By James Risen, The New York Times, April 30, 2015
WASHINGTON — The American Psychological Association secretly collaborated with the administration of President George W. Bush to bolster a legal and ethical justification for the torture of prisoners swept up in the post-Sept. 11 war on terror, according to a new report by a group of dissident health professionals and human rights activists.
The report is the first to examine the association’s role in the interrogation program. It contends, using newly disclosed emails, that the group’s actions to keep psychologists involved in the interrogation program coincided closely with efforts by senior Bush administration officials to salvage the program after the public disclosure in 2004 of graphic photos of prisoner abuse by American military personnel at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
“The A.P.A. secretly coordinated with officials from the C.I.A., White House and the Department of Defense to create an A.P.A. ethics policy on national security interrogations which comported with then-classified legal guidance authorizing the C.I.A. torture program,” the report’s authors conclude.
The involvement of health professionals in the Bush-era interrogation program was significant because it enabled the Justice Department to argue in secret opinions that the program was legal and did not constitute torture, since the interrogations were being monitored by health professionals to make sure they were safe.
The interrogation program has since been shut down, and last year the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a detailed report that described the program as both ineffective and abusive.
Rhea Farberman, a spokeswoman for the American Psychological Association, denied that the group had coordinated its actions with the government. There “has never been any coordination between A.P.A. and the Bush administration on how A.P.A. responded to the controversies about the role of psychologists in the interrogations program,” she said.
The Bush administration relied more heavily on psychologists than psychiatrists or other health professionals to monitor many interrogations, at least in part because the psychological association was supportive of the involvement of psychologists in interrogations, a senior Pentagon official explained publicly in 2006.
The American Psychological Association “clearly supports the role of psychologists in a way our behavioral science consultants operate,” said Dr. William Winkenwerder, then the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, describing to reporters why the Pentagon relied more on psychologists than psychiatrists at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. “The American Psychiatric Association, on the other hand, I think had a great deal of debate about that, and there were some who were less comfortable with that.”
By June 2004, the Bush administration’s torture program was in trouble. The public disclosure of the images of prisoners being abused at the Abu Ghraib prison earlier that year prompted an intense debate about the way the United States was treating detainees in the global war on terror, leading to new scrutiny of the C.I.A.’s so-called enhanced interrogation program, which included sleep deprivation and waterboarding, or simulated drowning. Congress and the news media were starting to ask questions, and there were new doubts about whether the program was legal.
On June 4, 2004, the C.I.A. director, George J. Tenet, signed a secret order suspending the agency’s use of the enhanced techniques, while asking for a policy review to make sure the program still had the Bush administration’s backing.
“I strongly believe that the administration needs to now review its previous legal and policy positions with respect to detainees to assure that we all speak in a united and unambiguous voice about the continued wisdom and efficacy of those positions in light of the current controversy,” Mr. Tenet wrote in a memo that has since been declassified.
At that critical moment, the American Psychological Association took action that its critics now say helped the troubled interrogation program.
In early June 2004, a senior official with the association, the nation’s largest professional organization for psychologists, issued an invitation to a carefully selected group of psychologists and behavioral scientists inside the government to a private meeting to discuss the crisis and the role of psychologists in the interrogation program.
Psychologists from the C.I.A. and other agencies met with association officials in July, and by the next year the association issued guidelines that reaffirmed that it was acceptable for its members to be involved in the interrogation program.
To emphasize their argument that the association grew too close to the interrogation program, the critics’ new report cites a 2003 email from a senior psychologist at the C.I.A. to a senior official at the psychological association. In the email, the C.I.A. psychologist appears to be confiding in the association official about the work of James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, the private contractors who developed and helped run the enhanced interrogation program at the C.I.A.’s secret prisons around the world.
In the email, written years before the involvement of the two contractors in the interrogation program was made public, the C.I.A. psychologist explains to the association official that the contractors “are doing special things to special people in special places.”
More than a decade later, the association’s actions during that critical time are coming under new scrutiny. Last November, the association’s board ordered an independent review of the organization’s role in the interrogation program. That review, led by David Hoffman, a Chicago lawyer, is now underway.
“We have been given a mandate by the A.P.A. to be completely independent in our investigation, and that is how we have been conducting our inquiry,” Mr. Hoffman said. “We continue to gather evidence and talk with witnesses and expect to complete the investigation later this spring.”
The three lead authors of the report are longtime and outspoken critics of the association: Stephen Soldz, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis; Steven Reisner, a clinical psychologist and founding member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology; and Nathaniel Raymond, the director of the Signal Program on Human Security and Technology at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, and the former director of the campaign against torture at Physicians for Human Rights.
“In 2004 and 2005 the C.I.A. torture program was threatened from within and outside the Bush administration,” Mr. Soldz said by email. “Like clockwork, the A.P.A. directly addressed legal threats at every critical juncture facing the senior intelligence officials at the heart of the program. In some cases the A.P.A. even allowed these same Bush officials to actually help write the association’s policies.”
Ms. Farberman, the association’s spokeswoman, said that the group would wait until Mr. Hoffman’s investigation was complete before responding further, and so would not comment in detail on the critics’ report.
“We are focused on the independent review,” Ms. Farberman said.
For years, questions about the role of American psychologists and behavioral scientists in the development and use of the Bush-era interrogation program have been raised by human rights advocates as well as by critics within the psychological profession.
The critics frequently criticized the 2005 findings of an association committee, the Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security, or PENS, which concluded that it was appropriate for psychologists to remain involved with interrogations, to make sure they remained safe, legal, ethical and effective. The PENS report eventually drew so much criticism from within the psychological profession that the association was forced to retract its permissive guidelines.
But the degree to which the association allowed psychologists and other behavioral scientists from the national security agencies to help craft the PENS Task Force’s report was not fully understood until the recent disclosure of a trove of emails from one behavioral science researcher who died in 2008.
The emails are those of Scott Gerwehr, a researcher who worked at the RAND Corporation and later at a defense contractor who had close ties to behavioral scientists both at the psychological association and in the national security agencies.
The Gerwehr emails include many between association officials and government psychologists on which he was copied by friends and colleagues. The new report by the association’s critics is based in part on a comprehensive analysis of his email archive.
After the PENS Task Force completed its work in 2005, Mr. Gerwehr was copied on an email from Geoffrey Mumford, the director of science policy at the association, to Kirk Hubbard, a psychologist at the C.I.A., thanking Mr. Hubbard for helping to influence the task force outcome.
“Your views were well represented by very carefully selected task force members,” Mr. Mumford wrote. “I thought you and many of those copied here would be interested to know that A.P.A. grabbed the bull by the horns and released this Task Force report today.”
By that time, Mr. Hubbard had just left the C.I.A. to work for Mitchell Jessen and Associates, the company the contractors had created to conduct their work on the interrogation program.