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.
Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the APA leadership began actively collaborating with the White House, CIA, and Department of Defense by promoting and embracing the involvement of psychologists in interrogations, research, and related operational activities. Following government guidance and recommendations, in 2005, the APA also created its own Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security.
Despite the clear conflicts of interest, APA leaders made sure that this group was primarily comprised of military and intelligence agency representatives, several of whom served in chains of command where alleged abuses had taken place. Not surprisingly, they quickly affirmed that it was ethical for psychologists to assist with detention and interrogation operations. The APA board then immediately approved that PENS task force report in an inexplicable “emergency” session.
Second, the APA must let go of its self-righteous assertions that it has always prohibited psychologists from participating in torture. Its formal resolutions and policies have been riddled with loopholes about what constitutes ethical behavior and what constitutes torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
Similarly, a 2008 membership-initiated referendum to remove psychologists from unlawful settings like Guantanamo has never been enforced by the leadership. Furthermore, at the outset of the “war on terror,” the APA revised its ethics code in ways that served the Bush Administration’s torture agenda and methods.
Restrictions on psychologists’ participation in involuntary and harm-inducing research were loosened, and broader revisions permitted psychologists to “adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority” when ethical conflicts arose. These changes, including the resurrection of the long-discredited “just following orders” Nuremberg Defense, were instituted after a senior CIA official had already told Congress that “After 9/11, the gloves come off” and after the press had reported that detainees at CIA black sites were being subjected to physical and psychological abuse (and in some cases rendered to other countries where brutal torture was known to take place).
And third, the APA must let go of its false assurances that it will take assertive action against any members implicated in detainee mistreatment. In every instance, these declarations have proven hollow and disingenuous.
For years, APA officials withheld the fact that James Mitchell himself was an APA member until he resigned sometime in 2006.
In another notorious case, after almost seven years of delay, the APA Ethics Office decided that there was “no cause for action” against a Guantanamo psychologist who had drafted guidelines for the use of physically and psychologically harmful and abusive detention and interrogation tactics.
This psychologist also personally participated in the torturous interrogation of a detainee who was subjected to almost daily 20-hour interrogations; was held in extended isolation; was frequently hooded; was stripped and forced to stand naked with female interrogators present; was terrorized by military dogs; and was forced to perform dog tricks while being led around by a leash. Despite this compelling evidence – much of it from government documents – of violations of psychological ethics, APA staff declined to even bring this complaint to the full ethics committee for investigation, review, and resolution.
Taken together, these stubborn denials, self-righteous assertions and false assurances are all flotsam from the wreckage caused by the APA’s misguided and overeager embrace of expediency and opportunism.
Only by letting go of this rotting debris can the world’s largest organization of psychologists grab hold of the single reliable lifeline available to it: a renewed commitment to fundamental do-no-harm ethics and respect for human dignity. Holding onto that lifeline will require significant resolve – to openly acknowledge past choices; to fully support accountability for wrongdoing; and to actively pursue meaningful reform.
These reforms must include new and untarnished transformative leadership; the broader sharing of governance responsibilities; and an unbiased and critical assessment of the profession’s priorities and ethics, especially in military, intelligence and other national security contexts. Nothing less will be enough.
This essay first appeared in Truthout.