The Psychologists Who Enabled Torture

Americans last week learned the details of the American Psychological Association’s collusion with our government’s torture conspiracy. The “Hoffman Report,” named for its lead investigator, is a 542-page document that lays out various ways in which senior leadership in the APA collaborated with government officials and independent contractors to enable torture, hide the fact that torture was occurring, and discredit whistleblowers. 

The report is a damning indictment of key APA leaders and staff. It also provides a vivid illustration of how the government’s decision to torture corrupted both individuals and institutions.

The APA’s mission is to use “psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives.” Its first ethical principle is “beneficence and nonmaleficence” — that is, psychologists should “take care to do no harm.” Yet for years, the organization enabled the use of its professional expertise in service of a systematic program aimed at breaking and psychologically destroying human beings. Hundreds of individuals imprisoned by the CIA and the Department of Defense suffered devastating physical and psychological harm through this perversion of psychological knowledge. And the psychologists who designed and enabled the torture program reaped enormous profits: Torture contractor Mitchell, Jessen and Associates earned more than $80 million from the CIA.

The APA’s role in secretly enabling torture while silencing internal dissent and misleading the public reflects the now-familiar pattern that was followed by government agencies involved in U.S.-sanctioned torture.

The Bush administration’s decision to torture corrupted everything it touched. Government lawyers issued secret legal memos to justify and enable torture. The CIA’s Office of Medical Services secretly monitored torture sessions to keep detainees alive — so they could endure more torture. Top-level government officials secretly ordered, implemented, and signed off on it all. Some within government had the courage to stand against abuse, but they were often ignored or sidelined. And, throughout, government officials lied to the media and the public in order to keep us all in the dark. Shamefully, there has been virtually no legal accountability. 

We now know from the Hoffman Report that very similar patterns played out within the APA. The association’s leadership sought to align the organization’s policies on torture with the priorities of torture facilitators in the Department of Defense. Collusion was rewarded by a close and lucrative relationship with the Pentagon. The report also documents the nature and extent of the collusion, identifies the people involved, and makes clear that the collusion played a key role in enabling the U.S. government’s torture program because psychologists assisted in and provided cover for brutal coercion.  

The Hoffman Report also describes how a former association president launched a “highly personal attack” seeking to discredit a whistleblower when she raised concerns about the APA’s role in the torture program. The report shows that APA leaders shielded from discipline the psychologists who had participated in the torture program. And it explains the ways in which APA leadership used an orchestrated media campaign to mislead the public and portray the organization as protective of the welfare and human rights of prisoners. 

Some of the prominent internal critics of the APA have suggested a starting point for the organization to respond to the revelations in the report. As a country, we also have a long way to go on accountability for the government’s torture program. We still need a full and public investigation of the institutional and leadership failures that enabled our government to torture hundreds of human beings. We still need to hold those responsible to account. And we can’t put this dark chapter behind us until we provide apologies and redress to the victims and survivors.

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