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  • Our Psychological CrisisMaking Sense of the American Psychological Association’s Collusion with Torture

Last year’s “Hoffman Report,” the independent investigation conducted by former Inspector General of Chicago David Hoffman into the American Psychological Association’s collusion in the torture of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay and other CIA “black sites,” has sent shock waves through the psychology profession, whose members are not at all happy to be the public face of torture in America. Listservs around the country are erupting with consternation and outrage, with demands for accountability, justice, and reform, and with cries of betrayal. Our profession is in a full-blown crisis and psychologists around the country are confused, embarrassed, and unsure of how to respond in a meaningful way.

What shocks me is how shocked my professional community suddenly seemed to be, since much of the information in the Hoffman report has been available to the public for many years, thanks to the ceaseless work of activist psychologists like Steven Reisner, Stephen Soldz, and Jean Maria Arrigo, who first blew the whistle on the APA’s cover-up back in 2006. Arrigo had participated in the APA’s bogus “Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security,” known as the PENS Task Force, which pretended to investigate the ethics of “enhanced interrogation” (torture) by delegating the task to an appointed panel made up almost entirely of military personnel who had direct experience with torture at one or more of the various CIA black sites. Reisner, Soldz, Arrigo, and a small handful of other psychologists out on the front lines of this battle have been intimidated, publicly maligned, and marginalized by the APA in an attempt to discredit the APA’s critics and deflect attention from its dirty secrets.

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United States officers use a “water cure” on a Filipino captive in this illustration from a 1902 cover of Life. The U.S. has a long history of resorting to torture during times of war and has consistently relied on the APA for cover.

I was a doctoral student in clinical psychology when news first broke about psychologists’ involvement in torture. I had entered my studies with such optimism and hope about my career, feeling that I had finally found my home in the world—a vocation, not just a job—where I might make good use of my deep love and empathy for people and my desire to do some good in the world. It was shocking, then, to hear in my second year of training that people in my new profession were torturing prisoners. I couldn’t fathom how those people could be psychologists. Weren’t we healers? Weren’t we Carl Rogers and Virginia Satir and Sigmund Freud and Carol Gilligan and . . . torturers? I couldn’t wrap my head around it at all, so I decided to write my dissertation about it in order to get to the bottom of this incongruous debacle.

As I began to research the events around the torture of prisoners at CIA black sites, I discovered that financial embeddedness and collusion between the APA, the CIA, and the Department of Defense spanned half the last century, beginning with mind-control research at the start of the Cold War, then continuing on to the torture of Vietnamese prisoners of war, CIA-backed training of torturers throughout Central and South America (at venues like the School of the Americas), and in a natural progression to the War on Terror. The degree of entanglement between the military and the psychology profession, it turned out, was so long-standing, broad, and deep that it would have been shocking had psychologists not been enlisted to prop up our latest war.

Though people are utterly enraged at the actions of the APA, let’s remember the context in which these unscrupulous actions unfolded. Our president—no, our entire government save a dissenter or two—decided that bombing, kidnapping, torturing, and killing civilian populations in two Middle Eastern countries, one of which had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11, was an appropriate response to a terrorist attack on American soil. President Bush’s...


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