Facing History: My Reply to APA CEO Arthur Evans

In a recent Washington Post commentary, I made four points. First, psychologists played essential roles in the government-authorized torture and abuse of “war on terror” detainees. Second, the American Psychological Association (APA) facilitated this involvement — by secretly accommodating CIA and Defense Department interests; by contesting evidence of wrongdoing with deceptive public statements; and by repeatedly rebuffing calls for stronger anti-torture action. Third, to its credit APA has subsequently pursued difficult and meaningful reforms aimed at resetting its moral compass. And fourth, especially in this fraught political climate, the profession and APA must now vigilantly fend off efforts by self-interested parties committed to turning back the clock on this hard-won progress.

Given this combination of disturbing history and encouraging developments, I was disheartened to read a follow-up letter in the Washington Post from APA’s new CEO Arthur Evans Jr., responding to my essay. While commending the valuable work of psychologists in many spheres (I certainly agree), Evans held APA blameless, portraying the profession’s dark-side participation as solely that of “two rogue psychologists” — CIA contractors James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. This narrative is profoundly and transparently false. The dreadful engagement of psychology and psychologists went much further, as revealed in numerous government and non-governmental reports, witness depositions, declassified memos, and other materials — including a comprehensive independent review that documented APA’s own institutional machinations.

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Heart of Darkness: Observations on a Torture Notebook

Just in time for the Trump Administration’s official embrace of brutality, we have another book defending torture: Enhanced Interrogation by psychologist James Mitchell. For those unfamiliar with the author, he’s a central figure in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s scathing 2014 report summary on CIA abuse. And he’s a co-defendant — for having “designed, implemented, and personally administered an experimental torture program” — in the ACLU’s lawsuit on behalf of three war-on-terror detainees (Suleiman Abdullah Salim, Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, and the estate of the deceased Gul Rahman).

Although subtitled “Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America,” Mitchell’s implausible and self-serving account actually reveals much more about him than it does about the men he helped torture. Here are several reasons why. Continue reading “Heart of Darkness: Observations on a Torture Notebook”

Standing Firm for Reform at the APA

Abolitionist and preacher Frederick Douglass once warned, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” Feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde similarly advised, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Their words are worth remembering as we now witness a coordinated campaign of intimidation, deception, and obfuscation targeting the American Psychological Association’s recent efforts to right its ship and institute meaningful ethical reforms in national security contexts.

Background

To fully understand the duplicitousness of this campaign, some brief background is essential. Following the 9/11 attacks, the APA leadership sacrificed the profession’s do-no-harm commitments, lured by the power and prestige available to participants in the Bush Administration’s brutal “war on terror.” As a result, for over a decade thereafter, the APA’s primary response to evidence of psychologists’ involvement in the abuse and torture of detainees was a combination of stonewalling, denials, and attacks against critics. Continue reading “Standing Firm for Reform at the APA”

When Psychologists Deny Guantanamo’s Abuses

“To be in an eight-by-eight cell in beautiful, sunny Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is not …inhumane treatment.” – former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

Following a seven-month investigation, in July the Hoffman Report presented extensive evidence of collusion between leaders of the American Psychological Association (APA) and Department of Defense (DoD) officials. This secret collaboration – conducted over a period of years – was aimed at ensuring that APA ethics policies would not constrain DoD interrogation-related activities, and that psychologists would remain in operational roles at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. overseas detention centers.

The report includes a detailed examination of the APA’s controversial 2005 Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS). The PENS task force, stacked with military intelligence representatives, asserted that Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) psychologists helped to keep detention and interrogation operations “safe, legal, ethical, and effective” – despite multiple reports that health professionals were among the perpetrators of detainee torture and abuse. Continue reading “When Psychologists Deny Guantanamo’s Abuses”

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”

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

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"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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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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