Beginning of the End

The American Psychological Association has announced that it will conduct an indepenedent review of its role in US torture during the Bush administration. James Risen reports for the New York Times:

The nation’s largest organization of psychologists will conduct an independent review into whether it colluded with or supported the government’s use of torture in the interrogation of prisoners during the Bush administration.  

The American Psychological Association said in a statement released late Wednesday that its board had named David H. Hoffman, a Chicago lawyer, to conduct the review.

For years, questions about the role of American psychologists and behavioral scientists in the development and implementation of the Bush-era interrogation program have been raised by human rights advocates as well as by critics within the psychological profession itself. Psychologists were involved in developing the enhanced interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects by the Central Intelligence Agency. Later, a number of psychologists, in the military and in the intelligence community, were involved in carrying out and monitoring interrogations. 

In an interview, Mr. Hoffman, a former federal prosecutor and onetime inspector general of the city of Chicago, emphasized the independence of his investigation. “We will go wherever the evidence leads,” he said.

In 2006, I began my first online communications job at an organiztion called Physicians for Human Rights. PHR had recently published its groundbreaking report, Break Them Down: Systematic Use of Psychological Torture by US Forces, which was the first explanation of how psychological torture became part of the so called US war on terror. Though we would come to learn much more about the insidious and corrupt invovlement of psychologists in the US torture regime, it was already clear to PHR’s Campaign Against Torture team that US torture could not go on as it had if health professionals would abide by their professional ethics and abstain from participation in interrogations. In the spring of 2006, the American Medical Association and ˙American Psychiatric Association both adopted official policies against member participation in interrogations—but the American Psychological Association did not follow suit. Risen notes that

critics have cited the association’s 2002 decision to modify its ethics rules that in effect gave greater professional cover to psychologists who had been helping to monitor and oversee interrogations. 

The most important change was a new guideline that made it clear that if a psychologist faced a conflict between the A.P.A.’s ethics code and a lawful order, the psychologist could follow the law. Critics say this introduced the Nuremberg defense into American psychology — following orders was an acceptable reason to violate professional ethics. 

“It’s sad that the A.P.A., rather than protecting its members from engaging in interrogation activities, bent its rules to allow their participation in those interrogations,” [Stephen] Soldz said. 

Over the next four years PHR released a series of follow-up reports looking at the health consequences and legality of enhanced interrogation techniques; medical evidence confirming the first-hand accounts of alleged victims of torture by US personnel in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay; specifics of unethical health professional involvement in establishing a legal rational for torture; and profoundly distrubing evidence that CIA medical personel performed illegal experimentation on prisoners in the agency’s attempte to justify the war crime of torture.

I left PHR in 2010 but remain immensely proud to have part of these efforts and to have met an inspiring cadre of health professionals who have advocated tirelessly to restore meaning to their fundamental ethical precept of first, do no harm.

Despite the mounting evidence from PHR and other revelations, reported by journalists, the APA was unable to disentangle itself from the US torture regime. Risen’s exposé in his new book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War, of some of the corruption that kept psychologists involved in torture, has triggered the long overdue investigaiton finally initiated by the APA. In Pay Any Price, Risen wrote about

the email archive of Scott Gerwehr, a behavioral researcher with ties to the C.I.A. and other agencies who died in 2008, to provide a glimpse at the network of psychologists, academic researchers, contractors and intelligence and Pentagon officials who formed the behavioral science infrastructure that grew up after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to support the Bush administration’s war on terror. 

Most notable, the emails reveal that after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in 2004, the association was eager to get out in front of the controversy by developing new professional guidelines for psychologists involved in interrogations. The group created a committee to study the matter, and in 2005 issued a report that, in effect, enabled psychologists involved in the Bush interrogation program to continue. A number of psychologists and human rights advocates have been critical of the work of that committee, known as the PENS Task Force, ever since.

As the US continues to struggle with accountability for torture, the APA’s independent review is a major step forward towards a full assessment of how the US torture program became possible and towards ensuring that these human rights abuses cannot be repeated.

November 15, 2014