Psychology and Torture

In the years following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in the capture of a large number of enemy combatants, generally referred to as “detainees.” In questioning these detainees, the U.S. military and the CIA, with the encouragement of the administration of George W. Bush, initiated a policy of harsh and coercive methods of extracting information known as “enhanced interrogation.” Even in the beginning, critics of this policy charged that it was a cover for torture, but the Bush Administration responded to these charges with denials. While acknowledging the use of such techniques as isolation, sleep deprivation, forced standing and stress positions, the Administration repeatedly reassured the public that these techniques did not constitute torture. We now know that the interrogation techniques also included beatings, sexual humiliation, threats to detainees and their families, and waterboarding (controlled drowning). Thus, it eventually became clear that the “enhanced interrogation” program included many methods of interrogation that constituted torture by any reasonable definition of the term.

The adoption of a policy of torture presented certain problems for the Bush Administration. Torture is illegal, not only under international agreements and treaties (e.g., the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention Against Torture), but also under U.S. law (the Federal War Crimes Act and various military regulations). Thus, in order to avoid possible investigations and legal prosecution, the Bush Administration developed two self-protective strategies. First, it drafted a series of arguments and interpretations of existing laws holding that torture was not actually torture if the president ordered it, or if it was called by a different name, or that if it was torture it was not a matter for investigation because no court had jurisdiction. These arguments and interpretations, which were originally discussed only within the Administration, eventually became public and were rapidly discredited, having never been taken seriously in the first place by anyone other than a few officials who seemed to regard loyalty to the president as a principle that overrode any and all legal considerations.

The second strategy used by the Bush Administration to protect its policy of torture was more successful. This was the development of a network of secret interrogation facilities located outside the U.S. and run by the CIA, often referred to as “black sites.” In these facilities, under the cover of isolation, secrecy, and unclear jurisdiction, coercive interrogations involving torture could be freely conducted. The details about the existence, location and activities of these black sites became public only gradually and incompletely. Most people in the United States first became aware of them during the Abu Ghraib scandal in early 2004, when pictures of U.S. interrogators using torture and humiliation were leaked to the press. At this time, the public first began to comprehend the degree to which torture had been practiced, and this awareness would continue to increase over the next few years. While these events were occurring, however, information about another scandal also began to emerge: it seemed that health care professionals had been involved in some of the illegal interrogations.

The existence of a number of physicians and psychologists participating in the conduct of torture created a serious crisis for those professions, and particularly for professional organizations like the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Psychological Association. For besides being illegal, torture is also a violation of professional ethics, a fact long acknowledged in various professional codes and long enshrined in the universal principle of health care providers “First, do no harm.” Thus, in response to Abu Ghraib the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association immediately took public stands prohibiting any of their members from participating in secret coercive interrogations. However, the American Psychological Association (hereafter referred to as APA) took a somewhat different stance, moving in a direction that was later to cause it serious problems.

APA’s response to Abu Ghraib and rumors of psychologists’ involvement in torture was to appoint a task force to study the issue. This group, known as the Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (or PENS) was not charged with investigating whether or not psychologists had actually been involved in torture; rather, it was to look into the issues raised by these concerns and to make recommendations to APA about the role of psychologists in secret interrogations. The group met in June 2005 and issued its report on July 5, 2005. The report made general statements about the unacceptability of torture, asserted that psychologists played a valuable role in the interrogations, and argued that they could, among other things, exert a restraining influence on abusive practices. To many people, these conclusions seemed reasonable, and the PENS report was adopted as APA’s official position. However, some people, including dissident psychologists within APA, pointed out a number of problems with the report’s conclusions.

To begin with, as noted above, no effort had been made by the PENS Task Force to investigate whether psychologists had actually participated in torture; instead it focused on torture as an abstract issue, condemning it in general terms and ignoring the increasing evidence that numerous interrogation techniques were being used that did, in fact, constitute torture and that psychologists were likely involved. Another issue that the Task Force had not addressed, and perhaps a more important one, was the fact that by playing any role – even a restraining one – in secret coercive interrogations where no legal protections were recognized or afforded, psychologists were assisting in legitimizing these interrogations, a clear violation of another ethical principle of the profession: upholding the respect for human rights. Finally, the Task Force’s argument that psychologists could serve a restraining function was peculiarly problematic in light of the fact that decades of research by psychologists themselves had repeatedly demonstrated that people – even intelligent, sensitive and ethical people – are surprisingly poor at resisting pressures to act in harmful and unethical ways, particularly when such pressures are seen as legitimized by authority and particularly when they occur in isolated and ideological settings (e.g., Milgram, 1963; Haney, Banks & Zimbardo, 1973; Janis, 1982). There was no reason to believe that psychologists would have any special immunity from these influences, and every reason to believe that many of them would succumb to institutional pressures to aid and abet the practice of torture.

Over the next two years, while APA continued to maintain what it called its “policy of engagement” (i.e., of psychologists engaging with the military, supposedly to ensure safe interrogations), additional information became available to the public about the involvement of psychologists in torture. Reports by journalists and human rights groups, declassified government documents, and leaks from Congressional committees all pointed increasingly to the likelihood that psychologists were not serving a restraining function but were instead promoting abusive interrogations. Furthermore, evidence was now emerging that the abusive methods had been designed by psychologists. A series of news reports and government documents identified two former Air Force psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, as the originators of the program of harsh interrogation. Evidently, in January 2002 they had proposed that torture techniques long known to have been used by totalitarian regimes like North Korea could be used to interrogate detainees held by the U.S.; and their proposal had subsequently been adopted and put into effect by other military psychologists and by the CIA.

The discovery that the U.S. government, with the help of American psychologists, had adopted North Korean interrogation techniques added a bizarre twist to the issue. These techniques had been applied to American prisoners of war during the Korean conflict with infamous results. While there were good reasons for doubting the effectiveness of the techniques in extracting reliable information from prisoners, there was little doubt that they were exceptionally effective in extracting false information. In fact, they were best known for their role in inducing American prisoners in Korea to confess to various war crimes and other transgressions that seemed obviously false. Thus, not only was the use of these abusive techniques unethical; it was also counterproductive, producing information of questionable value, at best.

While the above events were unfolding, additional information was becoming public that would prove seriously discrediting to the report of the PENS Task Force. Contrary to normal APA procedure, the members of the PENS Task Force – all of them hand-picked by the APA’s President Ronald Levant and President-Elect Gerald Koocher – had originally been kept confidential. A leak from a Congressional committee now made the names of the Task Force members public, revealing that six of the nine voting members had had direct ties to the military and intelligence agencies that were conducting the interrogations. Furthermore, members of the Task Force who did not have ties to the interrogations now went public and revealed additional disturbing information: the Task Force’s “deliberations” had lasted only a few hours during which the members without ties to the interrogations – despite having serious reservations – had been intensely pressured by those with ties into approving the Task Force’s conclusions, which had been formulated prior to the meeting.

A rebellion was now brewing within the APA. Protests from within the membership grew progressively larger over the next several years, but each protest was met by resistance from the leadership of the organization. Finally, in 2014, as the details of the issue began to receive widespread public attention, the embattled APA leadership commissioned an independent review by David Hoffman, a former federal prosecutor and Inspector General of Chicago, to review the charges of unethical behavior by the organization. Hoffman released his report in July 2015. The report concluded that instead of following established procedures, APA had carefully tailored its ethical position to curry favor with the Department of Defense by not contradicting its policies of abusive interrogation. The report caused a firestorm within the organization, and a month later the APA Council of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to revise APA’s policy to prohibit psychologists from practicing in national security settings violating international law and from participating in all forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment.

Since that time, several attempts have been made by various persons and groups within APA to weaken this new policy. At the time of this writing, none of these attempts have been successful. But the question remains: Why has it been so difficult for the American Psychological Association to adopt and maintain a clear and unambiguous stand against the practice of torture?

Part of the answer seems to lie in the history of APA and of the psychological profession in the United States. Since its beginning, psychology in the U.S. has had close ties to the military. The discipline got its start, in part, by developing psychological tests used by the military for screening recruits during the First World War. During the Second World War, psychologists were able to become practicing clinicians for the first time with the help of the military. Since then, the military has played a key role in pioneering programs to allow psychologists to prescribe drugs and has also become one of the largest supporters of psychological research, funding projects in a wide variety of areas. For example, in January 2011, APA devoted an entire issue of its major journal to a $125 million resilience training program targeting more than a million soldiers and combat veterans. The loss of such a close connection between psychology and the military would pose a severe threat to the financial and political well-being of psychology as a profession in the U.S. It appears, therefore, that a culture of defensiveness has developed within the official APA structure, protecting the valued relationship between the profession of psychology and the U.S. military.

During the 1990s, APA’s special relationship with its benefactors (including, but not limited to, the military) seems to have risen to a new level. Bryant Welch, a long-serving executive officer within APA, describes an “organizational regression” during those years in which the APA governing structure became increasingly inbred, overly focused on financial gain, and unable to deal with conflictual issues, especially when ethical questions were involved (Welch, 2008, pp. 9-10). When military psychologists, supported by a small group of APA officers, took control of APA’s policy on interrogations, the larger organizational structure seems to have become paralyzed and unable to put up any resistance. We can also assume that once committed to the interrogations policy, many of the governing officers of APA succumbed to the defensive rationalizations and self-justifications that psychologists know so well and have studied so thoroughly. It is ironic that in their own professional organization psychologists themselves fell victim to these same pressures; but there may be some cause for hope in the fact that some psychologists outside of the organizational structure recognized what was happening and fought to resist it.