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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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”

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

No-Torture

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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