Moral Drift and the American Psychological Association: The Road to Torture
Welch, Bryant L., Social Justice
FEW NOW DISPUTE THAT PSYCHOLOGISTS, THE AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGICAL Association (APA) itself, and several prominent members of its staff and governance have provided support to America s shameful role in the torture of detainees during the post-September 11 era. (1)
Psychologists provided the research that formed the underpinnings of the torture practices, designed the techniques of torture themselves, advised torturers on a case-by-case basis on how to most effectively "break" individual detainees, and colluded with the Bush Justice Department in creating a semantically deceptive system designed to whitewash the whole process. The APA, unlike other major health organizations, consistently defeated attempts to declare the participation of psychologists in these interrogations unethical.
In an epilogue, it was reported that a prominent psychologist who developed relationships with the government and military officials during this process has received a large sole source grant to treat our military troops suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) with techniques from "positive psychology." (2) PTSD is an extremely painful, potentially chronic, psychiatric illness. Its victims are besieged by frightening "flashbacks," alternating states of emotional numbing and emotional terror, general mood instability, sleeplessness, and a series of other painful and disruptive symptoms. Not surprisingly, left untreated, many of its victims will succumb to substance abuse in an attempt to self-medicate or commit suicide. A few will even turn violent.
Favoritism in the awarding of government contracts is nothing new; neither is the waste of taxpayers' dollars that results from sole source contracts. Most egregious in this case, however, is that the treatment purchased in such an expensive and suspicious context is by no means state-of-the-art trauma treatment. In some cases, it may even prove to be very harmful to our troops, who have given so much and deserve competent treatment. Given the limited alternative resources, they are very unlikely to get that with the newly announced military program.
An especially tragic aspect of this development is that no treatment for psychological suffering has benefited more from recent advances than the care for trauma victims. The "positive psychology treatment," which was awarded the sole source contract for primary treatment, does not reflect these advances.
Rogue scientists applying their expertise for evil are nothing new. Mental health professionals from psychiatry and psychology have historically participated in such efforts. Several years ago, a prominent psychologist testified before Congress in support of the tobacco industry (3) and, more recently, another one used his prestige to give the imprimatur of legitimacy to managed health care, which has been devastating to mental health patients for almost two decades. (4)
Most shocking about the role of psychology in torture, however, has been the complicity of the APA. The national organization for U.S. psychologists, it is also the largest organization of psychologists in the world. Its longstanding tradition as a bastion of respect for individual dignity and social justice is evidenced in its history of taking strong advocacy positions on behalf of ethnic minorities, women, gay men and lesbians, and persons with disabilities. Psychologists have used research data and clinical sensitivity in support of these basic principles of human dignity.
Investigative journalists have now documented the descent of the United States into torture. How did psychology come to play such an important role in this? The recent debacle inside the APA is a painful lesson in just how wrong things can go if a perfect storm of mal-intentioned and beguiling leadership, gullible followers, and passive, disbelieving onlookers coalesces.
Before addressing that ultimate question, one must consider three things. First, how and why was psychology so important to the Bush administration's use of torture? Second, what did psychologists do as part of the torture effort? And third, how did the APA facilitate those activities?
Inflicting pain on others does not require scientific expertise or psychological insight. Nonetheless, the Bush administration, like many authoritarian regimes, had a recurrent need to see itself as technologically efficient, with a superior ability to deliver military dominance in an impersonal fashion. It did this with a disdainful expression of contempt for the reality of human suffering and for the evolutionary significance of the almost universal repudiation of torture.
Psychological expertise in America's recent torture debacle helped the Bush administration in two ways. First, it lent a sense of invincibility through its scientific aura. Second, it provided a fig leaf of humanitarianism through the involvement of health care professionals, which served to obscure the reality of torture because of the psychological accoutrements.
The demand for psychological expertise created new opportunities for entrepreneurial psychologists. Moving quickly to fill that void, two relatively unknown psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, directed the psychological component of the military's euphemistically named "enhanced interrogation" program.
They drew heavily on psychological research, especially that of Martin Seligman, a high-profile psychologist.
A past president of the American Psychological Association, Seligman gave a seminar at the CIA on his concept of "learned helplessness." Early in his career, he developed a research paradigm to study the effect of torturing dogs. After the dogs were tortured, they stopped taking advantage of opportunities to escape. Seligman concluded from this that if you torture dogs long enough, they "learn" to be "helpless." Remarkably, this research led to a prominent career for Seligman in American psychology.
Seligman does not dispute his early role in the development of torture techniques. When asked about his presentation on dog torture experiments before the CIA, he said that he had first asked the CIA whether its purpose was to learn how to torture people. The CIA refrained from answering that question due to Seligman's limited security clearance. Apparently reassured by this evasion, Seligman gave his three-hour seminar. He reported that Jessen and Mitchell were in the room throughout the presentation and they told him that they admired his work.
In truth, Mitchell and Jessen's subsequent torture program relied as little on the benefits of psychological science as Seligman's "discovery" had. Documenting the demoralizing effect of the prolonged torture of dogs was hardly a breakthrough in man's understanding of the effects of evil human behavior. Torture is bad for dogs and people.
Ultimately, Mitchell and Jessen's program was a perversion of psychological principles that were originally designed to alleviate human suffering. What psychologists had learned about the causes of human pain and suffering was used to inflict maximum human pain. The torture techniques reversed therapeutic processes by depriving detainees of social contact and even the bare minimum of sensory input people need to maintain their sanity. Detainees were placed in sensory-deprivation settings, with no light, sound, or human contact; alternatively, they were flooded with sensory input that exceeded the detainees' ability to tolerate it. In brightly lit rooms with loud music pumped in, they were deprived of sleep.
While detainees were being subjected to these torture tactics, they were typically forced into extraordinarily painful physical positions for extended periods. Overwhelmed by this alternating mix of excessive then insufficient stimulation, their mental ability to organize their world collapsed into psychological fragmentation. Many became suicidal.
Judith Mayer's book, The Dark Side, exposed many shocking and pathetic examples of torture. One poignant event reported elsewhere describes how a 17-yearold boy broke down while being interrogated and cried that he wanted to see his family. The interrogator sought advice from the psychologist who had "evaluated him." Her recommendation was to tell him that his family had forgotten about him and to place him in "linguistic isolation," where he could not have contact with anyone who spoke his language. A few weeks later, he attempted suicide. On the eve of the boy's military trial, the psychologist, subpoenaed to testify, declared her intent to invoke the military equivalent of the Fifth Amendment.
Ironically, under the Bush torture program, the involvement of psychologists in "enhanced interrogations" guaranteed that other interrogators were at no legal risk of prosecution for torture. This required a semantic shell game. In Bush-think, "intent" is a necessary element of torture. The perpetrator must intend to torture his or her victim. Lacking that element of the crime, a behavior does not constitute torture, even if the detainee dies from the abusive treatment he receives. Under these definitions, if the interrogator used a psychologist as part of the pre-interrogation process, it was per se evidence that the interrogator did not have the requisite intent. In this respect, psychologists served as both sword and shield in the torture program.
There was another semantic sleight of hand. The Justice Department's clever definition of torture prohibited any interrogation that was not "safe, effective, legal, and ethical." This sounds good, but in the Orwellian language so typical of duplicitous regimes, there was more to it. According to the regulations, the mere fact of the psychologist's involvement in the interrogation meant that the "enhanced interrogation" was per se "safe, effective, legal, and ethical." The psychologist was not required to do anything of a protective nature. By executive fiat, their very presence made enhanced interrogation "safe, effective, legal, and ethical." Not surprisingly, that phrase was soon was used inside the American Psychological Association to deceive APA members through reassuring language. Spokespersons, even prominent members of the APA ethics office, argued that psychologists were making the interrogations "safe, effective, legal, and ethical." Given the Bush definition of torture, this was technically true, but it was strictly a definitional trick. Psychologists were used as human whitewash.
The American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association swiftly made it unethical for their members to participate in interrogations at detention centers. In contrast, the American Psychological Association refused to do likewise. Instead, the APA initially reiterated its longstanding opposition to "torture." No mention of the interrogations or the moral crisis involving psychologists was made.
Given the Bush administration's redefinition of torture, a reaffirmation of the APA's opposition to torture did little to protect detainees from enhanced interrogation techniques. Military psychologists themselves kept the interrogations from being labeled torture and the APA failed to address this objectionable behavior.
Slowly, the APA membership began to understand what was being done in their name. Many demanded that the APA take more forceful positions against detention center activities. Several rump groups formed, creating a growing political movement among APA members. The seemingly unanimous APA Board of Directors consistently opposed them and, surprisingly, the APA ethics office did so most aggressively. Of course, military psychologists also resisted changes in APA policy.
In response to mounting membership concerns, the APA established the Task Force on Psychological Ethics in National Security (PENS) to consider the ethical implications of the role of psychologists in the war on terror. APA task forces are typically designed to represent different organizational perspectives on the issue in question. This task force, however, was stacked with military and intelligence psychologists. Six of the nine members were on the payroll of the U.S. military and intelligence agencies. Two non-military members have been outspokenly critical of the secretive, rubber-stamp process characterizing the task force. A former APA president attacked one of them with bizarre and false personal allegations.
When the PENS task force report was released, collusion with the deceptive Justice Department definition was apparent. The report provided wide latitude for psychologists to participate in interrogations, ostensibly to make them "safe, effective, ethical, and legal." The APA ethics officer and others used exactly that language and the Justice Department's definition of torture when defending the involvement of psychologists in interrogations.
Opponents of that position were incensed over the manipulation and deception. Efforts to change APA policy intensified. However, in August 2007 the APA Council of Representatives again refused to outlaw psychologists from participating in interrogations. Through parliamentary maneuvering, it substituted a resolution that listed several torture techniques that psychologists could not use. Nothing prohibited psychologists from continued participation in the interrogations.
For the first time in the organization's history, APA members initiated a referendum; at issue was torture. Despite intensive lobbying by paid APA staff and a clever misinformation campaign by APA leadership and staff, the membership passed the measure by a nearly 60% majority. Nonetheless, the APA attorney issued a clearly erroneous legal opinion. It concluded that the measure would not go into effect for another year. During this period, paid APA staff, especially the public affairs office and the ethics office, repeatedly issued policy statements that supported the prior policy on interrogations. The APA then determined that the measure was "unenforceable." Why did this happen, especially in an organization whose foundational principle was to "above all do no harm"?
I have closely observed the APA's inner workings and the personalities who have affected it over the last two decades. Between 1983 and 2003, I worked inside the APA central office as the first executive director of the APA Practice Directorate. I also served in numerous APA governance positions, including chair of the APA Board of Professional Affairs and APA Representative to Council.
During this period, the APA was transformed from a historically liberal organization into an authoritarian one that actively assisted in torture. Surprisingly, relatively few people brought this about. A necessary condition was the passive acquiescence and extreme naivete of many. Unfortunately, the APA experience is a case study in the psychological manipulations that can influence our institutions.
The pluralistic governance process I witnessed when first entering the APA in the early 1980s deteriorated during the 1990s. Differences of opinion disappeared, and the APA suffered a terrible decline in organizational effectiveness and vibrancy. Increasingly inbred and infantilized under the tightly controlled administration of Raymond Fowler, the association's agenda was primarily financial, focused on making money either through real estate ventures or through harsh financial treatment of lower-level APA employees.
A beguiling program characterized as "working together" dominated the APA's governance. No agenda was attached to the process. In reality, engaging in conflict was interpreted as violating a group norm, making differences of opinion very difficult. This ethos, and the surprisingly primitive narcissism of some key elected officers, made APA governance easy prey to the manipulations of clever senior executives.
As a result, the APA Council of Representatives, the legislative group with ultimate authority in APA governance, increasingly turned away from substantive matters. Many members appeared to bathe in the good feeling that came from "working together." The bath was characterized by grandiose self-referents and almost obsequious praise of one another. As the organizational dysfunction became more pronounced, it was ignored and obscured by the self-congratulatory organizational style.
This ubiquitous grandiosity also characterized the APA governance's discussions on torture. Proponents of the APA policy argued that banning the participation of psychologists in reputed torture mills would be an "insult" to military psychologists everywhere. No psychologist would ever engage in torture. Opponents of the policy were accused of harboring mean-spirited attitudes toward military psychologists who, remarkably, became the victims in the interrogation issue.
Grandiosity prevailed and psychologists remained in the detention centers. This was an antidote to torture, it was argued, since the presence of psychologists could protect potential torture victims. Some military psychologists made highly dubious claims that they had prevented or stopped torture. One implied that he had "fixed hell." (5)
I personally communicated often with members in the APA governance to dissuade them from pursuing this ever-increasing debacle for the profession. Their response, astonishingly, was characterized by smugness, illogic, and palpable self-indulgence. Even the more decent people exuded the Fowler-era aura of being morally superior because they avoided conflicts--regardless of whether it meant abdicating their fiduciary responsibilities to the membership. In a self-congratulatory style, they papered over differences. In contrast, well-meaning APA members who expressed their alarm at the dangers of the APA policy were vilified for being "disagreeable." For those outside the self-absorbed culture of APA governance, its policies strained credibility and made the APA sound like apologists for the Bush administration in the business of torture.
The APA forged its close connections with the military through the office of Hawaii's Democratic Senator Daniel Inouye. Inouye had been a strong supporter of the war effort and of the detainee sites. His longtime staff aide, Dr. Patrick DeLeon, had recently served as the APA's president and was devoted to advancing the standing of psychologists in the federal government and in the military. For his part, Inouye authored legislation that prevented the closing of Guantanamo Detention Center. As chairman of the Senate finance subcommittee on military spending, he continues to control the research spending for defense-related behavioral research, a target of intense lobbying by members of the APA Science Directorate. DeLeon's popularity in APA governance and his perceived political acumen meant that there was little meaningful oversight over the connections between the APA and the military. When the military needed a mental health professional to help implement its interrogation procedures, and other professions refused to comply, it drew on resources developed with the help of Senator Inouye's office.
This raises a third, more complex question: Why did the APA governing body allow this to occur under the apparent imprimatur of the world's largest organization of psychologists? Some believe that the APA's recent horrifying behavior can be explained by large sums of money changing hands. In my view, the more likely (and more remarkable) reason has little to do with money, notwithstanding the large sole source military grant bestowed upon Martin Seligman. Instead, the APA's malignant organizational grandiosity weakened it and allowed a small number of staff members to control it for their own purposes. When they left, this organizational regression allowed military and intelligence agencies to have their way with the APA during the Bush administration.
The responsibility of rank-and-file psychologists for what happened is similar to that oftheAmerican people for the Bush administration. Both groups were beguiled by pleasant sounding, ostensibly affable characters who told them how well intended and sincere they were. Willing, even eager, to take the path of least resistance, the American people and American psychologists believed them. These groups had a similar response to dissent. During the Bush administration, Richard Clarke, Valerie Plame, and many other critics were the victims of vicious smear campaigns. The APA's upper echelon resorted to these tactics when members sounded warnings about the now well-documented role of psychology in torture. To deflect attention away from the substance of the criticisms, APA spokespersons launched personal attacks against the critics, claiming that they suffered from mental instability, bias, and multiple character flaws.
Highly respected humanitarian organizations and human rights advocates around the world were raising the same concerns as the dissidents. The APA ignored this. Its president, James Bray, even praised Patrick DeLeon in the fall of 2009 for showing psychologists that "psychologists don't need other people to tell them what is good for psychology." His comment received strong support from the APA governance body.
Due to this lengthy era of regressive leadership, the governance of APA was ill prepared for thoughtful deliberation on a matter as important as torture. In the post-September 11 era, the United States has painfully demonstrated that when people are confused and feel inadequate to the task at hand, they are eager to be told what is real and what to do. (6) Many APA governance members were unable to think independently of the carefully orchestrated leadership. Consequently, a once liberal bastion for the protection of the sanctity of the subjective human spirit drifted into torture.
(1.) For details, see my June 24, 2009, article in the Huffington Post at www.huffingtonpost.com/ bryant-welch/torture-psychology-and-da_b_215612.html.
(2.) See www.salon.com/news/politics/war.../10/.../army_contract_seligman.
(3.) Source Watch, at www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Theodore_H._Blau.
(4.) "The Scientist Practitioner, Interview with Nicholas Cummings," November 1996.At www. fenichel.com/Managed2.html.
(5.) L. James, Fixing Hell: An Army Psychologist Confronts Abu Graib (Grand Central Publishing, 2008).
(6.) B. Welch, State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind (St. Martins Press, 2008).
Bryant L. Welch *
* BRYANT WELCH, J.D., Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and attorney living in San Francisco, California (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org). He is author of the recent book, State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind (St. Martins Press, 2008).…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Moral Drift and the American Psychological Association: The Road to Torture. Contributors: Welch, Bryant L. - Author. Journal title: Social Justice. Volume: 37. Issue: 2-3 Publication date: Summer-Fall 2010. Page number: 175+. © 1998 Crime and Social Justice Associates. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
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