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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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”

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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Dr. Frankenstein and the APA's Decade of Monstrosities

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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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Protecting Psychologists Who Harm: The APA’s Latest Wrong Turn

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Shortly after learning about the American Psychological Association’s (APA) new “Member-Initiated Task Force to Reconcile Policies Related to Psychologists’ Involvement in National Security Settings,” I found my thoughts turning to the School of the Americas, Blackwater and, perhaps even more surprisingly, the Patagonian toothfish. Those may seem like a strange threesome, but they share one important thing in common. All have undergone a thorough repackaging and renaming in a marketing effort aimed at obscuring — but not altering — some ugly truth.

The School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, had become infamous for training Latin American soldiers who would return home and engage in repressive campaigns involving rape, torture, and murder of political dissidents. To combat its negative image, the school was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, but the nature of its activities remain largely unchanged. During the Iraq War, Blackwater, a private military company supported by hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. government contracts, gained international notoriety on many counts, including its use of excessive and often deadly force against Iraqi civilians. The company therefore renamed itself — twice — first as Xe Services and then again as Academi, with essentially the same core businesses. As for the Patagonian toothfish, it’s wrong to blame the fish itself. But in an effort to spur sales, merchants renamed it Chilean sea bass (for similar reasons, the slimehead fish is now known as orange roughy instead).  

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“Safe, Legal, Ethical, and Effective”?: It’s Time to Annul the PENS Report

Many viewers were outraged this past August watching NBC’s Today Show interview with former Vice President Dick Cheney. Promoting the release of his new memoir, Cheney nodded in agreement when Matt Lauer noted that the VP continues to support waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” (e.g., stress positions, hypothermia, sleep deprivation, fear induction). Lauer also quoted a key passage from the book: “The program was safe, legal, and effective. It provided intelligence that enabled us to prevent attacks and save American lives” (emphasis added).

Cheney’s “safe-legal-effective” catechism is all too familiar to psychologists like me. It’s three-quarters of a phrase that has defined professional psychology’s decade-long ethical tailspin in the national security sector since the attacks of 9/11. And hearing these words again, I recalled an earlier interview with Stephen Behnke, Director of the Ethics Office of the American Psychological Association (APA). In August 2005, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! asked Dr. Behnke to explain the conclusions of the APA’s then newly released Presidential Report on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS). The Report advocated the continuing involvement of psychologists in the interrogation of national security detainees. Dr. Behkne offered this summary: “The Task Force said that psychologists must adhere, and they used four words to describe psychologist involvement: safe, legal, ethical, and effective” (emphasis added).

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The Dark Side of “Comprehensive Soldier Fitness”

(NOTE: My thanks to co-authors Marc Pilisuk and Stephen Soldz.)

Why is the world's largest organization of psychologists so aggressively promoting a new, massive, and untested military program? The APA's enthusiasm for mandatory "resilience training" for all US soldiers is troubling on many counts.

The January 2011 issue of the American Psychologist, the American Psychological Association's (APA) flagship journal, is devoted entirely to 13 articles that detail and celebrate the virtues of a new US Army-APA collaboration. Built around positive psychology and with key contributions from former APA President Martin Seligman and his colleagues, Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) is a $125 million resilience training initiative designed to reduce and prevent the adverse psychological consequences of combat for our soldiers and veterans. While these are undoubtedly worthy aspirations, the special issue is nevertheless troubling in several important respects: the authors of the articles, all of whom are involved in the CSF program, offer very little discussion of conceptual and ethical considerations; the special issue does not provide a forum for any independent critical or cautionary voices whatsoever; and through this format, the APA itself has adopted a jingoistic cheerleading stance toward a research project about which many crucial questions should be posed. We discuss these and related concerns below.

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Gay Marriage, the Manchester Grand Hyatt, and the APA

manchesterLate last month, American Psychological Association president-elect Carol Goodheart sent an email to APA’s Council of Representatives alerting them to a problem looming on the horizon. Several years ago, the APA entered a contract with the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego to be a headquarters hotel for the 2010 annual convention next August. But last year, hotel owner Doug Manchester contributed $125,000 to support California’s Proposition 8 initiative, which ultimately succeeded in banning same-sex marriage in the state.

In her email on behalf of the Board of Directors, Dr. Goodheart requested that “APA Divisions and governance members not boycott the Manchester Hyatt.” She warned that the financial costs of canceling the hotel contract could exceed $1 million. And she proposed that APA instead turn the situation into a “positive educational opportunity regarding the issue of same-sex marriage.”

Dissatisfied with and troubled by Dr. Goodheart’s letter and its recommendations, I sent her the letter below in response to her request for “other actions that APA might take.”

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