Torture report 'will help define the meaning of psychology'

Jon Sutton on the independent review into American Psychological Association ethics guidelines, national security interrogations, and torture.

An independent report has accused the American Psychological Association (APA) of ‘hiding its head in the sand’ over so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ – commonly known as torture. The report to the special committee of the Board of Directors of the APA concludes that key APA officials colluded with the US Department of Defense to implement ‘loose, high-level ethical guidelines’, and that ‘the handling of ethics complaints against prominent national security psychologists was handled in an improper fashion’.

We reported on journalist James Risen’s expose of the report in June, but the full document – based on review of ‘over 50,000 documents’, and well over 200 interviews of 148 people – is uncomfortable reading that vindicates long-standing critics of the APA on this issue. The authors, led by former federal prosecutor David Hoffman, say their investigation ‘will help define the meaning of psychology’, warning that when a profession that ‘can salve our emotional traumas… allows for the potential that psychologists will intentionally inflict pain on an individual with no ability to resist, regardless of the individual’s background or motives, faith in the profession can diminish quickly.’

This is perhaps the saddest element of the report, and one that is attracting considerable comment on social media – that the APA’s priorities were found to be ‘PR strategy and growing the profession of psychology’, rather than the welfare of the people being interrogated. The report notes ‘many emails and discussions regarding how best to position APA to maximize its influence with and build its positive relationship with the Defense Department, and many emails and discussions regarding what APA’s messaging should be in a media environment it perceived as hostile’, but ‘little evidence of analyses or discussions about the best or right ethical position to take in light of the nature of the profession and the special skill that psychologists possess regarding how our minds and emotions work – a special skill that presumably allows psychologists to be especially good at both healing and harming.’ Other commentators have pointed to psychologists' lack of a Hippocratic Oath as a factor in their involvement.

Interestingly, the report does include examples of resistance, notably from Columbia University professor Michael Wessells (p.22), speaking of the importance of the APA taking a ‘high standard’ at a ‘moment of national panic’. Jean Maria Arrigo has been described as a 'national hero' for her role. Unfortunately the make up of the APA task force, weighted in favour of military psychologists, worked against them. This process is repeated elsewhere: when Board member Diane Halpern makes the ‘very strong recommendation’ that ‘somewhere we add data showing that torture is ineffective in obtaining good information’, an internal staff e-mail exchange quickly concludes ‘Hopefully, Diane’s suggestion is dead in the water.’

Although the task force report prohibited the involvement of psychologists in torture, the independent review agrees with critics of the APA that it knew ‘the artificially narrow Justice Department definition of “torture” … did not necessarily prohibit acts that would properly be considered torture at most other times.’

The report accepts that some of the detainees in question were hardened members of sophisticated terrorist organisations, were well trained to resist interrogations, and had knowledge that would have been relevant to efforts to prevent future terrorist attacks. But it notes ‘this is not the first time in the history of warfare that this dynamic has occurred,’ and goes on to quote an unknown military officer, e-mailed in August 2003 for recommendations about interrogation techniques because ‘the gloves are coming off regarding these detainees.’ The unknown officer wrote: ‘We need to take a deep breath and remember who we are. Those “gloves” are . . . based on clearly established standards of international law to which we are signatories and in part the originators. … It comes down to standards of right and wrong – something we cannot just put aside when we find it inconvenient … We are American soldiers, heirs of a long tradition of staying on the high ground. We need to stay there.’

The report notes that the profession of psychology must also define for itself whether it is ethical and legitimate for psychologists to use their special skill to intentionally inflict psychological or physical harm on individuals, concluding that ‘APA officials made such a decision in 2005. Their decision was to keep the limits on this behavior loose and high-level.’

The report notes (p.299) that the British Psychological Society came out with a statement in February 2005 that condemned the use of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in interrogations, combining more general terms with examples of specific techniques. The European Federation of Psychologists' Associations has released a statement repeating their view that 'Interrogations are a NO-GO zone for psychologists'.

The APA disclosed on Friday that it parted ways with Stephen Behnke, its ethics director for 15 years, on 8 July. Behnke was heavily criticised in the report for his ‘remarkably expansive role, well beyond the expected duties of APA Ethics Director, the result was a highly permissive APA ethics policy based on strategy and PR, not ethics analysis.’ Behnke had been hired specifically to pursue an ethics program that was more ‘educative’, and the report notes that during his tenure the ‘focus shifted to “supporting” psychologists, not getting them in trouble – a strategy consistent with the ultimate mission of growing psychology.’

Chair of the Independent Review’s Special Committee and former APA President Nadine Kaslow told The Guardian that she personally thought ‘the council needs to adopt a policy to prohibit psychologists from being involved in interrogation, people being held in military custody at Gitmo and other sites.’ (Psychologists still operate at Guantánamo, as part of the detention facility’s behavioral-health unit.) In an APA statement apologising for the ‘deeply disturbing’ findings and organizational failures, she added: ‘This bleak chapter in our history occurred over a period of years and will not be resolved in a matter of months. But there should be no mistaking our commitment to learn from these terrible mistakes and do everything we can to strengthen our organization for the future and demonstrate our commitment to ethics and human rights.’

Some potential first steps in that resolution, as proposed to the APA Board by prominent critics Stephen Soldz and Steven Reisner, can be found in this remarkable document. This story is bound to evolve as the wider psychological community continue to digest the report and its implications.

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