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Did the American Psychological Association Help Legitimize CIA Torture?

A new report alleges the APA helped justify the Bush administration's torture of detainees in the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
April 30, 2015, 11:02pm

A protest against the CIA's torture program that took place in the UK in 2008. Photo via Flickr user Val Kerry

A new report by rogue psychologists and mental health experts alleges that the American Psychological Association (APA) helped justify the Bush administration's torture of detainees in the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

As the New York Times reported Thursday, dissident members of the professional mental health community allege that a government researcher contributed language to a 2005 APA policy regarding interrogations. And despite tons of communication back and forth, the authors of the report found "there is no evidence that any APA official expressed concern over mounting reports of psychologist involvement in detainee abuse during four years of direct email communications with senior members of the US intelligence community."


The report, called "All the President's Psychologists," is based in large part on the emails of a behavioral researcher named Scott Gerwehr, who died in a motorcycle crash in 2008. On Thursday morning, it was published in full by New York Times reporter James Risen, who had previously referenced some of the correspondences in his 2014 book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War.

In November, the APA said it was lawyering up in response to Risen's book, which claimed the group colluded with senior Bush administration officials to justify its "enhanced interrogation program." The full text of 16 emails that appear in the report's appendix suggests those attorneys have their work cut out for them. (Some 638 total emails informed the report's conclusions.)

One particularly chilling missive came from Geoffrey Mumford, then the director of science policy for the APA, in 2003. "You won't get any feedback from Mitchell or Jessen" he wrote in reference to so-called architects of the torture program. "They are doing special things to special people in special places, and generally are not available."

That year, the Associated Press published now famous photographs detailing sexual and psychological abuse of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. In 2004, the US Senate started investigating, and pretty much ever since, the APA has denied any wrongdoing or involvement. But a 2005 email by Mumford makes the coordination of the White House and the APA more explicit:

I was pleased to help staff the Task Force and [former Bush White House official Dr.] Susan [Brandon] serving as an Observer (note she has returned to NIMH, at least temporarily) helped craft some language related to research and I hope we can take advantage of the reorganization of the National Intelligence Program, with its new emphasis on human intelligence, to find a welcoming home for more psychological science.

President Obama formally halted enhanced interrogation in 2009, but it was only this December, when the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a 500-page executive summary on "enhanced interrogation," that the public found out about atrocities like "rectal feeding" and interrogators threatening to kill detainees' families.

In the meantime, rumors of collusion between America's premier psychological organization and the feds persisted—so much so that last November, the APA launched an independent investigation into the matter. The author's note for "All the President's Psychologists" expresses hope that these emails will inform that probe, which is expected to be released by Chicago attorney David Hoffman sometime this spring.

Until then, at least, the APA is sticking to its guns, with a spokeswoman insisting to the Times that there "has never been any coordination between APA and the Bush administration on how APA responded to the controversies about the role of psychologists in the interrogations program."

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