As recently reported by the New York Times, a new report commissioned by the American Psychological Association (APA) documents several prominent psychologists' involvement in the Bush administration's post-9/11 interrogation program, which included torture techniques. The Hoffman report finds not only that several outside psychologists helped shield the CIA's interrogation program from internal dissent, but also that a group of APA officials colluded with the Pentagon to keep the APA's ethics policies in line with the demands of the program. In light of this news, David Devonis, PhD., author of History of Psychology 101, offers his thoughts on why psychologists would enable torture - and what it means for the future of the profession.
Historians ought to be very chary of predictions. Yet, when I composed History of Psychology 101 two years ago, I had to make at least some guess as to which current issues would remain important after its publication. In hindsight, now that the Hoffman report on the involvement of the American Psychological Association in US DOD and CIA activities connected with interrogations of prisoners of war has emerged, it was not a risky choice to include the issue as a focal point in psychology's recent history and one that will remain historically important for years. (The full report is publicly available on the New York Times' website as well as on the APA website for APA members.)
In my book, one of the characters in the fictionalized story that accompanies the historical narrative, Juana, an academic psychologist, is standing outside the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco where the APA is meeting in 2007, participating in a demonstration mounted by psychologists appalled at--as I was and am--the likely involvement of psychologists in prisoner torture and at the slow response of the organization in condemning those activities. About those psychologists alleged to be involved she remarks that "They understand power, and they value truth. But right now they are having a hard time speaking truth to power." The Hoffman report clearly states that this was the case: it finds that the APA adjusted its ethical stance in order to accommodate the needs of the Defense Department and did it to further psychology's growth. Whatever one may think of this, it underscores the historical truth that Mars and Psyche are intimately related, and that war, since psychology's founding as a profession, has always been a welcome stimulant to psychology's professional growth.
Psychologists are right to be angry and dismayed at seeing the term 'Nuremberg defense' --an expression used in the report--connected with psychology's recent actions in this arena. But beyond this discomfiture lies a further truth, which is that everyone involved--everyone in the United States, really--has been operating in an atmosphere of utter ambiguity since the turn of the century in connection with war. Questions about war that could have been answered categorically in the past now lead to blind alleys. Are we really at war? With whom? And where? While it does not exonerate psychology's professional leadership from the consequences of its choices, they may be more understandable when viewed in the context of the current insidiousness of armed conflict, whose leaders, like the APA apparently did, want to maintain good public relations while accomplishing less admirable goals.
I am still an APA member and might be asked why, in light of these revelations, haven't I abandoned the organization, as many colleagues have done in the past? Regarding present events, I think that the current APA leadership has forcefully responded to uncover the truth regarding this episode. Beyond this, I think that the coalition embodied in the APA represents, as well as it can be represented, a science of humans created by humans, interacting with an intensely corporate world. Its ethical failure, in this instance, is, in my opinion, connected to larger world issues confronting every psychologist and should be cause for thought, not flight.