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Professionals who work with the US military should look closely at the APA torture scandal

Why did the United States military and CIA torture people under the Bush administration, given that study after study shows torture doesn't produce valuable intelligence? A must-read piece in Vanity Fair examines the recent report on the APA's high-level involvement in sanctioning torture, and finds that it "suggests one answer: greed."

Specifically, the greed of psychologists who hoped to receive, and in some cases did receive, financial benefits in exchange for providing the Pentagon with intellectual and moral cover for its torture of detainees.

The American Psychological Association, roughly the equivalent of the American Medical Association for psychologists, played a crucial, long-hidden role in the story of American torture. James Elmer Mitchell, who created the C.I.A.’s torture program with Bruce Jessen, was a member of the A.P.A. Psychologists sold the C.I.A. and the Pentagon on a menu of aggressive interrogation techniques presented as scientifically proven to be effective; in reality, they were based on Communist methods designed not to find the truth but to produce false confessions that could be used for propaganda purposes.

When information about psychologists assisting in coercive interrogations began to trickle out in 2004, the A.P.A. did not condemn the psychologists involved. Instead, the A.P.A. defended them, thereby applying a sheen of respectability to coercive interrogations. The new, 542-page report—named after David Hoffman, the former prosecutor who oversaw the investigation—found that the A.P.A. task force that made some of these critical ethical decisions was influenced by behind-the-scenes collusion with the Defense Department.

Indeed, this was a uniquely American scandal—one with careerism and profiteering at its heart, and real science out the window. But a close reading of the 542-page report raises another troubling possibility: were it not for the immediate and future profits to be made by psychologists looking for any angle for self-advancement, the torture of detainees may have never happened at all.

As well, had the defense department, ever sensitive about public opinion, faced unanimous opposition from all the medical and mental health professional societies, it may well have been forced to reconsider its interrogation methods early on.

This began, for the most part, in 2005, when the executive board of A.P.A. convened the Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security to determine whether the A.P.A. ethics code adequately addressed a relatively new phenomenon in the war on terror: psychologists who were in the room during coercive interrogations, and helping to extract intelligence. The PENS task force deliberations led to a change in the organization’s ethics code, which clarified that psychologists could be present, so long as they saw their role as to help keep the interrogations safe, legal, ethical and effective.

It was a loophole big enough to drive a waterboard through.


In other words, without the APA's approval, the US military and CIA may not have tortured so many people for so many years. And that approval came in large part from the medical establishment's selfish desire to maintain or even deepen existing relationships with the holders of the largest purse strings in the United States: the Department of Defense. The military wields significant power, and the APA wanted to be close to that flame.

Now that the APA's disgraceful, institutional collusion with the torture regime has been made public in this detailed report, its executive leadership, who valued connections with DoD over basic decency and professional integrity, likely regret letting greed take control.

The APA got too close to the flame and got burned. It's a lesson other professionals who work closely with the US military should carefully examine.

Read more from Vanity Fair.

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