How the American Psychological Association Lost Its Way

Written with my colleague Jean Maria Arrigo, this op-ed originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

The American Psychological Association is in crisis.

It began last December, when a Senate Intelligence Committee report laid bare the extensive involvement of individual psychologists in the CIA’s black-site torture program. Then in early July a devastating independent report by a former federal prosecutor determined that more than a decade ago top APA leaders — including the director of ethics — began working secretly with military representatives. Together they crafted deceptively permissive ethics policies for psychologists that effectively enabled abusive interrogation of war-on-terror prisoners to continue.

These revelations have shocked and outraged not just psychologists, but also the public at large. After all, the APA’s ethics code for psychologists governs not only its own 80,000 members, but also underlies the policies of most state licensing boards. Continue reading “How the American Psychological Association Lost Its Way”

Rejecting the Obama-Cheney Alliance Against Torture Prosecutions

Obama-Cheney

A decade ago, amid early reports of detainee abuse at CIA black sites and Guantanamo Bay, defenders of U.S. detention and interrogation operations promoted a flawed distinction between torture and “torture-lite.” They argued that, to our nation’s credit, rather than resorting to brutal and violent maiming and mutilation, we employed less cruel techniques—techniques like sleep deprivation, extended isolation, stress positions, sensory bombardment, forced nudity, freezing temperatures, sexual and cultural humiliation, confinement in coffin-like boxes, and threats of harm to family members. This favorable assessment, however, does not withstand scientific scrutiny; these hands-off psychological methods are at least as devastating and debilitating in their long-term and often permanent effects. Yet the notion of “torture-lite” helped to encourage the public to accept the inhuman treatment of detainees.

Now, following last month’s release of the Senate report on the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation program,” we are drawn to another deceptive distinction: the difference between “torture tolerance” on the one hand and what might be called “torture tolerance-lite” on the other. To nobody’s surprise, torture tolerance found its go-to spokesperson years ago in Dick Cheney. The former vice-president predictably returned to center stage to defend the CIA’s methods. His strident message has ranged from “I would do it again in a minute” to “It absolutely did work” to “I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.” Indeed, Cheney and other Bush Administration officials who instituted the program apparently believe our torturers deserve to be decorated, not indicted.

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Cast Into the Depths: Perilous Waters for the APA

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In his book Life Lines, the late minister and theologian Forrest Church wrote, “When cast into the depths, to survive we must first let go of things that will not save us. Then we must reach out for things that can.”

These are words – and actions – that the leaders and membership of the American Psychological Association should take to heart as a new year begins, before the profession drowns in the torture scandal that has been building for well over a decade. Rescuing the APA will not be easy, but here are a few specific suggestions for where and how to begin.

First, the APA must let go of its stubborn denials of any connection to the Bush Administration’s program of torture and abuse. The brutal treatment of detainees was not merely the isolated and abhorrent inspiration of two so-called rogue psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen; indeed, from the start the Office of Legal Counsel “torture memos” were drafted with key roles for psychologists specifically in mind.

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Building a Racially Just Society: Psychological Insights

Unlearn-Racism

by Roy Eidelson, Mikhail Lyubansky, and Kathie Malley-Morrison

Authors Note. As three white psychologists, we offer this brief essay with the awareness that our perspective is necessarily limited by our lived experience as members of the privileged racial class. Through our many years of work as both psychologists and activists, we know first-hand how contentious and fraught racial justice discussions and efforts can be, even among colleagues and within organizations firmly committed to progressive social change. We share the essay below with the recognition that, to varying degrees, everyone is diminished by racism and racist institutions, and in the hope that this psychology-focused analysis may encourage constructive discussion and much needed action toward a racially just society.

This past August’s police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teen, temporarily brought the attention of the entire nation to Ferguson, Missouri. The days and weeks that immediately followed witnessed prayer vigils; peaceful protests; sporadic episodes of minor violence and property damage; a heightened (and, in the eyes of many, overblown) law enforcement presence with armored trucks, riot gear, tear gas, and rubber bullets; a statement by President Obama from the White House; and a visit to the St. Louis suburb by Attorney General Eric Holder. Now, three months later, Ferguson residents wait anxiously for the anticipated announcement of whether a federal grand jury has indicted Darren Wilson, the white police officer who fired the gun that struck down Brown.

Whatever the outcome and immediate aftermath of those deliberations, Michael Brown’s tragic death, the anguish of his family, and the turmoil within his community are all salient reminders that the United States is still far from being a racially just and equitable society.[1] These failings are broad and deep. They are reflected in the longstanding and seemingly intractable realities of unequal treatment, circumstance, and opportunity for African Americans – and for other communities of color. And they pose a difficult yet increasingly urgent challenge[2] – not only in regard to seeking justice for Michael Brown, but also in working to redress the widespread and daily harms associated with race-based inequities in law enforcement and other areas.

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New Evidence Links CIA to APA War-on-Terror Ethics

No-Torture

"The position of the American Psychological Association is clear and unequivocal: For more than 25 years, the association has absolutely condemned any psychologist participation in torture."

Statement by the APA, November 2013

"The American Psychological Association, the largest professional organization for psychologists, worked assiduously to protect the psychologists who did get involved in the torture program."

— James Risen, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, October 2014

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New information may soon be revealed by the Senate Intelligence Committee’s yet-to-be-released report on the CIA’s post-9/11 abusive and torturous detention and interrogation operations. But what already has been clear for a long time – through reports from journalists, independent task forces, congressional investigations, and other documents – is that psychologists and other health professionals were directly involved in brutalizing “war on terror” prisoners in U.S. custody. Of particular note, contract psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen have been identified as the architects of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which included waterboarding, stress positions, exposure to extreme cold, sensory and sleep deprivation, and isolation.

At the same time, what has remained a matter of dispute is the extent to which the American Psychological Association (APA) collaborated with and worked to support the intelligence community and its program of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Critics (including both of us) have argued that the APA repeatedly failed to take the steps necessary to prevent the misuse of psychology, instead allowing perceived opportunities for a “seat at the table” to trump a firm commitment to professional ethics. In response to these allegations, the APA’s leadership has issued denials and statements asserting that the Association has always been steadfast in its opposition to torture.

Where the truth lies in this ongoing debate just became much clearer with the publication of James Risen’s new book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War. In a chapter titled “War on Decency,” the Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist offers fresh evidence from an unexpected inside source: Scott Gerwehr, a RAND Corporation analyst with close ties to the CIA, the Pentagon, and the APA. When Gerwehr died in a motorcycle accident in 2008, he left behind an archive of personal emails, which Risen obtained while conducting research for his book.

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Neuroscience, Special Forces, and Ethics at Yale

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Last month, a proposal to establish a US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) Center for Excellence in Operational Neuroscience at Yale University died a not-so-quiet death. The broad goal of “operational neuroscience” is to use research on the human brain and nervous system to protect and give tactical advantage to U.S. warfighters in the field. Crucial questions remain unanswered about the proposed center’s mission and the unusual circumstances surrounding its demise. But just as importantly, this episode brings much needed attention to the morally fraught and murky terrain where partnerships between university researchers and national security agencies lie.

A Brief Chronology 

Let’s start with what transpired, according to the news reports and official press releases. In late January, the Yale Herald reported that the Department of Defense had awarded $1.8 million to Yale University’s School of Medicine for the creation of the new center under the direction of Yale psychiatrist Charles Morgan III. Descriptions of the proposed center’s work revolved around the teaching of Morgan’s interviewing techniques to U.S. Special Forces in order to improve their intelligence gathering. To heighten the soldiers’ cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity, Morgan reportedly intended to draw volunteer interviewees from New Haven’s immigrant communities.

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Torturing the Truth and Whitewashing Hell

GTMO

The controversy continues regarding retired military psychologist Larry James, who is seeking an executive director position in the College of Education at the University of Missouri. As one of two finalists for the position, last week James participated in a public forum at the university. Many of the questions following his formal presentation were about his work a decade ago at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center in Cuba, where hundreds of men and boys from Afghanistan and elsewhere were imprisoned and interrogated as part of the U.S. “war on terror.”

James avoided answering several of these probing questions posed to him at the event. For example, he didn’t address concerns about the sexist and homophobic descriptions in his book Fixing Hell, and he chose not to clarify whether he knew that he was violating international conventions against torture when he participated in the “disappearing” of three Afghan juveniles. But in responding more fully to other questions, James did make claims that merit much closer examination.

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The Torture Debate Echoes: An Army Psychologist's Job Search

Torture-Debate

For all of the wrong reasons, torture has been in the national news this past week. First, President Obama nominated John Brennan as the new director of the CIA, a man who embraced and defended the Bush Administration’s use of torturous “enhanced interrogation techniques” (before joining the current White House and becoming a leading advocate for drones and extrajudicial assassinations). Second, we observed the eleventh anniversary of the opening of the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where over 100 of the men and boys brought there as part of our “war on terror” still remain — abused and indefinitely detained without trial in the military prison despised around the world. And third, the controversial hunt-for-Bin Laden film “Zero Dark Thirty”, which promotes the view that torture produced valuable intelligence, received multiple Academy Award nominations and was #1 at the box office last weekend.

Away from the national spotlight, in Columbia, Missouri — home of the University of Missouri — a related story is also unfolding this month. According to recent local news reports in the Columbia Missourian and the Columbia Daily Tribune, one of the two finalists in the job search for division executive director at the university’s College of Education is Dr. Larry James. What’s of particular note about James is that he’s a retired Army colonel and military psychologist who held positions of authority during stints at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at Guantanamo.

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Dr. Frankenstein and the APA's Decade of Monstrosities

No-Torture

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written nearly 200 years ago, a young scientist brings to life a hideous monster made of body parts collected from slaughterhouses, dissecting rooms, and graveyards. Dr. Frankenstein is immediately horrified and sickened by what he has created, and he abandons the creature. Alone and shunned by society, the monster later returns and pleads with the doctor to create a mate for him. The remorseful Dr. Frankenstein hesitantly consents, but he stops his work when moral qualms and fears of unknown consequences intercede. Vengeful and enraged, the monster returns again and murders the doctor’s new bride on their wedding night. Dr. Frankenstein vows to spend his remaining years tracking down and killing his grotesque creation, but he himself dies before achieving this final goal.

Sadly, there is no shortage of arenas where the tale of Frankenstein — of science unmoored from values, of ambition unrestrained by conscience — resonates powerfully today. One that stands out for many psychologists is the American Psychological Association’s (APA) ongoing, decade-long embrace of “war on terror” opportunities that have placed U.S. psychologists at the center of coercive interrogations and other human rights abuses.

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The Army's Flawed Resilience-Training Study: A Call for Retraction

(NOTE: My thanks to co-author Stephen Soldz.)

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Ten years of continuous war — characterized by multiple deployments, elusive guerilla adversaries, and occupied populations seemingly more tilted toward resentment than gratitude — have taken a significant toll on US troops. In addition to those who have been killed, physically maimed, or neurologically impaired by combat, many soldiers have experienced debilitating psychological disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety. Large numbers are on antidepressants and other psychotropic medications, while the suicide rate among troops has risen to alarming levels.

The sobering realities of the psychological effects of war pose a serious challenge for the US military tasked with simultaneously fighting multiple wars and anticipating years of “persistent conflict” ahead. The good news is that key sectors within the military have now identified the mental health of our troops as a major issue that must be addressed. Indeed, in addition to treatment for those suffering psychological impairment, the military leadership is pursuing intervention efforts aimed at preventing such adverse outcomes by increasing soldiers’ psychological resilience to combat exposure. The largest of these new initiatives is the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program, launched in 2009 and based upon the “positive psychology” framework of psychologist Martin Seligman. And that brings us to the bad news: despite the over-hyped claims of CSF’s leading proponents, at this point there is little evidence to suggest that CSF works.

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