A Psychologist's Guantanamo Nightmare
A glimpse into an imagined dark future for "war on terror" psychology.
Posted Jun 24, 2013
Although psychologists are better known for interpreting the dreams of others, sometimes we have nightmares of our own. The one recounted here took shape after I read the recent task force report on detainee treatment from the bipartisan Constitution Project. That report confirmed that the United States has indisputably tortured “war on terror” prisoners – and that psychologists and other health professionals played critical roles in the systematic abuse. The following description of past events and the glimpse into an imagined dark future reflect the failure of psychology’s leaders to adequately prioritize and defend the profession’s ethical commitment to doing no harm. What has already happened cannot be changed, but there are alternative paths forward. I believe the most promising one for my profession requires dedicated and unflinching efforts directed toward accountability and reform.
It was June 2025, and balloons, streamers, and fanfare celebrated the grand opening of the American Psychological Association’s new headquarters and museum at the former Guantanamo Bay Detention Center in Cuba. Although a wave of mass resignations had followed the Association’s controversial decision to move its home from Washington, DC, pragmatists viewed the unsolicited offer from the White House as simply too good to refuse: rent-free use of the facility in exchange for the APA’s continuing and uncompromising fealty to the Department of Defense and the CIA. Aside from the ubiquitous surveillance cameras that still remained, the military’s presence on the base was now restricted to a remote site that held those prisoners whose torture made them unsuitable for either trial or release. A small “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” sign hung unobtrusively above that isolated cellblock door.
Back in 2013, few would have predicted the APA’s eventual move to Guantanamo. But then again, nobody would have anticipated the outcome of the Association’s 2024 presidential election: a narrow victory for James Mitchell, who twenty years earlier had been condemned for his role in constructing the Bush Administration’s post-9/11 torture program. Although many APA members never forgave what they perceived as a profound betrayal of professional ethics, supporters were far more impressed with Mitchell’s entrepreneurial genius – and with the financial salvation he might offer an APA that had seen membership steadily dwindle. After all, Mitchell had previously demonstrated how to use bravado rather than scientific expertise to garner highly lucrative CIA contracts. Even more, he had successfully extracted a multi-million dollar indemnity package from the agency to cover any legal fees arising from allegations of his personal involvement in torture. Ultimately, these accomplishments, along with an inspired “No Accountability” campaign, had carried the day.
I never thought I’d be among the lucky winners in the APA’s “Worst of the Worst” lottery, which gave fifty former members an all-expenses-paid trip to the APA’s new Guantanamo museum for a pre-opening tour. Curiosity got the better of my cynicism when I heard the news, and a week later I found myself – to use former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s phrase – “in beautiful, sunny Guantanamo Bay.” Our tour guide was waiting for us at the main gate, below a large banner that read “Honor Bound to Defend Psychologists.” He wore a dark suit, a bulletproof vest, and sunglasses; I imagined that he had recently retired from either the Secret Service or perhaps some Blackwater-type mercenary unit.
The short walk to the museum – we were told that the APA’s headquarters building was strictly off-limits – took us along a large and busy shooting range. As we approached and the sound of gunfire grew louder, our guide handed each of us a set of earmuffs, left over from Guantanamo’s glory days of sensory deprivation (and other forms of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment). He responded to a question from another visitor by noting that the range should become even more popular in light of the APA’s new requirement that all members be firearm proficient. I commented that the psychologists we were watching already seemed quite skilled. Our guide nodded in agreement and explained that this particular group was training for its next covert mission, details of which were classified.
Our informational packet had mentioned that the new museum – somewhat foreboding with its NSA-style black glass exterior – did not yet have a permanent name, in part because several generous corporate sponsorship offers were still under review. So I wasn’t overly surprised when we reached the museum’s entrance and came upon a simple wooden sign that read “The American Psychological Association’s ‘With Us Or Against Us’ Historical Museum of Psychologist Contributions to Winning the Global War on Terror.” I started to ponder the lengthy acronym but soon gave up, reasonably confident that this particular name would not last long. Inside, on the floor of the foyer, were words engraved to be much more enduring: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” from the Gospel of John, an obvious nod of appreciation to CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
Our group crossed the museum foyer and walked down a long corridor where framed drawings by an anonymous artist hung on both walls. In simple strokes each depicted a scene from an earlier era at Guantanamo. There was an image of a hooded prisoner, naked and shivering in the cold. In another picture was a detainee being led around by a leash. There was also an illustration of a prisoner shackled to the ceiling and floor. And a military dog with bared teeth growling at a frightened detainee. And a prisoner, held in place, straddled by a female interrogator. And a detainee wearing a bra with a thong over his head. There were others too, and I thought to myself how difficult it was to capture in momentary images some of the standard psychological torture techniques, like extended sleep deprivation and weeks of solitary confinement. The artist had also graciously provided a description of the role of psychologists in these detention and interrogation operations, but most of that text had been redacted.
At the end of the hallway stood a pedestal, and on it lay a book thicker than a dictionary. It was the latest, 2022 revision of the APA’s “Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct.” I remembered back to a time when the entire document was only a dozen pages – back before it was deemed essential to further protect psychologists with hundreds of pages detailing a multitude of exceptions and limits of applicability to the code. I looked to find some lingering reference to “do no harm,” but my 70-year-old eyes had difficulty reading the frustratingly small print. Fortunately, beside the book was a stack of laminated 3” x 5” cards along with a sign that read “Please Take One: APA Ethics Code Pocket Summary.” In large print, one side of the card had the phrase “Down the Rabbit Hole.” The reverse side, printed just as large, read “Just Do It!”
From there we went through a set of doors into a large dark room, the heart of the museum. At that point, our tour guide locked us into a motorized vehicle that would transport us on tracks past a series of life-size dioramas and other exhibits. I was reminded of a childhood visit to Disney World and the cheerful “It’s a Small World” ride. But the background music here was ominous – “Riders on the Storm” by the Doors alternating with Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again” from the apocalyptic ending to “Dr. Strangelove,” I think. And instead of a small boat to carry us on our way, we found ourselves jammed into a moving 8’ x 8’ cage, a replica of the cells in which many Guantanamo prisoners spent years of their lives.
The first diorama we came to had a descriptive plaque with a caption well known in CIA circles: “Admit nothing. Deny everything. Make counter-accusations.” The scene before us recreated a dignified APA boardroom – complete with long table and side buffet – where a specially appointed APA task force met for three days back in 2005. Formed in response to the early public reports that psychologists were involved in abuse and torture at Guantanamo and other sites, this “Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security” (PENS) nevertheless asserted that psychologists play a valuable role in ensuring that U.S. detention and interrogation operations are safe, legal, ethical, and effective. This incongruous endorsement was contrary to the positions of all other major health organizations – and contrary to international human rights standards as well. But it was not entirely surprising: six of the nine voting members of the PENS task force were on the payroll of military or intelligence agencies at that time, and some of them had served in the very chains of command accused of detainee abuse. In an “emergency” session that was only one of several serious procedural irregularities, the APA Board had hastily approved the PENS Report and quickly delivered a copy to the Department of Defense, bypassing review by the Association’s full governing body.
As our cage paused in front of this large window, seated around the PENS task force table were the likenesses of figures that had become familiar to me through petition efforts aimed at annulling and repudiating the report they had produced. Sitting on the far side of the table and dressed in uniform was Army colonel Larry James; he had been the chief psychologist at Guantanamo during an early period of brutal coercive interrogations. Next to him sat another Army colonel and psychologist, Morgan Banks; he had advised Guantanamo health professionals and interrogators on psychological techniques that became part of the abusive practices at the detention center. Across the table was Bryce Lefever, the Navy captain and special forces psychologist who had defended forms of prisoner abuse by arguing that they were little different from psychotherapy techniques. And seated next to him was Scott Shumate, the former chief operational psychologist for the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center; he had been among those present at torturous “black site” interrogations. Standing in one corner was the chief psychologist for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Michael Gelles; not long after the 9/11 attacks he had argued that psychologists in national security settings should not be held to the same ethical standards as their colleagues working elsewhere. In the other corner was a sixth figure, forensic psychologist Robert Fein; as a member of the Intelligence Science Board he was an advisor to senior leaders of the intelligence community. The other three voting members of the task force were inexplicably missing from the diorama scene, although I’m not sure anyone else noticed their absence.
After several minutes our crowded vehicle lurched forward and around a bend, coming to a grinding stop at the next display. Life-size wax figures of Gerry Koocher and Stephen Behnke – two key APA officials during Guantanamo’s first decade – stared back at us with disarming smiles. The plaque called the pair “The Defenders,” a moniker that was well earned. After the APA affirmed its coercive interrogation-friendly ethics policies with its 2005 PENS Report, they had become the proverbial tip of the spear in efforts to fend off outrage from psychologists and non-psychologists alike. Koocher, APA president-elect at the time, had promoted the idea that psychologists could ethically serve the country by, in his words, “contributing to the incarceration, debilitation, or even death” of potential perpetrators. He had also rejected any APA involvement in what he termed “the nebulous, toothless, contradictory, and obfuscatory treaties that comprise ‘international law.’” His public attacks on concerned critics included descriptions of them as “opportunistic commentators masquerading as scholars” and “mindless ideologues.”
Meanwhile Behnke, the director of the APA’s ethics office, was no less prolific. He publicly argued that the foremost ethical obligation of psychologists is to obey U.S. law. He falsely claimed that psychologists were uniquely trained to prevent the “behavioral drift” that might otherwise cause interrogators to harm detainees. He dismissed reports of psychologist wrongdoing at Guantanamo and elsewhere as “long on hearsay and innuendo, short on facts.” And he offered assurances that the APA would take action “very directly and very clearly” if any members had acted inappropriately. But when put to the test, his office then refused – for years – to investigate and adjudicate a comprehensively documented ethics complaint against military psychologist John Leso.
Leso had served on a Behavioral Science Consultation Team at Guantanamo for six months beginning in mid-2002. In that role he helped to develop and implement abusive and torturous detention and interrogation procedures – including prolonged isolation for 30 days without visitation rights for treating medical professionals or the International Committee of the Red Cross; removal of all “comfort items” such as sheets, blankets, mattresses, wash cloths, and religious items; daily 20-hour interrogations; placing hoods on prisoners during questioning or movement; food restriction for 24 hours once a week; scenarios designed to convince the detainee that he might experience a painful or fatal outcome; removal of clothing; exposure to cold; and stress positions. Government reports document that Leso also participated directly in the degrading mistreatment of prisoner Mohammed al-Qahtani.
The museum had several other exhibits, including a few that disappointingly were still unfinished. Although these were shrouded in curtains, their accompanying plaques piqued my interest and imagination. One was cryptically titled “Back to the Future: Primum Non Nocere?” I wondered whether it would portray an interrogation scene a hundred years hence, in which a psychologist – no longer encumbered by old-fashioned standards of beneficence and non-maleficence – is using some futuristic mind control technique to ruthlessly torment a teenage prisoner, for “the greater good.” Another concealed diorama was simply called “Brothers in Arms.” I imagined that it might show selected APA leaders striking a pose reminiscent of the Justice League superheroes, as they stand alongside CIA operatives and Navy SEALs.
The final display we passed was a lifelike re-creation of a waterboarding torture session. The scene depicted a distraught, immobilized prisoner strapped to an inclined gurney as interrogation personnel poured a saline solution through a cloth covering his nose and mouth. A few feet away stood a robotic psychologist in a white lab coat. His head, connected to the ceiling by a thin wire, nodded up and down continuously. The display was titled “Safeguard: Preventing Behavioral Drift,” and the description noted that the presence of the psychologist ensured that the detainee did not experience “serious or permanent harm” during the near drowning.
Not surprisingly, the last stop on the tour was the museum’s new gift shop. Inside was a range of inexpensively priced items, thanks in part to subsidies from the mandatory gift shop assessment that was now part of APA membership dues. There were bobbing-head dolls of APA luminaries, past and present. There was a deck of playing cards with grotesquely distorted images of psychologists who had foolishly spent years unsuccessfully trying to reform the APA. There were miniature flags with new APA mottos, like “No Regrets” and “APA Strong.” But not wanting to miss the afternoon beach trip, I made a hasty decision and selected a counterterrorism coffee mug with a simple message no self-respecting psychologist could argue with: “Be polite, be professional, be prepared to kill.”
Addendum. There are important steps that the American Psychological Association can undertake immediately to ensure that nightmare scenarios like this never become reality. The APA can annul and repudiate the illegitimate 2005 PENS Report. The APA can enforce the 2008 member referendum prohibiting psychologists from working in national security settings (like Guantanamo) that violate the U.S. Constitution or international law. The APA can adjudicate the six-year-old ethics complaint against John Leso and remove the statute of limitations for violations involving torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. The APA can establish clear ethical restrictions on psychologist involvement in national security operations and research where individuals are targeted for harm, where voluntary informed consent is absent, and where timely outside ethical oversight is infeasible. The APA can formally support bills introduced in state legislatures that would prohibit licensed health provider participation in the ill treatment of prisoners. The APA can invite and fully cooperate with an independent investigation of the Association itself, in order to promote appropriate measures aimed at greater transparency and accountability and institutional reform. I encourage fellow psychologists and other interested individuals to support these initiatives and to call upon APA leaders to do the same.
Author Note: Roy Eidelson is a clinical psychologist and the president of Eidelson Consulting, where he studies, writes about, and consults on the role of psychological issues in political, organizational, and group conflict settings. He is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, associate director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College, and a member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology.
This essay originally appeared in Counterpunch.