THE BLOG
12/29/2014 04:13 pm ET Updated Feb 28, 2015

Torture, Fear, and American Psychology: An Insider's Perspective on the Debacle Within the APA

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I spent almost 20 years inside the inner sanctum of the American Psychological Association. A psychologist and attorney, I was the first Executive Director of Professional Practice for the APA and in 1986 built much of the advocacy structure still in place to advocate for clinical psychologists. During that period psychology went through what some have referred to as the "golden age" of American psychology, in which we successfully advocated to make psychological services available to the elderly, the disabled, and many others. We also effectively asserted the humanistic values of a profession that appreciated fully the devastating effects of trauma and abuse.

Torture was the antithesis of what we stood for and what we were about.

Six years ago I wrote a series of blog posts in this forum describing the now-undeniable fact that several prominent psychologists, often operating under a cloak of legitimacy provided by the American Psychological Association, were active participants in the Bush administration's "enhanced interrogation program," torturing suspected terrorists at Guantanamo and other 'black sites." I described in specifics the nature of that involvement and gave an insider's perspective on how an organization like the APA evolved into the handmaiden to such activity.

These posts received widespread attention within the psychology community and were attacked with exclusively ad hominem commentary by APA spokespersons at the time. There was no attempt at refutation or denial of the content of what I presented. Nor could there be. (Other critics of the APA have noted the same tactics.)

While I never dreamed APA would evolve into an actual instrument of torture as it has, when I left the APA in the 1990s, the seeds of the current debacle for American psychology had clearly been sown. Some of my experiences at APA were used to illustrate my book State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind (St. Martin's Press, 2008).

Obviously, the organizational cultural change was dramatic. As I explained in the blog posts, beginning in the early 1990s APA was transformed into a conflict-avoidant culture characterized by narcissism and self-congratulatory fawning that was carefully cultivated and readily manipulated by a few key leaders who used it for personal gain. Those decent people in the elected positions in the APA governance were simply over their heads and easily manipulated and deceived. When the military/intelligence community moved in shortly after 9/11, the APA's virtue was quickly seduced and ravaged. There was no need for the "secret deals" that some people now think transpired. APA was readily and freely available to the beguiling and determined military interests.

Clearly, over the last few weeks, the torture issue I discussed six years ago has resurfaced with two bombshells: the publication of Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times writer James Risen's new book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War (Houghton Mifflin, October 14, 2014), and the Senate committee's report on the CIA's use of torture. There can no longer be any doubt that psychologists with considerable support from APA played key roles in our nation's most shameful incursion into human torture, violating one of the few veneers we humans have been able to place over our inhumanity to one another.

Risen uncovered numerous documents implicating key psychologists in torture. The APA's initial responses to the Risen charges were similar to what we earlier critics received. They were ad hominem attacks directed against Risen. With absolutely no supportive analysis, the APA president, speaking for the Association, characterized Risen's work as "full of inaccuracies and assumptions based on innuendo," and as "one-sided and inaccurate."

APA quickly learned that it would have a hard time in its attempts to discredit the allegations brought by Risen, whose investigative reliability is unquestioned even among his peers. As Newsweek said in its review of Risen's book:

At long last we can retire Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as the icons of investigative reporting. With his second book probing the dark tunnels of the so-called war on terror, James Risen has established himself as the finest national security reporter of this generation, a field crowded with first-rank talent....

And then, of course, came the Senate committee's report and its still-unfolding aftermath. There is no longer a debate about whether torture took place and whether psychologists participated with protective cover from the APA.

Even the once-defiant APA seems to recognize it has at the least a serious public-relations debacle on its hands. After the Risen book proved too much for its typically dismissive response to critics, the Association retained an independent, highly respected corporate criminal investigator, David Hoffman, to review APA's role in at least some aspects of the torture matter and to report back to a four-person committee consisting of the APA CEO, the chief legal counsel, and two presidents of the Association.

Some critics met this abrupt shift by the Association with enthusiasm, others with mistrust. After years of being misled and manipulated, many wondered if this new development was a Trojan horse, a corporate crisis-management technique that would only confound the public further. Others who spoke with Hoffman were more optimistic.

My own expectation is that the investigation will be honest but will not find evidence of criminal corruption. For reasons mentioned above, bribery was probably not even necessary. APA was left by an earlier executive administration in such a weakened condition that corruption was unnecessary. Ironically, if the new investigator focuses on criminal corruption, it is possible APA could escape this horrific organizational malfeasance with a mild rap on the knuckles.

At a minimum, however, what should be revealed is a duplicitous set of Association activities conducted by some who were closely connected to the government, and by others who were naively and vainly flattered by the attention they were given by some powerful figures connected to the government. Several APA-paid employees with varying motivations then did the government's calling under an authority that was at times difficult to discern. The current APA CEO, Norman Anderson, personally kept a very low profile and, in his correspondence with me, contended that he'd just followed the dictates of the APA governance. His underlings, all hired by his predecessor, were used to draw the fire away from others higher up.

What was most noteworthy to me about the quality of the APA staff was that it had been so weakened by earlier, devious management that there was no one in the APA building with a mindset or character to say no. Compliant people were the order of the day for the prior regime, and they were what was there to greet the military when it arrived at the door of the APA.

Today the public outcry for accountability at the APA is an illusory goal. There is no "APA" apart from the individuals who orchestrate it at any point in time.

The primary culprits who orchestrated and created the immoral incompetence of the APA have long since left the building. It is true that the current CEO, the APA legal counsel, the public-affairs officer, and the ethics officer have played visible public roles that have infuriated the membership. They should probably either resign or be dismissed so that there can at least be some hope for a return of trust by the membership and the public. On the whole, however, they are merely apparatchiks who would live comfortably in any regime -- the banality of evil.

Having worked in the heart of the American Psychological Association, I am aware of the extraordinary power it has to do good. In one of my blog posts I described the day APA decided to turn away from just such an opportunity in 2002, when it made its first turn toward torture.

Psychology today, in spite of the APA, has made tremendous strides in developing new ways to treat human suffering, including the very suffering APA helped to foster in its support of torture. Hopefully, APA can someday right its ship and recognize and support those new developments like we did just a few short decades ago. It will take a long time to remove the current stench, however, and, right now, there is no one at the helm who has shown any inclination or capacity to cleanse it.

Having seen what APA can do, it is very, very sad to see what it did do.

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).