final report avoided specifying what constituted torture, essentially deferred to Bush Administration views on torture and international law — and ultimately encouraged continued participation by psychologists in interrogations. Although the APA eventually rescinded — but never condemned — the report in 2013, its findings held sway for years and continue to influence APA and government policies on torture. (Critics are seeking to have the report completely annulled and its guiding principles rejected by the APA.) These bland, ambiguous but still harmful findings, Risen reports for the first time, were partly shaped by the participation of such “observers” as the former White House psychology advisor, Susan Hubbard, who had helped create the enhanced interrogation program and then moved over to the National Institute on Mental Health at the time of the report, which was churned out over a weekend.
One civilian member, social psychologist Jean Maria Arrigo, later told Risen,”I was there as a dupe, purposefully.” She added, “This was an effort by the Bush administration to gain legitimacy [for its torture program] through the APA.”
The capper to all these Machiavellian ethical schemes, Risen reports, came in a grateful email to the CIA’s Hubbard from the APA’s Mumford. Written on July 5, 2005, the day the report was publicly released, Mumford enclosed a copy of the report and then declared, “I also wanted to semi-publicly acknowledge your personal contribution … in getting this effort off the ground. … Your views were well represented by very carefully selected task force members.” The ultimate irony, Risen point out, is that when Mumford sent that email to Hubbard, he’d recently retired from the CIA and had started a brand-new job, working directly for Mitchell Jessen and Associates, the company created by the two psychologists he recruited to develop the interrogation program.
All told, the enhanced interrogation program turned into a win-win bonanza for everyone involved: the APA that provided ethical cover; psychologists who benefited from closer relationships with the government, more work and expanded prescribing authority; the CIA, Hubbard, Mitchell and Jessen, among many others whose power, status and funds expanded during the rise of the torture programs. Everyone benefited that is, except the detainees; the guards, soldiers and officers who’ve suffered from years of PTSD after descending into the moral hell of sanctioned torture; and those relatively few people who cared about human rights during the growing War on Terror.
The Risen revelations created a firestorm the APA couldn’t put out and basically forced the group to appoint David Hoffman to conduct an independent probe. As a result, the APA doesn’t comment now on the allegations while the investigation is underway; a report is expected sometime in the spring. Faberman says, “The independent review will address the question of whether any APA actions supported or sought to support torture. ”
What Me, Worry? The APA’s Willful Ignorance About Psychologists’ Interrogation Role Today
After all the media scrutiny, the horrifying Senate report, the launching of an independent investigation and member outrage targeting the APA, one might expect that the organization would attempt to maintain at least the appearance of vigilant monitoring of ethical misconduct in this arena. Sadly, that’s not the case: in multiple phone and written exchanges, when I asked APA spokesperson Faberman if member psychologists currently advised national security interrogators, she told me, “I don’t know.” After checking back with APA officials, she repeated that the organization didn’t know about their involvement now. In an email, she advised me, “You’ll need to ask the military and CIA what their personnel and/or contractors are doing. Our rules about psychologists’ behavior are clear.” In a follow-up call, I asked, in disbelief, how the organization could possibly rein in prohibited conduct by psychologists if they don’t know where or if psychologists were advising interrogators. Again, I was told the organization didn’t have that information. To critics, that’s a troubling sign that the APA simply doesn’t care or want to know what psychologists are doing in the field.
“One would imagine that the APA would have a very serious interest in knowing whether there are psychologists — in particular APA members — at Guantanamo and other similar detention facilities,” psychologist Roy Eidelson told me about this professed ignorance. “There presence there would be a violation of APA ethics policy, given that the indefinite detention there is contrary to international law. Instead, their response to you seems to suggest that they see the acquisition of such information as something of interest to you but not to them.”
Taking a cue from Faberman’s obdurate suggestion that I look to the government for answers on psychologists’ role in interrogations, in a few hours of calling to government agencies and some quick Google searches, I learned considerably more than the APA was willing to disclose.
In pleasant but sharply restricted communications with Navy Captain Tom Gresback, the Director of Public Affairs for the Joint Task Force-Guantanamo, I learned that the original pioneers of torture in the post-9/11 military, the BSCT teams, were still operating at Gitmo — although there’s little evidence that they’re engaging in anything near the abuses of their early days. “We can’t discuss individual tactics, techniques and procedures,” he explained. “We’re going to give you policy: All conditions of confinement and the way we do business meet or exceed the Third Geneva Convention, other international treaties [on torture] and are within the standing of all federal laws.”
At the same time, he noted in a clarifying email on the behavioral teams: “The Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) provides psychological expertise, consulting with command regarding strategies to ensure safe, humane, legal, ethical and effective detention and intelligence operations. Specifically, the BSCT utilizes expertise in behavioral science in providing command with feedback regarding the detention environment in order to ensure the humane treatment of detainees, prevention of abuse, and safety of U.S. personnel.” He didn’t dispute the obvious assumption that these BSCT teams included some psychologists. But they’re surely not as active as they once were, because the last new detainee, according to published news accounts, was brought to Guantanamo more than a year and a half before Obama took office.
Even so, according to critics of the APA, they’re still in violation of the APA’s 2008 never-enforced policy barring them from working in any operation that violates the Geneva Conventions or the United Nations Convention Against Torture. In November, 2014 the lead UN panel on torture, confirming previous human rights complaints, said that Guantanamo and the U.S. military operates in violation of the United Nations Convention Against Torture because of Gitmo’s use of indefinite detention and their use of the Army Field Manual and its Appendix M, which permits isolation techniques, sensory deprivation and sleep deprivation.
As The New York Times reported about the Gitmo findings, “Committee members were particularly disturbed by reports of the ‘draconian system of secrecy’ surrounding high-value detainees at the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The prison reportedly hid detainees’ claims of torture from investigators, and the panel warned that indefinite detention of terrorist suspects without charge or trial would be considered a breach of the anti-torture treaty. ”
On top of all that, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Michael Nowak, wrote a letter to the APA in August, 2009 during its annual convention in Toronto asking that the association withdraw psychologists from Guantanamo Detention Camp. Nowak wrote that by UN standards, “the overall conditions of detention at Guantanamo Bay continue to be outside of international law.” As highlighted in a press release by the Coalition for Ethical Psychology:
Manfred Nowak warns that psychologists’ continued presence at Guantánamo Bay and similar detention settings violates international law, medical ethics, and APA’s own policy on psychologists and human rights. Dr. Nowak’s letter, issued during the association’s annual convention in Toronto, calls for both the removal of psychologists from those settings and for changes in the APA ethics code, which currently allows psychologists to follow military orders even if these conflict with medical ethics or human rights. (Please note: that ethics code was changed to match other health professions in 2013.)
In 2008 the APA membership overwhelmingly approved a referendum prohibiting psychologists from working at sites that violate international law, specifically referencing the standards of the United Nations. In the wake of the letter from the UN Rapporteur, the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology echoed Dr. Nowak’s call for APA leadership to immediately implement the member-ratified policy.
When I asked in an email why the APA didn’t implement that member-approved policy given the presence of psychologists at Guantanamo, the APA spokesperson, Faberman, didn’t reply.
Psychologists, I discovered, also play a key role in advising the FBI’s recently formed inter-agency, mobile High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group (HIG) that also includes CIA and DOD staffers, although the full scope of its operations are shrouded in secrecy. (The new CIA claims it stopped running any detention and interrogation operations in 2009 because of a Presidential Executive Order — and has at least admitted mistakes and a failure to live up to high ethical standards, a step the APA has failed to match.)
In 2011, Iowa State Psychology Professor Christian Meissner became head of a research team seeking to develop new, seemingly ethical, rapport-based “soft” interrogation techniques for the FBI-led interrogation group. Following the release of that Senate report on psychologist-designed torture, Meissner became quite vocal arguing for safer, more effective and empathetic techniques. “It’s time to bring science to the practice of interrogation. There’s an opportunity to change the practices of interrogation for the better,” he told the Des Moines Register, along with Newsweek and other publications. Yet it’s not clear how these professionals can remain ethical if and when they operate in facilities that violate international law for detainees — or if a hard-line new President of either party changes the leadership and culture of America’s national security and military agencies. For instance, what happens after an ISIS video goes viral showing these terrorists chopping off the head of, say, an American teenage girl visiting the Mideast: how long will these fragile vows to conduct empathetic interrogations hold up in the face of a mounting war frenzy?
Holding Psychologists and the APA Accountable for Torture
That’s when it becomes especially important that there’s an ethically vigilant health care organization that can step in to keep its members from crossing the line into abuse — a role that the American Psychological Association has repeatedly failed to adopt for years. So far, in fact, it’s managed to resist, oppose or undermine virtually each new torture reform measure passed by the generally politically liberal, outraged membership seeking change.
As Reisner has pointed out, “Every time a policy is proposed or passed, the APA leadership has found a way to subvert its intent.” Citing the 2008 referendum barring psychologists from being in programs that violate international law, as at Gitmo, he observed, “To date, APA leadership refuses to implement the referendum, claiming the APA cannot determine when U.S. national security policy violates international law.” Yet the same unenforced policy is brandished by the APA’s spin team to illustrate its purported commitment to high ethical standards: “Current APA policy forbids psychologists from working in illegal detention sites (unless providing mental health services to detainees),” APA spokeswoman Faberman proclaimed in an email.
More typically, rather than just brazenly ignoring their members’ anti-torture referendums, APA officials go through the motions as slowly as possible with a typical bureaucratic approach: appointing committees and advisory panels to further study the matter and offer proposals open to further revision and commentary. For instance, the APA has created a series of advisory meetings and offered circumlocutions filled with loopholes and vague suggestions to seek ethical guidance when a psychologist faces an ethical dilemma over apparent torture. That’s amply illustrated in a 2011 casebook — prepared six years after it was first promised to mollify critics — by the ethics committee providing suggested responses to real-world scenarios, such as sleep detention and extended isolation, drawn from US-sanctioned interrogation manuals. In response, this “ethics” committee offered such platitudes as “the psychologists in these vignettes should seek consultation regarding how APA resolutions apply to their participation in certain procedures.”
Although it’s likely that a truly independent investigation is likely find to some level of involvement by APA in promoting torture, it’s not at all clear that the APA won’t be able to evade any real accountability or reform like it has done before. Yet as Eidelson notes, if somehow a sweeping, enforceable ban on any interrogation role is put in place, its impact would spread beyond the APA to many psychologists, because most state boards base their ethics policy on the APA’s ethic code. But before that happens, a genuine shift in the APA’s culture of indifference to enforcement and accountability has to take place. A good place to start might be to actually adopt the advice of Pope Francis, who while still failing to halt the Church’s abuse epidemic, at least was willing to rebuke bishops and clergy who “obfuscated rather than punished” — still the guiding philosophy of the American Psychological Association in its approach to torture.
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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.