In August, two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, settled a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of three former CIA detainees. The psychologists were accused of designing, implementing and overseeing the CIA’s experimental program of torture and abuse (for which their consulting firm received tens of millions of dollars). The evidence against them was compelling: a detailed Senate report, multiple depositions, newly declassified documents and even Mitchell’s memoir . Prior to settling, Mitchell and Jessen denied any legal responsibility, and their attorneys argued their inculpability by comparing them to the low-level technicians whose employers provided lethal gas for Hitler’s extermination camps.
As a psychologist who has spent the past decade working with colleagues and other human rights advocates to reset my profession’s moral compass against torture, I recognize this settlement as an achievement, even if it’s not the damning finding of liability I would have preferred. The case marks the first instance of legal accountability of any kind for psychologists who abandoned ethical standards — and basic decency — while claiming they were merely following government orders on torture. Getting to this point was an uphill battle. And there’s still a long way to go before psychologists’ participation in torture is ended for good.
After 9/11, Mitchell and Jessen were not the only psychologists who, drawn either by the call of patriotism or windfall paydays, acted as key players in a war machine that methodically broke the minds and bodies of its prisoners. Government policies required that a psychologist be on hand whenever a detainee was subjected to torturous techniques such as waterboarding. The perverse rationale: According to memos from government lawyers at that time, “close observation” by health professionals constituted clear evidence that there was no specific intent to cause severe pain or suffering.
The number of psychologists who were involved, directly or indirectly, in abusive detention operations is unknown. But it’s likely that they were present at facilities across the globe, including CIA “black sites” in Afghanistan, Cuba, Thailand, Poland, Romania and Lithuania. None of these psychologists has ever been sanctioned for ethics violations by state licensing boards or professional associations — even the relative few whose identities are known. In part, this is because the American Psychological Association (APA) — the largest membership organization of psychologists in the world — did not effectively defend the profession’s bedrock do-no-harm principles.
In 2007, attending the APA’s annual meeting in San Francisco to give a talk about war propaganda, I was both shaken and inspired by presentations and protests illuminating the role played by psychologists in U.S. detention and interrogation operations. I joined with a group pushing the APA to right its ship. Our efforts included extensive research, online petitions, advocacy videos, many op-eds and articles, news releases, conference presentations, convention protests, a referendum of APA members, campaigns for leadership positions within the APA, and ethics complaints.
Over much of the decade, our efforts were routinely met with denials, stonewalling and retaliatory personal attacks within our profession. In public forums, the APA’s ethics director dismissed reports of detainee abuse as “long on hearsay and innuendo, short on facts.” One association president condemned dissident voices as “opportunistic commentators masquerading as scholars.” Another advised us to “turn down the temperature on outrage.” A high-profile military psychologist boasted in his memoir, “I confronted one of my critics and threatened to shut his mouth for him if he didn’t do it himself.”
In other words, APA leaders were willfully making policy choices that served to support, rather than oppose, the government’s interrogation and detention operations, insisting that psychologists helped to ensure that these operations were “safe, legal, ethical, and effective.” We were baffled and distraught that they allowed crucial determinations about psychological ethics to be guided by the methods of the George W. Bush administration’s war on terrorism, which included torture.
Three years ago, finally succumbing to mounting pressure, the APA commissioned a comprehensive independent review, conducted by attorney David Hoffman of the Sidley Austin law firm. The 500-page report confirmed what our own research and investigations had found. It concluded that the APA, despite growing evidence of detainee mistreatment, had secretly coordinated with Defense Department officials to promote ethics policies that matched the government’s preferences. This was accomplished, in part, by stacking a key APA task force with military intelligence insiders and relying on Pentagon representatives for behind-the-scenes help in drafting and vetting subsequent APA policy statements and news releases. The report also concluded that APA leaders took this path to “curry favor” with the military establishment — a source of lucrative grants and contracts — and to facilitate the growth of psychology in this ethically fraught arena.
Soon after the report’s release in July 2015, APA leaders issued a statement that included an apology for “the lack of a clear and consistent anti-torture stance” and an expression of regret that “some APA members and other critics were privately and publicly discounted for raising concerns.” The following month, the APA’s leadership took important steps to formally prohibit members from participating in national security interrogations — 13 years after Mitchell first sold the CIA on waterboarding, while an APA member.
It’s tempting to believe that the ACLU settlement with Mitchell and Jessen means the era of impunity for torture is over, even though neither of them suffered any serious consequences. But I doubt it, for at least three reasons. First, we have an authoritarian-minded commander in chief who’s insisted that “torture works.” During his campaign for the White House, Donald Trump declared that he would “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” Since taking office, Trump has appointed both a CIA director who argued that the likes of Mitchell and Jessen are patriots, not torturers, and a deputy director who ran a CIA torture site and participated in the unlawful destruction of videotape evidence. Trump has also nominated for an administration position a lawyer who authored some of the infamous “torture memos ” while working for the Bush Office of Legal Counsel. And the president has given serious consideration to reopening CIA black sites and expanding the use of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.
Second, and just as sobering, public opinion polls over the past decade have consistently shown that many Americans (roughly half, sometimes more) support the torture of terrorism suspects, at least some of the time. This stance has persisted even though “enhanced interrogation” techniques failed to produce actionable intelligence, even though the resort to torture has damaged the moral authority of the United States around the globe and even though these grotesque methods have contributed to radicalizing a new generation of adversaries.
Third, although the belated reforms unfolding at the APA are certainly encouraging, they remain fragile. Influential factions within psychology, including some members of the military intelligence establishment, are trying to turn back the clock. They continue working to discredit the Hoffman report and its findings of years-long collusion, and to return operational psychologists to interrogation rooms and detention cellblocks. At the extreme, some opponents of recent policy changes have asserted that the APA has become “a willing co-conspirator to the likes of al Qaeda and ISIS.”
Psychologists understand the lasting impact of trauma very well. The demons of deep psychic wounds can continue without end. Colleagues who work with torture survivors describe the victims’ overwhelming feelings of helplessness, brokenness and disconnection from other people, direct results of having been subjected to agonizing abuse and humiliation at the hands of another human being. They are haunted by flashbacks and nightmares, and a lasting sense of safety seems impossible to achieve.
That’s why psychologists’ complicity, whether through active participation or silent acquiescence, is so egregious. It’s also why we (and other health professionals) must make sure our gruesome past doesn’t reappear as a ghastly future. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Torture’s corrosive effects are an assault on human dignity — and that ultimately endangers and diminishes us all.