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Ethics and Morality

Dear Dr. Kaslow: I Too Am "Outraged, Saddened and Pained"

The APA president’s recent New York Times letter leaves far too much unsaid.

The New York Times does not accept letters-to-the-editor about other letters-to-the-editor. But this is one I would have submitted if I could.

To the Editor:

In a recent letter American Psychological Association (APA) President Nadine Kaslow responded to the release of the executive summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture. Dr. Kaslow wrote that she was “outraged, saddened and pained that two psychologists allegedly devised and engaged in brutal interrogation methods.” I share these emotions, but for me they are not solely a response to the abhorrent actions of James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen.

I am also outraged that in 2004, while torture was taking place at CIA black sites, APA Ethics Office Director Stephen Behnke arranged a private meeting with senior CIA and Pentagon officials to “sort out appropriate from inappropriate uses of psychology.” Dr. Behnke assured the invitees that APA “will not advertise the meeting other than this letter to the individual invitees, that we will not publish or otherwise make public the names of attendees or the substance of our discussions, and that in the meeting we will neither assess nor investigate the behavior of any specific individual or group.” One of the attendees was CIA behavioral science chief Kirk Hubbard, who has been a fierce defender of the agency’s “enhanced interrogation” program. Dr. Hubbard first introduced Drs. Mitchell and Jessen to the CIA as “potential assets” and, after later leaving the CIA, he went to work for Mitchell Jessen & Associates.

And I am also saddened that in 2005, months after reliable reports of torture and abuse by psychologists at Guantanamo Bay had surfaced in the national press, Dr. Behnke and other APA leaders created the PENS task force and filled it predominantly with representatives of the national security establishment (several of whom worked in chains of command where alleged abuses had taken place). According to an email from Geoff Mumford, APA’s Director of Science Policy, these individuals were “very carefully selected” with CIA interests in mind. In short order, this APA task force concluded that it was ethical for psychologists to be involved in detainee interrogations and related roles, and that these psychologists served to keep these operations safe, legal, ethical, and effective. The APA thereby became the sole major healthcare organization to support practices contrary to the international human rights standards that ought to be the benchmark against which professional codes of ethics are judged.

And I am also pained that in 2013, more than six years after an APA member filed an ethics complaint against Guantanamo psychologist John Leso, the APA Ethics Office decided there was “no cause for action” and did not bring the case to the full ethics committee for investigation, review, and resolution. This decision was made despite compelling evidence that Dr. Leso had co-authored a detailed memo proposing sleep deprivation (described as “especially effective”) and other brutal detention and interrogation techniques. Furthermore, according to a leaked log, Dr. Leso was present for and participated in some of the interrogation sessions of detainee Mohammed al Qahtani. Mr. al Qahtani was subjected to almost daily 20-hour interrogations; was held in isolation without contact with other detainees; was forcibly injected with excessive fluids until his limbs swelled; was frequently hooded; was stripped and forced to stand naked with female interrogators present; was forced to wear a woman’s bra and had a thong placed on his head; and was led around by a leash and forced to perform dog tricks. The Bush administration-appointed convening authority on military commissions at Guantanamo refused to refer the case of Mr. al Qahtani to trial because she concluded his interrogation met the legal definition of torture.

These are only three examples. There are more. Yet Dr. Kaslow’s letter offers no hint of doubt, concern, or regret in regard to any actions or inaction on the part of the APA and its leadership. That said, I do find myself in full agreement with her on one key point. As she wrote, “There is no place in the field of psychology for people who are not respectful of human dignity and committed to human rights.”

ROY J. EIDELSON was a member of the APA for over 25 years, prior to his resignation. He is a member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility.

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