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The American Psychological Association and Torture: The Day the Tide Turned

How the APA turned psychology away from humanitarian values is a study in organizational failure and professional disaster.
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In my blog last month, I described the complicity of psychologists and the American Psychological Association (APA) with torture under the Bush Administration's War on Terror. I also described APA's transition from an organization highly sensitive to human rights to one that supported the Bush Administration's torture interrogation program. I pointed both to excessive and unchecked connections with the military and to a longstanding management style that left the APA governance ill -prepared to stand up to the military and intelligence pressures even on an issue as evil as torture.

There was a critical turning point to this story that has not received the attention it deserves. It illustrates "what could have been" had the APA preserved psychologists' historically humanitarian values. It also underscores why the current battle for the heart and soul of American psychology is something that should concern all Americans.

The governance of the APA at first responded to the War on Terror when a group of respected psychologists concerned with human rights proposed a task force to study the psychological cost to America of the Bush Administration's War on Terror. At the time there was a desperate need for a psychological explanation of the practical importance of human rights. Many Americans in their state of fear felt America could no longer afford to support what to many Americans were simply vague principles embodied in human rights and in our own Bill of Rights. The proposed task force, chaired by Dr. Paul Kimmel, was to study the psychological ill-effects on Americans of living in the perpetual state of war that President George Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney were prescribing as their post 9/11 strategy.

The task force findings provide a tragic illustration of what the American Psychological Association's contribution to post 9-11 efforts could have been had its leadership at the time remained consistent to the historical values of the APA and psychologists everywhere.

We found that this stressful environment often leads authorities to overestimate the threat and consequence of terrorist activities and to make poor decisions in trying to prevent these activities. The "war on terror" has affected the emotions, beliefs, and behaviors of the American public in ways typical of situations characterized by uncertainty, extreme stress, and fear.

(Collateral Damage, Kimmel and Stout (Eds.) Praeger, 2006, p.xvi)

In short, psychology, through its national organization, was positioned to provide a scientific rationale documenting the practical cost of subverting our democratic values and terrorizing our citizenry. The task force made clear it was not just a vague set of liberal values at stake; it was America's ability to function rationally in its hour of peril. America's need for such a voice at that time is now painfully obvious.

When I worked at the APA from the mid-1980's to the mid-1990's, I was frequently stunned by the extent to which the press was eager for any word from APA on just about any subject. Had APA issued a document like the one the task force prepared, there is no question it would have received widespread play in the mass media. Naturally, for an Administration trying to sell a war on terror, the Bush/Cheney regime would not have relished such a document. Neither would the military or intelligence apparatus that supported its efforts.

The proposed APA task force received broad support when it was introduced in February of 2003 to the APA Council of Representatives, the legislative assembly of the APA that has ultimate control of the Association under its by-laws. The Council vote authorizing the task force to proceed passed 127 to 0, with two abstentions. The two abstentions in the Council vote, task force members believe, were military psychologists. The report was to be completed and submitted to the Council for the final approval at the upcoming Council meeting.

It was not to be. How APA turned psychology away from these humanitarian values is a study in organizational failure and professional disaster for psychology and the APA.

At the Council meeting when the task force report was to be submitted for Council approval, Dr. Kimmel and another task force member were called out of the room, during the luncheon recess. Waiting for them were APA President-elect Dr. Ronald Levant, APA public affairs director Rhea Farberman, APA Public interest director Dr. Henry Tomes, and task force member New York psychologist Dr. Nina Thomas. (Personal Communication, Kimmel to Welch, July 10, 2009.)

The group explained to Dr. Kimmel that he would be ill advised to submit the task force report to Council at that meeting because, as currently worded, APA could "only receive the report" but not "do anything" with it. The task force objectives could be better achieved, he was advised by Levant and the group, by delaying the presentation of the report so this problem could be addressed. (Personal Communication, Kimmel to Welch, July 10, 2009.) While in actuality any such problem that might have existed could have been corrected on the Council floor with little difficulty, Dr. Kimmel and fellow task force members, unfamiliar with APA procedures, reluctantly agreed.

This was hardly a friendly suggestion, as the task force was to find out. When the report reached the APA Board of Directors for the Board's vote on whether to endorse the report prior to sending it back to Council, to the surprise of the task force members, the Board voted unanimously to reject the task force report in its entirety. Prior to that Board meeting the Board of Directors liaisons to the task force had given the task force members no indication the report was even controversial on the Board.

As I explained in my prior column, the APA Council had become increasingly ineffectual over the course of the previous CEO's administration and was heavily controlled by upper echelon staff operating through the APA Board of Directors. With such strong opposition from the Board, passage of the task force report by the Council of Representatives was unlikely. Nonetheless, given the strong support they had received previously from the Council and other governance entities, the task force members decided to submit the report to the Council of Representatives for a vote at the winter 2004 meeting, hoping to override the Board's recommendation.

Dr. Ronald Levant, as APA president, was the presiding officer at the Council meeting when the report was ultimately submitted to the Council floor for deliberation. Task force members report that throughout the day on which the matter was scheduled to come to a vote, Levant announced several changes in the order of the agenda, ostensibly to accommodate other groups. The effect of these delays was to postpone the vote on the task force report until the last few minutes of the meeting. After minimal discussion, in which the task force members were unable to make their planned presentation, Levant called the matter to a voice vote. According to task force members, Levant proclaimed that the report had been defeated "unanimously" although task force members insist votes of support were quite audible. (Personal Communication, Kimmel to Welch, July 10, 2009.)

With that action, the APA rejected the effort by psychological experts in the field to call attention to the psychological cost to America of being turned into a fear-plagued nation under siege. The report was referred to another APA Board and never surfaced again, despite efforts by the task force members to revive it. (Dr. Kimmel and several members of his task force did find an independent publisher for their report, now entitled Collateral Damage: The Psychological Consequences of America's War on Terrorism. Edited by Paul R. Kimmel and Chris E. Stout. Praeger, 2006.

From that point forward, it was quite clear that a small number of upper echelon members of the APA Board and APA staff working in conjunction with military psychologists and their colleagues were highly committed to psychologist's continued participation in "enhanced interrogation techniques."

When the American Psychiatric Association and other health care organizations passed measures deeming it unethical for their members to participate in the Bush detention center activities, the American Psychological Association, instead, appointed a task force to study the matter and make recommendations to Council on the appropriate positions for the APA to take with respect to national security interrogations and related matters. The task force was known as The Task Force for Psychological Ethics in National Security (PENS). After the fact, many APA members were surprised to learn that of the ten members appointed to the task force six were employed by the military and/or the national security apparatus.

As I have indicated, many, and probably even most, of the people in the APA Governance are not evil people who support the Bush/Cheney interrogation policies. The APA organizational structure was cleverly debilitated through psychological and structural changes over a fifteen year period largely for in-house political reasons. When the military took a strong interest in APA, these people were simply over their heads and succumbed to the rationalizations and pseudo-logic they were handed by people whom they wanted to believe knew more than they did or with whom they wished to gain favor.

Arguments which to most observers lacked all credibility prevailed in the APA Council deliberations. For example, it would be "disrespectful" to military psychologists for any Council member to imply a military psychologist would do anything untoward in the detention centers. Other council members were naïve (or in some cases grandiose) enough to believe that psychologists' participation in the interrogations could serve as a protective buffer against torture. People who were critical of the APA positions were dismissed as mean-spirited, biased, and insincere. Thus, the substance of their arguments was ignored.

Many of the governance members, however, could probably have been led in just about any direction. The fact that it was torture in this case probably proves that point. What is remarkable from an organizational perspective is just how small a number of people operating in such a system could manipulate the APA for evil purposes.

I have been trained in two professions, the law and psychology. Each sheds light on the causes and consequences of torture. Torture is visible only indirectly in the law. Our Bill of Rights and the modern concept of human rights stand like gravestone monuments to man's historical capacity for inhumanity to man through torture. They also symbolize a cluster of fragile barriers established against torture by those who have seen its horrors in the past.

It's in psychology, however, especially in psychotherapy, the true horror of torture becomes much more visible to the naked eye. When I am doing psychotherapy with a patient I am not advising or "counseling" the patient as many think. Nor am I trying to construct arid intellectual rationales about the patient's past. Instead, I am doing my best to sit inside the inner-most experience the patient is having at that moment. If I can successfully give myself over to that experience, I can walk about in very sensitive and personal regions of a person's mind. What I see there is extremely tender and fragile.

Often, I can see where feelings of love, anger, shame or fear, for whatever reason, are being held at bay and stifling patients' capacity to experience their own existence and their deepest and most personal feelings. Even words like "soul" do not do justice to the sensitive nature of this terrain. It is in this area where life defines itself by virtue of its capacity to feel.

If I can gently help patients look at those walled off experiences and slowly assimilate these split off parts of their mind, over time, remarkable things begin to happen. Patients become happier and healthier, they are better parents, they are more understanding spouses, and they are more productive workers. Their lives are more robust and richer.

If, on the other hand, a therapist approaches these sensitive realms with heavy handedness, it can be devastating to the patients. Some may never recover from the stultifying, even petrifying effect it can have.

When one sees this sensitivity of the human spirit on a daily basis, as a psychotherapist does, the thought of one human being torturing another is literally nauseating, whether one focuses on the tortured victim or the grotesque and twisted dead soul of the torturer. When a psychologist sees the tools of his trade twisted by colleagues to inflict pain, it is an experience that defies description.

Psychology has wonderful things to offer, but, like most disciplines, and like most nations, it can be used for good or evil. Ultimately, it comes down to the quality and character of the individuals who are making the decisions and providing leadership. The American Psychological Association's fall to the dark side is all the more tragic when one recognizes the lost potential of the APA's Task Force on the Psychological Effects of Efforts to Prevent Terrorism. It is that potential, however that makes psychology worth fighting for.

Bryant L. Welch, J.D., Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and attorney. He is the author of State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind (St. Martin's Press, 2008.)