By Roy Eidelson and Trudy Bond
"The position of the American Psychological Association is clear and unequivocal: For more than 25 years, the association has absolutely condemned any psychologist participation in torture."
-- Statement by the APA, November 2013
"The American Psychological Association, the largest professional organization for psychologists, worked assiduously to protect the psychologists who did get involved in the torture program."
--James Risen, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, October 2014
New information may soon be revealed by the Senate Intelligence Committee's yet-to-be-released report on the CIA's post-9/11 abusive and torturous detention and interrogation operations. But what already has been clear for a long time -- through reports from journalists, independent task forces, congressional investigations, and other documents -- is that psychologists and other health professionals were directly involved in brutalizing "war on terror" prisoners in U.S. custody. Of particular note, contract psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen have been identified as the architects of the CIA's "enhanced interrogation techniques," which included waterboarding, stress positions, exposure to extreme cold, sensory and sleep deprivation, and isolation.
At the same time, what has remained a matter of dispute is the extent to which the American Psychological Association (APA) collaborated with and worked to support the intelligence community and its program of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Critics (including both of us) have argued that the APA repeatedly failed to take the steps necessary to prevent the misuse of psychology, instead allowing perceived opportunities for a "seat at the table" to trump a firm commitment to professional ethics. In response to these allegations, the APA's leadership has issued denials and statements asserting that the Association has always been steadfast in its opposition to torture.
Where the truth lies in this ongoing debate just became much clearer with the publication of James Risen's new book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War. In a chapter titled "War on Decency," the Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist offers fresh evidence from an unexpected inside source: Scott Gerwehr, a RAND Corporation analyst with close ties to the CIA, the Pentagon, and the APA. When Gerwehr died in a motorcycle accident in 2008, he left behind an archive of personal emails, which Risen obtained while conducting research for his book.
These emails document that the CIA and the Bush Administration played a direct role in guiding APA's stance and actions in regard to the ethics of psychologists' involvement in national security detention and interrogation operations. As Risen writes:
The e-mail archives of one researcher with ties to the CIA, who died on the cusp of becoming a whistleblower, provide a revealing glimpse into the tight network of psychologists and other behavioral scientists so eager for CIA and Pentagon contracts that they showed few qualms about helping to develop and later protect the interrogation infrastructure. The e-mails show the secret, close relationships among some of the nation's leading psychologists and officials at the CIA and Pentagon. And the e-mails reveal how the American Psychological Association (APA), the nation's largest professional group for psychologists, put its seal of approval on those close ties -- and thus indirectly on torture. (pp. 178-179)
The emails of particular interest are Gerwehr's correspondence over several years with a small group of regular confidants and collaborators: the CIA's chief behavioral scientist Kirk Hubbard (who introduced Mitchell and Jessen to the CIA as "potential assets" and then went to work for their firm when he retired from the CIA), White House science advisor Susan Brandon (who previously had been a senior scientist at the APA and is currently research director for the government's High Value Detainee Interrogation Group), and the APA's Director of Science Policy Geoff Mumford. Risen's book offers important details about that collaboration.
In July 2004, shortly after the shocking photos from Abu Ghraib prison became public, senior APA staff from the Ethics Office and Science Directorate arranged a private meeting with officials from intelligence agencies and the Department of Defense (DOD). The email invitation from APA Ethics Office Director Stephen Behnke -- to Hubbard from the CIA, Kirk Kennedy from DOD, and Gerwehr from RAND, among others -- noted that the purpose of the meeting, at least in part, was to "identify the important questions, and to discuss how we as a national organization can better assist psychologists and other mental health professionals sort out appropriate from inappropriate uses of psychology" (p. 198).
But it is unclear how or why these particular invitees would be considered well suited to provide instruction to the APA on psychological ethics. Indeed Risen suggests a different motivation:
The invitation to the lunch meeting showed that the APA was opening the door to psychologists and other behavioral science experts inside the government's national security apparatus to provide advice and guidance about how to address the furor over the role of psychologists in torture before the APA went to its own membership. The insiders were being given a chance to influence the APA's stance before anyone else. (p. 199)