Why There Would Have Been No Torture Without Complicit Psychologists

On February 28, 2002, an invitation only Conference, Countering Terrorism: Integration of Practice and Theory,” was held at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. It was sponsored by the Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI, the Science Directorate of the American Psychological Association (APA); the Solomon Asch Center for the Study on Ethnopolitical Conflict at the University of Pennsylvania; and the Decade of Behavior initiative.

Decade of Behavior was an APA propaganda campaign, the brainchild of two prominent psychologists with long standing ties to government intelligence. Martin Seligman of U Penn is a former president of the American Psychological Association; and Peter Suedfeld, is former president of the Canadian Psychological Association who worked as a consultant for the Canadian Department of National Defense. Seligman’s theory of “learned helplessness” and Suedfeld’s “sensory deprivation” experiments were incorporated as the foundation for the CIA and military torture protocol.

The invited participants were described as being “at the forefront of counter terrorism efforts” who were asked to propose effective “techniques” for use on “enemy combatants.” Among them was psychologist James Mitchell –one of only two CIA participants – who with his business partner, Bruce Jessen, went on to become the architects of “enhanced interrogation techniques” – otherwise known as torture, for which they received more than $81 million from the CIA.

More than 70 academics researchers and personnel from the U.S. justice, intelligence and law enforcement agencies met at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va. to discuss counterterrorism measures that can be used by law enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies as they try to discover cadres of terrorists or those who harbor them, as well as deter support for terrorism by individuals, designated groups, and communities. The conference report includes appendices titled “Psychology of Deception,” “Information Management and Evaluation,” and “Data Mining” among others. After this conference, the APA made changes eroding its patient confidentiality standards.

“The report’s preface was written by Anthony J. Pinizzotto, PhD, then Senior Scientist at the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) (now retired); Susan E. Brandon, Ph.D., then-Senior Scientist at APA; and Geoffrey K. Mumford, PhD, APA’s then-Director of Science Policy. Presumably they were also the organizers of the conference, and responsible for who was invited.

Brandon and Mumford have been named in a recent book by James Risen as primary actors in the APA’s courting of national security agencies. They were both involved in the organization of a 2003 workshop sponsored by APA, CIA and Rand Corporation on the “Science of Deception,” that discussed the use of “sensory overload” and “pharmacological agents.” (Jeffrey Kaye. Before the EITs: James Mitchell… “Combatting Terrorism Dec. 21, 2014)

Providing a veneer of “legal and ethical” legitimacy
The Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) “torture memos” (August 1, 2002, declassified in 2009) were predicated on the involvement of health-professionals; the Yoo/Bybee memos explicitly state: “a good-faith defense against torture charges could be made if experts claimed that the application of the torture tactics did not cause ‘severe, long lasting mental pain and suffering.’”

On August 21, 2002, the APA board of directors followed suit and revised APA’s code of ethics to accommodate the government’s newly authorized use of torture. APA amended Section 1.02, which states that when faced with an irreconcilable conflict between their professional “ethical responsibilities” and the state authority, “psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority.”

The amended APA ethics guidelines permit psychologists to set aside fundamental ethical responsibilities and follow instead the dictates of the state governing legal authority, which included military orders. The APA specifically endorsed psychologists’ participation in internationally outlawed inhuman interrogation techniques defined as torture.

The APA board thereby abandoned the historic Nuremberg Code ethic, and departed from its defining traditions and historic ethical framework which holds the individual responsible for observing professional ethical conduct. The APA adopted the very same rationale that was used by many Nazi defendants at Nuremberg.

“Facing charges that their participation as health care professionals had provided both expertise and a veneer of legitimacy to a process that involved violations of basic human rights, many health professionals claimed that they were neither responsible nor accountable for their acts.

They had acted under laws, regulations, and governmental authority that shielded them from personal responsibilities and accountability. They were “just following the law” or “just following orders.” The judgments at Nuremberg and world opinion refused to accept this reasoning.” (Pope and Gutheil. Psychologists Abandon the Nuremberg Ethic, International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 2009

First, the APA board of directors permitted psychologists to override the code’s “do no harm” ethical principle to inflict torture during interrogations of suspected terrorists when following a “lawful order.” Second, the APA allowed psychologists to conduct research on human subjects without their informed consent “when permitted by law and regulation.”

APA’s governing board thereby endorsed the Nazi dictum that put the interests of government policies above the healing profession’s moral duty to protect the individual and above all, avoid doing harm. These critical changes facilitated the participation of psychologists in the government’s torture program.

None of the professional medical associations agreed to collaborate with the CIA’s morally and legally outlawed “Special Access” project – except the American Psychological Association which enthusiastically lent its full support to the involvement of psychologists in interrogations – albeit they did so covertly.

“American health-professional associations play a crucial regulatory role on the national level through the amendment and interpretation of their ethics codes. The APA ethics code, for example, is the basis of some or all of the state licensure standards for psychologists in more than thirty states.

Thus, the APA ethics code and the policies that interpret it have a direct impact on the roles into which the U.S. government, the country’s largest employer of psychologists, can deploy psychologists.” (Scott Horton. APA Grapples with its Torture Demons, Harpers, 2014)

“A health professional has an obligation not to participate in acts that deliberately impose pain or suffering on a person. Replacing ethical standards with a legal one… eviscerates the ethical standards.” (Ethics Abandoned: Medical Professionalism and Detainee Abuse in the War on Terror, Institute on Medicine as a Profession (IMAP) & Open Society Foundations (OSF). Columbia University, 2013 p. 12)

The APA gave the CIA and the White House a professional seal of approval when no other professional medical association would; it supported psychologists’ involvement in CIA’s experiments in torture, and by amending its ethics policy, it provided a professional justification for CIA’s torture. The APA and the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel conflated medical ethics standards for health care professionals with general legal standards. In so doing, they equated the role of psychologists with the role of forensic interrogators whose job includes intentionally inflicting pain.

While absolving psychologists’ of the professional ethical obligations, the APA and the OLC nevertheless invoked psychologists’ professional ethical authority.

“The Office of Legal Counsel had determined that the presence of psychologists and physicians, monitoring the state and condition of the prisoner being tortured, afforded protection for the CIA leadership and the Bush administration from liability and potential prosecution for the torture. Later, the OLC applied the same rules to the Defense Department’s “enhanced interrogation program,” which, according to an investigation by the Senate Armed Services Committee, was created and overseen by a team led by a clinical psychologist, and eventually overseen exclusively by clinical psychologists.”  (Reisner. CIA on the Couch: Why There Would Have Been No Torture Without the Psychologists, SLATE, Dec. 2014)

So long as there were medical professionals present in the interrogations, the government claimed that the interrogations had been “safe, legal and effective”— not torture at all. Colonel Larry James, chief psychologist at Guantanamo and a member of the APA’s governing board (now the dean of Wayne State) defended military psychologists, stating they help make interrogations “safe, ethical and legal.”

The APA was eager to secure employment for psychologists in military-intelligence interrogations. APA provided “ethical shields” for psychologists involved in torture who were given professional indemnity; and their presence provided government officials who authorized torture a “get out of jail free” pass.

“One theory is that the APA gave its stamp of approval to military interrogations as part of a quid pro quo. In exchange, [some suspect] the Pentagon was working to allow psychologists—who, unlike psychiatrists, are not medical doctors—to prescribe medication, dramatically increase psychologists’ income.

In fact, the military has championed modern-day psychology since World War II, and continues to be one of the largest single employers of psychologists through its network of veterans’ hospitals. The Pentagon also funded a prescription-drug training program for military psychologists in the early 1990s.” (Eban. Rorschach and Awe, 2007)

Following the overwhelming vote by the American Psychiatric Association to disassociate its members from CIA and military interrogation programs (2006), the Pentagon immediately removed psychiatrists from Guantánamo.

“It is likely that the legal shield the OLC constructed for the CIA torture program would have evaporated if psychologists were also prohibited from participating. Preserving the role of psychologists was crucial to indemnifying the program’s authorizers at the White House and implementers at the CIA.” (APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons, Harper’s, 2014)