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Why Did the American Psychological Association Approve Its Members to Oversee Torture?

A new report finds that APA officials worked with the Bush administration to draft a permissive policy for its members to oversee national security interrogations.
The American Psychological Association building in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Oakstreetstudio/Wikimedia Commons)

The American Psychological Association building in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Oakstreetstudio/Wikimedia Commons)

How did the American Psychological Association, the United States' top professional society for psychologists, end up recommending that its members monitor national-security interrogations, should they choose? The recommendation, published to its membership in 2005also said it was OK for psychologists to conduct research into the interrogation of national security prisoners. Such a policy runs counter to any usual interpretation of medical ethics, which urges medical professionals to avoid harming their patients, and to obtain consent before performing research on them. They also provided legal cover for those involved in torture, as the New York Times reports. Having psychologists oversee interrogations helped the Justice Department argue they were safe and didn't constitute torture.

A new paper, first reported on today by the New York Times, has an answer. The American Psychological Association wrote its ethics policy alongside White House and CIA staffers, the paper found, through its analysis of more than 600 messages from the email account of a deceased CIA contractor. "Your views were well represented by very carefully selected Task Force members," Geoffrey Mumford, the APA's director of science policy, wrote in an email to intelligence-community psychologists.

Others have hypothesized before that this must have happened for the APA to approve such an extraordinary policy, but, as Vanity Fair reported in 2007:

APA leaders deny any backroom deals and insist that psychologists have helped to stop the abuse of detainees. They say that the association will investigate any reports of ethical lapses by its members ... there was no "smoking gun" amid the stack of documents [psychologist Jean Maria] Arrigo gave me.

But now there is a smoking gun. The authors of the new paper are a team of psychologists who are "longtime and outspoken" critics of the American Psychological Association, as the New York Times reports.

The paper is just the latest to document the varied involvement of American medical professionals in George W. Bush-era torture programs developed after the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York. In December, a report from a United States Senate committee revealed doctors, physician's assistants, and medical officers were present at interrogations, as Business Insider reported. The doctors determined when prisoners' broken bones were healed enough for continued torture, and advised interrogators to use saltwater for waterboarding, so that prisoners wouldn't die from water poisoning. That said, the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association—for psychiatrists, who are medical doctors, while psychologists are not—published formal policies forbidding their members from participating in national security interrogations.

Meanwhile, psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen formed a company to consult for the U.S. government about how to best use psychological theory to interrogate prisoners, although neither psychologist was well trained to do so, as numerous outlets have reported. Mitchell and Jessen were American Psychological Association members, a fact that the association withheld on numerous occasions, the new paper on the APA finds. Once, the APA even considered coordinating a response with Mitchell Jessen and Associates to questions a Vanity Fair reporter had about the company.

A more thorough independent investigation of the APA's cooperation with Bush Administration interrogations is due later this spring, the New York Times reports. That investigation will include interviews and sources "far beyond" the emails analyzed for this new paper, as the paper itself describes. Meanwhile, in 2013, the American Psychological Association rescinded its 2005 policy under widespread outside pressure.