The Bush Torture Scandal Isn’t Over

The Bush Torture Scandal Isn’t Over

The American Psychological Association grapples with who should take the blame for greenlighting enhanced interrogations.

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An Iraqi security officer stands guard at the Baghdad Central Prison in Abu Ghraib on Feb. 21, 2009, in Iraq.

Wathiq Khuzaie/Getty Images

In June, a little-known academic journal called Teaching of Psychology published an article about the American Psychological Association’s role in the U.S. government’s war on terror and the interrogation of military detainees. Mitchell Handelsman’s seven-page paper, called “A Teachable Ethics Scandal,” suggested that the seemingly cozy relationship between APA officials and the Department of Defense might be used to illustrate numerous psychological concepts for students including obedience, groupthink, terror management theory, group influence, and motivation.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate.

By mid-July, Teaching of Psychology had taken steps to retract the paper. The thinking that went into that decision reveals a disturbing under-covered coda to a scandal that, for a time, was front-page news. In July 2015, then–APA President Nadine Kaslow apologized for the organization’s involvement in Bush-era enhanced interrogations. “This bleak chapter in our history,” she said, speaking for a group with more than 100,000 members and a nine-figure budget, “occurred over a period of years and will not be resolved in a matter of months.” Two years later, the APA’s attempt to turn the page has devolved into a vicious internecine battle in which former association presidents have taken aim at one another. At issue is the question of who (if anyone) should be blamed for giving the Bush administration what’s been called a “green light” to torture detainees—and when the APA will ever truly get past this scandal.

The details of the case against the APA were laid out in James Risen’s 2014 book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War. The former New York Times reporter described how the association convened a task force in 2005, after revelations of abuse at Abu Ghraib, to reconsider whether and to what extent psychologists ought to help question detainees as members of Behavioral Science Consultation Teams, or “biscuit teams.” At that point, the Times was reporting on how the biscuit teams operated at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Some members of these teams would observe sessions through a one-way mirror; others stood inside the room. Either way, former interrogators said they were there to give advice on how interrogators could ratchet up their captives’ mental stress. For example, a military doctor might offer insight into the effects of sleep deprivation or suggest specific ways in which a detainee’s phobias might be used against him.

The task force decided that psychologists could be involved in interrogations, Risen noted, provided that the methods used were “safe, legal, ethical, and effective”—a vague prescription that happened to fall almost perfectly in line with the military’s own rules for biscuit teams. Risen attributes this outcome to the close ties between higher-ups at APA, the CIA, and the Pentagon. The task force’s conclusions, he argued, offered “professional cover for the psychologists who had been involved with the interrogation program.”

Handelsman’s article about all this does not, on its face, appear to be controversial. He used as his source material a public 542-page report, from Chicago lawyer David Hoffman, commissioned by the APA in response to the allegations in Risen’s book and released in 2015. Hoffman concurred with Risen and found that “key APA officials … colluded with important DoD officials” to “curry favor” with the government. While the report says there is no evidence that APA officials “actually knew” about any torture of detainees, it notes that they had good reason to suspect that abuse might be taking place, and that they “intentionally and strategically avoided taking steps to learn information to confirm those suspicions.” In his paper, Handelsman—a professor at the University of Colorado–Denver who has written two books on ethics in psychotherapy—acknowledges that his description of the scandal is “necessarily a condensation of a very complex series of events and interpretations.” Critiques of the Hoffman report “abound,” he adds by way of a disclaimer, and “as with all the information we teach, we must be prepared for facts and interpretations to change.”

Still, the framing of his article bothered Gerry Koocher, a scholar of ethics in psychology at DePaul University who served as president of the APA in 2006. Koocher told me by phone that he was troubled by the fact that Handelsman “drew entirely on the Hoffman report” and did not mention a defamation suit, filed this past February against both Hoffman and the APA, which alleges that the report’s findings were misleading, exaggerated, and unfair to everyone involved. (Hoffman’s law firm, Sidley Austin LLP, declined an interview request on his behalf.)

In June, Koocher reached out to both Handelsman and journal editor Drew Christopher to complain about the article’s one-sidedness. About a week later, Koocher says, word came back that Teaching of Psychology would pull the paper—at least until the lawsuit had been settled.

Koocher’s interest in the case is personal: His name appears in the Hoffman report more than 270 times, and while he’s not a plaintiff in the defamation suit, it’s clear his reputation has been tarnished by the scandal. The bulk of Hoffman’s findings concern the 2005 task force, which the report describes as having set “loose, high-level ethical guidelines that did not constrain [the Department of Defense].” The committee’s membership was tilted toward individuals with military ties, Hoffman said. In particular, Hoffman portrays Koocher (who participated in task force discussions but was not a voting member) as an “aggressive” voice on behalf of the pro-government faction. Koocher is said to have rejected proposed appeals to international human-rights laws, and he’s accused of lashing out at a woman Hoffman describes as one of the task force’s two “substantial dissenters,” psychologist Jean Maria Arrigo.

The plaintiffs in the defamation suit, who include several members of that task force, consider the Hoffman report a prosecutor’s brief contrived to make them look as bad as possible. They allege that Hoffman read a “rational disagreement about the APA guidelines” as a nefarious plot to enable torture. The plaintiffs say that what Hoffman called “currying favor” with the government might otherwise be construed as an honest effort to “serve each of the APA’s constituencies,” including the association’s cadre of military psychologists.

The lawsuit also catalogs 219 allegedly “false statements” in the report and argues that since the DOD had already banned extreme interrogation methods by mid-2005—a fact Hoffman overlooked—the task force could not have endorsed or supported torture, even if its recommendations seemed to fall in line with military rules. (In the fall of 2015, the APA implemented a new policy that prohibited psychologists from participating in national security interrogations.) Finally, the plaintiffs argue that Nadine Kaslow, the APA president who brought in Hoffman and oversaw his investigation, had both extensive conflicts of interest and a pre-existing view that transgressions had occurred. (Kaslow told me she would not comment for this story.)

The plaintiffs were not alone in raising questions about the Hoffman report. Among those who criticized the investigation were eight former APA presidents (not including Koocher) who put out an open letter to the APA board of directors in June 2016, expressing “deep concern and dismay” over the events surrounding the release of the report. “It is obvious that there are very real and honest differences of opinion regarding the [Hoffman report], how it was done, how the interests of interviewees were or were not protected, the findings themselves, and even what APA or its agents actually did that was either immoral, unethical, or illegal,” they wrote. “The Association is seriously fractured and in need of leadership leading it in a new direction.” A few months earlier, in response to such complaints, Kaslow’s successor at the APA, Susan McDaniel, had “re-engaged” Hoffman to produce a supplemental report addressing perceived problems in the original. That follow-up, due last summer, never materialized.

“Basically, I was taking an intellectual stance with them,” says Koocher of his back-and-forth with Teaching of Psychology regarding Handelsman’s paper. “I said, ‘Hey, you guys are basing an article on half the story. You’re ignoring some major stuff that’s out there.’ … I’m going to write a rejoinder, and I didn’t say this, but it was obvious that the rejoinder that would come out would be very embarrassing.”

I asked Koocher what, exactly, he found objectionable about Handelsman’s paper, and what, exactly, he planned to put in his rejoinder. Koocher responded by saying he didn’t want to go into details because “I’d be giving away what is going to be quite an article when I get around to writing it.” Nevertheless, he went on to cite a litany of alleged problems with the Hoffman report and offered up his own assessment of the recent APA presidents who supported its conclusions. “I think some of the people who were apologizing had a lot of other things in their lives to feel guilty about that had nothing to do with Hoffman,” he told me.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that this dispute had devolved into armchair speculation. Indeed, many psychologists—Handelsman included—have psychologized the scandal, citing Stanley Milgram’s work on obedience or Leon Festinger’s on dissonance as explanations for what happened. The plaintiffs in the defamation case have also given in to this inclination: In court filings, they’ve described the terms of Hoffman’s investigation as having “set the stage for psychology’s treacherous trio: confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, and motivated reasoning.”

“In my view, APA didn’t do anything wrong,” Koocher said. “There’s a small strident group of people who believe APA should have done this or should have done that in terms of being more vocal. My take on it is that the really bad actors were two people, Mitchell and [Jessen], and they’re getting their comeuppance now in court.” Those “bad actors”—psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen—recently settled a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of former prisoners that accused them of having committed war crimes by concocting “enhanced interrogation” methods (including waterboarding) for use by the CIA. Mitchell and Jessen’s firm—1 percent of which was owned by yet another former APA president—took in more than $80 million from government contracts.

Koocher’s complaint about the Teaching of Psychology paper seemed to be effective—at least for a time. In July, a draft retraction notice from editor Drew Christopher made its way to Ian Hansen, a professor at the City University of New York and president of an activist group called Psychologists for Social Responsibility. “The retraction is based on the ongoing events surrounding the foundation of this article,” the notice says. “We believe it is prudent to wait until the case is resolved before teachers use these events in their classrooms.” Christopher refused multiple requests to be interviewed for this article, but Hansen says he reached out to the journal about the draft notice, which he viewed as a potential abridgment of Handelsman’s academic freedom. According to Hansen, Christopher emailed him that, “after consulting with Mitch Handelsman and scores of legal minds, the retraction is moving forward.”

In the weeks that followed, Hansen and his fellow activists tried to get more information. Just ahead of the APA’s annual meeting in early August, Hansen emailed an editor at SAGE Publications, the company that publishes Teaching of Psychology, to express concern on behalf of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. On Aug. 15, an APA-member psychologist named Alice LoCicero published a blog post on the website of Psychology Today in which she called out the treatment of Handelsman’s article in the context of what she described as “a variety of attempts to rewrite history.”

In 2016, LoCicero had published the results from a survey of graduate programs in clinical psychology, noting how infrequently they engaged with the ethical dilemmas posed by practitioners’ involvement in interrogations. (Just 17 percent of the graduate programs’ directors reported giving students any formal training on issues related to psychologists in military settings.) Now it seemed to her that a systematic failure to grapple with the past had developed into active censorship. “The attempt to suppress the story of APA and torture has been so vigorous and so vigilant,” she wrote in her blog post, “that it has led a journal … to decide to retract” an accepted paper.

The current APA president, Antonio Puente, responded three days later with a comment on LoCicero’s blog, pointing out that Handelsman’s article was not, in fact, retracted and that the APA “is committed to continuing to address the underlying issues and concerns raised by the independent review to ensure that this history will not be repeated.”

Indeed, one day after that, a SAGE representative confirmed to Hansen that whatever plans had been in place to pull the paper had themselves been retracted. Both SAGE and Christopher confirmed to me on Aug. 23 that Handelsman’s piece will remain in print, albeit with a cautionary editor’s note. A SAGE spokesperson told me that “at one point the editor did determine that a retraction could be the best option to give him time to evaluate concerns before the paper was used further in the classroom. After further consultation and review, the editor determined that a note was a more appropriate response.” The editor’s note, which SAGE shared with me in advance of publication, will remind readers that the Hoffman report is subject to a pending lawsuit and will advise teachers who plan to use the article in their classrooms to “monitor developments in the case.” It’s not yet clear whether Koocher will proceed with writing his planned rejoinder, or how Teaching of Psychology will choose to deal with such a piece if he does.

In the meantime, on Aug. 25, an Ohio judge dismissed the defamation suit against Hoffman and the APA on jurisdictional grounds. The plaintiffs responded by refiling their case in Washington, D.C., where the APA has its headquarters. That means this fight will likely go on a while longer—which means the final lessons of this “teachable ethics scandal” have yet to be written.

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