New disclosures on psychologists and torture

Ella Rhodes reports.

A new report has made claims that the American Psychological Association (APA) worked secretly with government officials during the Bush era to create an ethical justification of the torture programme used on prisoners in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The authors analysed around 600 newly disclosed e-mails that show this occurred after increased media attention on interrogation techniques after the revelation of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

The report (tinyurl.com/plvxwv2), written by six health professionals, including two psychologists, and human rights activists, makes the conclusion: ‘The APA secretly coordinated with officials from the CIA, White House, and the Department of Defense to create an APA ethics policy on national security interrogations that comported with then­classified legal guidance authorizing the CIA torture program.’

Writing in the New York Times (tinyurl.com/mqjh6aa) author James Risen said: ‘The involvement of health professionals in the Bush-era interrogation program was significant because it enabled the Justice Department to argue in secret opinions that the program was legal and did not constitute torture, since the interrogations were being monitored by health professionals to make sure they were safe.’

He added that the Bush administration had relied heavily on psychologists, over psychiatrists or other health professionals, in monitoring interrogations. ‘[This was] at least in part because the psychological association was supportive of the involvement of psychologists in interrogations, a senior Pentagon official explained publicly in 2006,’ he said.

Blogger and psychologist Vaughan Bell, writing at www.mindhacks.com, noted the presence of several top psychologists in the e-mails, including Paul Ekman and Martin Seligman. ‘To be clear, I am not suggesting that Ekman and Seligman were directly involved in CIA interrogations or torture,’ Bell writes. ‘Seligman has gone as far as directly denying it on record. But there is something else interesting which links Ekman, Seligman and Mitchell: lucrative multi-million dollar US Government contracts for security programmes based on little evidence that turned out to be next to useless.…Applying psychology to improve airport security screening, soldiers’ well-being and interrogation are all reasonable aims. But rather than reviewing the evidence to see what’s possible and contracting relevant specialists to develop and evaluate programmes where possible, they seem to have contracted supporters of the “war on terror” for work that lacked an applied evidence base. The outcome has been expensive and ineffectual.’

In February, we reported on the allegations made by James Risen in his book Pay Any Price that senior APA staff had colluded with psychologists from the CIA. The association initiated an independent investigation into the alleged complicity between the APA and the Bush administration (https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-28/february-2015/no-torture-without-psychologists). In a renewed statement (tinyurl.com/mdw6qud) the APA said that ‘A third party, independent review of the allegations in today’s New York Times article and the Soldz et. al. report is being conducted by outside attorney David Hoffman.… Our focus and priority are ensuring the complete independence of Mr. Hoffman’s work. For that reason we are not commenting on any allegations about APA support for the CIA torture program at this time.’ 

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