Report Damns American Psychological Association for Collusion in US Torture Program


An image created by the Guardian to accompany its report about the American Psychological Association scandal following a highly critical report made public in July 2015.On July 11, a damning new report concluded that US psychologists, via their largest professional organization, the American Psychological Association (APA), betrayed their core principles by working far too closely with the CIA and the Pentagon on interrogations in the post-9/11 “war on terror,” and, in the process, provided what appeared to be justification for the Bush administration’s torture program.

The 542-page report, entitled, “Independent Review Relating to APA Ethics Guidelines, National Security Interrogations, and Torture,” is “the result of a seven-month investigation by a team led by David Hoffman, a Chicago lawyer with the firm Sidley Austin at the request of the psychology association’s board,” as the New York Times explained in the article that broke the story. That article was by James Risen, and the APA had commissioned the report last year after the publication of Risen’s book Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War, which, as the magazine Science described it, “accused the organization of providing cover for torture.”

In his article, Risen began by pointing out how crucial the support of psychologists was for the Bush administration’s abusive treatment of prisoners during interrogations after the 9/11 attacks. He stated that the Hoffman report concluded that, although the CIA’s health professionals “repeatedly criticized the agency’s post-Sept. 11 interrogation program,” their protests “were rebuffed by prominent outside psychologists who lent credibility to the program.”

The report, he continued, “raises repeated questions about the collaboration between psychologists and officials at both the CIA and the Pentagon,” and “concludes that some of the association’s top officials, including its ethics director [Stephen Behnke], sought to curry favor with Pentagon officials by seeking to keep the association’s ethics policies in line with the Defense Department’s interrogation policies, while several prominent outside psychologists took actions that aided the CIA’s interrogation program and helped protect it from growing dissent inside the agency.”

As the report described it, the APA’s ethics office “prioritized the protection of psychologists — even those who might have engaged in unethical behavior — above the protection of the public.” As Risen described it, Stephen Behnke “coordinated the group’s public policy statements on interrogations with a top military psychologist … and then received a Pentagon contract to help train interrogators while he was working at the association, without the knowledge of the association’s board.”

Risen also explained that the report noted that ‘[t]wo former presidents of the psychological association were on a CIA advisory committee,” and that “[o]ne of them [Joseph Matarazzo] gave the agency an opinion that sleep deprivation did not constitute torture, and later held a small ownership stake in a consulting company founded by two men who oversaw the agency’s interrogation program.” Those two men are former military psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who worked on the SERE program (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape), which was designed to train US personnel to resist torture if captured by a hostile enemy, and who reverse-engineered that program for the Bush administration’s torture program, even though they had no experience of conducting interrogations in the real world. I have been reporting their stories for many years (see here, here and here), and I wrote a song about their role in the torture program, for my band The Four Fathers, which is featured on our debut album, “Love and War” (available here) and is entitled, “81 Million Dollars” — the amount Mitchell and Jessen were paid for their brutal and worthless torture consultancy.

As the article in Science also explained:

The report’s most damning findings concern a 2005 APA committee called the Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS). The task force was created in the midst of revelations that detainees were subjected to “enhanced interrogation” at U.S. government facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and that psychologists were intimately involved in both the design and practice of these efforts.

As Hoffman discovered through interviews, medics within the intelligence community were “not on board” with such interrogations. To quell this internal resistance, the government hoped to enlist support from APA, psychology’s largest professional organization. And the PENS task force provided it, concluding in a 2005 statement that it was ethical for psychologists to take part in the interrogation program.

The article in Science added, “The PENS decision sparked protests by many APA members, some of whom called for withholding dues” — and some of whom left the organization entirely, as I have discovered over the years through my friendship with a number of US psychologists opposed to the use of torture, However, Hoffman found that they were ignored. “Being involved in the intentional harming of detainees … could do lasting damage to the integrity and reputation of psychology, a profession that purports to ‘do no harm,’” he noted, but “these countervailing concerns were simply not considered or were highly subordinated to APA’s strategic goals.” As Hoffman put it, the APA “sought to maintain its privileged relationship with the Pentagon,” which is “a massive employer of psychologists.”

As Al-Jazeera described it, the report also “showed that ‘current and former APA officials had very substantial interactions with the CIA in the 2001 to 2004 time period’ when the agency was using ‘techniques like waterboarding, harsh physical actions such as “walling”, forced stress positions’, and the intentional deprivation of necessities, such as sleep and a temperature-controlled environment.”

After the Hoffman report was made public on Friday, the American Psychological Association issued an apology. Former APA president Nadine Kaslow said in a statement, “The actions, policies and lack of independence from government influence described in the Hoffman report represented a failure to live up to our core values. We profoundly regret and apologize for the behavior and the consequences that ensued.”

Prior to the publication of the report, Stephen Behnke left his post as the APA’s ethics director, and three senior officials —  Norman Anderson the CEO, Michael Honaker, the deputy CEO, and Rhea Farberman, the communications chief — resigned after its publication, as the Guardian explained.

The Guardian added that Stephen Soldz, “a longtime APA critic on torture affiliated with Physicians for Human Rights,” responded to news of the departures by saying, “This is a major step toward reforming the APA and the profession.” he added, “I hope it is only the beginning of change. The selection of the right CEO will be crucial.”

As the Guardian also noted, “Soldz is part of a group pushing for the APA to refer the Hoffman report to the FBI and Justice Department for potential criminal inquiries. Thus far, the APA has committed to providing the report to the Senate committees overseeing the military and CIA, and a call to end all psychologist participation in US interrogation and detention operations is slated for APA consideration at a major conference next month.” To date, however, “there is no indication from the Justice Department that it intends to revisit the politically fraught question of legal accountability for torture, which ended in 2012 without prosecutions. The defense department, which still assigns psychologists to Guantanamo Bay, has yet to comment; and the White House has stayed out of the fray.”

For those who want to know more, I recommend the work of my friend and colleague Jeffrey Kaye, a psychologist in California, and I also recommend the transcript of the opening comments made by Stephen Soldz and his colleague Steven Meisner at a two-hour meeting with the board of the APA on July 2, 2015. Also see the April 2015 report, with Soldz, Meisner and Nathaniel Raymond as lead authors, “All the President’s Psychologists: The American Psychological Association’s Secret Complicity with the White House and US Intelligence Community in Support of the CIA’s ‘Enhanced’ Interrogation Program.”

Below I’m also cross-posting two articles that I found to be particularly useful: an editorial in Nature, which provides a good account of the history of psychologists’ interaction with the military — and also addresses the most important points in the Hoffman report; and a New York Times editorial from December 16, 2014, a week after the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA torture program was released, with its harrowing details of the brutality and pointlessness of the program. The editorial focus specifically on “the deep complicity of psychologists and doctors in torturing suspected terrorists,” expressing disgust at the reports of Mitchell and Jessen’s role, and including mention of the Hoffman report, which has just begun at the time, as well as quotes from the American Medical Association and the president of the APA, who “called torture ‘morally reprehensible‘ and said the application of ‘learned helplessness‘ on detainees was a ‘perversion of psychological science.'”

If only those conclusions had been reached earlier, before all the torture and abuse began, without which, of course, the brutal interrogations of the “war on terror” would not have been able to take place.

Lessons must be learned after psychology torture inquiry
Nature editorial, July 14, 2015

In 1917, when the field of psychology was young and struggling to gain acceptance in science, the American Psychological Association (APA) needed a friend. Like many at the time, it decided to assist the war effort by working with the US military. The collaboration was largely benign: efforts to assess which recruits were fit to be soldiers led to the first formal study of variation in human intelligence. Later, psychologists studied the effects of war on soldiers returning home, fuelling the case for making the First World War “the war to end all wars”.

That was not to be, but psychology, and the APA in particular, continued its close bond with military and intelligence agencies. The relationship is not inherently problematic: indeed, the US Department of Defense (DOD) spends tens of millions of dollars each year on research into post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological and psychiatric complications of war. The DOD, which employs around 700 psychologists, was a key ally in psychologists obtaining the authority to write prescriptions in the 1980s. And the APA has at times taken a stand against DOD policies: as early as 1991, the organization protested against the Pentagon’s policy of stopping openly gay people from serving in the military by banning DOD advertisements in APA publications.

Nevertheless, the tone of the alliance between US agencies and psychologists has darkened over the past century. Most famous is the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) mind-control programme MKUltra during the cold-war era, in which psychologists helped the CIA to develop and test interrogation techniques involving the use of hallucinogenic drugs and hypnosis.

Given this history, it should be no surprise that the APA has continued to cultivate a close relationship with the agencies. Last week, a long-awaited external report confirmed suspicions of the APA’s involvement in the torture of detainees following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the ensuing ‘war on terror’ (see Starting in 2005, the report found, APA officials worked with the DOD to keep the organization’s ethics guidelines loose enough to justify the participation of psychologists in the DOD’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ programme. As a result, the DOD and CIA could easily brush aside the ethical concerns of their own psychologists: the APA had given the programme its imprimatur.

The story is rife with conflicts of interest: according to the report, six of the nine voting psychologists on the APA task force that wrote the guidelines had consulting relationships with the DOD or CIA, and one former APA president owned a financial stake in the consulting company that oversaw the CIA interrogation programme. As criticism surfaced, the APA defended itself by formally condemning torture while doing nothing to stop its members from participating. Meanwhile, Guantanamo Bay’s chief military psychologist told an APA meeting: “If we removed psychologists from these facilities, people are going to die.” It is an assertion that does more to reveal the disgraceful state of the programme than to offer a moral defence.

Not only did APA psychologists deem the torture programme ethical, but they also gave it a patina of legitimacy by trying to cast it as research. The “studies” — which violate every consent rule for human subjects, including the CIA’s own — involved questions about the acceptable limits of human suffering and how well various techniques could yield useful information from a prisoner. There is no evidence that the United States gained any useful information in this way.

The scientific basis for the interrogation programme was questionable from the start. The theory of ‘learned helplessness’ was developed to test psychiatric drugs by measuring how long mice will try to swim in a bucket of water — depressed animals will give up sooner and allow themselves to be rescued. The psychologists who developed the CIA’s interrogation techniques reversed this idea, theorizing that simulating the experience of drowning, or waterboarding, could induce despair in human detainees until they gave up their story.

The APA has apologized for its failings and has indicated that it will revise its policies to prohibit psychologists from participating in military interrogations. It has also parted company with its ethics director, who the report named as leading the collusion with the military. More heads are likely to roll, and some psychologists could even face prosecution.

The American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association forbade their members in 2006 from participating in the interrogation programmes. This is in keeping with the Geneva Convention, an international agreement signed in 1929 and revised nearly 70 years ago to do away with torture and abusive experimentation on prisoners of war. The APA deserves all the criticism it receives and more, for its willingness to forswear global consensus in the interest of making a deal with the devil.

Tortured by Psychologists and Doctors
New York Times editorial, December 16, 2014

One of the most disturbing revelations in the Senate report on the Central Intelligence Agency’s interrogation program was the deep complicity of psychologists and doctors in torturing suspected terrorists. We already knew from earlier reports that health professionals had facilitated the torture by advising the interrogators when their brutal tactics might inadvertently kill a prisoner.

The ghastly new revelation is that two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who devised a list of coercive techniques to be used in questioning prisoners also personally conducted interrogations in which they tortured some C.I.A. detainees. They earned tens of millions of dollars under contracts for those services.

The report also cites other health professionals who participated, including unidentified C.I.A. medical officers or doctors who cleared prisoners for interrogation and played a central role in deciding whether to continue or adjust procedures when a prisoner developed severe medical problems.

The report was produced by Democratic staff members of the Senate Intelligence Committee who examined more than six million pages of internal C.I.A. documents. Although Republican critics are complaining that the report is biased, it is by far the most thorough inquiry into the interrogation program yet conducted.

The supposedly scientific underpinnings of the interrogation program turn out to be ludicrous. The two psychologists who were hired in an atmosphere of panic in the months after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, had no experience as interrogators, no specialized knowledge of Al Qaeda, no background in counterterrorism, and no relevant cultural or linguistic expertise.

They relied on the psychological theory known as “learned helplessness,” which they believed would make prisoners passive and depressed and cause them to cooperate in providing information. They and others employed a range of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including shackling people in painful positions, keeping them awake for more than a week at a time, locking them in coffin-sized boxes and repeated waterboarding. There is no evidence — other than self-serving claims by those who authorized the interrogation program — that it provided useful intelligence.

The American Medical Association said that the participation of doctors in torture and coercive interrogation “is a violation of core ethical values.” The president of the American Psychological Association called torture “morally reprehensible” and said the application of “learned helplessness” on detainees was a “perversion of psychological science.” In response to complaints that the A.P.A.’s ethics code was modified to allow such interrogations, it has commissioned an independent review into whether it colluded with the government’s use of torture.

Health care professionals who engaged in or abetted torture should have their professional licenses revoked and, depending on the degree of culpability, be prosecuted criminally. None of this seems likely for Mr. Mitchell or Mr. Jessen. (A complaint filed against Mr. Mitchell to revoke his license to practice psychology failed.) The best we can hope for is that laying bare the record will deter future unethical behavior by health professionals.

To ensure that result, Congress ought to enact legislation or the president ought to issue executive orders that explicitly prohibits all forms of torture and bars health professionals from direct involvement in interrogations. If Republicans feel the Senate report was biased, they should create a federal commission to investigate the role health professionals played in this barbaric undertaking.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album, ‘Love and War,’ was released in July 2015). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign, the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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7 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, looking at the highly critical report that has rocked the American Psychological Association, making clear what psychologists opposed to ‪torture‬ have known for many years – that the APA worked far too closely with the CIA and the Pentagon on post-9/11 interrogations, and ended up providing what appeared to be justification for the Bush administration’s torture program. This is hopefully another step towards the accountability for torture that still needs to happen in the US.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. It’s a big story, and we should all be grateful to the many decent and principled psychologists who have worked so hard for so many years to expose it. We keep getting closer to accountability, albeit slowly.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    When my friend Jan Strain shared this, I wrote:

    Thanks for sharing, Jan. It’s a big story, and, I hope, keeps up the pressure for accountability.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    I have two issues covered here – Torture and the APA (I have had issues with them for decades). The APA’s involvement is appalling but not exactly surprising to me.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Nor to many others in the know, Jan, but it’s great to see the story blowing up like this.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    I agree

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thinking of all Jeffrey Kaye’s great work, and Jason Leopold, Stephen Soldz and Steven Reisner, Nathaniel Redmond, and Martha Davis, who has a new film out that I’ve been meaning to plug, “Expert Witness: Health Professionals on the Frontline Against Torture”:

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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