The American Psychological Association, detention and torture, and the news

I can understand anyone’s becoming quite tired of looking into, discussing, and organizing thoughts about the issues relating to the American Psychological Association [APA] and America’s role in civil rights violations in Guantanamo and elsewhere, particularly as the tightly held classified communications, even about matters a decade in the past, remains impenetrable. I myself allied in the mid-naughts with a developing group called Coalition for an Ethical Psychology to protest what I perceived as a deceitful, short-sighted violation of ethical principles in the APA and in its program for withholding of dues and finally withdrawal from membership. I joined Psychologists for Social Responsibility as an alternative, international organization to represent my position of care for the bigger picture from the point of view of my income-producing profession. This post is adapted from a letter to a few colleagues who are prominent members of my state association.

Many psychologists are lobbying and campaigning within as well as outside of the APA toward the end of reconciling the national organization with psychology’s and the people’s best interests.  A year or so ago I wrote a piece at the request of the editor of the Maine Psychological Association’s newsletter intended to support and encourage some necessary inquiry by members of the national association who read the state association’s newsletter that might lead to constructive reforms in the APA to bring it into alliance with its stated mission and policies. In the all-too-lengthy and possibly inept article we published in the newsletter, I hoped to offer enough information that readers could understand how a controversy on these matters had begun and why it was in fact not going away, rather than to argue from one side or another. I tried to avoid expressing my personal feelings of hurt and anger over a betrayal of trust, since my own personal feelings really are beside the point. If harm has been or is being done with the support of federal and APA authorities, I am not the victim here, after all, but a collusive partner, as citizen-taxpayer.

The fact that 12 Nobel Peace Prize winners teamed up last week to write an open letter to try to get the President of the United States to release a Senate committee report on interrogation practices of the previous decade that he’s been sitting on for a year or more and that is already highly redacted by the CIA speaks to the continuing frustration of persons of conscience as well as their unwillingness to let the matter disappear into the sanitizing vacuum that tends to absorb much actual American history. I doubt that full disclosure of the report would enhance the APA’s reputation; I hope I am wrong.

In the past month a new book by James Risen called Pay Any Price has brought the controversy of the APA’s collusion with torture and illegal detention into a newly focused discussion in the media, at least to the degree that media still permits such discussion at all. Risen’s book is not primarily about the APA’s activities or its relation to the national military, security and intelligence apparatus — I gather this is at issue in one chapter of a book presenting a much further-reaching set of stories united around the tendency toward regrettable and unethical decisions being made in response to deregulation of federal government agency rules, burgeoning of financial opportunities and promotion of wide-spread anxiety in the wake of 9/11. (The Coalition for an Ethical Psychology has a lengthy and detailed response, primarily in the form of follow-up questions, to the APA’s dismissal of Risen’s material in Pay Any Price about its relationship to civil rights violations. Inspect and reflect on the concerns raised at

It’s been remarkable to see two articles coming out in the past week in national psychological research journals on the evidence that (1) mistrust especially of authority is dramatically on the rise throughout our national culture and that (2) anxiety within an organization tends to generate an increase in failures in or obviation of ethical decision-making. I find them important to reflect on as we live in a period where mistrust and anxiety appear increasingly busy and omnipresent and may be complexly interactive (as we often see in individual clinical cases, and then some), with terrorism, climate change, and risks of many other kinds incessantly on the rise. As our government increasingly insists on surveillance of its citizenry’s personal lives and activities, it guards its own behaviors and knowledge from citizen’s view to an increasing degree. It’s hard to see just how the American people are responsible for their government these days.

Obama’s administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous presidential administrations combined, despite Obama’s campaign pledges to promote transparency and support whistleblowers in his 2008 run for President. A person’s got to wonder. Where would Woodward and Bernstein and Ellsberg be now, if Obama had been president then? Something significant is going on in American journalism that undermines the capacity of the American people to participate in a national democracy and even in a broadly joined debate, as media outlets are increasingly centralized under the control of highly complex corporate interests and the classification of information as secret is more and more broadly extended and enforced. My local Peace and Justice group lately screened a Canadian film (one remarkable for earning no reviews I could find on line in US corporate papers although released commercially as well as on line more than a year ago) about the corporate news media’s suppression of investigative journalism. Even to my jaded mind it was eye-opening and shocking. It’s kind of a thriller, as documentaries go: fast-paced, entertaining, and tight, with plenty of detail and personalities emerging in the 4 or 5 reporters whose stories are tracked, and you can watch it free at I am recommending it to people who feel that being able to get the news still matters. It helps for those who still care to connect the dots of an information and communication system shared on a large scale within our society or a historical narrative spanning more than the past month or two.

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