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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 5/13/14

Complicity: Psychology and War on Terror Abuses

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Co-authors: Roy Eidelson, Trudy Bond, Stephen Soldz, Steven Reisner, Jean Maria Arrigo and Brad Olson

Torture has been in the national news again this spring as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence voted last month to declassify key sections of its 6,300-page report reviewing the CIA's brutal post-9/11 detention and interrogation program. While findings already leaked from the Senate report should be disturbing to all Americans, our nation's psychologists should be especially troubled by this one: "Two contract psychologists devised the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques and were central figures in the program's operation." These cruel, inhuman, degrading and often torturous techniques ranged from painful stress positions to prolonged sleep deprivation to cramped confinement in a small box to waterboarding -- all designed to debilitate a detainee and render him physically and psychologically helpless.

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Other carefully documented accounts of psychologist involvement in the abuse and torture of prisoners at places like Guantanamo, Bagram, and CIA black sites have emerged repeatedly for nearly a decade. But the comprehensive, multi-year Senate investigation is likely to provide the most detailed account to date of how psychologists abandoned their fundamental do-no-harm ethics and participated in the horrific excesses of the "war on terror." In the past, the American Psychological Association (APA) -- the world's largest organization of psychologists -- has responded to similar revelations with silence, denials, unactionable platitudes, and assertions that the APA has always been steadfast in its opposition to torture. Such responses, however, conceal a distressing and unwelcome truth: that U.S. torture programs took root and grew in a climate made more hospitable by the APA leadership's support of our government's counter-terrorism strategy despite its bring-it-on, gloves-off, anything-goes tactics.

As members of the public and psychologists alike await further information from the Senate report, this is an opportune time to review the extensive evidence of APA's collaboration with the national security establishment's post-9/11 "dark side" operations. This partial list highlights key examples.

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** Immediately after the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001, the APA leadership established a subcommittee to strengthen links with the CIA, the Department of Defense (DoD), and other national security agencies, provide them with psychological expertise, and learn more about their needs. According to the chair of this subcommittee (who would later become an APA president), "the most urgent task" was to position psychology as an essential national resource and to "get the message out that psychological science has a lot to contribute to the effort to combat terrorism." At the same time, the APA Board called for increased funding for behavioral research, and APA staff worked to "nurture relationships with agencies"that might use such research in applied settings." In subsequent months (and years) APA leaders were regular visitors to Capitol Hill and the Bush White House. By 2004 an APA newsletter boasted that "APA members are remarkably well-positioned within CIFA [the DoD's Counterintelligence Field Activity agency] to bring operational and research expertise to bear on counterintelligence activities."

** In December 2001 a former APA president convened a private meeting of psychological researchers and psychologists from the intelligence community at his home to brainstorm about counter-terrorism and Muslim extremism. Among the participants was one of the two contract psychologists who would shortly thereafter design the CIA's torture program. The following spring this same former APA president accepted a CIA invitation to give a three-hour lecture on "learned helplessness," based on his experimental research with dogs, at the Navy's SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) school in San Diego. In attendance were both of the psychologists who developed the CIA's "enhanced interrogation techniques," which included waterboarding and confining a detainee in a cage called the "dog box." When this meeting was publicly revealed for the first time, the APA issued a statement characterizing as "completely false" all allegations that its former president had in any way assisted the CIA contract psychologists in developing their torture program. The APA provided no independent evidence in support of this blanket denial.

** The APA joined with the CIA in planning and holding invitation-only interrogation-related workshops for academics, law enforcement personnel, and members of the military and intelligence community. A July 2003 workshop explored "The Science of Deception: Integration of Theory and Practice." One workshop scenario examined ethically fraught research questions bearing directly on the treatment of detainees, including: "What pharmacological agents are known to affect apparent truth-telling behavior?"; "What are sensory overloads on the maintenance of deceptive behaviors?"; and "How might we overload the system or overwhelm the senses and see how it affects deceptive behaviors?" Once again the two psychologists who developed the CIA torture program were in attendance, and the effectiveness of coercive techniques was among the topics discussed. The APA has removed details about this workshop from its website.

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** A second APA/CIA workshop -- titled "Interpersonal Deception: Integration of Theory and Practice" -- took place in June 2004. That meeting was "designed to forge collaborations between operational staff working in the intelligence community and scientists conducting research on interpersonal deception." Facilitated by a RAND policy analyst and "generously funded" by the CIA, the workshop focused on interpersonal deception and effective methods for deceiving. The APA has provided little additional information about this workshop or its participants.

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Roy Eidelson is a psychologist who studies, writes about, and consults on the role of psychological issues in political, organizational, and group conflict settings. He is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, a member of (more...)
 

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