Linda M. Woolf Ph.D.,

The Fight Against Hate

APA, Torture, and Context

Examines APA’s role in supporting national security interrogations in context

Posted Aug 04, 2015

Did APA collude with torture?  Was the Association engaged in “cozying up to the military” for profit? How deep does the conspiracy to support “enhanced interrogations” go within APA? Were despicable actions by those within APA driven by “incredible conceit and contempt”?

Linda M. Woolf
Source: Linda M. Woolf

Questions, such as those above—grounded in assumption of fact—are driving the debate within APA in response to the Hoffman Report.  Sadly, the debate has created an us/them, good vs. evil atmosphere with all of the trappings and destructiveness of such dualist thinking. Petitions are being circulated to have individuals fired from APA or forced to resign from governance positions. Calls have been issued for the censure of psychologists mentioned in the Report and rescission of their past APA awards. Key leaders/staff are named as complicit based on rumor and innuendo—even if totally unsupported by the evidence presented in the Hoffman Report.  Born out of deep hurt, anger, and a sense of trust betrayed, these responses are completely understandable.  Nonetheless, these actions violate every tenet of due process.

It is imperative that psychologists move beyond emotional reasoning and dualistic analyses to begin a careful examination of the decisions and context that led to the very serious problems outlined in the Hoffman Report.  It is too easy to identify individuals and argue that these are the faces of evil or that the entire APA must be dismantled as corrupt—the profession must begin anew. Such strategies fail to take into account the contextual forces that led to a series of flawed decisions that can occur in any organization or any group of people. Simply removing a perceived “cancer within” without examining, understanding, and ultimately addressing the underlying root context and processes almost guarantees that we will revisit this same ground again in the future.

U.S. Context and APA

It is hard to believe that the attacks on September 11, 2001 were almost 14 years ago.  Almost 3000 individuals lost their lives that day and many more people—civilians and soldiers—have perished due to war and terror since that horrific day. Many decisions were made in the immediate years following the attacks and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that, in hindsight, were highly flawed and damaging. Indeed in an effort to fight terror, the U.S. has most likely fueled terror. Sadly, the errors made by the U.S. government are mirrored by faulty decisions within the APA.

Following the attacks of 9/11, there was a rush to war and a rise in nationalism within the U.S. Flags flew high, “God Bless America” became a standard anthem at ballparks, and those who opposed the wars were labeled as un-American. Psychology as a discipline and practice has long sought to bring its knowledge, research, and understanding of human behavior to improve the human condition.  In this case, psychologists both within and outside of APA wanted to assist in the fight against terror and the war effort.  Instead of asking, “Is war the best way to fight terror?,” the question became “How can psychological knowledge help us win the war?” APA was caught up in a zeitgeist called the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

Nonetheless, there were alternate voices within the APA. The APA Task Force on the Psychological Effects of Efforts to Prevent Terrorism examined topics such as diplomatic responses to terror, the psychosocial effects of counterterrorism efforts on increasing terrorist motivations, the psychological effects of war, and the harsh reality of us/them thinking as related to a rise in hate. The Task Force member’s report was presented to the APA Council of Representatives and was shelved. It only saw the light of day when the findings were published as a book entitled, Collateral Damage (Kimmel & Stout, 2006). Again, APA’s actions reflected the broader national climate. Within the U.S., most voices challenging the GWOT were marginalized, trivialized, and silenced. Who can forget the U.S. response to France’s opposition to the war in Iraq? “French Fries” were renamed “Freedom Fries.”

In late 2004, it became quite clear that prisoners at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and various “black op” sites were being tortured—euphemistically referred to as “enhanced interrogations.” Moreover, news reports highlighted that psychologists were involved in these destructive practices. There was a call within APA for psychologists to be prohibited from participating in or assisting with interrogations as well as a condemnation of torture, in general. This debate continued through 2007, when the APA Council of Representatives, overwhelmingly voted to keep psychologists within the interrogation process based on the premise that psychologist involvement kept the procedures, “safe, legal, ethical, and effective for all participants” (Behnke, 2006).  As stated in 2007, by APA’s Public Affairs Director cited in Newsweek, "We want to have an influence on the issue of torture, and that's why we're staying engaged. Others have divorced themselves from the process altogether—like the American Medical Association, which has said it won't allow its members to be involved in interrogations in any way. But we think we can have more of an effect if we stay at the table" and "We feel we can play a positive role in maintaining detainee welfare."

There is a reason that the United Nations (UN) has a Convention Against Torture. Torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment are gross violations of human rights and should be universally condemned.  Even if torture wasn’t a codified crime against humanity, it rarely, if ever, garners useful information. Television programs such as Lost and 24 fostered the myth of torture’s utility to save the day. The “other” always breaks and concedes valuable information. Of course, on programs such as NCIS: Los Angeles, when a U.S. soldier is tortured, he/she bravely holds out against all odds protecting family and country while facing down overwhelming brutality.  The U.S. lost sight of its international obligations in the years following 9/11. Moreover within that context, APA, an accredited non-governmental organization at the UN, similarly appears to have lost its way.

The Power of the Situation

In the years following 9/11, APA engaged in a series of decisions that on the surface look quite malicious. Despite the problematic decisions of some individuals, it is also quite likely that basic social psychological pressures were at work. For example, the rush towards the PENS Task Force—its structure and function—has all the earmarks of groupthink. Groupthink has been cited as playing a role in the Bay of Pigs Incident and the NASA Challenger accident. Groups, for example, are convinced of their inherent morality, seek to shut down criticism, fail to challenge the most basic assumptions of the group, and stereotype dissident voices in the group as weak, incompetent, biased, or crazy. Moreover, the group is tightly controlled to keep out alternate voices during the decision-making process. Groupthink has been cited to play a role in the Bush Administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq.  It clearly played a role in the development and functioning of the PENS Task Force. The majority truly believed, and may continue to believe, that their actions were completely right and just. According to APA (2007):

Conducting an interrogation is inherently a psychological endeavor. Forming a relationship and building rapport have proven to be effective means of eliciting information. Psychology is central to this process because an understanding of an individual's belief systems, desires, motivations, culture and religion likely will be essential in assessing how best to form a connection and facilitate educing accurate, reliable and actionable intelligence. Psychologists have expertise in human behavior, motivations and relationships. The background, training, and experience offered in psychology are therefore highly relevant to the process of creating and nurturing conditions that will maximize the likelihood of obtaining good and useful information. Psychologists have valuable contributions to make toward the goals of preventing violence and protecting our nation's security through interrogation processes.

What PENS and others within APA failed to consider was that the context within which these interrogations were taking place, was and remains inherently unethical. History has shown, and I think psychologists are learning, that professionals' continued involvement in destructive settings simply serves as tacit approval of atrocities being committed at such settings. Professions are permanently stained by such involvement and, the long-term wellbeing of prisoners is rarely protected.

Additionally, psychologists and other health care professionals who became involved in torture or cruel conditions of confinement fell prey to a host of social psychological pressures such as extreme us/them thinking. The “enemy” is then all too easily stereotyped, assumed to be evil, dehumanized, and excluded from basic human rights through the processes of moral exclusion. Once one has started down the dark path to torture, it becomes extremely difficult to manage one’s dissonance between thoughts of “I am a good person” and “I am engaged in despicable actions.” Hence, the fault must lie with the “other” and all actions, regardless of level of harm, becomes, in the mind of the torturer, not only necessary but honorable. Good people elect to travel down a destructive path into an abyss, for all the “right” reasons.

No doubt, there are individuals detained at Guantanamo Bay and other sites who may wish great harm upon the U.S. and their view of “other.” Nonetheless, how we treat our "enemies" says more about who we are as people and a culture than it does about them. This is particularly true when detainees are in positions of relative helplessness and are of little threat within the context of their current confinement. Unfortunately, evidence from Abu Ghraib, the CIA sites, and Guantanamo makes clear that the U.S. and some psychologists moved down a path to becoming the mirror image of the enemy we so purportedly despise. Moreover, individuals who may not have been radicalized prior to detention, most likely are far more radicalized now due to their detention.

On a lesser note, within APA, in part due to budget crises during this time period, key staff members were asked to play multiple roles with varying responsibilities creating intense conflicts of interest.  Sadly, these conflicts fueled many of the problems outlined in the Hoffman Report. It is easy to assume that individuals, such as the Director of the Ethics Office, were engaged in Machiavellian duplicity to collude with atrocity. However, such analyses exemplify the fundamental attribution error.  We assume dispositional causes to behavior and fail to recognize the broader situational and contextual forces impacting these individuals.  We cannot ignore any complicity, as noted in the Hoffman Report. However, we also should be aware of the situational factors that may have led them to lose their objectivity. Additionally, we must examine our own behaviors as bystanders. How many of us most likely simply ceded our obligations to address psychologists’ involvement with torture, cruel conditions of confinement, and other abuses with thoughts of, “I’m sure APA will handle it”? Regardless of our level of involvement in addressing issues of war, torture, terrorism, or peace over the past decade, the Hoffman Report should cause us all to stop, pause, reflect, and evaluate our role in this challenging chapter in APA and U.S. history.

In Summary

Over the coming weeks, months, and years, APA will need to grapple with the events and problems outlined in the Hoffman Report. Although the Report is not without its flaws (e.g., significant points of assumption, failure to interview key witnesses, selective use of testimony/evidence, etc.), taken as a gestalt, it is clear that serious problems occurred due to a variety of individual, systemic, and contextual forces.  As psychologists, we need to carefully examine the Report and the events of the past decade to insure that such failures do not occur again and that human rights and social justice remain at the forefront of APA policy.

In the meantime, we must respect our ethical obligations and the rights of those who are condemned in the Report.  We cannot succumb to the pull of retribution and subjecting individuals to trial on listservs, blog posts, social media, and in the court of public opinion. If APA is to learn from the Hoffman Report, we must take the time to critically evaluate the Report, take some immediate actions now, but also gather more information, move towards greater understanding the role of APA in the broader cultural context, and embrace a call for truth and reconciliation. 

Social justice is easy during times of peace, prosperity, and calm; social justice is most imperative during the dark times marred by pain, anger, and a pull toward retribution. If APA is to not only survive but also thrive as a voice for justice in the future, we must practice that very call for social justice now, both within and outside of APA.


American Psychological Association. (2007, September 21). Statement of the American Psychological Association on psychology and interrogations submitted to the United States Senate select committee on intelligence. Retrieved from

Behnke S. H. (2006). Psychological ethics and national security: The position of the American Psychological Association. European Psychologist, 11, 153–155.

Kimmel, P., & Stout, C. E. (Eds.). (2006). Collateral damage: The psychological consequences of America's war on terrorism. Westport, CT: Praeger Press.

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