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Why Did They Do It? Torture, Political Manipulation and the American Psychological Association

Torture, Political Manipulation and the American Psychological Association

by Dr. BRYANT WELCH

The regressive effects of current forms of political manipulation that I describe in my new book, State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind (Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, June, 2008) have not only affected American politics. They have also taken their toll on psychologists’ national organization, the American Psychological Association. Many APA members were shocked last year when APA twice refused to take an unequivocal stance against psychologists’ participation in the Bush detention centers.  The fact that other health care organizations, typically more conservative than APA on humanitarian issues, were very outspoken about the issue made it all the more puzzling.

In human rights groups and liberal organizations around the world the arguments APA spokespersons advanced in support of APA’s position did not pass the red face test for credibility. Instead, their seemingly transparent disingenuousness only made the APA sound embarrassingly like the Bush Administration.

Banning psychologists’ participation in reputed torture mills was clearly unnecessary, it was argued.  To do so would be an insult to military psychologists everywhere. Psychologists would never engage in torture. Further, psychologists’ participation in these detention centers was really an antidote to torture since psychologists’ presence could protect the potential torture victims.  We psychologists were both too good and too important to join our professional colleagues in taking an absolutist moral position against one of the most shameful eras in our country’s history.

There are two questions that beg for answers. How did the APA form such an obviously close connection to the military? And why did the APA governance—the Board of Directors and the Council of Representatives—go along with the military interests? How could an organization of such bright and ethical people be rendered so incompetent to protect the profession from the horrible black eye they have given us?

I have had ample opportunity to observe both the inner workings of the APA and the personalities and organizational vicissitudes that have affected it over the last two decades. With one interruption, for most of the twenty year period from 1983 through 2003 I worked inside the APA central office as the first Executive Director of the APA Practice Directorate and served in several governance positions including Chair of the APA Board of Professional Affairs and member of the APA Council of Representatives.

When the torture issue broke last year, the answer to the first question about APA’s military connection seemed obvious to me. Since the early 1980’s APA has had a unique relationship with Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye’s office. Inouye, for much of that time, has served as Chair of the Subcommittee on Defense for the Senate Appropriations Committee. The Subcommittee has responsibility for all U.S. defense spending. One of Inouye’s administrative assistants, psychologist Patrick DeLeon, has long been active in the APA and served a term as APA president. For over twenty-five years relationships between APA and the Department of Defense (DOD) have been strongly encouraged and closely coordinated by DeLeon. It was DeLeon acting on behalf of Inouye who initiated the DOD psychologist prescription demonstration project in the late 1980’s that began psychology’s efforts to secure prescriptive privileges.

For many APA governance members, most of whom have little Washington political experience, Dr. DeLeon is perceived as a canny politician and political force on Capitol Hill. The two most visible APA presidents on the torture issue, Ronald Levant and Gerald Koocher, based on personal discussions I have had with them in recent years, clearly hold  DeLeon’s political savvy in high regard.

While I personally got along well with DeLeon and never doubted his commitment to psychology, his view of psychology and his sense of priorities were quite different from mine, and I did not share the positive assessments of Dr. DeLeon’s political prowess. I felt his priorities often had more to do with the status of psychology as reflected in comparatively minor issues that were often unconnected to issues that were of true importance to practitioners and patients. Rightly or wrongly, I often felt that an accurate sense of context was missing from his political analysis and objectives. It’s the same feeling I have now when I look aghast at what APA has done on the torture issue. Except this time, it is not something relatively innocuous.

Some people attempt to explain APA’s recent seemingly inexplicable behavior by assuming that large sums of money changed hands on the torture issue. I could certainly be wrong, but I think the more likely (and more remarkable) explanation is that  those APA leaders making the decisions simply exercised judgment that was both that bad and that insensitive to the realities of the human suffering they were supporting..

Regardless, there is no question that APA had formed a strong relationship with military psychologists and the DOD through its connections with Inouye’s office.

But it is the second question that is probably more difficult to understand from afar. How could both the APA Board of Directors and the APA Council of Representatives support the military on this issue and subject the profession to such embarrassment by supporting a policy that is anathema to the vast majority of psychologists?

The moral decay and functional regression of an organization does not rise or fall with any single event any more than the fall of Rome truly occurred in 476 AD. What is clear to me, instead, is that the pluralistic and multi-faceted governing process that I witnessed when I first entered the APA in the early 1980’s was sharply curtailed during the 1990’s. Differences of opinion stopped and the APA suffered a terrible regression. Increasingly inbred, under the administration of Raymond Fowler, the association agenda was primarily and at times exclusively financial, focusing on making money both through real estate ventures and through what many of us felt was a an unwarranted, financially harsh treatment of APA employees.  

More peculiarly, Fowler’s “agenda” for APA was encapsulated in the phrase “working together” a noble idea that to the best of my knowledge was never attached to any actual substantive agenda. Instead, it served as a means of social control, a subtle injunction against raising any of the conflictual issues, challenges, or ideas that need to be addressed in any vital and accountable organization. The APA became placid and increasingly detached.

The result was that much of the activity of the APA Council of Representatives  turned away from substantive matters into an odd system of fawning over one another. Many members appeared to me to simply bathe in the good feeling that came from “working together.” For some, the bath was a narcissistic one and organizational regression became more debilitating. In other instances during this period, isolated dissent from rank and file members was stifled either with heavy handed letters from the APA attorney threatening legal action or by communications from prominent members of the APA governance threatening ethical action if policy protests were not discontinued.

The inept ability to deliberate on the torture issue was but the shocking denouement of an organizational process that was really set in motion in the early 1990’s largely to serve the convenience of a very small number of individuals.

As a result of the lengthy era of regression, the governance of APA was ill prepared for thoughtful deliberation on a matter as important as the torture issue. As I have written in State of Confusion when people are confused they are eager to be told what is real. The governance was simply over its head in trying to effectively deliberate on such an issue when there was organized support on the other side coming from the military interests supported by Koocher and Levant and possibly DeLeon.

When the torture issue arose, the Council, despite the efforts of several council members, fell victim to some of the very silly arguments described above. Council members were told that to oppose psychologists participation in the detention actions was to cruelly suggest that our colleagues might engage in torture. In a fashion chillingly characteristic of the gaslighter  it was implied that those who raised concern about torture, were themselves torturing their colleagues who were working in the military. One prominent member of the APA governance gratuitously raised the ethnicity of one of the military psychologists seemingly opening the possibility that the opponents to torture were racist. 

These arguments were then followed with the grandiose closing argument that psychologists presence at the detention centers was critical to make sure torture did not recur. We psychologists had a moral duty to prevent immoral behavior. The piano player once aroused to the possibility of what was going on upstairs was now necessary to prevent it. Yes, these were the arguments that carried the day in APA deliberations and enabled the military to have its way with the APA. In the more discerning eyes of the world, they have very little credibility.

But the gaslighting is not over, even now. There is one more step in the process. History will show this to be a despicable period of American history. The people who have supported APA’s position on this issue obviously do not want their legacy at APA to include that they supported a policy that failed to indict the detention centers. The recent history must be revised.  In a seeming gesture of reconciliation the APA has offered to continue negotiating the matter with the dissident groups. In this fashion the historical revision has already begun. It may well be the final policy APA adopts will ultimately read the way it should have last summer and much, much earlier when it actually  mattered. APA will “get it right” shortly before or shortly after George Bush leaves office. In leaving a final written policy that is like our sister organizations’ original policies, APA’s shocking failure at the critical time will appear never to have happened.

Such is the work of a regressed and chronically manipulated organization. Despite being an organization of psychologists, APA has been subjected to very little analysis. Psychologists are amongst the most moral and ethical people I know. They deserved better from their national organization, just as Americans have deserved better from their government.

Dr. BRYANT WELCH has been a nationally-prominent psychologist for thirty years. He currently resides on Hilton Head Island, SC where he provides psychotherapy to adolescents and adults and marriage counseling to couples. In August of 2005, Dr. Welch was awarded the American Psychological Association’s Presidential Citation for his "seminal and unique contribution to professional psychological practice." He is the author of State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind.