"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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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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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.

Beware the Wounded Bear

woundedbearWhen respondents in a mid-February Pew poll were asked to use one word to describe President Bush, the single adjective offered most often was “incompetent.” Meanwhile, a recent Newsweek poll revealed not only that Bush’s approval rating has fallen to an all-time low, but also that a majority of respondents simply wish his presidency was already over. These rebukes cannot sit well with someone who has proclaimed himself “The Decider,” who has become infatuated with the title “Commander-in-Chief,” and who once told Bob Woodward “That’s the interesting thing about being the President…I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”

In short, the president and his conservative allies find themselves on very uncomfortable and increasingly shaky ground. They are beleaguered by transparent policy failures and by growing public and media scrutiny of their actions and motives. There is much irony to this current state of affairs. As I have described elsewhere, the Bush administration has thrived on manipulative appeals to our collective core concerns about vulnerability, injustice, distrust, superiority, and helplessness (an online video discussing this topic can be viewed HERE.). To promote their narrow agenda, they have sought to persuade the country that we should feel constantly fearful for our safety, aggrieved for injustices perpetrated against us, distrustful of outsiders, superior to others in our values and character, and powerful enough to accomplish anything we desire. This worked for a long time. However, as the polls noted above clearly indicate, for most of us these appeals have lost much of their persuasive power (perhaps because we’ve been fooled once too often). As a result, the White House and its propagandists are now most successful at persuading themselves. This is indeed a peculiar and limited form of success—but it still makes for a very dangerous brew. Consider the five ingredients:

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