Back to News & Commentary

Can the American Psychological Association Break With Torture Collusion?

Share This Page
June 24, 2009

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.

In a recent book chapter, "Closing Eyes to Atrocities" (in Ryan Goodman & Mindy Jane Roseman's book Interrogations, Forced Feedings, and the Role of Health Professionals: New Perspectives on International Human Rights, Humanitarian Law, and Ethics) I outlined several modes of response to the issue of psychologist involvement in abusive interrogations by APA leadership. In brief, these modes of response, described in the approximate chronological order in which they were rolled out, were:

Identification with the Aggressor in which APA leaders moved quickly after 9/11 to seek funding (for the psychology profession, not the organization) from and influence with the administration and the military/intelligence establishment. They staged joint conferences with the CIA and other security agencies on interrogations and related topics and by extensive lobbying of intelligence officials.

Rigging the Process in which an ethics task force (Psychological Ethics and National Security or PENS) was created which was secretly dominated by a majority of psychologists from the military/intelligence community, four (out of 10) of whom had served in chains of command accused of abuses, to endorse an apparently already adopted "policy of engagement" in military and CIA interrogations.

Denial, in which APA leaders cast doubt upon reports that psychologists were aiding abusive interrogations, or minimized this involvement as the actions of a few "bad apples," rather than as part of a systematic government program. As former APA President Gerald Koocher stated in a 2006 "President's Column" piece in the APA Monitor:

A number of opportunistic commentators masquerading as scholars have continued to report on alleged abuses by mental health professionals.

Naming Names, in which the issue was turned into one of possible individual perpetrators and critics were challenged to name individual psychologists involved in torture and to provide definitive evidence of their involvement in specific abuses; failure to provide this evidence was used to discredit critics of APA policies. As President Koocher continued in his 2006 column:

However, when solicited in person to provide APA with names and circumstances in support of such claims, no data have been forthcoming from these same critics and no APA members have been linked to unprofessional behaviors. The traditional journalistic dictum of reporting who, what, where and when seems notably absent.

We are Here to Help: "Safe and Ethical," in which APA leaders repeated, as if a mantra, "psychologists have a critical role to play in keeping interrogations safe, legal, ethical, and effective;" ignoring increasing evidence that they kept interrogations "safe, legal, and ethical" by monitoring abuse and providing legal cover for torture.

We are No Different Than Others, in which the positions of the American Medical and Psychiatric Associations were distorted to make them virtually indistinguishable from the APA position, despite clear differences.

Parsing Pain, in which the APA passed anti-torture resolutions with loopholes that could be interpreted to allow continued participation by psychologists in many forms of psychological torture.

Repressive Tolerance and Endless "Dialog," in which the APA encouraged endless discussion in order to promote their position that participating in a program of abusive interrogations was a "complex issue," one on which "reasonable people" can differ; these differences were then used as excuses for inaction.

Since I composed this list, recent revelations — including release of the Office of Legal Counsel memos, the declassification of the Senate Armed Services Committee report on interrogations, and statements to NPR by a member of the PENS "ethics" task force defending SERE-based interrogations — have led the APA to adopt a new response, the "We are Shocked!" response in which they act as if they just discovered that, perhaps, a few psychologists did indeed aid the torture regime and they suddenly realize that some members might (unjustly) blame them for years of collusion and inaction. After years of revelations, the best the APA Board could say on June 18, 2009, was:

Information has emerged in the public record confirming that, as committed as some psychologists were to ensuring that interrogations were conducted in a safe and ethical manner, other psychologists were not. Although there are countless psychologists in the military and intelligence community who acted ethically and responsibly during the post-9/11 era, it is now clear that some psychologists did not abide by their ethical obligations to never engage in torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. The involvement of psychologists, no matter how small the number, in the torture of detainees is reprehensible and casts a shadow over our entire profession. APA expresses its profound regret that any psychologist has been involved in the abuse of detainees.

Very understandingly, the Board also now recognizes that not all their members feel satisfied with its (lack of) response to this crisis in the profession and in our society:

We recognize that the issue of psychologist involvement in national security-related investigations has been an extremely difficult and divisive one for our association. We also understand that some of our members continue to be disappointed and others angered by the association's actions in this regard. Although APA has had a longstanding policy against psychologist involvement in torture, many members wanted the association to take a strong stand against any involvement of psychologists in national security interrogations during the Bush administration.

Many association members, and human rights advocates in general, are no more impressed with this latest response than they have been with previous ones. After five years, these members want immediate action, not more words.

There are five steps that the APA should take in order to begin the process of accountability for past abuses while helping transform the association, and the profession, from one that abets participation in torture to one that places a priority on human rights: These steps are:

  1. Fully implement the 2008 member-passed referendum banning psychologists from participating in sites — such as Guantánamo, Bagram, or the CIA "black sites" — where international law or the Constitution are violated.
  2. Rescind the 2005 PENS report endorsing psychologist participation in national security interrogations that was generated by an illegitimate process dominated by military psychologists and APA staff with major conflicts of interest.
  3. Revise its ethics procedures to facilitate the investigation of charges of APA members' complicity in torture. Despite ethics charges that were filed in 2006 against one psychologist who participated in the interrogation of Mohammed al Qahtani — an interrogation described as meeting the legal definition of "torture" by a Bush-appointed Pentagon official — the APa has failed to act. In another instance, it refused to even open a case against another psychologist who, perhaps not coincidentally, has served in a number of positions (Council member, division president) in APA governance. Additionally, the APA must remove its statue of limitations for all offenses involving torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.
  4. Repeal the section of the APA ethics code adopted in 2002 which wrote in the "Nuremberg defense" of following law or orders for violating professional ethics. Also needing revision are problematic parts of the code, also adopted in 2002, dealing with research ethics allowing ignoring informed consent for research participants based merely upon "law or federal or institutional regulations," and another section which sets an unacceptable high threshold of "severe emotional distress" (the criterion for mental torture in the Convention Against Torture) for not using deception in the ethics of research design.
  5. Initiate and cooperate with an independent investigation of possible collusion between APA leadership and the military/intelligence community. This investigation should also examine the structural features of APA governance that allowed the flawed policies and possible collusion to continue for years.

With these actions, the APA would finally be making a clear statement that the old ways are gone, and that the organization is embarking on a new path. Organizational and moral change never comes easy. Those at the top seldom see its necessity. But, as we see today in Iran, serious change usually starts at the bottom, among the rank and file. In the APA, members have been pushing for change in its policies on participation in interrogations since 2005. These efforts accelerated in 2008, when 59 percent of the members passed the member-initiated referendum against participation in torture at illegal detention sites. It is now up to the APA membership to decide whether to continue struggling to reform the APA. More than the future of a professional organization will depend on their decision.

Stephen Soldz is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He edits the Psyche, Science, and Society blog. He is a founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, one of the organizations working to change American Psychological Association policy on participation in abusive interrogations. He is also a Steering Committee member of Psychologists for Social Responsibility [PsySR].

Learn More About the Issues on This Page