Psychologists May Never Participate In Torture

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

Let's set the record straight: It is a clear violation of professional ethics for a psychologist to have played a role in the torture of CIA detainees, as described in the recently released Bush administration memos. These Justice Department documents, which purport to offer medical and scientific justification for torturing detainees, are chilling in their dispassionate analysis of how far to push a human being for the purpose of eliciting national security-related information.

The central tenet of psychology's code of ethics is, like that of medicine, to do no harm. It is unthinkable that any psychologist could assert that stress positions, forced nudity, sleep deprivation, exploiting phobias, and waterboarding—along with other forms of torture techniques that the American Psychological Association has condemned and prohibited—cause no lasting damage to a human being's psyche. And yet an emerging record strongly suggests that some did.

APA has declared that psychologists have an obligation to intervene to stop torture or abuse, and a further obligation to report any instance of torture or abuse. In fact, the public record includes examples of psychologists behaving precisely how APA would expect. Unfortunately, two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, have been identified in media reports as proponents of using “reverse-engineered” SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) military training techniques for detainee interrogations.


These techniques, when applied in this manner, are tantamount to torture as defined by APA and international law. Mitchell and Jessen are not members of the APA, and therefore the association has no jurisdiction to investigate their activities. The APA Code of Ethics however, should be a guidepost for the behavior of all psychologists regardless of the issue of membership status with APA, and we have a responsibility to voice our dismay at any psychologist's reported role in detainee mistreatment. Furthermore, APA stands ready to adjudicate reports that any APA member has engaged in prohibited techniques.

Over the last 20 years, APA has expanded and further articulated its policy against torture to underscore its absolute prohibition against all forms of torture and abusive treatment. During the Bush administration years, APA's governing Council of Representatives repeated and elaborated on this absolute condemnation by prohibiting the very techniques named in the torture memos. There is one ethical response to an order to torture: Disobey the order.

Invoking language from the U. N. Convention Against Torture, APA rejected the “ticking time bomb” justification for torture and called upon U.S. courts to reject testimony derived from torture. APA's most recent policy statement on interrogation prohibits psychologists from working in detention settings where international law or the U.S. Constitution are violated, unless they are working directly for the people being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights. Psychologists may also provide treatment to military personnel in such a setting.

Ethical interrogations are based on building a relationship and forming rapport with the person being questioned, processes that require great skill and patience. Torturing an individual under the guise of an interrogation is neither ethical nor effective. Indeed, according to media reports, the only useful information that detainee Abu Zubaida provided was offered early in his imprisonment, when FBI officials employed humane interrogation tactics.

We applaud the Obama administration for acting quickly and decisively to prohibit cruel and abusive interrogation techniques that were employed by the Bush administration. It is also my fervent hope that the American people—and the world—will not judge all psychologists by the few who were involved in this sorry chapter in our history, but by the tens of thousands of psychologists who spend their professional lives working for the public good.



The APA President Bray now utters fine-sounding words, but for years, the APA leadership did everything in its power to keep psychologists participating in Bush-era interrogations at Guantanamo, the CIA's Black Sites, etc. They claimed, over and over again that "psychologists keep interrogations safe, legal, ethical, and effective." We now know from the OLC memos that they kept interrogations "safe, legal, and ethical", by acting as safety officers, deciding just how much abuse a detainee could take. They keep them "effective" by suggesting SERE-based techniques. In fall 2008, the membership overrode the wishes of the entire APA leadership by passing a referendum pulling psychologists out of detention centers in violation of international law. President Bray opposed the referendum and did all he could to undermine it. He had to be forced to implement it. This statement is the first time that the APA leadership has ever criticized US interrogations policies (as opposed to vacuous statements that "psychologists don't torture.") Meanwhile, the APA tells us that Mitchell and Jessen are not members, so they are helpless. But why did they invite Mitchell and Jessen, after their role in the Zubaydah torture, to a joint 2003 APA-CIA worskop on The Science of Deception where such things as the use of drugs in interrogations and the use of sensory overload to break people down were discussed? When the APA appointed an "ethics" task force on the issue in 2005, the appointed 6 out of 10 military and CIA psychologists, five with experiences in interrogations at Guantanamo, the black sites, and Afghanistan to formulate the policy. They then refused to divulge the membership to the APA membership or the press. Large portions of their report were taken straight from the military's instructions to the Behavioral Science Consultation Teams at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and elsewhere. This was long after the press had published numerous stories on psychologists helping abuses at these sites.
Dr. Bray’s “op-ed” is grossly inadequate, though consistent with the response of the APA to this issue for the past 7 years. Dr. Bray’s piece is completely non-responsive to the many requests that have been made over the years for a full investigation of how it came to be that psychologists collaborated in torture efforts. I have suggested that these events be researched by social psychologists. Others have called for a full investigation of ethics violations. (There is at least one APA member named in these recent articles, despite Dr. Bray’s attempt to dodge that fact). I know that APA & its members are well-intentioned, ethical, kindhearted, humanitarian, etc. etc. Nonetheless, psychologists—members of APA and/or trained by APA-accredited institutions and/or mentored by APA members—made integral and essential contributions to torture by our government. They provided cover for people engaging in torture by giving the impression that it was scientifically sanctioned. They provided cover by giving the impression that health professionals dedicated to a set of Ethical Standards and Principles were approving the torture. They misused scientific data. We must understand how this came to be and widely publicize the results. To quote Dr. Bray: “It is also my fervent hope that the American people -- and the world -- will not judge all psychologists by the few who were involved in this sorry chapter in our history, but by the tens of thousands of psychologists who spend their professional lives working for the public good.” How can this hope possibly be fulfilled? The American people and the world are seeing that “all psychologists” turn away when egregious errors are committed by their own colleagues. I consider Dr. Bray’s response and that of APA to be non-responsive, negligent, and grossly lacking in both intellectual curiosity and ethical integrity.