Shocking Report Showing Involvement of US Psychologists in Torture of Military Detainees Requires Emergency Reform of American Psychological Association, Says Coalition of Psychologists


Today’s deeply disturbing revelations in Vanity Fair show the essential role US psychologists played in the torture of detainees in CIA and Department of Defense (DoD) custody, heightening the urgent need for the American Psychological Association (APA) to issue clear ethical guidelines prohibiting psychologists in the military or intelligence services from violating basic human rights as part of interrogation processes, the Coalition for an Ethical APA stated. [The article is available at}

When read in conjunction with the recently declassified Defense Department investigation which revealed that psychologists re-engineered counter-terrorist training techniques as mechanisms for detainee abuse at Guantánamo, in Afghanistan and in Iraq, this article is an indictment not only of participating psychologists, but of the Association which refuses to condemn these practices.

In early 2005, the APA appointed a Presidential Task Force to form ethics policy that was dominated by psychologists from the military and intelligence establishment, some of whom were involved in the very interrogation chains of command now shown to have facilitated abuse. The ethics policy of the APA and the report of the APA’s Presidential Task Force, taken together, currently allow psychologists to participate in national security interrogations, unlike physicians and psychiatrists, and even permits contravening the ethics code when faced with a conflicting “lawful order” from a governing authority.

After two years of reports that psychologists were aiding abusive interrogations, we now have clear evidence that psychologists directly participated in torture. During this time the APA, the main voice of the psychological profession, has closed its eyes and ears to all reports of abuse” said Dr. Stephen Soldz, Director of the Center for Research, Evaluation and Program Development of the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis

The Vanity Fair article reports the role of psychologists in developing the CIA’s regime of abusive interrogations (“torture”). The article states “that psychologists weren’t merely complicit in America’s aggressive new interrogation regime. Psychologists, working in secrecy, had actually designed the tactics and trained interrogators in them while on contract to the CIA.” Psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen of the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) program were brought in by the CIA to use SERE techniques, developed to help our soldiers resist collaboration if captured, to break down detainees.

While Mitchell and Jessen used so-called “enhanced” techniques such as waterboarding (i.e., simulated drowning), most of their techniques became staples of interrogation tactics toward detainees in the war on terror and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The article quotes one source as describing the Mitchell and Jessen approach as being to “break down [the detainees] through isolation, [use] white noise, completely take away their ability to predict the future, [and] create dependence on interrogators.” The description of these techniques matches those techniques described by former interrogator Tony Lagouranis in his new book, Fear Up Harsh as being used by numerous interrogators in Iraq.

The article also makes clear that the sometimes misplaced prestige of psychology as a science and the importance of the supposed “scientific credentials” of the SERE psychologists were crucial to the acceptance of these abusive techniques by general interrogation staff and superiors alike. The article additionally reports that the APA supported the claim that Mitchell and Jessen had specialized scientific knowledge by inviting them to a joint APA-Rand Corporation, CIA-funded conference on the “Science of Deception: Integration of Practice and Theory.” This conference debated “the effectiveness of truth serum and other coercive techniques,” according to Vanity Fair.

The article also reports that the these SERE-based techniques developed by Mitchell and Jessen in the CIA’s secret “black sites” proliferated to other venues where detainees were interrogated, including Guantánamo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The proliferation of SERE techniques was aided by the scientific “patina” afforded by psychology, as stated in the article by Human Rights Watch’s John Sifton. The article further reports that psychologists at Guantanamo participated in interrogations as judges of abuse levels, as “safety officers” deciding just how much abuse a given detainee could tolerate. This very role has been objected to by other health provider organizations, including the American Medical Association.

Since 2005, multiple press reports and government documents have clearly demonstrated that US military and intelligence service psychologists were involved in developing a regime of psychological torture for use on suspected terrorists. In May, the Department of Defense Office of the Inspector General (OIG) declassified a report revealing that psychologists from the military’s SERE program worked with US military psychologists at Guantanamo tasked with “developing the standard operating procedure” for interrogations using tactics that violate the Geneva Conventions. The OIG report also documented that these SERE psychologists played a role in bringing abusive interrogation techniques to Iraq and that the SERE-based techniques also migrated to Afghanistan. [The OIG report is available at:].

“When the APA leadership chose psychologists to formulate its ethical position on interrogations and torture, they included six from the military and intelligence services, some of whom were in the chain of command that directed the abuse.” said Steven Reisner, of the Coalition for an Ethical APA and Columbia University’s International Trauma Studies Program. “Is it really any surprise that, unlike psychiatrists and physicians who prohibited their members’ participation in interrogation, the APA concluded that psychologists could abandon ‘do no harm’ in favor of ‘break them down?'”

Increasingly, as the number of these reports multiplied, members of the APA have called for the Association to unequivocally condemn the use of psychological knowledge for purposes of coercion, abuse and torture, and to take concrete steps to prevent further participation of psychologists in abusive interrogations. In June, the Coalition for an Ethical APA sent an Open Letter to the President of the APA, Dr. Sharon Brehm, demanding swift and comprehensive changes in APA policy. In six weeks, the number of signatories to the letter has risen to over 650. The APA leadership has yet to respond to this letter. Soon afterwards, 58 psychologists from the National Consortium of Torture Treatment Programs issued an additional letter expressing outrage over the failure of the APA to adequately respond to the growing evidence of psychologist involvement in torture. Numerous individual psychologists have written additional letters of protest, and a group of APA members has organized a campaign to withhold their dues until the APA changes its ethical policy to prohibit such abuses.

“The evidence was strong and is now irrefutable,” states Brad Olson, chair of Divisions for Social Justice (DSJ), a collection of divisions within the APA, and faculty member at Northwestern University, “psychologists not only organized abusive interrogations, they directly participated in torture itself. APA members and psychologists everywhere will not stop our efforts until the APA changes its policy to prevent these disturbing violations of human rights from happening again.”

The APA leadership has stated repeatedly that psychologists’ participation in interrogations help keep interrogations “safe, legal, ethical, and effective.” The public record now suggests that the exact opposite is the case.

In response, the Coalition for an Ethical APA today reasserted its call for basic changes in APA policy regarding participation in interrogations and for fundamental reforms in the Association to prevent the reoccurrence of such catastrophic ethical breaches in the future, the Coalition said. The Coalition believes it is critical that the APA take immediate steps to remedy the damage done to the reputation of the profession and its ethical standards, to the Association, and to human rights, in general.

The group urgently recommends the following:

1. The President of the APA must immediately acknowledge errors and abuses committed by its leadership, and substantively reaffirm its commitment to promoting adherence by all psychologists to international human rights standards.

2. The APA Board of Directors and Ethics Committee must endorse the APA Moratorium on psychologist participation in interrogations of foreign detainees, to be voted upon at the August convention.

3. The APA Board of Directors must encourage, support, and cooperate with ongoing Senate investigations into the role of psychologist’s utilization of SERE techniques in developing the US regime of psychological torture used at Guantanamo, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the CIA Black Sites, and elsewhere.

4. The APA Board of Directors must commence a neutral third-party investigation of its own involvement, and that of APA staff, in APA-military conflicts of interest. Among the issues this investigation must examine are:

a) the numerous procedural irregularities alleged to have occurred during the PENS process;

b) the role of the military and intelligence agencies in the formation and functioning of the PENS Task Force;

c) the reasons the APA and its leadership have systematically ignored the accumulating evidence that psychologists participating in interrogations are contributing to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, rather than helping to prevent it;

d) the overall nexus of close ties between the APA staff/leadership and the military and intelligence agencies, ties that may have contributed to a climate that permits undo influence of military and intelligence agencies in the creation of these policies and that encourages turning a blind eye to abuse;

e) the transformation of the APA Ethics Code, from one that protects psychologists’ ethical conduct when such conduct conflicts with law and military regulations to one that protects psychologists who follow unethical law and military regulations.

The Coalition for an Ethical APA calls on all concerned APA members and other psychologists to join them by signing the Open Letter to APA President Sharon Brehm at, to participate actively in mini-convention sessions on ethics and interrogation at the APA Convention in San Francisco beginning this August 18th, and to join the demonstrations planned for this Convention [information available at].


Stephen Soldz

Steven Reisner

Brad Olson

The Coalition for an Ethical APA unites psychologists deeply concerned about our Association’s failure to act on this major crisis facing our profession.