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
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 candidates.
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.