Psychologists' Collusion With US Torture Limited Our Ability To Decry It Anywhere

The report documenting the role of the American Psychological Association (APA) as an embedded accomplice to torture during the War on Terror is important for its detail, but not for its novelty. The essence of this story has been known for eight years despite APA denials, euphemisms, double-talk and whitewashing; the report simply underscores the truth of what many of us have been saying all along.


The United States Department of Defense (DOD) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) worked hand-in-glove with the APA leadership to dictate and pass a policy document intended to justify and protect psychologists who designed and oversaw interrogation by torture to break prisoners down, despite laws and professional ethics designed to prevent exactly that behavior. The core of the APA position – which was appended to DOD policies – was that psychologists worked for interrogators and had no responsibility for the health of prisoners

With this cover, psychologists went far beyond “psychological torture”: they oversaw waterboarding, joint-distorting stress positions and the use of military dogs that lunged at and bit prisoners. Behavioral Science Consultation Teams carefully recorded the effects of interrogation “approaches” with names like “fear up harsh” and “ego down” and suggested how to amend these approaches to induce prisoners to exhaustion and compliance.

The APA-DOD-CIA plan succeeded at two of its three aims. It destroyed prisoners and it protected torture psychologists from punishment by licensing boards and from the APA itself. But, as the Senate Select Committee’s Report on CIA torture showed, it failed to produce useful intelligence. This should come as no surprise: psychological and physical torture has long been known to be useless for interrogation.

The latest revelations from the APA report are only a partial accounting of the scope of our government’s torture program. Even the intricacies of how CIA and DOD gained control of policy making at the APA remain murky. The scale of US torture, especially at CIA black sites, for which there is still no accounting of the names and fates of prisoners, remains unknown. Only a small percentage of the Senate report on CIA torture has been released. Only a tiny number of the photographs and videotapes of torture at Guantanamo, Iraq, Afghanistan and the archipelago of CIA black sites have been released.

But the devastating effects of US torture persist. Prisoners were injured; most, by the government’s own reckoning, were innocent or ignorant. Government personnel who tortured were traumatized. The United States destroyed a 60-year framework of international law against torture when it asserted that “national emergency” and “executive order” could void the laws against torture – a view that is sweet music to dictators around the world. And because of the APA’s collusion with the government and the lack of accountability for doctors who assisted with torture, the credibility of the United States medical and psychological associations’ challenges against colleagues who torture in other countries has been destroyed by unwillingness to convict, de-license or even censure torture the United States’ torture clinicians. The ability of United States medical and psychological associations to speak on behalf of the simple proposition “do no harm” has been silenced by the APA’s silent, shameful complicity with torture.

That the United States has gone from torturing to baring shards of truth is an improvement. It, however, has failed to address the problem of impunity and thus stands apart from other countries including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Italy, Uruguay and Rwanda, all of which have held clinicians who torture accountable. That is the task remains. But we will see if our courts, licensing boards and professional societies are willing to take down their flags as confederates of torture.

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