CIA Psychologists and Torture: A Shameful Combination

In light of the recent findings that two military psychologists aided and abetted torture schemes carried out by the CIA, I want to state unequivocally that I am completely against such actions, am disgusted, angered, and deeply saddened to learn that any psychologist would engage in such completely unethical and sadistic practices. We are bound by the highest levels of ethical integrity and it is imperative that all psychologists come together to condemn these acts as well as ensure they are never again repeated. The American Psychological Association (APA) has initiated an independent review of this situation, and while I hope they come forth with truthful findings and an action plan to prevent this from ever happening again, as well as severe consequences for those psychologists, I am not confident they will. It shocks and fills me with despair to hear that some psychologists(a great minority, but still!) seem to have no problem with what those two did. For shame.

How could this happen? Psychologists in clinical practice provide essential mental health services and those in research work on diverse scientific topics. In research, clinical settings,  and practicum, we work within and collaborate with just about every medical and scientific discipline.  We abide by strict ethical codes, guidelines, and laws that form the foundation of what we do and how we do it, which go well beyond “Do No Harm.” I could not imagine how these two psychologists could rationalize or justify their work. Where is the scientific basis for this? How did it pass the ethics committee? Could they not see that this was  morally wrong?  It seems that these two psychologists extrapolated from classic studies in psychology on Learned Helplessness (which, in my view, have ethical issues of their own), and applied them to justify their actions. This is bogus and unprofessional. Upon hearing this, the main researcher behind the Learned Helplessness studies, Dr. Martin Seligmann stated he is “grieved and horrified” (see link to NY Times article below). Several news outlets (NY Times among them), have reported the psychologists were paid 81 MILLION DOLLARS. So Greed reared its ugly head. That’s how it happened.

“The program allowed the psychologists to assess their own work — they gave it excellent grades — and to charge a daily rate of $1,800 each, four times the pay of other interrogators, to waterboard detainees. Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Jessen later started a company that took over the C.I.A. program from 2005 until it was closed in 2009. The C.I.A. paid it $81 million, plus $1 million to protect the company from legal liability.”( NY Times, Report Portrays a Broken C.I.A. Devoted to a Failed Approach, December 9, 2014)

I am completely against psychologists participation in torture and other harmful, inhumane actions. It is against everything we are taught and trained to do and because of our roles as health care researchers and providers, we have a greater responsibility to ensure our work is in line with the ethics and guidelines of our profession-and that they are morally correct.  We are held to a higher standard and rightfully so. Legal actions are not necessarily moral ones. So even though the government apparently sanctioned and paid for the services of those two psychologists, it does not mean it was right or ethical. Although I had nothing to do with the CIA torture situation, I am so sorry that it occurred and hopeful that measures will be taken to prevent this from ever happening again.

Psychologists do a lot of things but torture must never be one of them

UPDATE: In a letter to the New York Times, the APA President makes a strong statement about the APA’s position regarding this matter. I understand she is also writing to other major newspapers. It is true and safe to say that every psychologist I know as well as those in psychology associations of which I am a member are condemning the actions of those two psychologists. See the letter here: