Heroism Defeats Torture at the American Psychological Association

by Bryant Welch, J.D., Ph.D.

It was the stuff of heroes. It was "All the King's Men", "The Coal Miner's Daughter", and "The Insider" all wrapped into one.

American Psychology, long battered and embarrassed by the horrific support of torture by its elected leadership and executive staff at the American Psychological Association, has been rescued by an improbable group of six psychologists known as "The Coalition for an Ethical Psychology." The Coalition operated literally day and night for over nine years, under extraordinary circumstances, to expose and defeat the leadership of the APA.

Ghandi wrote, "First, they ignore you. Then, they make fun of you. Then, they fight you. Then, you win." This was the Coalition's story.

Last week the American Psychological Association in a dramatic vote by its Council of Representatives stepped back from the abyss of on-going complicity in human torture. It reversed its decade-long collusion with the enhanced interrogation of detainees at Guantánamo developed by the Bush administration, and passed policy statements heavily influenced by Coalition members to give the APA one of the strongest anti-torture policies of any health care profession.

They replaced policies that were abhorrent to psychologists across the country, but steadfastly supported by the elected leadership and executive staff of the American Psychological Association.

I have described in previous columns how the American Psychological Association became so weakened and vulnerable to military influence that it ignored and even scoffed at the well-documented role of psychologists working hand-in-hand with interrogators to psychologically "break" detainees using psychological forms of torture. Instead of taking heed or investigating, APA leadership rebuffed the dissident voices often through personal attacks on their character, their motivations and even their psychological stability.

Recent exposes by the Senate Armed Services Committee, Pulitzer Prize winning NY Times author James Risen, and, finally, the APA's own retained independent investigation conducted by Chicago Attorney, David Hoffman all supported the allegations of the Coalition and made it impossible to deny the correctness of their allegations. It was undeniable now that some American psychologists had become monsters and their work facilitated and covered up by their national organization, the APA.

The APA Council of Representatives' vote outlawing such behavior clearly reflects the sentiments of the rank and file psychologists who over seven years ago passed the first member referendum in psychology's history thinking they were putting an end to the APA's support for the torture policies. However, armed with opinions from the APA legal office, APA steadfastly refused to implement the members' will as expressed in the referendum.

Last week's vote did implement the referendum and made APA's policy one of the strongest in the country prohibiting participation in human torture. This is the psychology community that I knew when I worked at the APA years ago.

I wish I could say that the seemingly overwhelming vote in support of the new policies reflects significant organizational change in the American Psychological Association that I have described in my previous columns. Unfortunately, meaningful change in the inner workings of psychologists' national organization remains very much in doubt.

Instead, this last-minute rescue of nothing less than the soul of American psychology was the work of six psychology heroes who performed the most effective and improbable advocacy success in the history of American psychology.

It began in 2005 when military interests convinced the APA to establish a task force to address the ethical standards for psychologists participating in the military. Now, few doubt that the purpose of that task force was to provide the semblance of an ethical fig leaf behind which psychologist could participate in torture at Guantanamo and other "Black sites" for torture.

Six members of the nine-person task force were military or intelligence agency psychologists. As subsequent events have made clear, these six were consistently supported by the APA Ethics Director, Stephan Behnke and APA Executive Director Russell Newman, my successor at the APA Practice Directorate.

One of the non-military members of the Task Force was psychologist Jean Maria Arrigo an oral historian of military intelligence professionals. from Southern California whose soft spoken, diffident, librarian style suggested that she would be easily bowled over on the Task Force by the military and APA powerhouse that was aligned with them.

This was not to be the case. Slowly, it dawned on Dr. Arrigo that she was, in her own words, being used as a "patsy" on the panel that ultimately proved to be designed to facilitate psychologists' new role as the torturer's apprentice.

When Dr. Arrigo understood what had happened, she turned whistle blower. In doing so, she quickly met with the full wrath of the APA governance. APA President at the time, Gerald Koocher, said publically that Arrigo's comments were due to her own mental instability relating to her father's suicide death. This came as quite a surprise to Dr. Arrigo whose father was very much alive when she heard of Koocher's statements.

Not long after Arrigo spoke out, psychologist Steven Reisner, a Manhattan psychoanalyst, in 2006 noted a New York Times story describing how the military had decided that it would use psychologists, not psychiatrists, to provide mental health consultation in enhanced interrogations. A longtime human rights advocate Reisner presciently knew something was very wrong.

In short order, Reisner, Arrigo, Boston psychoanalyst Stephen Soldz, and long time social activist psychologist Brad Olson from Chicago formed The Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. Soldz, had an encyclopedic mind, a dogged commitment to human rights, and absolutely remarkable capacity for sound judgment and objectivity. Olson was a community activist and disciple of Saul Alinsky. He stood out for his tireless and completely unselfish approach to advocacy. Reisner became an extraordinarily effective spokesperson with the Coalition and served on the APA Council of Representatives last week to steer the new policy to its successful adoption. None of them had known each other prior to this time and none had any prior experience in the American psychological Association.

A few years later they were joined by Philadelphia psychologist Roy Eidelson and Ohio psychologist Trudy Bond, from Toledo each of whom gave new energy to the effort. Eidelson became the prolific author of over thirty articles, numerous columns, and other documents in support of Coalition activities. He became the pen and the written voice of the Coalition. Bond, from Toledo, became a one-woman legal weapon filing state licensing board complaints against two of the psychologists most deeply implicated in the torture with the help of lawyers affiliated with Harvard Law School.

There was one non-psychologist advisor who proved crucial to the Coalitions success. Nathaniel Raymond, former director of the campaign against torture at Physicians for Human Rights, who is a human rights investigator and now runs the Signal Program at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative of the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. It was Raymond who provided the expertise on national security activity that helped the Coalition develop the comprehensive understanding of what had really happened.

As I made clear in previous columns I had long been concerned by what I saw as a manipulated and regressed American psychological Association. While the early work of the Coalition met with very widespread criticism and even disdain in many, many quarters in the APA, the behaviors they described rang true to me and felt very consistent with the style and mindset I had observed at the APA.

In addition to the deceptive style and the use of unfounded personal attacks, most compellingly, there was an almost silly, blind preoccupation with psychology's status irrespective of the context in which it arose that struck me as very, very familiar. Whoever facilitated this "victory" for psychology over psychiatry within the DOD, had overlooked that the victory was a one-way road to torture and eternal shame for psychology. Psychology had chosen status as its compass, not its own most cherished ethical principle of "Do No Harm."

When I wrote a brief email to the Coalition in 2008 supporting their on-going investigation, they contacted me. Since that time I have had very direct access to their work and am possibly uniquely situated to describe it.

For nine years, this group was "online" with one another almost 24/7, preparing documents, collaborating and strategizing like nothing I have ever seen. They literally never stopped. I have been connected with advocacy efforts for over fifty years now, and I have never seen anything like the Coalition.

There is a saying in Washington, DC that effective advocacy requires two things: intensity and cohesion. The six-person Coalition personified both of these qualities and much more.

The personal characteristics of the group were also astonishing. They were not only smart and determined. There was an utter lack of personal ego, an extraordinary attention to making all statements accurate through checking and rechecking facts, and complete forbearance in the midst of almost never ending personal attacks and provocations. Above all, there was a remarkable ability to ferret out information following endless leads no matter where they took them. There is no question in my mind that had it not been for the Coalition's work, the true story of psychology's involvement in torture would never have been fully exposed.

Watching them last week on the APA Council floor, the innermost sanctum of the palace they had so successfully challenged, and seeing them realize their dream, nine years in the making, was one of the most moving experiences of my professional life.

Every ethical psychologist in the country is in their debt. So, too, is everyone who understands the critical role our abhorrence and prohibitions against torture reflect in our attempt to build a world of love, not hate.