The Torturer's Apprentice: The APA and the Intentional Infliction of Pain

05/04/2015 08:06 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2016

It is a strange morning.

Almost surreal.

For twenty-five years, first as an APA insider designing and running the American Psychological Association Practice Directorate and, later, as an external critic, I have borne witness to the evil in the inner workings of the APA.

Now, the whole world knows something has gone very wrong inside the APA.

What is the rest of the story?

James Risen's front page article in the New York Times, April 30, 2015 drawing on newly discovered emails definitively documenting the APA's complicity in torture makes clear that there has truly been a systemic moral disease in the inner workings of the American Psychological Association that no one can any longer rationally deny.

The longstanding APA Public Information Officer still insists that there has been "no collusion" between the APA and the Bush Administration on torture, but she, very deservedly, now has the credibility of the Iraqi Minister of Information telling the world that Iraq was winning the Gulf war.

Everyone now knows that APA has been the Torturer's Apprentice.

It was not just by chance that this story came to light.

When I first moved to Washington DC a veteran advocate told me that successful advocacy efforts had to have "intensity and cohesion."

While many psychologists have been appalled at what was happening within the APA and have spoken out, we all owe tremendous gratitude to the six psychologists, operating as the Coalition for Ethical Psychology, who were the driving, unrelenting force that brought the APA's jaw-dropping evil to light.

Dr. Jean Maria Arrigo, Dr. Trudy Bond, Dr. Roy Eidelson, Dr. Brad Olson, Dr. Steven Reisner, and Dr. Stephan Soldz worked, literally, non-stop over under tremendous difficulty for several years to bring this issue to public view. I have been a part of many advocacy efforts in my life, but I have never worked with or seen any group so dedicated, honest, and competent as these six psychologists. Uncovering and insisting that this story see the light of day is American Psychology's most heroic and important advocacy effort ever. These six psychologists are the ones who did it.

I have described in some detail in other columns written in HP over the last eight years the cynical way in which APA was transformed from a socially liberal humanitarian organization highly concerned with human suffering to one that so lost connection and compassion for the human spirit that it engaged willfully and fully in a campaign of torture.

For all the back and forth about what APA did and did not do, the report described by Risen has one paragraph that more than any other tells us how pervasive the malignancy inside the APA is:

"Despite substantial contact between the APA, the White House and CIA officials, including the over 600 emails noted in this report, there is no evidence that any APA official expressed concern over the mounting reports of psychologist involvement in detainee abuse during four years of direct email communications with senior members of the U.S. intelligence community," the report states. [Emphasis added.]

The fact that not even one APA official spoke up in opposition to the APA's growing role in torture, makes quite clear that this was not just a few rogue employees. Instead, it was a corporate culture that allowed torture. Some within the inner sanctum were frightened and some naïve. All, however, were silent.

As I indicated in previous articles, I spent a decade from 1985-95 building and running the American Psychological Association's first Practice Directorate. By the time I left the APA in the mid-90's, however, I was appalled by the devious and often covertly sadistic culture that was rapidly growing under an administration that had recently come to power. While I did not by any means foresee that what I observed and protested at that time would be played out on such a grand stage as international torture, the pattern of deceit and the seeds of torture were apparent.

Those who did try to speak out about the difficulties before the torture era were turned into pariahs and their complaints dismissed with ad hominem character attacks often in vicious whisper campaigns. Many of the most effective and dedicated APA employees when I was there were victimized by this in one way or another and forced to leave the Association. Without access to mass communication their stories could not be told.

When the unique opportunity arose to become the Torturer's Apprentice, the APA was well suited. Independent thinkers with integrity were long gone, and suitable yes-people had filled their place.

Exposing the fact that APA did participate in torture has been an arduous and extraordinary achievement. But for the field of psychology there is more that must now be considered.

This torture did not arise in some isolated test tube. It is part of a broader culture that I saw play out in APA both when I was there as a senior executive and in subsequent interactions with the individuals now in power positions within the APA. Many people were deliberately hurt.

Torture is an ugly byproduct of a very rigid, hateful, and frightened mindset. It is an act of rage designed to break the human spirit. What kind of mind condones a direct and deliberate assault on the human spirit?

Certainly, it is a frightened mind, but one so frightened it has lost connection with its own humanity. It rests on the fragile nexus between fear and insanity.

And yet, this mindset has been prevalent at the very upper echelon of the American Psychological Association for several years. Is it doing even more damage to the profession of psychology than what we are now witnessing in public arenas?

When I worked at the APA I represented practicing psychologists, those psychologists who treat people suffering from the same kind of pain that torturers create. I am not the least surprised that they have been among the most vocal in protesting and exposing APA's role in torture.

But what influence has this mindset had on the profession of psychology from other quarters at APA?

While a full discussion is beyond the scope of this column, I believe that that same mindset that I observed at APA and that has now brought us the torture debacle is trying to assert control over the training and practice of psychology in a manner that reflects a very serious threat to what has been psychology's greatest contribution to the public, a humanistic and compassionate understanding of the human condition applied to the treatment of human emotional suffering.

Standards of practice, training requirements, and the understanding of science itself are all under an assault infected by this same frightened, but authoritarian and devious mindset that has been running the APA for over 25 years. Left unchecked it will strip psychology of its humanistic core. This is already underway in APA's increasingly expansive attempt to control and regiment the nature of training and the nature of psychological practice.

For multiple professional reasons in addition to APA torture documents, I have had to review numerous APA ethics decisions as well as the decisions, guidelines and standards of the all-important APA Committee on Accreditation. When one takes the trouble to go inside the actual documents and decisions, as I have had to do, about the only words that can be used to describe them are "irresponsible," "cruel," and "biased." They are astonishingly unjust proceedings with very unjust outcomes. They all reflect the very same mindset that I have been describing.

Each has its own story, but the persistent pattern of unbridled meanness and arrogance with a shocking lack not only of accountability but of any psychological mindedness itself is strikingly consistent with what we see today in the torture story. Both the APA Ethics Office and the Committee on Accreditation are overseen by the same senior staff who have thwarted efforts to hold APA accountable and stop APA's support for torture.

Any rational person would conclude that as a first obvious step just to begin to address the debacle for the APA, the current executive leadership group must be replaced. Without that, internal repair cannot even begin.

In the APA culture, however, this will be difficult. Cries for such accountability are often quickly repudiated and characterized as evidence of "mean spiritedness" by those suggesting it. More to the point, however, the elected governance members are also understandably quite dependent on the same senior staff they are asked to evaluate and judge. If they seize control who will manage and lead?

A cumbersome governance structure, the understandable helplessness of being over one's head, and the difficult nature of the issue itself will make it hard for either the Council of Representatives or the Board of Directors to seize control of the organization and install a new management team. The danger, of course, is that the leadership will select a few sacrificial lambs and let the upper echelon administrators remain in place. If so, it will soon become business as usual at the APA.

But that is by no means a sure thing. This issue was presumed to have died several times. Thanks to the leadership of the Coalition, it has not. Possibly, psychology can be returned from the Dark Side and the land of Thanatos to the life affirming source of love and compassion that reflects the soul and character of the thousands of psychologists with whom I have had the pleasure of working.

Regardless of the outcome of all this, for today, for those of us who have known first hand the true character of the people running the APA over the last twenty-five years, this is a much cherished moment. Mr. Risen and the six psychologists of the Coalition deserve our gratitude and applause.

Bryant Welch is a clinical psychologist and attorney living and practicing in Sausalito, California. He created and directed the American Psychological Association's Practice Directorate through psychology's most successful advocacy era. He has been a longstanding critic of the APA's role in torture and is the author of State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind (St. Martin's Press, 2008).