The Facts be Damned! Psychologists’ President Defends Psychologists Participation in Detainee Interrogations

Last Friday American Psychological Association President, and Indiana University professor, Sharon Brehm discussed the APA’s policies supporting psychologist participation in national security interrogations with faculty and students at her university. The Indiana Daily Student has an account of the meeting.

While the entire article is well worth reading, a few of Dr. Brehm’s comments as cited there are especially worth commenting upon. Either they reflect an unacceptable level of ignorance of the basic facts about psychologists’ roles in American torture or they are simply willful falsehoods. For example, Dr. Brehm stated:

“Brehm said psychologists only acted in an advisory role during questionings, working with interrogators to develop effective strategies that will elicit “accurate information.””

There is now overwhelming evidence from reporters and government documents that this statement is not simply false, but almost the exact opposite of the truth. Thus, three major journalists (Jane Mayer at the New Yorker, Katherine Eban at Vanity Fair, and Mark Benjamin at Salon) have reported that the basic torture techniques used by the CIA in its black sites were initially developed and implemented by psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen. This role is far from Brehm’s “…psychologists only acted in an advisory role during questionings, working with interrogators to develop effective strategies that will elicit ‘accurate information.’ ” On the contrary, as Eban reported in Vanity Fair:

psychologists weren’t merely complicit in America”s aggressive new interrogation regime. Psychologists, working in secrecy, had actually designed the tactics and trained interrogators in them while on contract to the C.I.A..

Thus, Dr. Brehm’s “effective strategies” include months of total isolation, freezing, being chained up in painful positions for hours and days on end, and it seems, waterboarding.

The Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General (OIG), in a report declassified last May, documented the central role of psychologists, including those from the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program in the development of what the OIG itself saw as abusive. [See our summary of the OIG report and in pdf format.] The OIG report documents how SERE psychologists trained Guantanamopsychologists in the use of SERE-based torture techniques. The OIG report also documents how SERE and Guantanamostaff went to Iraq to train US soldiers there in abusive SERE-based “counter-resistance” techniques. The OIG report made clear that these techniques were, in the OIG’s opinion, abusive.

Just last month the Guantanamo Camp Delta Standard Operating Procedures manual was leaked. As I wrote, this document details the systematic use of a month of isolation on all new detainees “to foster dependence on interrogators and ‘enhance and exploit the disorientation and disorganization felt by a newly arrived detainee in the interrogation process.‘” The decision about how long a detainee would be held in isolation, the SOP states, was to be made by the GTMO Joint Intelligence Group (JIG). The Chief Psychologist for the JIG at the time the SOP was issued was Col. Larry James. The APA appointed Col. James, along with five others with military or intelligence ties (including the head SERE psychologist), to its Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security to formulate “ethics” to decide if it was “ethical” for psychologists to participate in national security interrogations. Further, the APA selected Col. James to present its “anti-torture” policy to the 2007 Convention.

To this extensive record that psychologists were active and central participants in some of the worst of the Bush administration’s abuses, Dr. Brehm contrasts her faith:

“We have great confidence that at least most of our members are really good people and that they would not do bad things,” Brehm said, adding her belief that psychologists had the ability to be heroes in fighting against torture.

Given the historical record, Dr. Brehm’s belief only makes sense if the words “heroes,” “against,” and “torture” no longer mean what they used to mean.

Another of Dr. Brehm’s statements is similarly astounding, given that she is a social psychologist:

All of our ethical policies are based on individual responsibility,” Brehm said. “If you violate the behaviors that are prescribed then, if it is a serious violation, we’ll kick you out of the association and you may not be able to make a living anymore. It is that basic.

Social psychologists are taught from the first day that the social environment often overrules individual behavioral tendencies. Those in abuse-generating situations are likely to participate in abuse. Social psychologists routinely study why “good” people do “bad” things. There is no evidence that psychologists are uniquely able to resist these pressures. Indeed, at the APA Convention last August, Craig Haney, a social psychologist who studies the US criminal justice system, stated that in 30 years of research in prisons, he knew of not a single instance in which a psychologist stopped existing abuse.

Dr. Brehm, like the rest of the APA leadership, ignores that we live in a country which, at this time, is committed to detainee abuse as national policy. Those aiding interrogations in that system are, at best, complicit in the numerous abuses we know are occurring, the kidnapping of detainees from around the world, the purchase of detainees, the lack of any legal rights, the removal of the centuries-old right to habeas corpus, not to mention the abusive interrogations. Rather than denouncing this organized regime, the APA talks obsessively about “influencing policy” through engagement, but has precious little to show for it. The CIA still tortures, using the techniques that were designed by psychologists. We all know it. The press reports on it. But the APA has yet to utter a word condemning these misuses of psychological knowledge and expertise.

Jane Mayer, in an August 8, 2007 Democracy Now! interview pointed out that not only the knowledge and expertise but the prestige of psychology was central to the Bush administration’s torture regime. The administration figures ordering torture hoped psychologist participation would prove to be a “get out of jail free” card, in the event of future investigation of and trial for their crimes:

[I]f you take a look at the so-called torture memos, the forty pages or so of memos that were written by Jay Bybee and John Yoo way back right after 9/11, and you take a look at how they — they’re busy looking at the Convention Against Torture, basically, it seems, trying to figure a way around it. One of the things they argued, these lawyers from the Justice Department, is that if you don’t intend to torture someone, if your intention is not just to inflict terrible pain on them but to get information, then you really can’t be necessarily convicted of torture.

So how do you prove that your intent is pure? Well, one of the things they suggest is if you consult with experts who will say that what you’re doing is just interrogation, then that might also be a good legal defense. And so, one of the roles that these SERE psychologists played was a legal role. They were the experts who were consulted in order to argue that the program was not a program of torture. They are to say, “We’ve got PhDs, and this is standard psychology, and this is a legitimate way to question people.”

We have written Dr. Brehm directly documenting in detail reports that psychologists were central in creating, implementing, standardizing as policy, and disseminating the abusive interrogation techniques used by American military and the CIA. We sent Dr. Brehm an Open Letter signed by over 700 psychologists. We sent her our summary of the OIG report. She never responded. I sent her my article on the systematic use of isolation at Guantanamo. Again, no response. So, if Dr. Brehm is truly ignorant of the central role of psychologists in US abusive interrogations, it was not for lack of opportunity to inform herself.

Or do APA leaders know the facts, but simply not care? After all, the military and intelligence agencies hire hundreds, or even thousands of psychologists and provided many tens of millions in grant funding for psychological research. Further, psychologists have a preferred position over their long-time rivals, the psychiatrists, aiding interrogations in US detention centers. A little willful ignorance is, perhaps, a small price to pay for the APA leadership when millions of dollars and preferential treatment for psychologists are at stake.

But whether ignorance or willful avoidance, Dr. Brehm’s lack of responsiveness to the legitimate concerns of so many of the APA’s membership comes at a high price. The issue is increasingly dividing the organization, and threatens its hegemony as the primary representative of organized psychology at a time when rival psychological organizations are gaining membership and energy.

Only the APA’s members can decide that closing one’s eyes to abuse is too high a price to pay for government funding and other favors from the powerful.

Stephen Soldz is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He maintains the Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice web page and the Psyche, Science, and Society blog. He is a founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, one of the organizations leading the struggle to change American Psychological Association policy on participation in abusive interrogations. He is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility and a consultant to Physicians for Human Rights. Read other articles by Stephen.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. gerald spezio said on December 5th, 2007 at 6:59am #

    If Dr Brehm would submit to psychoanalysis (she doesn’t think right, right?), the analyst could give it to her good right where she needs it – if she is attractive to the analyst.

    Give her the right ethics and morality, that is.

    Boston School of horseshit.

    Be against toture and advertise your balony school.

  2. gerald spezio said on December 5th, 2007 at 7:04am #

    A preying adult man who practices PRIMITIVE head shrinking for money from unsuspecting innocents has the audacity to preach – “THE FACTS BE DAMNED.”

    Out damned Freudian spot!

  3. gerald spezio said on December 5th, 2007 at 8:28am #

    Not just your old psychology.


    Get the training, and get out there and cure people of their silly ethics.

    It’s a global mind change thing.

  4. gerald spezio said on December 5th, 2007 at 9:52am #

    The TWO MILLION Palestinians in the GAZA CONCENTRATION CAMP need food, clothing, and shelter, just like Jews, Christians, Bhuddists and spiritual psychologists.

    If somebody wants to bring the DYING PALESTINIANS some therapy and spirituality along with a bag of rice, I am for it.

  5. gerald spezio said on December 5th, 2007 at 9:54am #

    Since Israel is close to Gaza, the Israelis can be first to deliver the rice to the starving PALESTINIANS IN THE GAZA CONCENTRATION CAMP.

  6. Deadbeat said on December 5th, 2007 at 10:18am #

    I’m am very skeptical about the motivations of “Psychologist/Psychiatrist”. In a capitalist system their make their money on the back-end of the victims of capitalism. In fact in many divorce cases involving child “custody” (as if children are property), psychological examination are COURT ORDERED (in other word court COERCED) in order determine where children will reside. The encouragement and the dynamic of capitalism to split up families for various reason enable these “quacks” to make money.

    In other words “Psychologist/Psychiatrist” like lawyers have no real interest to transform capitalism because they need strife to enrich themselves and to “brainwash” people to adapt and accept injustice.

    Therefore folks like Soldz represents a dubious “profession” and clearly whatever they say and advocate should definitely be scrutinized.

  7. gerald spezio said on December 5th, 2007 at 10:32am #

    Legal maxims;

    “The bigger the fight, the bigger the fee.”

    “Let’s you and him fight.”

    More lawyers and psychologists in Supernation and Israel than anywhere else on earth.

    The dying Palestinians can’t get out of their filthy CONCENTRATION CAMP IN GAZA and learn some law, psychology, and peeyar in order to control their vicious anti-Semitism.