The American Psychological Association Speaks Out Against Gina Haspel
BY TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 14 May 2018
The APA took an important step last week.
7 May 2018 – The journey to redemption is long and often tempest-tossed. But the American Psychological Association (APA) took another noteworthy step last week when CEO Arthur Evans Jr. sent a letter (link is external) to the Senate Intelligence Committee, expressing concern over President Trump’s nomination of Gina Haspel as director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Amid heated debate over whether Haspel is qualified or appropriate for the position, the public record is clear on two points (link is external): She was directly involved in the CIA’s black-site torture of war-on-terror detainees, as well as the subsequent destruction of videotaped evidence of that abuse.
APA’s opposition to Haspel is consistent with its stated mission (link is external) of advancing psychology to benefit society, improve people’s lives, and promote human rights. Dozens (link is external) of other organizations with similar commitments—including the Center for Victims of Torture (link is external), the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology (link is external), Physicians for Human Rights (link is external), Psychologists for Social Responsibility (link is external), and Torture Abolition and Survivors Support International (link is external)—have also weighed in strongly against the Haspel nomination.
For health professionals, this stance reflects a shared understanding: Torture is a barbaric assault on human dignity, and it is therefore intrinsically and profoundly psychological. For survivors, the demons of deep psychic wounds continue without end. Overwhelming feelings of helplessness, brokenness, and disconnection from other people are the direct result of having been subjected to agonizing abuse and humiliation at the hands of another human being. Haunting flashbacks and nightmares are abiding reminders that safety and solace are exceedingly difficult if not impossible to attain.
But the APA’s rejection of Haspel as CIA director speaks even louder given the association’s past failure to stand as a bulwark against the kind of abusive detainee treatment she oversaw. In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney told (link is external) the nation that the Bush Administration would work “the dark side,” spend time “in the shadows,” use “any means at our disposal,” and make certain that “we have not tied the hands of our intelligence communities.” APA’s leaders responded by reaching out (link is external) directly to the Department of Defense (DoD) and the CIA, explicitly “offering psychologists’ expertise to decision-makers” in these and other related agencies.
That began a years-long, ill-conceived odyssey for the APA. Those at the helm repeatedly steered the organization into perilous and turbulent waters, eschewing the safe harbor and terra firma of the profession’s bedrock do-no-harm ethics. They did so to ensure that psychologists would always be essential participants in the government’s burgeoning detention and interrogation operations. Despite facile, reassuring claims that these operations were “safe, legal, ethical, and effective (link is external),” they were brutal and ruthless. One APA member, James Mitchell, designed and implemented the CIA’s gruesome torture techniques. Other APA members were stationed at Guantanamo Bay, where DoD torture (link is external) and abuse took place.
The APA’s misguided choices, over more than a decade, have been chronicled in numerous statements (link is external), articles (link is external), and detailed reviews (link is external)—and most extensively in the 2015 Hoffman Report (link is external). Following that report, the association’s governing council overwhelmingly approved a resolution (link is external) that banned psychologists from involvement in national security interrogations and affirmed that psychologists present at Guantanamo and similar international sites are in violation of APA policy unless they are working directly on behalf of the detainees or providing treatment to military personnel.
This redemptive course correction has been buffeted by headwinds from a faction of psychologists—including some members of the military intelligence establishment—who have aligned themselves with those implicated in the institutional betrayal (link is external) that characterized APA’s troubled past. Their efforts aimed at turning back the clock have included lawsuits, ethics complaints, and proposals to reverse the recent reforms and remove the Hoffman Report from the APA’s website. Even more extreme, some of these critics argue (link is external) that the APA has become “a willing co-conspirator to the likes of al Qaeda and ISIS.”
In key ways, then, the APA’s opposition to Gina Haspel’s nomination is important symbolically even if its immediate practical impact proves limited. It comes at a fraught time when forces both within and beyond the association are moving to advance regressive policy prescriptions that are likely to endanger the cause of human rights and respect for human dignity. That is more than reason enough to applaud this action, while at the same time remaining vigilant about darkening clouds that may yet again threaten APA in the months ahead.
Roy Eidelson is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and was a member of the American Psychological Association for over 25 years, prior to his resignation. He is a clinical psychologist and the president of Eidelson Consulting, where he studies, writes about, and consults on the role of psychological issues in political, organizational, and group conflict settings. He is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, associate director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College, and a member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. Roy can be reached at email@example.com.
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