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Ethics and Morality

Psychologists and Torture

Psychologists played a key role in the CIA torture program.

Senate CIA Torture Report cover page

On December 9, 2014, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released its long-awaited report on the “Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program.” While the entire 6,000 page report remains classified, the Committee released a 524 page document, consisting of a 6 page Foreword by Chairman Diane Feinstein, a 19 page Findings and Conclusions document, listing 20 items, and a 499 page Executive Summary of the entire report. Despite many blacked-out words or passages in the released document the report is a stinging indictment of the CIA’s widespread, brutal, ineffective, and counterproductive use of torture, and of the Agency’s concerted efforts to underplay, mislead, and lie about the program to the President, Congress, the Department of Justice, and other institutions.

Item 13 of the Findings and Conclusions concerns the role of psychologists in the torture program, and I am reproducing it below in its entirety:

#13: Two contract psychologists devised the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques and played a central role in the operation, assessments, and management of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program. By 2005, the CIA had overwhelmingly outsourced operations related to the program.

The CIA contracted with two psychologists to develop, operate, and assess its interrogation operations. The psychologists' prior experience was at the U.S. Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school. Neither psychologist had any experience as an interrogator, nor did either have specialized knowledge of al-Qa'ida, a background in counterterrorism, or any relevant cultural or linguistic expertise.

On the CIA's behalf, the contract psychologists developed theories of interrogation based on "learned helplessness," and developed the list of enhanced interrogation techniques that was approved for use against Abu Zubaydah and subsequent CIA detainees.

[Findings and Conclusions footnote 32: "Learned helplessness" in this context was the theory that detainees might become passive and depressed in response to adverse or uncontrollable events, and would thus cooperate and provide information. Memo from Grayson SWIGERT,Ph.D., February 1, 2003, "Qualifications to provide special mission interrogation consultation."]

Learned helplessness is a well-known theory of former APA President Martin Seligman, which is endorsed by many psychologists, but which many others view as an unwarranted overgeneralization from the behavior of dogs in an experimental situation to distantly related phenomena in humans, such as depression, optimism and pessimism, and in this case, torture.

The psychologists personally conducted interrogations of some of the CIA's most significant detainees using these techniques. They also evaluated whether detainees' psychological state allowed for the continued use of the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques, including some detainees whom they were themselves interrogating or had interrogated. The psychologists carried out inherently governmental functions, such as acting as liaison between the CIA and foreign intelligence services, assessing the effectiveness of the interrogation program, and participating in the interrogation of detainees in [sic] held in foreign government custody.

In 2005, the psychologists formed a company specifically for the purpose of conducting their work with the CIA. Shortly thereafter, the CIA outsourced virtually all aspects of the program.

In 2006, the value of the CIA's base contract with the company formed by the psychologists with all options exercised was in excess of $180 million; the contractors received $81 million prior to the contract's termination in 2009. In 2007, the CIA provided a multi-year indemnification agreement to protect the company and its employees from legal liability arising out of the program. The CIA has since paid out more than $1 million pursuant to the agreement.

In 2008, the CIA's Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation Group, the lead unit for detention and interrogation operations at the CIA, had a total of [deleted] positions, which were filled with [deleted] CIA staff officers and [deleted] contractors, meaning that contractors made up 85% of the workforce for detention and interrogation operations.


The American Psychological Association has an extensive code of ethics, and, not surprisingly, it is unethical in many different ways for psychologists to participate in torture, let alone to set up a multi-million dollar company selling psychologists’ knowledge and expertise about how best to torture.

Readers can consult the entire code by clicking on the above link, but the following is a brief summary of some of the ethical principles violated. The code begins with a section of five General Principles: “General Principles, as opposed to Ethical Standards, are aspirational in nature. Their intent is to guide and inspire psychologists toward the very highest ethical ideals of the profession.” Torture clearly violates all five:

Principle A: Beneficence and Nonmaleficence 

Principle B: Fidelity and Responsibility

Principle C: Integrity

Principle D: Justice

Principle E: Respect for People's Rights and Dignity

The code then goes on to list 10 Ethical Standards, the most relevant of which, Standard 3, Human Relations, has 12 parts, and torture would appear to violate the first 11 of them:

3.01 Unfair Discrimination

3.02 Sexual Harassment

3.03 Other Harassment

3.04 Avoiding Harm

3.05 Multiple Relationships

3.06 Conflict of Interest

3.07 Third-Party Requests for Services

3.08 Exploitative Relationships

3.09 Cooperation with Other Professionals

3.10 Informed Consent

3.11 Psychological Services Delivered to or Through Organizations

3.12 Interruption of Psychological Services

Suppose, however, that the government wanted psychologists to participate in torture and use psychological knowledge to make the torture more effective at yielding actionable intelligence. How could the conflict between ethical principles and the government’s policy, for which it claimed legal justification, be resolved?

In 2002, the year after 9/11, APA revised Standard 1: Resolving Ethical Issues, part 1.02 Conflicts Between Ethics and Law, Regulations, or Other Governing Legal Authority, to include the following sentence, “If the conflict is unresolvable via such means, psychologists may adhere to the requirements of the law, regulations, or other governing legal authority.”

Nearly two months before the Senate Committee released its report, James Risen published a book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War. In the book, Risen documented the extensive contacts between APA and the U.S. government, both leading to and following the change in ethical Standard 1.02.

Risen wrote:

Perhaps the most important change was a new ethics guideline: if a psychologist faced a conflict between APA’s ethics code and a lawful order or regulation, the psychologist could follow the law or “governing legal authority.” In other words, a psychologist could engage in activities that the U.S. government said were legal—such as harsh interrogations—even if they violated APA’s ethical standards. This change introduced the Nuremberg defense into American psychology—following lawful orders was an acceptable reason to violate professional ethics. The change in the APA’s ethics code was essential to the Bush administration’s ability to use enhanced interrogation techniques on detainees. (Pp. 194-195)

In December 2008, following a presidential election in which both Barak Obama and John McCain condemned torture, the APA proposed removing the offending sentence and replacing it with, “Under no circumstances may this standard be used to justify or defend violating human rights.” This change, which was subsequently implemented, would seem to imply that the sentence had been created for just the purpose described by Risen.

Risen’s accusations led to the formation of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, which posed relevant questions for the APA. The Coalition wrote:

“In his new book Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, James Risen, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter, documents apparent collaboration between APA leadership and the CIA to support psychologist participation in torture. The core of Risen’s reporting drew from primary source emails among APA staff, CIA, and Bush White House officials....Risen’s book makes the claim that APA leadership collaborated with the CIA to provide protection for psychologists involved in torturing other human beings.”


When an institution is attacked for involvement in unethical behavior, its first reaction is to circle the wagons—to defend itself rather than clean house. We have seen this in the Wall Street firms involved in the real estate bubble leading to the Great Recession, we have seen it in the Watergate scandal, we have seen it in the Roman Catholic Church’s response to the pedophilia scandal. How will the American Psychological Association react to its involvement and that of psychologists in torture?


American Psychological Association Code of Ethics

Back and forth between the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology and APA:




Risen, J. (2014). Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program

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Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program--report cover page

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