Ongoing Debate About APA & Torture

Even though the membership of the American Psychological Association (APA) voted overwhelmingly in a referendum last year to strengthen the organization’s ethical guidelines to ban its members participating in the kinds of “harsh” interrogations that were being practiced by the US government at Guantanamo and various other “dark sites”¬† during the time of the Bush administration, the debate over the APA’s actions and how it got to be the kind of organization that would behave as is it did, continues unabated. Two recent items seem to crystalize one side of the debate particularly clearly

First, on the blog of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), psychologist Ghislaine Boulanger writes that “Military psychologists, with the full support of their professional organization, the American Psychological Association (APA), advised, implemented, and sometimes initiated programs that are drawing harsh criticism and calls for an independent investigation.” Far from playing “a vital role in safeguarding the welfare of detainees,” as was claimed by APA Ethics Director Steven Behnke, Boulanger reminds us that “the central role that psychologists played in reverse engineering the SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) program has been revealed” in Jane Mayer’s book The Dark Side. Boulanger continues that despite the recent referendum against the APA’s old policy on the matter, “the new APA policy banning psychologists from working for the military in Guant√°namo Bay (unless they are providing treatment to military personnel) is still not in effect. Furthermore, APA spokespersons, while paying lip-service to the intent of this new policy when it is politically expedient to do so… recently… reiterated the claim that the presence of psychologists in interrogations serves as protection for detainees.”

On the issue of how the APA got itself into this situation in the first place, psychologist and longtime APA insider Bryant Welch presents in the Huffington Post a historical account of the APA’s descent, over the past two decades, into what he calls a “culture of grandiosity.” According to Welch, the change was led by the allegedly authoritarian management style of Raymond Fowler, who was the organization’s CEO throughout the 1990s, and by its close connections to the office of Hawaii Senator Dan Inouye (longtime chair of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense) via Patrick Deleon, an former APA president who was once an assistant in Inouye office. Welch writes:

Some people assume APA’s horrifying recent behavior involved large sums of money changing hands. I could certainly be wrong, but I think the more likely (and more remarkable and pressing) mechanism has little to do with money…. Instead, it was a malignant organizational grandiosity that first weakened the APA and then, ultimately, allowed military and intelligence agencies to have their way with the APA throughout the Bush Administration….

Banning psychologists’ participation in reputed torture mills was clearly unnecessary, proponents of the APA policy argued. To do so would be an “insult” to military psychologists everywhere. No psychologist would ever engage in torture….

Outside the self-absorbed culture of the current APA governance, to the rest of the world, the APA arguments simply do not pass the red-face test for credibility. Instead, their transparent disingenuousness only made the APA sound embarrassingly like apologists for the Bush Administration.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.