Emotional Torture

When psychologists teach torture:

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The issues of psychologist involvement in “national security” efforts are complex. Although there may be appropriate and ethically acceptable ways for psychologists to participate in such activities, even a cursory historical awareness indicates that such involvement is often ethically problematic. Whether for good or for ill, the CIA has a long record of tapping academic scientists as witting and unwitting consultants and researchers, and of providing protection through cover stories and secrecy. For example, the 1977 Senate investigation of the CIA Behavioral Modification Project (called MKULTRA) disclosed that the CIA had contracted with researchers at over 80 universities, hospitals, and other research-based institutions through a front funding agency. In the Senate hearing, the Director of Central Intelligence stated: “I believe we all owe a moral obligation to these researchers and institutions to protect them from any unjustified embarrassment or damage to their reputations which revelations of their identities might bring.”i But these are not just ploys of the past. Recently, Dr. Belinda Canton, a long-time CIA intelligence manager and a member of the 2005 President’s Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, recommended opportunistic use of scientists as an approach to management of uncertainty: “Identify academics and scientists who may have insights” and note where “opportunities exist to exploit scientific cadre.”ii

This history, along with the current, well-documented authorizations for detainee abuse, should have provided sufficient warning to APA leaders and to individual psychologists about the moral risks in aiding the national security apparatus, especially under the present U.S. administration. But the APA has not taken the lead in helping psychologists confront these dangerous ethical situations. To the contrary, the APA has been insensitive to the use of psychological techniques in torture and to the role of psychologists in aiding that torture. This insensitivity itself has shocked many psychologists here and abroad.

In 2006, Time magazine released the interrogation log of Guantanamo detainee 063, Mohammed al-Qahtani. This log demonstrated that al-Qahtani had been systematically tortured for six weeks in late 2002 and 2003. The log also alleged that psychologist and APA member Maj. John Leso was present at least several times during these episodes. The APA said nothing about this alleged participation of an APA member in documented torture. It is at least 23 months since ethics complaints were filed against Dr. Leso and still the APA has remained silent.

In May 2007, the Defense Department declassified the Office of Inspector General report, documenting the role of SERE psychologists in training military and CIA personnel in techniques of abuse that “violated the Geneva Conventions.” The APA responded with silence. When we inquired about the APA’s reaction, we were told that the organization needed time to “carefully study” the report. It has been 14 months, and to date no APA leader has commented upon the Report.

The APA leadership has failed psychologists and failed the profession of psychology. It has also failed the country. When ethical guidance was required, the APA put its ethical authority in the hands of those involved in the questionable practices that needed investigation. When the evidence became overwhelming that psychologists helped design, implement, and standardize a U.S. torture regime, the APA remained silent. When it was reported that the use of psychological paradigms such as ‘learned helplessness’ have guided psychologists’ manipulation of detainee conditions, the APA continues to ignore or discount these reports. They instead assert that psychologists presence’ at CIA black sites and detention camps “assures safety.” When it became clear that the APA should offer a strong voice and a clear policy prohibiting psychologists’ participation in operations that systematically violate the Geneva conventions and international law, the APA leadership raised concern that a “restraint of trade” lawsuit might be brought against them. These arguments, of course, do not pass the red face test in any discerning forum of world opinion.

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