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American Psychological Association Officials Protected National Security Psychologists Involved in Torture

A major review into the American Psychological Association and its role in torture carried out by the CIA or the Pentagon after the September 11th attacks has been completed. It shows that the organization colluded with President George W. Bush’s administration to loosen ethics guidelines, and officials in the organization were responsible for protecting national security psychologists from disciplinary action for their role in torturing detainees.

David Hoffman, a former federal prosecutor who now works at Sidley Austin, examined allegations against APA after the publication of James Risen’s book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, which contained details of coordination between APA and US officials involved in the torture program.

APA describes itself as the “largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States, with more than 122,500 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants, and students as its members.”

The 542-page report [PDF], completed on July 2, is the result of a review of over 50,000 documents, “the most important of which were a very high volume of emails from the APA that remained from many years ago,” especially from 2004 and onward.

Over 200 interviews with 148 people were conducted. Just about everyone cooperated, however, Mel Gravitz, a prominent psychologist who worked as a contractor for the CIA and is nearly 90 years-old, declined to be interviewed. Bruce Bennett, a former 2002 APA task force member, refused to be interviewed for the review as well.

The review concludes, “Key APA officials, principally the APA Ethics Director joined and supported at times by other APA officials, colluded with important [Defense Department] officials to have APA issue loose, high-level ethical guidelines that did not constrain DOD in any greater fashion than existing DOD interrogation guidelines.”

“APA officials secretly collaborated with DOD officials to defeat efforts by the APA Council of Representatives to introduce and pass resolutions that would have definitively prohibited psychologists from participating in interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and other US detention centers abroad,” the review finds.

According to the review, APA officials wanted to “curry favor” because the DOD could confer “substantial benefits” on “psychology as a profession.” The APA also had an interest in relationships with the DOD working favorably so psychologists would be able to continue to be involved in intelligence operations. Plus, it was in APA’s interest to be able to portray the organization as “very engaged in the issue and very concerned about ethical issues” while at the same time fostering the growth of psychology through support of the military and operational psychologists.

It was also determined that current and former APA officials had “very substantial interactions with the CIA in the 2001 to 2004 time period, including on topics related to interrogations, and were motivated to curry favor with the CIA” in the same way they were motivated to curry favor with Defense Department officials.

One of the key benefits of a relationship with the CIA was that the agency would pay “tens of thousands of dollars for the expense of setting up conferences and reimbursing participants for their travel expenses, and these conferences allowed APA to showcase its relevance, visibility, and leadership on subjects of interest to psychology.”

“Building that relationship held the promise for more CIA-funded conferences and other join t projects in the future that might similarly highlight (or suggest) APA’s leadership and influence,” the report suggests.

The review also concludes the “handling of ethics complaints against prominent national security psychologists was handled in an improper fashion, in an attempt to protect these psychologists from censure.”

Physicians for Human Rights, an advocacy organization which has conducted numerous investigations into the role of medical professionals in torture over the past decade, called for a “federal criminal probe” into the APA’s role in torture.

“As mental health professionals, our first obligation must be to our patients,” said Dr. Kerry Sulkowicz, psychiatrist and vice chair of the PHR board of directors. “The APA’s collusion with the government’s national security apparatus is one of the greatest scandals in US medical history. Immediate action must be taken to restore health professional ethics and to ensure this never happens again.”

Specifically, PHR recommended that a federal commission into the role of APA, individual psychologists, and other health professionals, who played key roles, be launched, and that the commission have “full subpoena powers and the authority to refer individuals for criminal investigation and prosecution.” PHR also demanded all APA members involved be banned from government positions, and any APA staff involved be fired.

The review was apparently unable to uncover concrete evidence showing APA officials knew the government was using “enhanced interrogation techniques” and what those torture methods entailed. There also was no evidence uncovered to show that APA coordinated with the Defense Department to “facilitate or conduct research on detainees,” or that the Ethics Code had been amended to allow psychologists to participate in human subjects research. Nor was evidence found to support the idea that APA officials knew in 2005 that the CIA and DOD were actually engaged in torture.

But, significantly, the report does not excuse APA officials and other individual psychologists entirely on the issue of CIA and DOD torture. Stephen Benke, who served as APA Ethics Director, and APA President-Elect Gerald Koocher each took positions that involved deliberately avoiding inquiries into “widespread indications that had surfaced” about torture being conducted by both CIA and DOD officials with psychologists involved.

Many of these APA officials had sufficient connections that could have been used to potentially uncover details about allegations, which were surfacing in news reports. However, APA officials virtually ignored the abuses to protect relations with the CIA and Defense Department.

Apparently, in one meeting in July 2004, a high-ranking CIA psychologist named Kirk Hubbard argued that the APA’s Ethic Code “should not apply to work by psychologists in national security operations, such as interrogations, because a code written for the ethical treatment of patients was not a good fit for this different context.”

Joseph Matarazzo, a former APA president, was at one point asked by Hubbard to provide an opinion on whether sleep deprivation constituted torture. He talked to a few psychologists and came back with an assessment that it was not torture. And, at a conference in 2002, Matazzaro reportedly said, “In this environment, things are different, and the CIA is going to need some help. Things may get harsh. We may need to take the gloves off.”

The review confirms that the Ethics Office of APA had been uninterested and not willing to investigate complaints against psychologists. Evidence showed the Ethics Office would not pursue all the investigative steps permitted by the Ethics Committee. The Office would also “stretch” interpretations of procedural rules to favor “accused psychologists.” Ethics Director Stephen Behnke “actively resisted taking any action against psychologists who participated in interrogations.”

Not only did Behnke actively resist disciplining psychologists involved in torture, but Behnke manipulated resolutions in the APA’s legislative body, the Council of Representatives, in order to protect national security psychologists. Behnke’s strategy was to water down potentially aggressive Council actions that were viewed as “negative for DOD,” and create a “middle ground” that would be supported by a substantial number of people but still be tolerable to DOD officials.

If APA officials had taken a more aggressive position against the DOD and CIA early in the Bush administration, it would have had a hugely damaging effect. The government needed psychologists to legitimize the torture techniques being used. Thus, the complicity and silence of professionals in APA was a major part of the criminal conspiracy led by Bush administration officials.

“Our internal checks and balances failed to detect the collusion, or properly acknowledge a significant conflict of interest, nor did they provide meaningful field guidance for psychologists,” declared Dr. Nadine Kaslow, who was chair of the special committee which called for the independent review. “The organization’s intent was not to enable abusive interrogation techniques or contribute to violations of human rights, but that may have been the result.”

“The actions, policies and the 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. Our members, our profession and our organization expected, and deserved, better.”

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."