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American psychopaths: The shrinks who assisted in torture

Psychologists changed their profession’s ethics code to allow torture to continue and, in turn, were showered with government largesse

Any historical examination of America in the first decade post-9/11 is an examination of a country that has completely lost its mind. Wars were launched against those who didn’t attack the US, and stronger relationships were built with those who aided and abetted the September 11 attacks.

Like a drunk in a dark alley trying to herd stray cats, the Bush administration did more to curtail the freedom of its citizens than those it determined to be an existential threat. The US acted before it was able to think. It dropped 500lb bombs on Afghani villages, Iraqi neighbourhoods, and terrorised children everywhere from Yemen to the border regions of Pakistan with the incessant buzzing sound of the Predator drone.

Not long after the bombing campaign against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan began, intelligence assessments estimated Bin Laden’s terror group to have a headcount of roughly 200. Today, militants from the Islamic State (IS) number in the tens of thousands and counting. In other words, our terror created more terrorists.

In the pursuit of shadows, we stripped away the rights of those we kidnapped and tortured. We became psychopaths, and now a new report shows the Bush administration co-opted those who are in the business of determining psychopathic disorders: the American Psychological Association (APA).

“Our mission is to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives,” reads the mission statement on APA’s website.

But “improving lives” is not what the APA did during the Bush presidency.

On Friday, investigative journalist James Risen of The New York Times disclosed a 542-page report that illuminates how members of the American Psychological Association colluded with the CIA to blunt and counter dissent with the intelligence agency over the application of torture, and then lied and covered up their close collaboration with CIA officials to weaken the association’s ethical guidelines for the purpose (financial reward) of green-lighting psychologists to participate in the government’s harsh and abusive interrogation programme.

“Based on the evidence available to them of important interactions between APA and parts of the government, they believe that the only logical explanation for APA’s actions is collusion or close coordination with the government. They describe APA’s apparent motive and intent in different ways, from a desire to curry favour with the government to an intent to help government officials engage in torture. And some are convinced that a comparison of the timing of APA’s actions and the timing of the Bush administration’s actions establishes that APA was acting in explicit and close coordination with high-level administration officials,” reads the executive summary of the report compiled by the independent law firm Sidley Austin LLP - on behalf of the APA’s board of directors.

For years the APA had repeatedly denied its members were complicit in the US government’s torture programme. This report not only destroys that myth but also shows how the APA breached its oath “to do no harm” behind the veil of “national security”.

The report includes more than 100 interviews and thousands of emails. One such email includes an exchange between the CIA and Melvin Gravitz, an APA governance member. Gravitz writes:

While the APA Ethics Code focuses primarily on concern for the individual (i.e., client or patient), it also recognises that the psychologist has an obligation to the group of individuals, such as the Nation.

The Ethics Code is in its essence a set of aspirations and guidelines, and these must be flexibly applied to the circumstances at hand.

When fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and with a lot of hullabaloo about national security. Surely, the government co-opting of an independent branch of the medical community means fascism had indeed come to America during the Bush/Cheney years.

Innocent men and boys were beaten, starved, raped and murdered because the Bush Administration believed meaningful information could be garnered by the use of torture. I have interviewed a victim of the US torture programme (Moazzam Begg) and I have interviewed those who worked alongside the perpetrators of the US torture programme (Joseph Hickman, a staff sergeant at Guantanamo Bay). Torture not only fails to gain intelligence, but it also leaves both sides of its application emotionally and psychologically broken. But despite the APA already knowing this, it gave its seal of approval for the application of torture.

“Psychologists knew there was a broad consensus in behavioural science research that showed torture did not work,” writes James Risen in Pay Any Price. “And yet they didn’t complain. Worse, they participated, and quietly changed their profession’s ethics code to allow torture to continue. In return, the psychologists were showered with government money and benefits.”

The report makes clear that it was the United States’ narrow definition of torture that provided the space for the Bush Administration and the APA to redefine what constituted actual torture.  Despite the APA’s oath “to do no harm,” the APA colluded with the government to determine water boarding, stress positions and rectal feeding (sodomy) etc to be an “enhanced interrogation technique” rather than torture.

The financial benefits of pleasing the CIA and the Department of Defence are made clear in the report: “The very substantial benefits APA obtained from DoD help explain APA’s motive to please DoD, and show that APA likely had an organisational conflict of interest, which it needed to take steps to guard against. DoD is one of the largest employers of psychologists and provides millions of dollars in grants and contracts for psychologists around the country… APA wanted to positively influence DoD regarding this policy [intelligence collection activities] so that psychologists would be included to the maximum degree possible, and psychologists would not lose the lead role to psychiatrists.”

Even more tellingly, the CIA and the Pentagon wilfully ignored prominent peer-reviewed studies into the effectiveness and risks of torture. One of those studies mentioned in the report is by Yale psychologist Charles “Andy” Morgan. Morgan’s studies show that the use of torture techniques “impairs memory and prompts inaccurate answers from those subjected to the tactics”.

“By making people fearful and stressed, they were getting worse information,” Morgan said of the torture techniques implemented by the CIA and Department of Defence. “If you can make me anxious, fearful, and alarmed, I am more likely to give you what you want. I will give you a false confession. High stress doesn’t seem good for good data retrieval.” He added, “Torture is good for some things. It’s good for silencing opponents.”

But the Bush/Cheney Administration was in no mood for actual studies into torture. They merely wanted their torture programme to be given a resemblance of legitimacy. The APA’s seal of approval performed that function. “Perhaps the most important reason that the use of abusive tactics spread was because it fit perfectly with how the Bush White House wanted to prosecute the new ‘global war on terror’,” writes Risen.

“From the outset, President Bush and Vice President Cheney saw the fight against al-Qaeda as a national security issue rather than a criminal problem to be dealt with by law enforcement. For Bush, that decision allowed him to disassociate himself from his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton. But Cheney had even deeper motivations; he wanted to roll back the reforms imposed on the executive branch in the 1970s, when he served in the White House under President Gerald Ford. Although torture had never been condoned in the United States, Cheney wanted to demonstrate that there were virtually no limitations on presidential power in a time of war.”

Despite the report on the APA’s collusion with the CIA being yet another chapter in America’s sordid and demented execution of the “war on terror,” the report will be treated by the mainstream US media no differently than a Guantanamo Bay detainee: ignored and forgotten.

CJ Werleman is the author of Crucifying America, God Hates You. Hate Him Back, Koran Curious, and is the host of Foreign Object. Follow him on twitter: @cjwerleman

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: The American Psychological Association (Greendoor)