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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No Place to Hide: Torture, Psychologists, and the APA

The role that psychologists and the American Psychological Association (APA) have played in the context of detainee abuse and torture is a pressing concern for the profession of psychology and for everyone committed to human rights.

There are now many excellent resources available for those interested in learning more and taking action–including carefully researched articles and books, exceptional documentaries, and an increasing number of publicly available official documents.

My 10-minute video above–“No Place to Hide: Torture, Psychologists, and the APA”–provides a brief, timely overview of what has unfolded over the past several years and where things stand today. I extend my thanks to colleagues who have shared their insights and expertise with me.

The video is also available on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o84RE-9023U.

How Americans Think About Torture-and Why

Abu_GhraibIn recent weeks, new revelations about the harsh interrogation and torture of detainees during the Bush administration years have made headlines and stirred controversy. The positions of prominent advocates and opponents on each side are clear. But what do we know about how the American people in general have come to view the use of torture by the U.S. government?

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has been polling Americans on this key question for almost five years. Since 2004, representative samples have been asked, “Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?” The results over this time period have shown only minor fluctuations. The most recent numbers, from last month, reveal that 15% of Americans believe torture is often justified, 34% think it is sometimes justified, 22% consider it rarely justified, and 25% believe torture is never justified. So not only do 49% consider torture justified at least some of the time, fully 71% refuse to rule it out entirely.

Further insight into these numbers can be garnered from a different poll conducted a few months ago, in January 2009. Fox News/Opinion Dynamics asked a national sample of Americans, “Do you think the use of harsh interrogation techniques, including torture, has ever saved American lives since the September 11 (2001) terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?” The results: 45% “Yes” and 41% “No” (with 14% responding “Don’t Know”). In other words, almost half of Americans think torture “works.”

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