Blog of Rights

Dr. Stephen

Can the American Psychological Association Break With Torture Collusion?

By Dr. Stephen Soldz at 5:28pm

As details have poured out this spring about the U.S. torture program, attention was focused on the roles of psychologists and other health professionals in designing, conducting, and legitimizing that program. In both the CIA and the Defense Department, psychologists from the military's SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) program were tapped to design the "enhanced interrogation" techniques and to train and consult on their implementation. Additionally, the Office of Legal Counsel memos released in April provided further evidence that psychologists and other health professionals were central to the Bush administration strategy of providing legal cover for clearly illegal torture. These health professionals would monitor the torture and give their professional opinion that the prisoner was really not suffering serious harm. In the perverted logic of the memos, such a professional opinion, however invalid, provided protection for interrogators from liability for engaging in torture.

Notwithstanding recent attention in the press, the involvement of psychologists and other health professionals on so-called Behavioral Science Consultation Teams (BSCTs) in the U.S. torture program was first reported in 2004 (see also here and here) while the basis of these techniques in the SERE program was originally detailed by Jane Mayer in 2005. The general nature of the U.S. treatment of detainees was described in the Washington Post as far back as December 2002. Thus, the leaders of the American Psychological Association (APA), the world's largest organization of psychologists, should have been well aware of these claims at least four years ago. In 2005, in fact, they convened a task force to "put out the fires" resulting from these reports of health professionals aiding abuse.

One might expect that claims that psychologists were central actors in the administration's well known program of torture and detainee abuse would have mobilized APA leaders to assess the veracity of the claims, to take measures to stop this involvement in torture, and to punish perpetrators from among the profession. Unfortunately, the APA leadership took a different path. They decided to use the opportunity to curry favor with the military/intelligence establishment and the Bush administration. Thus, they moved to encourage, indeed to assert, the necessity of having psychologists aiding these investigations.

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