Cast Into the Depths: Perilous Waters for the APA

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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.

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New Evidence Links CIA to APA War-on-Terror Ethics

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"The position of the American Psychological Association is clear and unequivocal: For more than 25 years, the association has absolutely condemned any psychologist participation in torture."

Statement by the APA, November 2013

"The American Psychological Association, the largest professional organization for psychologists, worked assiduously to protect the psychologists who did get involved in the torture program."

— James Risen, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, October 2014

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New information may soon be revealed by the Senate Intelligence Committee’s yet-to-be-released report on the CIA’s post-9/11 abusive and torturous detention and interrogation operations. But what already has been clear for a long time – through reports from journalists, independent task forces, congressional investigations, and other documents – is that psychologists and other health professionals were directly involved in brutalizing “war on terror” prisoners in U.S. custody. Of particular note, contract psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen have been identified as the architects of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which included waterboarding, stress positions, exposure to extreme cold, sensory and sleep deprivation, and isolation.

At the same time, what has remained a matter of dispute is the extent to which the American Psychological Association (APA) collaborated with and worked to support the intelligence community and its program of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Critics (including both of us) have argued that the APA repeatedly failed to take the steps necessary to prevent the misuse of psychology, instead allowing perceived opportunities for a “seat at the table” to trump a firm commitment to professional ethics. In response to these allegations, the APA’s leadership has issued denials and statements asserting that the Association has always been steadfast in its opposition to torture.

Where the truth lies in this ongoing debate just became much clearer with the publication of James Risen’s new book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War. In a chapter titled “War on Decency,” the Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist offers fresh evidence from an unexpected inside source: Scott Gerwehr, a RAND Corporation analyst with close ties to the CIA, the Pentagon, and the APA. When Gerwehr died in a motorcycle accident in 2008, he left behind an archive of personal emails, which Risen obtained while conducting research for his book.

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Dr. Frankenstein and the APA's Decade of Monstrosities

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In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written nearly 200 years ago, a young scientist brings to life a hideous monster made of body parts collected from slaughterhouses, dissecting rooms, and graveyards. Dr. Frankenstein is immediately horrified and sickened by what he has created, and he abandons the creature. Alone and shunned by society, the monster later returns and pleads with the doctor to create a mate for him. The remorseful Dr. Frankenstein hesitantly consents, but he stops his work when moral qualms and fears of unknown consequences intercede. Vengeful and enraged, the monster returns again and murders the doctor’s new bride on their wedding night. Dr. Frankenstein vows to spend his remaining years tracking down and killing his grotesque creation, but he himself dies before achieving this final goal.

Sadly, there is no shortage of arenas where the tale of Frankenstein — of science unmoored from values, of ambition unrestrained by conscience — resonates powerfully today. One that stands out for many psychologists is the American Psychological Association’s (APA) ongoing, decade-long embrace of “war on terror” opportunities that have placed U.S. psychologists at the center of coercive interrogations and other human rights abuses.

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Four Psychologists at the Gates of Hell

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

— Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

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This is a story of four siblings with improbable names: Safe, Legal, Ethical, and Effective. Just as improbably, they all grew up to become psychologists, each with a different area of professional focus. Over many years of independent practice, the four gained considerable recognition for their expertise. Eventually, they joined together to form a high-profile, all-in-one firm in which each sibling’s specialized contributions complemented the others.’

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

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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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Dismantling the Master's House: Psychologists and Torture

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Amid disturbing reports that psychologists were involved in the abuse and torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, the American Psychological Association (APA) Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) met in the summer of 2005. Over two days they considered whether the Bush Administration’s no-holds-barred “enhanced interrogation” policies crossed ethical boundaries for military psychologists. Six of the nine voting Task Force members were on the payroll of the military/intelligence establishment, and some of them worked in the chains of command when and where instances of abuse and torture had reportedly occurred. So we should not be surprised by the Task Force’s conclusion that psychologists play an important role in keeping detainee interrogations “safe, legal, ethical, and effective.” This assessment affirmed, nearly verbatim, the military’s own description of Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) psychologists — a description that had been provided to the Task Force in writing  before  their deliberations even began.

Professional psychology has made valuable contributions to national security through collaborative efforts with government agencies — and it will undoubtedly continue to do so. But does anyone truly believe that crucial determinations about  psychological   ethics  should ever be guided by the views and agenda of the Secretary of Defense or the Director of the CIA? The many glaring flaws associated with the PENS Report are especially revealing since the APA is, after all, an organization of  psychologists . It’s therefore very unlikely that the Task Force organizers were somehow unaware of the potent psychological influences of power differentials on group dynamics; of authority structures and conformity pressures on independent decision-making; and of self-interest on objective, unbiased analysis. It’s far more likely the organizers knew exactly how to create the conditions that would reliably produce the outcome they sought.

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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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