"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 Lure of False Narratives: Martians and Election Day

waroftheworlds1It’s only fitting that a truly memorable demonstration of human gullibility will mark its 70th anniversary just before Election Day. On the night of October 30, 1938, thousands of radio listeners concluded that Orson Welles’ adaptation of The War of the Worlds was the real thing: a live account of Martian invaders landing in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Those fooled by the show’s air of authenticity exhibited signs of panic and hysteria. Some called the police for guidance on how they could protect themselves. Some fled their homes for greater safety farther from the invasion site. And some listeners fainted beside their radios. Within hours the hoax was fully revealed, and public outrage swiftly followed.

Today, Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin seem intent on creating similar mass confusion for their own purposes. Because in promoting themselves as agents of change, they’re clearly hoping that voters will mistake fantasy for reality. After all, during a 2005 Meet the Press appearance McCain himself claimed, “On the transcendent issues, the most important issues of our day, I’ve been totally in agreement and support of President Bush.” And according to the non-partisan Congressional Quarterly, last year he voted in line with the president 95% of the time — more than anyone else in the entire Senate. But given the president’s abysmal approval ratings as the election approaches (29% in a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll), it’s really no surprise that the McCain-Palin campaign is working so hard to spin their “maverick” yarns.

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Forewarned Is Forearmed: Bush On Iran

The White House’s propaganda campaign laying the groundwork for military action against Iran dates back almost six years–to Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address in which he designated Iran as a founding member of the “axis of evil.” Since then, this drumbeat has waxed and waned as other concerns–primarily the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq–have often commanded center stage. Now, with the Bush administration approaching its final year in office, a renewed push and a shorter fuse are increasingly evident. The 3-minute video above entitled “Forewarned Is Forearmed: Bush On Iran” offers a very brief but deeply troubling chronicle of the president’s public warmongering and demonization of Iran. If you find the video worthwhile, please share it with others. As has been said before, “the hour is getting late.”

Note: The video is also available directly on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xLioyP69N3I

Sky Dwellers, Pie Eaters, and Their Political Enablers: Faithful Defenders of the Status Quo

jeffersons2In the mid-1970s the TV sitcom The Jeffersons portrayed the rags-to-riches story of a black entrepreneur living the American Dream. The pugnacious and overbearing George Jefferson (former neighbor of All in the Family’s Archie Bunker) becomes a dry cleaning magnate and leaves blue-collar Queens for swanky Manhattan. As the show’s theme song recounts:

“Well we’re moving on up,
To the east side.
To a deluxe apartment in the sky.
Moving on up,
To the east side.
We finally got a piece of the pie.”

But now fast-forward to 2007 and real world America. When it comes to those deluxe apartments in the sky, today’s exclusive penthouses sit atop much taller high-rises–but the chances of ever living in one (or even breathing its rarified air as a dinner guest) have shrunk considerably. And although the proverbial economic pie is much larger today as well, a relative handful of gluttons are gorging themselves while everyone else settles for leftovers and crumbs.

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Desperately Needed: A Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion

wizardofozThere are so many instructive comparisons between the film classic The Wizard of Oz and the presidency of George W Bush that it’s hard to settle on just one. Here’s a particular angle that I think deserves more attention.

Through memorable characters and adventures, The Wizard of Oz reminds us that too often we underestimate ourselves and fail to realize that we already possess the very qualities and virtues to which we aspire. The Scarecrow travels the Yellow Brick Road in the hope of obtaining a brain; at journey’s end he comes to realize that he had one all along. Similarly, the Tin Man wishes for a heart but ultimately learns that he was a compassionate woodsman from the start. And the Cowardly Lion heads to the Emerald City in pursuit of courage–yet he demonstrates his considerable valor along the way. All told, it’s an uplifting tale of unpresumptuous, accidental heroes who rise to the occasion in the face of adversity.

But now try to imagine an altered script, an upside-down Oz where the key players, rather than underestimating themselves, instead make outrageous and false claims (to themselves and to others) about their intelligence, compassion, and courage. And also try to imagine that over the course of their own harrowing journey these travelers learn…well, absolutely nothing. Of course, sadly this re-write doesn’t require much of an imagination at all. This is the Oz rendition that’s been playing in Washington and around the world since Bush, Cheney, and their neocon entourage took center stage. Although many examples are available, let’s focus on the Iraq War alone.

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Public-Servant-in-Chief: In the President’s Own Words

bushIt’s not Baghdad alone where we’re witnessing a Bush-inspired surge. The President holds ultimate responsibility for an escalation unfolding in Washington as well: namely, the rapid proliferation of administration scandals and outrages now finally finding the light of day (deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center; politically-driven purges of U.S. attorneys; FBI abuses of National Security Letters, and the list goes on and on).

Not surprisingly, today President Bush resists reasonable calls for meaningful accountability and benchmarks on both fronts. But back in his headier days of sky-high approval ratings–late 2001 to be exact–he spoke to an audience of government employees and enumerated the standards by which public servants should be measured. From the White House website (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/10/20011015-8.html):

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Resisting the Drums of War: VIDEO

The Bush administration promoted the misguided and destructive war in Iraq by targeting five core concerns that often govern our lives—concerns about vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness. Looking ahead, the continued occupation of Iraq—-or an attack on Iran—-will likely be sold to us in much the same way. I examine these warmongering appeals—-and how to counter them-—in the new video above, entitled Resisting the Drums of War.