Psychology and Torture – The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Continues to Explore the Dark Side of Professional Life



On September 11, 2001, things changed radically here in the United States.  We became viscerally aware of how vulnerable we are to terrorist attacks.  I think this awareness can be thought about, psychoanalytically, as a particular kind of communication – one that we call projective identification.  In this form of communication one of us (a terrorist) gets another (the rest of us) to feel the way that he or she does by doing to us what he or she feels has been done to him or her.  The challenge, when this happens in the therapeutic setting, is to resist acting on the communicated feeling – it is challenging because these feelings are always intense - and the immediate wish is to get rid of the feeling by retaliating – which simply starts a never ending battle of tit for tat.  So the challenge is to find a new way of responding which can lead to new ways of relating.

Slowly emerging news suggests that the American Psychological Association (APA) may have failed at the effort to contain the urge to respond and, in what may end up being just as bad or worse, may have covered up their perhaps well-intentioned but in any case seriously misguided efforts to help the “War on Terror” by supporting the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” methods that were later deemed to be torture by conventional standards.  You can find a preliminary report based on emails from a now deceased RAND employee by clicking here or Googling “All the President’s Psychologists”.  This April (or May) 2015 report is based on emails provided by James Risen the author of the book Pay Any Price, published in November 2014.  I think it was the preliminary data from this report that led APA to hire an independent investigator to determine more precisely what happened and who has covered up what and that report is supposed to be forthcoming shortly – though I fear that it may take a while.  I think APA has given the investigative team access to all internal emails at APA – or at least I hope so.  They have assured APA members and the public that they have done this, but the same people are at the helm who are accused of the cover-up, so I am concerned about the integrity of the organization's response to the accusations.

The gist of the allegations hinge around the period of time from 2003 – 2005, when the CIA was trying to figure out how to make sure that the “interrogations” that they were doing in Guantanamo Bay were legal.  One way of ensuring this is to have “medical personnel” available during the interrogations.  To have the imprimatur of a major professional organization would all but cement the deal.  Apparently the CIA approached the AMA and the American Psychiatric Association, but neither of them would agree to condone their actions.  The way that they approached the APA was through the window of research.  The emails suggest that the CIA worked with the APA to alter the definition of ethical behavior to including doing research on prisoners – something that the entire research community has recognized for decades should not be done because prisoners cannot provide informed consent – in the context of “threats to National Security”.  The report suggests that it is possible that the CIA provided language to the APA for how to change their ethical codes so that the CIA could get the stamp of approval.  This is alleged to have been done in secret meetings – with both CIA and APA staffers meeting to discuss material that would have been highly classified – and may have given the APA staffers the sense that they would not have to answer for their actions because they were hidden in the cloud of governmental secrecy.

As I am reading the report, initially the CIA enticed APA with the idea that the APA could set up research protocols to prevent the CIA from harming the individuals that they had captured.  Soon, the CIA was trying to pin the techniques they were using, techniques that met criteria for torture, on the APA – or psychologists who were supposedly “researching” what was being done – as if it were the psychologist’s idea to use this form of “interrogation”.  When the actions that the CIA was engaged in went public, the AMA and the American Psychiatric Association immediately and very publicly decried them, stating that they were both immoral and illegal.  The APA, however, took longer to respond and then used hedging language.  This is just plain fishy.  Psychologists as a whole, and APA as an organization deplore torture.  We are against it.  Torture is bad for people.  We are for what is good for people.  Oh, sure, there are sharks in our midst who do bad things and even the best of us make mistakes – see my last blog about sexual boundary transgressions – but bank on this – we have seen the effects of torture.  Those effects are bad.  We don’t believe the world is improved by harming people – at least in our more rational moments.

So, I think that in the wake of September 11th, we were not as rational as we might have been.  I blogged elsewhere about realizing that everyone at my Midwestern University had gone a little bonkers when our Chief of Campus Police suggested that the police could form a cordon around our brand new arena to keep it safe from attack.  Yes, the BIG WE was under attack.  No, the terrorists don’t give a damn about an empty arena off in the middle of the fly over states.  The little, local we were not under attack – and I breathed a sigh of relief because I felt I had been.  So, I am imagining that some of my brethren at APA may have felt some of that feeling of being attacked and may have wanted to know what to do to help.  After all, they lived in a city that had been attacked and they were inside the beltway and privileged to an even more constant onslaught of information about the evils of Al Qaeda.  I do also believe, though, that they should have seen this as a trap – at least the psychologically/ psychotherapeutically/ psychoanalytically sophisticated ones; they should have recognized this is as participating in a projective identification enactment – the tit for tat thing referred to above.  They should have said – “No, this is not the way to get where we need to go based on our knowledge of psychology and human functioning.”

But, as I said before, it is understandable to make a mistake.  What is more chilling is that there are emails between the people at APA who are meeting with reporters trying to figure out whether APA had colluded with the CIA and they are talking about lulling those reporters to sleep with boring details about how opposed they were to torture as a means of diverting the reporters attention from the intent of discovering what had happened, and what they apparently knew had happened.  The staff members were coordinating their responses and, if I’m reading this right, coordinating them both with other staffers and with folks outside of APA so that everyone gave the same story to the press.  Well, dammit, if you’ve done a bad thing, you fess up to it.  Even Tom Brady and deflation-gate would have gone a lot better if he had just owned up to it.  But these smug people took the position that what they had done could be hidden.  That is, they knew that what they had done was wrong and would reflect badly on them in the light of day. 

While the picture I have painted is human, it is worse than frustrating.  It suggests that everything that we stand for is for sale.  The integrity of our research is for sale.  We built in ways to get around protections that had been put in place beginning with the Nuremberg Trials – trials of Nazi Doctors.  Are we now on the level with Nazi Doctors?  Our commitment to the greater good is for sale.  In the face of “National Security” or whatever was driving us – what might we have hoped that the government responsible for paying research monies might give us if we played nice with them? – we were willing to treat “enemy combatants” as inhuman.  Further, we engaged in the kind of tit for tat behavior that prolongs the struggle rather than bringing it to a conclusion.

The psychologists and psychoanalysts that I speak with on a daily basis really seem to get the urgency of these issues.  They are concerned about this – they get how big these issues are and how badly they will reflect on us as they become more public.  I have raised the issue on a listserve that includes people who could influence the way that APA handles the situation – I think that the people who could be implicated are not the people who should receive the report – and since the Chief Executive Officer of APA is implicated as is the person who is responsible for disseminating information about the organization both to the public and to members – they should be removed from responsibility for acting on or disseminating the report.  My organization, however, seems not to be recognizing that we need to be responsive.  This has the potential to underscore the concerns that the initial report is pointing to.  We need to act now to do what we can to act with integrity from this point forward – for there is nothing we can do about the past but try to come to grips with it – to expose it and try to learn from it.  Perhaps a statement of the psychoanalytic position more generally.


More broadly, opening up the past to learn from it is a statement of what it means to live in a free society.  We are responsible for our actions.  We own up to them.  We recognize that the truth will out.  And we bring it out so that it can be examined.  I hope the APA is in the process of doing this.  I hope they put in place the mechanisms that are needed so that from here on we can act with integrity.  We can own and acknowledge our sins, if we have committed them, and learn something about what drove us to them (I have just been speculating here).  If we continue to harm others and engage in subterfuge to cover it up, then I fear the terrorists have won.  They have drawn us down to their level.  We are no longer using the privilege that they experience us as having to try to raise us all, each in our unique way, to the best level we can, but instead are using it as they fear, simply to protect ourselves.  Of course we can do that, we are human.  The measure of whether we can resist that and come up with new means of engagement is a measure of a different and more noble aspect of our being human.  Keeping secrets (something that is related to but subtly different from holding confidences) - hiding and lying - moves us away from being able to function with integrity.  

Since this blog was published, in July, the APA published the Hoffman report, which is the result of an investigation that they commissioned into the material above.  The focus of that report was more on the relationship between the Department of Defense and APA in the years after the those reported here - less on the CIA involvement - and my first report on that document (and links to it) can be found here with a subsequent analysis of that report from a Freudian position here.

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