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APA and Torture - An Ugly Alliance

This blog entry is not an easy one to write. I have fun with the political rants, the forays into poker and the occasional recipe. This one is serious and it’s long. There’s a lot that needs to be said, only some of which can be covered here.

The “APA” in the title is the American Psychological Association. It has recently been convincingly determined that the organization is complicit in the inhumane, heartless and illegal “enhanced interrogation” procedures implemented by the Bush - Cheney administration from the early 2000s to 2009 when President Obama halted them. Some background is needed to fully grasp what’s been going on.

The APA is the oldest, largest and most influential professional organization in Psychology. It was founded in 1892 as a scientific association that focused on the theoretical and empirical basis for the scientific discipline that was slowly developing in the latter decades of the 19th century.

At the time psychology sought to distinguish itself from philosophy in that it used hard data and experimental methods to study the mind rather that logic and rhetoric. The founders felt closer, intellectually and methodologically, to the natural and biological sciences. Psychotherapy didn’t exist; Freud hadn’t put pen to paper and no one used the label “clinical” to refer to themselves.

Virtually everyone in North America with an advanced degree in psychology joined. I did in the early 1960s while working my Ph.D. I became active in the divisions that emphasized research in experimental psychology and the emerging cognitive sciences. The APA was primarily an organization that championed hard-nosed science. Its elected officials were uniformly laboratory and theory-based researchers.

However, over the next several decades the primary goals of the APA shifted. As more practitioners joined, those with a clinical focus or interests in applied fields came to dominate the organization. It was a matter of numbers and slowly the organization’s concerns drifted from those of the scientists toward those of the practitioners.

In 1988 the Association for Psychological Science (APS) was formed by those who had come to feel, not just uncomfortable in the APA, but actually unwanted. I signed on as a Charter member and a few years later simply stopped paying my APA dues. The APS is now regarded as the most prominent and effective professional organization in the social, behavioral and cognitive sciences.

Interestingly, after leaving the APA I was informed that I had been elected to Fellow status for my work over the years. I, of course, declined the honor. I did, however, accept with pleasure a similar election from the APS.

One of the things that bothered me about the APA was an odd kind of closed-mindedness that had emerged. The board made all the appropriate noises about the role of psychologists in science, in therapy, in the applications in industry and government. They touted their outreach to other disciplines in medicine, economics, sociology and political science. But these claims often felt leaden, insincere.

When you have a membership of over 130,000, a budget of over $100 million and lobbyists working the aisles alongside government agents, state and Federal political figures, industrial organizations, business leaders, economists and university administrators; when whole divisions focus on forming liaisons with Federal, state and private granting agencies, the likelihood of things going wrong increases exponentially. The best you can hope for it that, if they do, the Board of Directors will act right, maintain appropriate oversight and steer such a huge professional organization away from the rocky shore.

Late last week we discovered that not only had they failed to do this, they drove the whole bloody organization onto a sandbar where is currently stuck. A quick summary of what happened:

After the Bush administration gave its blessing to torture, the health care related organizations were under a moral obligation to take a stance. All professional organizations for medicine, biology, philosophy and related fields condemned the use of “enhanced interrogation” as fundamentally unethical and a clear violation of international law (the Geneva Conventions). All also made clear there would be no cooperation with the government on such action.

The APA was among them. Their declaration, unfortunately, was a lie.

Members of the APA, including several in positions of authority within the organization, were working hand-in-glove with members of the administration, the CIA, the FBI, the Department of Defense and the military on torture, on research into its use and effectiveness, on public policy with regard to disclosure of the operations and on drafting a cover story that disguised their complicity.

There were hints that something along these lines had been going on. Several essays had appeared in 2003 and 2004 suggesting that the APA had been perhaps not totally forthcoming about its role. These rumblings were amplified by the open acknowledgement that two prominent clinical psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, were not only involved in torture, they had developed and implemented the most inhumane and egregious methods that included the use of physical and emotional stress, starvation, sleeplessness, humiliation and water boarding.

To quiet the chatter, the APA condemned them and announced that neither Mitchell nor Jessen were members of the APA. They were wrong. Mitchell was a member in good standing — a fact that could have easily been checked.

They also held a closed meeting to consider the role that psychologists should play known as the Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) Task Force. The report from that meeting was carefully crafted to exonerate any members of the APA from involvement in the Bush administration’s torture program.

It was greeted with relief by most members of the APA. My wife, Rhiannon Allen, is still a member of the APA. She, like the rest of the rank and file, was relieved by the PENS report and satisfied that no APA members had had any involvement in torture — until last week when a startling report from Stephen Soldz, Steven Reisner and Nathaniel Raymond was released. It documented, in painful detail, the collaboration between operatives in the Bush Administration and members of the APA including Steven Breckler, Executive Director of Research, Stephen Behnke, Ethics Office Director, Geoff Mumford, Director of Science Policy and, alarmingly, Gerald Koocher, the President-Elect.

Soldz and his co-authors also made clear what some had suspected. The PENS report was a sham. One of the more remarkable documents to come from the PENS meeting is the set of notes taken during it by Task Force member Jean Maria Arrigo — despite warnings that no such record was to be kept. Arrigo, a member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, was one of the few on the Task Force to question the procedures and the aims of the meeting.

Reading her notes I was struck by the blind, unquestioning “group think” that emerged. Issues were raised about how to handle the press if questions of complicity between the APA and the military were discovered, about how to disguise the true nature of the operations, how to protect the names of individuals, how to deal with possible retaliation by terrorists on members of the Task Force.

At no time did anyone raise the issues of the moral codes and ethical standards that professional psychologists had nor acknowledge that, by the very act of agreeing to be a part of this procedure, they were violating them.

Arrigo’s presentation has a distinctly eerie feel as though the APA representatives were almost giddy with their sudden access to people of power, flattered to be asked to provide input to those who had President Bush’s ear, to those who were high up in the CIA and FBI, those who had been at the “dark sites” and actually engaged in secret government programs.

Even more distressing, no one raised the well-documented finding that torture doesn’t work. There is overwhelming evidence that shows that gentle and psychologically supportive interrogation procedures are effective in obtaining valid and useful information while those euphemistically dubbed “enhanced interrogation” produce little more than fabrications and lies designed to stop the pain, information that is worse than useless.

The APA’s Board isn’t saying anything yet. Last November when the heat started getting turned up they retained David Hoffman, a lawyer operating out of Chicago to carry out a full and presumably independent review. Knowing what we now know, if it comes back a whitewash there’s going to be hell to pay.

It’s time for the Board of the APA to acknowledge that the organization screwed up, badly. Admit to the past unethical and indefensible actions. Come clean about the links with the military, the Department of Defense, the CIA, the FBI, the Bush White House and put in place appropriate safeguards against possible future complicity in such programs.

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