THE BLOG
12/23/2014 09:08 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Bad Therapy: Something Is Rotten in the Psychology Profession

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I first wrote about psychologists and torture for The Huffington Post back in 2007 when I was working toward my doctorate in clinical psychology and all hell was breaking loose around revelations that psychologists were involved in torture at Guantanamo Bay and other CIA black sites. I had just started writing my dissertation, which sought to explore the history and social forces that led to such insanity in the profession I was immersing so much time, money and energy into making my vocation.

I frankly had hoped the whole issue would be resolved by now -- the perpetrators would be in prison, the system would be reformed so that it could never happen again, psychologists would have organized and taken a powerful stand against this misuse of power in their name. Yet here we are, 10 years after the first revelations of torture appeared in the media, my dissertation long since bound in obscurity in my school's library, and not only are the revelations still coming, there is only now the first hint of a real investigation into the specific role psychologists played in this process. With the release of the Torture Report, also known as the Senate's highly-redacted executive summary from the "Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program," I realized it would be morally remiss of me not to take this brief minute when the public eye is trained on this issue to share some information with you.

I want to offer a few key points for you to keep in mind as the discourse around this recedes out of public consciousness and we all go back to business as usual. Since it's hard for anyone to read news that isn't itemized these days, I offer you my own list of awful truths:

  1. This was not the case of a "few bad apples" defaming the good name of our profession. The CIA and the psychology profession have been tight since the beginning of the Cold War, when hysteria about communism led the CIA to begin hiring psychologists to perform research on "mind control." At the time it was believed that, Manchurian Candidate-style, the whole United States would be hypnotized into communism (it was even believed the Soviets had bought the world's supply of LSD and were planning to drop acid on the entire U.S. population) and it was important that the U.S. be able to preempt that terrible fate by developing mind-control mastery of our own. Huge Defense Department contracts started rolling out for researchers, who soon became known as "behavioral scientists." Seriously, Google "CIA and LSD" -it will blow your mind.
  2. The most notorious of all the research programs commissioned by the CIA was known as MKULTRA. The CIA sent scouts out to APA conferences to find the best and the brightest to study mass mind control and individual coercion. The 25-year program included research on unwitting participants, prisoners of war in Vietnam, and an unknown number of deaths around the world. The Kubark Counter Intelligence Interrogation Manual, a distillation of all of this research, formed the basis of training programs adopted all through Latin America, and guided the CIA's training of the secret police in Iran and the Philippines.The most famous of these training programs, the School of the Americas, has alone trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers who have tortured, raped, assassinated, "disappeared," massacred and made refugees of hundreds of thousands of people throughout Central and South America.
  3. With professional psychology emerging out of war, 15 percent of psychology internship programs and 40 percent of post-doc programs funded by the Veteran's Administration, and over 60 years of Department of Defense funded research, the psychology profession has a long history of financial embeddedness with and indebtedness to the American military.
  4. The American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association both condemned participation in any kind of "coercive interrogations" (not just enhanced interrogations) at Guantanamo and other black sites, which left psychologists in a power vacuum. Psychologists, some of us at least, get very excited about power, since we are, among the sciences, considered a "soft science." In giving the Bush Administration an assurance that these enhanced interrogation techniques were based in "good science" (in actuality all experts agree that torture is excellent for producing false confessions), and that they were necessary to avoid further terrorist attacks, psychologists provided the legitimacy the Administration needed to subvert both constitutional and international law around the detention of prisoners of war and their treatment therein.
  5. Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, the rich, idiot psychologists who "reverse-engineered" torture tactics to employ on "detainees" of the War on Terror are actually just the tip of the iceberg. There were other psychologists involved in torturing prisoners and, what's worse, the American Psychological Association actively covered it up with their much-maligned APA PENS Task Force (of the ten task force members, six had close ties to the Department of Defense, and five of those six had direct experience with coercive interrogations at Guantánamo, Afghanistan, Iraq or other CIA black sites). There has been no serious investigation into the actions of these psychologists until the recent revelations in Pulitzer-prize winning reporter James Risen's new book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War. Risen, who had access to hundreds of previously undisclosed emails involving senior APA staff reports that the APA "worked assiduously to protect the psychologists...involved in the torture program."
  6. Just a reminder: Most of the people swooped up into custody and sent to CIA black sites were completely innocent. These roundups included farmers, cooks, taxi drivers--in short, anyone who had been "turned in" for the large bounty (as much as5,000 per head) that the U.S. promised to Afghan informants. I'm linking here to an article reported on Fox News about revelations by Bush's Republican former chief of staff to Colin Powell so you know this is not Lefty propaganda. Their lives have been ruined. Here's a short video about one kid, Fahd Ghazy, 17 when he was kidnapped, now 30, who has been trapped at Guantanamo for 13 years despite being "cleared" to return to Yemen in 2007. Notice the kindness and humanity of his family and the sweet life he used to have.
  7. Not a single person involved in the torture program, from psychologists on up to folks in the Bush administration, has been prosecuted. Oh, except for the CIA whistleblower who revealed the existence of the torture program. He's in prison.
  8. No safeguards have been put in place in the American Psychological Association's ethics code to keep this from happening again. They have made several good sounding statements, but no actual changes have been made. As Steven Reisner states in his recent article in Slate, "In 2008, a group of APA members appealed to the entire membership in a referendum to prohibit psychologists from participating in any operation that violates the Geneva Conventions or the United Nations Convention Against Torture. The referendum passed overwhelmingly and in February 2009 was made APA official policy by the member-run council. Yet to date, APA leadership refuses to implement the referendum, claiming the APA cannot determine when U.S. national security policy violates international law; the APA holds to this position even in the face of judgments rendered by the United Nations Committee Against Torture, for example, as to the illegal status of indefinite detentions at Guantanamo Bay."
  9. It's just us chickens, folks. No one else is going to make this right for us, and the same handful of vocal psychologists have been out on the frontlines for the last 8 years, doing their best to sound the alarm. We therapists are all busy, I know, and we're doing our best to help individuals transcend and heal from the pain of their lives and find joy and meaning. But the very people who accredit our institutions of learning (you know how everyone goes to APA accredited schools and gets APA accredited internships?) supported an illegal and immoral program of torture because...power and money. That and an atmosphere of fear after 9/11 that, generally speaking, is extremely hard to resist unless our guidelines, punishments and incentives (to be instruments of healing) are clear as the bright blue sky.
  10. Psychologists, psychotherapists, anyone professing to have an interest in the psyche, which is the Greek word for soul, simply have no business being anywhere near torture, either in spirit or law. Given that things have only gotten worse politically and economically over the last decade, with violent extremism at an all time high, there is nothing to keep this from happening again. Get educated. Get involved. Join Psychologists for Social Responsibility and Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. Email me (debkory@gmail.com) about your organization, or one that you know about that is doing awesome work out in the world--I want to know about it! Sign this petition and this one calling for a special, independent prosecutor to investigate and prosecute (if there is sufficient evidence) any former officials involved in torture. If you are not a psychologist, spread the word to psychologists you know and, everyone, be sure to teach this history. Talk to your therapist about it (so few know this is going on in their name). The dark side of the profession needs to be known, made conscious, and integrated into our training curricula that is otherwise filled with so much self-congratulatory "expertise."

Psychotherapy is fundamentally about love. It is through love that we connect and heal one another and is, in my humble opinion, what is being referred to when we talk about the "therapeutic alliance," or refer to the ineffable healing process in therapy that scientists just can't quantify, try as they might. But we therapists mustn't be content to keep our love confined to the therapeutic hour or the individuals with whom we work. Just because our work with clients is private and confidential doesn't mean that we must live private and confidential lives. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love." As a group we tend to be conflict-averse and we're used to holding a great deal of space for complexity, can imagine the inner lives of perpetrators and victims alike, and have trained ourselves to reflect instead of react. In this way we have a great deal to offer the suffering world, but we must step out of the confines of our cozy offices and actually find one another first. Otherwise we are just passing each other in life's hallway for a quick pee break between sessions.

*A longer version of this blog is avaiilable at Psychotherapy.net.