Ending the psychological mind games on detainees

By Stephen Soldz  |  August 10, 2008

WHEN MOST people think of psychologists, they think of a professional 
helping them with life's emotional difficulties, or of a researcher 
studying human or animal behavior. Since the Bush administration and 
the war on terrorism have transformed our country, however, a new, 
more ominous image of psychologists has slowly seeped into public 

Psychologists have been identified as key figures in the design and 
conduct of abuses against detainees in US custody at Guantanamo Bay, 
the CIA's secret "black sites," and in Iraq and Afghanistan. 
Psychologists should not be taking part in such practices.

Yet a steady stream of revelations from government documents, 
journalistic reports, and congressional hearings has revealed that 
psychologists designed the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" techniques, 
which included locking prisoners in tiny cages in the fetal position, 
throwing them against the wall head first, prolonged nakedness, 
sexual humiliation, and waterboarding.

Jane Mayer, in her new book, "The Dark Side," reports that the 
central idea was the psychological concept of "learned helplessness." 
Individuals are denied all control over their world, lose their will, 
and become totally dependent upon their captors.

At Guantanamo, the Red Cross described a system of psychological 
abuse as "tantamount to torture." Psychologists, and some 
psychiatrists, helped interrogators "break down" detainees by 
exploiting information in their medical records. Thus, someone with 
an intense fear of dogs would be threatened with snarling dogs, while 
a person with a fear of being buried alive might be threatened with 
being sealed in a coffin.

When reports of these abuses surfaced, we psychologists looked to our 
largest professional organization, the American Psychological 
Association, to take the lead in condemning them and taking measures 
to ensure that they would not recur. After all, these actions by 
psychologists violate the central principle of the APA's ethics code: 
"Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take 
care to do no harm."

The APA, however, failed to take clear action. While the American 
Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association quickly 
and unequivocally condemned any involvement by its membership in such 
activities, APA leaders quibbled over whether psychologists had been 
present at the interrogations and questioned the motives of internal 

When the leadership appointed a task force on the ethics of 
psychologist involvement in interrogations, the report was strangely 
unsigned, and the members' names were kept secret from APA members 
and the media. Finally, it was revealed that a majority of members 
were from the military-intelligence establishment, with four having 
served in chains of commands implicated in detainee abuses. Three of 
the four nonmilitary members have since denounced the task force 
process and two have called for the report to be rescinded.

The APA has since passed several antitorture resolutions - all of 
them full of loopholes - but has failed to take ethics enforcement 
action against a single psychologist for participating in abuses, 
despite publication two years ago of a detailed interrogation log 
showing the participation of a military psychologist in the abuse 
amounting to torture of a Guantanamo detainee.

Not surprisingly, unrest among APA members is growing. Many members, 
including the founder of the APA's Practice Directorate and the 
former head of its Ethics Committee, have resigned in protest.

This month, ballots went out for a first-ever referendum to call a 
halt to psychologist participation in sites where international law 
is violated. And dissident New York psychologist Steven Reisner, a 
founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, is running for 
the APA presidency. His principal campaign platform is for 
psychologists to be banned from participating in interrogations at US 
military detention centers, like Guantanamo Bay, that violate human 
rights and function outside of the Geneva Conventions. In the 
nomination phase Reisner received the most votes of the five 

At our annual convention in Boston this month, other APA members and 
I will rally against association policies encouraging participation 
in detainee interrogations. We will be joined by community activists, 
human rights groups, and civil libertarians to demand that APA return 
to its fundamental principle of "Do no harm." Psychologists owe it to 
their profession and to the cause of human rights to oppose abuses, 
not participate in them.

Stephen Soldz, psychologist and psychoanalyst, is professor and 
director of the Center for Research, Evaluation, and Program 
Development at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis.