Leading Psychologists Secretly Aided U.S. Torture Program

The U.S. Shouldn't Torture: Opinion
Members of the group "Witness Against Torture" protest in Washington. Larry Downing/Reuters

Updated | Top psychologists and senior officials at the American Psychological Association (APA) secretly collaborated with the Bush administration’s interrogation programs, according to a damning, independent report by David H. Hoffman, a Chicago-based lawyer.  

The 542-page report, which was obtained by The New York Times and published on its website for the first time on Friday, was commissioned last November by the APA’s board to investigate allegations made in James Risen’s 2014 book, Pay Any Price. In the book, Risen says senior APA officials clandestinely worked with high-ranking members of the CIA and Department of Defense to help justify the Bush administration’s interrogation program.

The report, which seems to confirm findings in a separate report released earlier this year, is based on hundreds of interviews, an “immense volume” of internal APA documents and materials provided by former APA officials and association critics. Hoffman did not have access to classified material, and his report is unredacted. When reached by email, the APA, the largest professional body of psychologists in the U.S., which lobbies for funding and sets ethical standards for most American  practitioners, pointed Newsweek to a statement and list of recommendations online.

It’s long been known that health professionals played a key role in legitimizing and implementing the CIA’s and Defense Department’s interrogation programs. The Department of Justice mandated, in a series of now-notorious “torture memos,” that doctors and psychologists monitor detainees’ health during interrogations to ensure interrogators did not break the law by inflicting torture or abuse.

Last December, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Study of the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program showed that the agency’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” were designed and administered by psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, both of whom were contractors. In another report from 2009, the Senate Armed Services Committee also found that Department of Defense psychologists at Guantanamo Bay helped interrogators break prisoners by identifying their mental vulnerabilities.

Yet Friday’s report shows how the ties between the psychological profession and the American intelligence community went deeper than previously recognized. It finds that top officials at the APA, especially its ethics director Stephen Behnke, collaborated with figures at the Department of Defense to align the association’s ethics policies with the needs of the Pentagon’s interrogation program. Hoffman does not claim that APA officials knew the reality of the “enhanced interrogation program,” but does find that “APA officials were colluding with DoD officials to create and maintain loose APA ethics policies that did not significantly constrain DoD.” The APA has repeatedly denied any collusion with the administration.

“The most disturbing aspect of this whole episode is that it was run out of the APA’s ethics office,” says Steven Reisner, a psychologist and psychoanalyst who ran three times for the APA presidency and has long campaigned against the association’s involvement in interrogations. “It's not just that they sold out APA's ethical standards to collude with the needs of the government,” adds Reisner, who aided Hoffman’s investigation. “What's unconscionable is the fact that this was done in support of torture and abuse.”

The American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association, two other important professional associations, eventually barred their members from any involvement in interrogations. But the APA held fast, affirming psychologist participation at a key 2005 task force which, the report shows, was carefully managed by APA officials in conjunction with the administration. Later, senior APA officials “engaged in a pattern of secret collaboration with DoD officials” to stifle opposition to association policies from within the APA, according to Hoffman’s report. Behnke also “regularly sought and received pre-clearance” for the association’s public statements from a senior military psychologist at the Pentagon, according to the report. While working at the APA, the report says the Pentagon gave Behnke a secret contract to help train interrogators. He also coordinated a public relations campaign with the Pentagon to better sell psychologists’ involvement in interrogations, and killed ethics complaints, the report shows.

“An especially disturbing aspect of this scandal is the way in which a supposedly independent civil society organization and profession were corrupted by involvement with the military and intelligence establishment,” says Stephen Soldz, a professor at Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, who assisted Hoffman’s investigation. “This is not the way our democracy is supposed to work.”

“This is the single greatest health professional ethics scandal of the 21st century,” says Nathaniel Raymond, formerly the director of the campaign against torture at Physicians for Human Rights and currently the director of the Signal Program on Human Security and Technology at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative of the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. “It represents the most egregious example of a health professional organization allowing the national security apparatus to determine its ethics,” adds Raymond, who cooperated with Hoffman’s investigation.

The report indicates that CIA officials, including the head of the agency’s office of medical services, objected to the involvement of psychologists in the “enhanced interrogation program” on ethical grounds. But prominent psychologists outside the CIA, including two former APA presidents, stifled their protests. One, Joseph Matarazzo, wrote a memo concluding that sleep deprivation did not constitute torture. He later went on to own a stake in Mitchell, Jessen & Associates, a private company set up by the architects of the interrogation program.

The report also offers details missing from the Senate’s report on torture, showing how Mitchell, who created the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques, was introduced to the agency’s counterterrorism center by Kirk Hubbard, a former senior official in the operational assessment division at Langley. Having brought Mitchell to the CIA, Hubbard later went on to work at Mitchell and Jessen’s private company.

Mark Fallon, a former federal agent and chair of the research committee of President Barack Obama's High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group, which conducts interrogations of high-value terror suspects and sponsors research into interrogation techniques, is particularly troubled by what he calls this conflict of interest. "It would seem further investigation is required,” Fallon says. “Government officials act on behalf of the people and are accountable to the people. We also have legal obligations internationally for accountability."

Several senior APA officials mentioned in the report are still working at the association. Behnke has reportedly left his position, and the association appears to be on the verge of crisis. Raymond believes it is “highly likely” more will lose their jobs as a consequence of Hoffman’s findings, and that the “wave of accountability” could spread to Bush and Obama administration officials, even though, so far, no high-ranking official has been fired or prosecuted for involvement in prisoner abuse. The APA board has reportedly received the report and is expected to act on its findings shortly.

Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly reported that former APA president Joseph Matarazzo went on to work at Mitchell, Jessen & Associates. He owned a stake in the company, but did not work there. A previous version of this story also mistakenly reported that Kirk Hubbard was the head of the operational assessment division at Langley. He was a former senior official in that division. 

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