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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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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