In the years following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan resulted in the capture of a large number of enemy combatants, generally referred to as "detainees." In questioning these detainees, the U.S. military and the CIA, with the encouragement of the administration of George W. Bush, initiated a policy of harsh and coercive methods of extracting information known as "enhanced interrogation." Even in the beginning, critics of this policy charged that it was a cover for torture, but the Bush Administration responded to these charges with denials. While acknowledging the use of such techniques as isolation, sleep deprivation, forced standing and stress positions, the Administration repeatedly reassured the public that these techniques did not constitute torture. We now know that the interrogation techniques also included beatings, sexual humiliation, threats to detainees and their families, and waterboarding (controlled asphyxiation). Thus, it eventually became clear that the "enhanced interrogation" program included many methods of interrogation that constituted torture by any reasonable definition of the term.
The adoption of a policy of torture presented certain problems for the Bush Administration. Torture is illegal, not only under international agreements and treaties (e.g., the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention Against Torture), but also under U.S. law (the Federal War Crimes Act and various military regulations). Thus, in order to avoid possible investigations and legal prosecution, the Bush Administration developed two self-protective strategies. First, it drafted a series of arguments and interpretations of existing laws holding that torture was not actually torture if the president ordered it, or if it was called by a different name, or that if it was torture it was not a matter for investigation because no court had jurisdiction. These arguments and interpretations, which were originally discussed only within the Administration, eventually became public and were rapidly discredited, having never been taken seriously in the first place by anyone other than a few officials who seemed to regard loyalty to the president as a principle that overrode any and all legal considerations.
The second strategy used by the Bush Administration to protect its policy of torture was more successful. This was the development of an unprecedented network of secret interrogation facilities located outside the U.S. and run by the CIA, often referred to as "black sites." In these facilities, under the cover of isolation, secrecy, and unclear jurisdiction, coercive interrogations involving torture could be freely conducted. The details about the existence, location and activities of these black sites have become public only gradually and incompletely, and the black sites have continued to operate up to and including the present. Most people in the United States first became aware of them during the Abu Ghraib scandal in early 2004.
When information leaked about the interrogations at Abu Ghraib, the public first began to comprehend the degree to which torture had been practiced, and this awareness would continue to increase over the next few years. While this was happening, however, information about another scandal also began to emerge. It seemed that health care professionals had been involved in some of the coercive interrogations.
The existence of a number of physicians and psychologists participating in the conduct of torture created a serious crisis for those professions, and particularly for professional organizations like the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Psychological Association. For besides being illegal, torture is also a violation of professional ethics, a fact long acknowledged in various professional codes and long enshrined in the universal principle of health care providers "First, do no harm." Thus, in response to Abu Ghraib the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association immediately took public stands prohibiting any of their members from participating in secret coercive interrogations. However, the American Psychological Association (hereafter referred to as APA) took a somewhat different stance, moving in a direction that was later to cause it significant problems.
APA's response to Abu Ghraib and rumors of psychologists' involvement in torture was to appoint a task force to study the issue. This group, known as the Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (or PENS) was not charged with investigating whether or not psychologists had actually been involved in torture; rather, it was to look into the issues raised by these concerns and to make recommendations to APA about the role of psychologists in secret interrogations. The group met in June 2005 and issued its report on July 5, 2005. The report made general statements about the unacceptability of torture, asserted that psychologists played a valuable role in the interrogations, and argued that they could, among other things, exert a restraining influence on abusive practices. To many people, these conclusions seemed reasonable, and the PENS report was adopted as APA's official position. However, some people, including dissident psychologists within APA, pointed out a number of problems with the report's conclusions.
To begin with, as noted above, no effort had been made by the PENS Task Force to investigate whether psychologists had actually participated in torture; instead it focused on torture as an abstract issue, condemning it in general terms and ignoring the increasing evidence that numerous interrogation techniques were being used that did, in fact, constitute torture and that psychologists were likely involved. Another issue that the Task Force had not addressed, and perhaps a more important one, was the fact that by playing any role - even a restraining one - in secret coercive interrogations where no legal protections were recognized or afforded, psychologists were assisting in legitimizing these interrogations, a clear violation of another ethical principle of the profession: upholding the respect for human rights. Finally, the Task Force's argument that psychologists could serve a restraining function was peculiarly problematic in light of the fact that decades of research by psychologists themselves had repeatedly demonstrated that people - even intelligent, sensitive and ethical people - are surprisingly poor at resisting pressures to act in harmful and unethical ways, particularly when such pressures are seen as legitimized by authority and particularly when they occur in isolated and ideological settings (e.g., Milgram, 1963; Haney, Banks & Zimbardo, 1973; Janis, 1982). There was no reason to believe that psychologists would have any special immunity from these influences, and every reason to believe that many of them would succumb to institutional pressures to aid and abet in torture.
Over the next two years, while APA continued to maintain what it called its "policy of engagement" (i.e., of psychologists engaging with the military, supposedly to ensure safe interrogations), additional information became available to the public about the involvement of psychologists in torture. Reports by journalists and human rights groups, declassified government documents, and leaks from Congressional committees all pointed increasingly to the likelihood that psychologists were not serving a restraining function but were instead promoting abusive interrogations. Furthermore, evidence was now emerging that the abusive methods had been designed by psychologists. A series of news reports and government documents identified two former Air Force psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, as the originators of the program of coercive interrogation. Evidently, in January 2002 they had proposed that torture techniques long known to have been used by totalitarian regimes like North Korea could be used to interrogate detainees held by the U.S.; and their proposal had subsequently been adopted and put into effect by other military psychologists and by the CIA.
The discovery that the U.S. government, with the help of American psychologists, had adopted North Korean interrogation techniques added a bizarre twist to the issue. These techniques had been applied to American prisoners of war during the Korean conflict with infamous results. While there were good reasons for doubting the effectiveness of the techniques in extracting reliable information from prisoners, there was no doubt that they were exceptionally effective in extracting false information. In fact, they were best known for their role in inducing American prisoners in Korea to confess to various war crimes and other transgressions that had never actually occurred. Thus, not only was the use of these abusive techniques unethical; it was also counterproductive, producing information of questionable value, at best.
While the above events were unfolding, additional information was becoming public that would prove seriously discrediting to the report of the PENS Task Force. Contrary to normal APA procedure, the members of the PENS Task Force - all of them hand-picked by the APA's President Ronald Levant and President-Elect Gerald Koocher - had originally been kept confidential. A leak from a Congressional committee now made the names of the Task Force members public, revealing that six of the nine voting members had had direct ties to the military and intelligence agencies that were conducting the interrogations. Furthermore, members of the Task Force who did not have ties to the interrogations now went public and revealed additional disturbing information: the Task Force's "deliberations" had lasted only a few hours during which the members without ties to the interrogations - despite having serious reservations - had been severely pressured by those with ties into approving the Task Force's conclusions, which had been formulated prior to the meeting.
A rebellion was now brewing within the APA membership. Several prominent psychologists announced their resignations from the organization, and other psychologists started a movement to withhold dues until APA changed its interrogations policy. When the organization's annual convention was held in August of 2007, a group of dissident psychologists proposed that APA's Council of Representatives adopt a resolution prohibiting psychologists from participating in interrogations that violated international law. The leadership of APA responded by passionately arguing for the importance of psychologists in restraining abuse and proposing a counter-resolution of its own condemning torture in general terms and prohibiting 14 of the best known abusive interrogation techniques. In the end, the Council voted overwhelmingly for the resolution proposed by the leadership of the APA. Within a few days, however, the leadership's resolution was receiving criticism both from within APA and from members of the general public. The critics noted that by listing prohibited interrogations techniques, the resolution left the door open to other abusive techniques not on the list and/or to techniques to be developed in the future. Furthermore, a close reading of the resolution revealed wording that seemed designed to leave "loopholes" permitting mistreatment of detainees. For example, it permitted forms of interrogation that did not cause "significant" pain and suffering or "lasting" harm. Finally, by allowing the continuing participation of psychologists in the interrogations it put APA's stamp of approval on coercive interrogations conducted in secret foreign settings without legal oversight or protection.
Challenges to APA's position continued, therefore, shifting now to groups and organizations outside the official APA structure. In September 2007 the Psychology Department at Earlham College adopted a resolution condemning APA's position and invited other departments of psychology to do the same. Two other departments--at Guilford College and Smith College--quickly signed on, and over the next year psychology departments in a number of other colleges and universities around the country adopted the Earlham resolution. At about this same time, movements also began in some state psychological associations to prohibit psychologists licensed by their states from participating in abusive interrogations. Challenges to APA by departments of psychology and state associations was an unprecedented development, and news stories were now spreading about the ethics dispute among psychologists. The embattled leadership of APA, which had previously avoided responding to critics, now began making statements defending its position and emphasizing its concerns about excessive actions by the Bush Administration. In February 2008, amidst continued criticism, APA took another step back from its position by further tightening its definition of torture and eliminating the wording in its own resolution about "significant" pain and suffering and "lasting" harm.
But by now the tide was unstoppable. In April 2008, members of Psychologists for an Ethical APA, a dissident group within the national organization, began circulating a petition for APA to hold a referendum among its membership on the interrogations issue. By APA's own by-laws, the referendum would be required if 1% of the organization's membership requested it and would become official APA policy if a majority approved it. The signatures were quickly obtained and in August 2008 the membership of APA was allowed, for the first time, to vote on APA's interrogations policy. On September 17, 2008, the results were announced: the APA membership had voted by a large margin to prohibit participation of psychologists in the black site interrogations. For the first time in its history, the leadership of APA had been repudiated by its own membership on an ethical issue.
The passage of the referendum marked a turning point in the battle against torture within APA. The organization's leadership could no longer deliver APA as a powerful legitimizing force for secret coercive government interrogations. Nevertheless, the years since the referendum have not done much to rehabilitate APA's reputation. While the participation of psychologists in extralegal confinement and interrogations is now specifically prohibited under official APA policy, psychologists have continued to function in these capacities at Guantanamo and other settings (See U. S. Department of Defense, 2010, p. 10). Although official complaints have been filed with APA, calling on the organization to investigate these violations of its policy and fully implement the 2008 referendum (e.g. Summers, Eidelson, Hunt & Pelton-Cooper, 2009; Nowak, 2009), APA officials have failed to do so. On the contrary, they seem to have regarded continuing concern about interrogations as an embarrassment to be dealt with by avoidance, if at all possible. The question therefore remains: Why has the leadership of APA so utterly failed to show moral courage in support of its own ethical standards?
Part of the answer seems to lie in the history of APA and of the psychological profession in the United States. Since its beginning, psychology in the U.S. has had close ties to the military. The discipline got its start, in part, by developing psychological tests used by the military for screening recruits during the First World War. During the Second World War, psychologists were able to become practicing clinicians for the first time with the help of the military. Since then, the military has played a key role in pioneering programs to allow psychologists to prescribe drugs and has also become one of the largest supporters of psychological research, funding projects in a wide variety of areas. For example, in January 2011, APA devoted an entire issue of its major journal to a $125 million resilience training program targeting more than a million soldiers and combat veterans. The loss of such a close connection between psychology and the military would pose a severe threat to the financial and political well-being of psychology as a profession in the U.S. It appears, therefore, that a culture of defensiveness has developed within the official APA structure, protecting the valued relationship between the profession of psychology and the U.S. military.
During the 1990s, APA's special relationship with its benefactors (including, but not limited to, the military) seems to have risen to a new level. Bryant Welch, a long-serving executive officer within APA, describes an "organizational regression" during those years in which the APA governing structure became increasingly inbred, overly focused on financial gain, and unable to deal with conflictual issues, especially when ethical questions were involved (Welch, 2008, pp. 9-10). When military psychologists, supported by a small group of APA officers, took control of APA's policy on interrogations, the larger organizational structure seems to have become paralyzed and unable to put up any resistance. We can also assume that once committed to the interrogations policy, many of the governing officers of APA succumbed to the defensive rationalizations and self-justifications that psychologists know so well and have studied so thoroughly. It is ironic that in their own professional organization psychologists themselves fell victim to these pressures; but it is also cause for hope that many psychologists outside of the organizational structure recognized what was happening and exerted enough counter-pressure to dislodge APA from its original disastrous policy on interrogations. Perhaps future leaders of the organization who are less implicated in the mistakes of the past will further accede to the wishes of the membership and fully commit themselves to doing the right thing.