The American Psychological Association (APA) 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-September 11 war on terror, according to a new report by a group of dissident health professionals and human rights activists.
The New York Times reports that this study 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 US military personnel at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
The involvement of health professionals in the Bush-era interrogation programme was significant because it enabled the US Justice Department to argue in secret opinions that the programme was legal and did not constitute torture, since the interrogations were being monitored by health professionals to make sure they were safe.
The interrogation programme has since been shut down, and last year the US Senate Intelligence Committee issued a detailed report that described the program as both ineffective and abusive.
Rhea Farberman, a spokesperson for the APA denied that the group had coordinated its actions with the government. 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 programme,” 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 APA “clearly supports the role of psychologists in a way our behavioral science consultants operate,” said Dr William Winkenwerder, then the assistant secretary of defence for health affairs, describing 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.”
More than a decade later, the association’s actions during that critical time are coming under new scrutiny. The association’s board has ordered an independent review of the organisation’s role in the interrogation programme. That review, led by David Hoffman, a Chicago lawyer, is now underway. “We have been given a mandate by the APA. to be completely independent in our investigation, and that is how we have been conducting our inquiry,2 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 long-time 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.