The True Story Behind Pyschology’s Role in Torture?

A seventeen-year-old boy is locked in an interrogation cell in Guantanamo.

 He breaks down crying and says he wants his family. The interrogator senses the boy is psychologically vulnerable and consults with a psychologist. The psychologist has evaluated the boy prior to the questioning and says, “Tell him his family has forgotten him.” The psychologist also prescribes “linguistic isolation” (not letting him have contact with anyone who speaks his language.) The boy attempts suicide a few weeks later. On the eve of the boy’s trial, the psychologist apparently fearing her testimony will only further implicate her, indicates she will plead the Fifth Amendment if she is called to the stand. The trial is postponed, leaving the boy in further limbo.

The military psychologist is merely a foot soldier in psychology’s participation in torture. It goes much deeper. We now know that psychologists helped design and implement significant segments of George Bush’s torture program. Despite their credo, “Above all, do no harm,” two psychologists developed instruments of psychological torture. They “reversed engineered” psychological principles. They used the very therapeutic interventions psychologists use to ameliorate psychological suffering, but “reversed” their direction to create psychological distress and instability. If one’s reality sense is threatened, a good therapist validates and supports it as appropriate. In reverse engineering, the environment is deliberately made more confusing and the victim’s trust in his own perceptions is intentionally undermined. In extreme form, this can ultimately drive a person to insanity from which some never come back. These were the types of techniques that were used on the seventeen-year-old detainee and others.

Military psychologists also colluded with the Justice Department to help CIA operatives circumvent the legal prohibitions against torture. Under the Justice Department definition of torture, if a detainee was sent to a psychologist for a mental health evaluation prior to interrogation it was per se evidence that the interrogator had no legal intent to torture the detainee because the referral “demonstrated concern” for the welfare of the detainee.

Most remarkably of all, this whole process occurred under a protective “ethical” seal from the American Psychological Association (APA), psychologists’ largest national organization. The APA governance repeatedly rejected calls from its membership for APA to join other health organizations in declaring participation in Bush detention center interrogations unethical.

Most psychologists are appalled at what the APA has done, and many, like me, have resigned from the APA. But the true story behind APA’s involvement with torture has not been fully told.

I have had ample opportunity to observe both the inner workings of the APA and the personalities and organizational vicissitudes that have affected it over the last two decades. For most of the twenty-year period from 1983 to 2003, I either worked inside the APA central office as the first Executive Director of the APA Practice Directorate, or I served in various governance positions, including Chair of the APA Board of Professional Affairs and member of the APA Council of Representatives. Since leaving APA I have maintained a keen interest in the organization.

The transformation of APA, in the past decade, from a historically liberal organization to an authoritarian one that actively assists in torture has been an astonishing process. As with many usurpations of democratic liberal values, the transformation was accomplished by a surprisingly small number of people. APA is an invaluable case study in the psychological manipulations that influence our governmental and non-governmental institutions.

To explain APA’s behavior two questions have to be answered. First, how did the APA develop the connections with the military that fostered the shameful role it has played in torture? Second, why did the APA governance not join other health professions in prohibiting participation in the Bush Administration’s “enhanced interrogations,” as APA’s rank and file members were demanding?

The APA-military connection  

One source of APA’s military connections is obvious to anyone who has worked at APA over the last twenty-five years. Strangely, it has been overlooked by the media. Since the early 1980’s, APA has had a unique relationship with Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye’s office. Inouye was an honored WWII veteran, a Japanese American who himself was a medical volunteer in the midst of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He entered office in 1962. For much of the ‘70s, he was Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Later he became, and is currently, the chair of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, which, of course, makes up the largest chunk of federal discretionary spending and is why economists often split discretionary government funding into defense spending versus “everything else.” This appropriations committee covers not only all of the armed forces but the CIA as well. Put succinctly, Inouye controls the military purse strings, and is very influential with military brass.

One of Inouye’s administrative assistants, psychologist Patrick Deleon, has long been active in the APA and served a term in 2000 as APA president. For significant periods of time DeLeon has literally directed APA staff on federal policy matters and has dominated the APA governance on political matters. For over twenty-five years, relationships between the APA and the Department of Defense (DOD) have been strongly encouraged and closely coordinated by DeLeon.

Inouye himself has served as an apologist for the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp (“Gitmo”) since the inception of the War on Terror. In a press briefing at the U.S. State Department, held shortly after his trip to Gitmo in February of 2002, Inouye affirmed Rumsfeld’s propagandist vision of the site, and then remarked: “Watching our men and women treat these detainees was rather impressive. They would go out of their way to be considerate. …”

From what we know now, that is true, but not in the benevolent way Inouye implied. Inouye’s comments bore a chilling similarity to Barbara Bush’s famous comments about the alleged good fortune of Katrina victims, in the Houston Astrodome. The detainees, he said, are being treated “in some ways better than we treat our people.” (R. Burns, Associated Press, 2002). And he compared the Guantanamo climate to Hawaii’s. (It is “somewhat warmer.”)

More significantly, it was Inouye who recently stripped the funding needed for closing Gitmo from a supplemental appropriations bill. This “Inouye Amendment,” threw a stick in the spokes of any U.S. movement away from the worst of global war on terror policies. In announcing the funding cut, Inouye’s press release was a remarkable illustration of Orwellian “newspeak,” ostensibly supporting the very opposite of what he was doing

But let me be clear. We need to close the Guantanamo prison. Yes, it is a fine facility. I, too, have visited the site. Yes, the detainees are being well cared for. Our servicemen and servicewomen are doing great work. But the fact of the matter is Guantanamo is a symbol of the wrongdoings which have occurred, and we must eliminate that connection. (Inouye, Press Release May 20, 2009).

DeLeon’s connection with Inouye is not by any means the only APA connection with defense interests. In 1951 the military established The Human Resource Research Organization (HumRRO) to develop techniques for “psychological warfare.” HumRRO was run by psychologist Dr. Meredith Crawford who spent ten years as APA treasurer and was deeply involved in APA activities for three decades. Crawford’s former student, Raymond Fowler, became Chief Executive Officer of APA in 1989 and stayed in that position until 2003. Today, fifty-five percent of HumRRO’s budget comes from the military.

As CEO, Fowler hired his two most important lieutenants from HumRRO, Chief Financial Officer, Charles “Jack” McKay, and in-house attorney, James McHugh. Both men have now, after lengthy APA tenures, left the APA and returned to HumRRO in  very senior roles. McHugh is Chairman of the HumRRO Board of Trustees and McKay is Vice-Chairman and Treasurer. The current President of HumRRO, psychologist William Strickland, has been an outspoken supporter of APA’s policies on the torture issue. He served on the APA Council of Representatives throughout the APA deliberations on torture.

Whether and how the longstanding relationships and frequent circulation of key personnel between APA and HumRRO positions have shaped APA’s involvement with the military is unclear, but given recent events, it certainly warrants more careful scrutiny than it has received from psychologists. In fact, I do not believe many psychologists are even aware of these relationships.

Regardless of HumRRO’s role, however, as psychologists, most APA governance members have little Washington political experience. For them, Patrick DeLeon, because of his connection with Inouye, is perceived as a canny psychology politician and political force on Capitol Hill. Regardless of the accuracy of that perception, I have no reason to think DeLeon is a corrupt or evil person. Instead, from my perspective, the most interesting aspect of DeLeon has always been his apparent preoccupation with issues of status for psychologists, irrespective of the issues’ actual significance either for psychologists or the public.

DeLeon wanted to make sure a psychologist, not just physicians, for example, would be eligible to fill this or that position in the Veteran’s Administration, and he campaigned for years for VA psychologists to receive a minuscule pay increase when they became board certified. On the whole, I found these matters harmless and of at least some marginal benefit to people. Using funding from the Department of Defense he has also launched a campaign for psychologists to be given legal rights to prescribe psychiatric medications.

The torture issue is, of course, quite different. Viewed through the eyes of DeLeon’s adherents, psychology’s new found role as architects of a central component of the war on terror was a tremendous “victory” for the field of psychology. That it involved torture was peripheral, obscured by the headiness of being involved in high-level, important, clandestine government affairs. In discussions about APA’s role in the interrogations, a senior member of the APA governance described himself as “addicted” to the television show 24. Now he had his own reality TV show.

DeLeon’s influence in the APA and with many individual psychologists, especially those from Hawaii, came in very handy for Inouye in his efforts to support the Department of Defense. When the military needed a mental health professional to help implement its interrogation procedures, and the other professions subsequently refused to comply, the military had a friend in Senator Inouye’s office, one that could reap the political dividends of seeds sown by DeLeon over many years.

While we are only now uncovering the names of the individuals who participated most directly in the interrogations, I think a surprising number of them will turn out to be people brought into the military through Inouye’s office, many by DeLeon himself.

APA’s Organizational Decline

But this leads to the second and more complex question. Why did the governance of the APA let this happen under the apparent imprimatur of the world’s largest organization of psychologists? Some people assume APA’s horrifying recent behavior involved large sums of money changing hands. I could certainly be wrong, but I think the more likely (and more remarkable and pressing) mechanism has little to do with money. For reasons described below, the APA leaders who were making these decisions simply exercised judgment that was both bad and insensitive to the realities of human suffering. In my opinion, schooled by 25 years of experience with the APA, it was neither greed nor financial corruption that brought the APA governance into alliance with the Bush Administration. Instead, it was a malignant organizational grandiosity that first weakened the APA and then, ultimately, allowed military and intelligence agencies to have their way with the APA throughout the Bush Administration.

But how did the APA, of all organizations, get this way? What led to this grandiose culture? An organization does not rise or fall with a single event any more than the fall of Rome truly occurred in 476 AD. The culture of grandiosity was carefully cultivated for more than a decade by a few self-interested individuals.

What has been observable and unarguable about the APA of recent years is that the pluralistic and multi-faceted governance process I witnessed when first entering the APA in the early 1980’s was sharply curtailed during the 1990’s. Differences of opinion disappeared, and the APA suffered a terrible organizational decline. Increasingly inbred and infantilized under the tightly controlled administration of Raymond Fowler, the association agenda was primarily and at times exclusively financial, focused on making money either through real estate ventures or through what I and others felt was the unnecessarily harsh financial treatment of lower level APA employees.

Whatever one’s view of APA, few can dispute that Fowler, more than any other individual, made APA what it is today. The CEO of APA for almost fifteen years, Fowler served in one capacity or another on the APA Board of Directors for twenty-five consecutive years. While his supporters would characterize him as “astute” and his critics as “devious,” few could reasonably disagree that Fowler was the main mover in the APA for the fifteen years leading up to the torture debacle.

Most peculiarly, Fowler’s “agenda” for APA was encapsulated in the phrase “Working Together,” a noble idea that to the best of my knowledge was never attached to any actual substantive agenda. Instead, it served as a means of social control, a subtle injunction against raising any of the conflict-laden issues, challenges, or ideas that need to be addressed in any vital and accountable organization. The governance of the APA became either conformist or placid and increasingly detached from the real world.

The result was that much of the activity of the APA Council of Representatives, the legislative group with ultimate authority in the APA governance, turned away from substantive matters into an odd system of fawning over one another. Many members appeared to simply bathe in the good feeling that came from “working together.” The bath was characterized by grandiose self-referents and shared lofty opinions of one another. As it became more and more detached from reality, the organizational dysfunction became more pronounced, but this was ignored and obscured by the self-congratulatory organizational style. During this period, isolated dissent from rank-and-file members was stifled with a heavy-handed letter from the APA attorney threatening legal action or by communications from prominent members of the APA governance threatening “ethics” charges if policy protests were not discontinued. (It is unethical for psychologists to lie, and I can attest that one former APA president concluded that disagreeing with him was per se “lying.”) 

Deliberations on Torture

This same grandiosity was ubiquitous in the governance’s rhetoric at the heart of the Association’s discussions on torture. Banning psychologists’ participation in reputed torture mills was clearly unnecessary, proponents of the APA policy argued. To do so would be an “insult” to military psychologists everywhere. No psychologist would ever engage in torture. Insisting on a change in APA policy reflected a mean-spirited attitude toward the military psychologists. The supporters of the APA policy managed to transform the military into the victims in the interrogation issue.

In the end, however, it was psychologists’ self-assumed importance that carried the day on the torture issue. Psychologists’ participation in these detention centers, it was asserted, was an antidote to torture, since psychologists’ very presence could protect the potential torture victims (presumably from Rumsfeld and Cheney, no less!). The debates on the APA Council floor, year after year, concluded with the general consensus that, indeed, psychology was very, very important to our nation’s security.

We psychologists were both too good and too important to join our professional colleagues in other professions who were taking an absolutist moral position against one of the most shameful eras in our country’s history. While the matter was clearly orchestrated by others, it was this self-reinforcing grandiosity that led the traditionally liberal APA governance down the slippery slope to the Bush Administration’s torture program.

During this period I had numerous personal communications with members of the APA governance structure in an attempt to dissuade them from ignoring the rank-and-file psychologists who abhorred the APA’s position. I have been involved in many policy disagreements over the course of my career, but the smugness and illogic that characterized the response to these efforts were astonishing and went far beyond normal, even heated, give and take. Most dramatically, the intelligence that I have always found to characterize the profession of psychology was sorely lacking.

Outside the self-absorbed culture of the current APA governance, to the rest of the world, the APA arguments simply do not pass the red-face test for credibility. Instead, their transparent disingenuousness only made the APA sound embarrassingly like apologists for the Bush Administration. 

The Conclusion

The inability to deliberate rationally on the torture issue was but the tragic denouement of an organizational process that was actually set in motion in the early 1990’s, largely to serve the convenience of a very small number of individuals. As a result of the management style of the 90’s, the governance of APA was ill prepared for thoughtful deliberation on a matter as important as the torture issue. The governance was simply over its head in trying to effectively address such a socially and ethically consequential issue. This was especially true in a debate in which one side had organized support from powerful military interests, then-current APA presidents like Gerald Koocher and Ronald Levant, and Senator Inouye’s office all pushing for APA involvement in the interrogations. Few people stood up to them, and those who did were people who were inexperienced in the duplicity and manipulative style of politics that characterized APA.

With the increasing uproar from the membership and the media, APA’s more recently elected leaders and the current CEO, Norman Anderson, have been extraordinarily quiet on the subject of psychologist and APA involvement in the torture issue. Instead, second level APA employees have been put out front to defend the APA position to the membership and to the public. These are almost exclusively people hired by Fowler to fit into his carefully designed model of an organization that would be controllable, if somewhat non-dynamic and uncreative. Thus, the public relations staff Fowler hired, the staff legal and psychological expertise he hired, and most remarkably his ethics director have all served as the “face of APA” on the torture issue in recent years. Not surprisingly, forced to function under the watchful eye of the public they have not acquitted themselves in credible fashion.

In a recent book, I used several organizational examples to illustrate that many of the same techniques of political manipulation used in the Bush Administration were used in other organizational settings. Many of those examples were drawn from the APA. At the time of writing I never dreamed the techniques would lead to APA’s complicity in torture.

But such is the fate of a regressed and chronically manipulated organization. Despite being an organization of psychologists, APA has been subjected to considerable manipulation but to very little analysis. The people who run APA have “reverse engineered” the very field of psychology itself and used it against its own membership.

Psychologists are amongst the most moral and ethical people I know. They deserved better from their national organization, just as Americans throughout that same era deserved better from their government.

Bryant Welch is a clinical psychologist and attorney living in Hilton Head, SC. He is the author of State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind, St. Martins Press, 2008.)