American Psychological Association exposed for enabling torture as part of the "War on Terror"

August 3, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


From a reader:

July 26, 2015

For a number of years, after September 11, 2001, the American Psychological Association (APA) has been working with the Department of Defense (DOD) and the CIA to make sure that psychologists would participate in, advise, conduct research on, and provide medical/legal cover for the torture of detainees caught up in the "War on Terror," otherwise known as the War OF Terror conducted by the U.S. in the Middle East and around the world. Examples of such torture include: stress positions, sleep deprivation, sensory enhancement and deprivation, sexual humiliation, threats to the prisoners and their families, slamming against walls and beatings, and water boarding. This, from an organization whose credo is “do no harm.”

Since around 2005, there has been fierce opposition to these policies, which are not just unethical but constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes, by a small number of psychologists as well as by other medical professionals. This opposition was met with a combination of ignore-ance and slanderous attacks by APA top brass. 

The APA leaders who collaborated in torture remained in their positions until just a few weeks ago. As of this writing, one APA officer (the ethics director!) has been fired, and several have resigned. Another top collaborator has resigned his position at a major university. There is lots more to come. Why now? In October 2014, James Risen published allegations of APA complicity in torture in his book Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War. A CIA whistleblower provided Risen with emails which showed the extensive communication and collaboration with regard to torture between APA officers and the CIA and DOD. Public outcry after the book came out forced the APA to hire an attorney, David Hoffman, to conduct an independent investigation into all of this, and it is a damning report.

This newspaper has covered some of this sordid affair, which some have compared to the infamous Tuskegee experiments on Black males, who were left untreated for syphilis and studied while they suffered. (See, for example: Revolution #141, August 24, 2008, "Taking a Stand Against Torture at the American Psychological Association Convention," by Stan Lawrence.) Li Onesto has written extensively in these pages on the history of torture, and the role of terror more generally, by the U.S. since its inception. (See The role of psychiatry and psychology has been intertwined with torture at least since the Cold War period in the 1950s. The close connection between the APA and the military has a long history, and involves lots of money and influence. Another section of the APA, besides the military division, which has fully supported torture is the forensics division, which includes those psychologists who work in the prisons and courts (just think solitary confinement, an internationally recognized form of torture). It seems that, as far as organized divisions of the APA, only the psychoanalysis division has stepped up in opposition. 

While most psychologists have said nothing, a group of APA members actually passed a referendum to prohibit psychologist involvement in torture settings. The outcome? The APA refused to implement the referendum. The APA also either refused to process formal ethics complaints, or spent years delaying and then exonerating individual psychologists who were proven to have participated in torture. For psychologist-torturers who either quit or were never in the APA, some initial actions have been taken against them at the level of state boards that control professional licensing, with again no further action or delayed exoneration. 

It seems that “smoking emails” were the unpredicted event that finally brought some accountability to the APA leadership. But where will this go? What is the relationship between the medical and the legal aspects of this? Did John Yoo, Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney General in the George W. Bush Department of Justice, need a psychological stamp of approval to render his infamous legal opinions with regard to torture? Will anyone be held accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity, either psychologists or lawyers, or, Obama forbid, members of the CIA and military, and the executive branch? 

Looking at this from the widest perspective; I think it's important to understand that the state (the military, prisons, police, courts, etc... the instruments of repression that support and enforce the economic relations of any given society), under imperialism, is going to go about its business with or without legal cover or medical/psychological assistance and rationalizations. But in the U.S., where the mythology of “land of freedom and democracy” is still very important in legitimizing the violence it perpetrates all over the world, these professional/intellectual apologists serve a crucial function.

This scandal is still unfolding. The survivors of the initial actions at the top of the APA, and just about every state association of psychologists, are all saying what the “good Germans” said: “We didn't know, we're shocked, we will make sure we're ethical going forward....” No. This can't go that way. In a recent article by the Psychologists for Social Responsibility (July 13, 2015., they stated:

“The transformation we seek depends upon a much higher level of engagement from many more members of our profession. It requires participation from those who have stood on the sidelines, those who have closed their eyes to disturbing reports, and those who have considered it unseemly to discuss 'politics' among colleagues. As should now be clear to everyone, silence is also a political choice. In light of the evidence compiled by the Hoffman investigative team, psychologists have a duty to recognize and examine how decades of dependency on the military and intelligence agencies for employment, funding, and stature have influenced our entire profession, in ways that have never been adequately examined.”

And, I would add that there is a major ideological/moral component to the motivation of those who would torture other human beings for any reason whatsoever. I will end with this quote from Bob Avakian, BAsics 5:7:

“American Lives Are Not More Important Than Other People's Lives.”


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