Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

(Photo: Justin Norman/flickr/cc)

Torture, Impunity and the American Psychological Association

Amy Goodman

It has been almost a year since President Barack Obama admitted, “in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we did some things that were wrong. ... we tortured some folks.” The administration of Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, carefully crafted a legal rationale enabling what it called “enhanced interrogation techniques,” which is no more than a euphemism for torture. From the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay to the dungeons of Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Bagram air base in Afghanistan, countless hundreds, if not thousands, of people were subjected to torture, all in the name of the “Global War on Terror.” With the exception of a few low-level soldiers at Abu Ghraib, not one person has been held accountable. The only high-level person sent to prison over torture was John Kiriakou—not for conducting torture, but for exposing it, as a whistleblower.

The legal facade behind which these heinous acts were conducted relied heavily on the cooperation of professional psychologists, who trained and advised the interrogators and supervised the progress of the “breaking” of prisoners. This cooperation, in turn, was dependent on an official seal of approval from the American Psychological Association, the largest professional organization of psychologists in the world. In 2006, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association both barred their members from taking part in military interrogations.

This month, the APA released a stunning independent report that confirms what whistleblowers and dissident psychologists have maintained for close to a decade, that the APA actively colluded with the U.S. Department of Defense and the CIA, manipulating the APA’s policies, meetings and members in order to get the APA’s endorsement of the Pentagon’s torture program. The association’s board of directors last year commissioned an independent review by former Assistant U.S. Attorney David Hoffman. The 542-page report, dubbed “The Hoffman Report,” undermines the APA’s repeated denials that some of its 130,000 members were complicit in torture.

One of those dissident psychologists is Stephen Soldz, a professor at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis and co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. “Since at least 2005, there’s been a major debate in the association [APA] and the profession about the role of psychologists in national-security interrogations and torture,” Soldz said on the Democracy Now! news hour after the report was released. “The association has denied it ... the report says that the association was wrong; the so-called dissidents, the critics were right.”

The report delves into the practices of a key task force created by the APA, the Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security, also known as the PENS Task Force. Created in 2005, the task force met, ostensibly, to determine the ethical standards for psychologists overseeing interrogations. After just two and a half days of deliberations, the task force concluded that psychologists were playing a “valuable and ethical role” in assisting the military. The PENS Task Force encouraged the APA “to ensure that the national security-related activities of psychologists are safe, legal, ethical and effective.” It was later revealed that six of the nine voting members of the task force were from the military and intelligence agencies with direct connections to interrogations at Guantanamo and elsewhere.

“I was appointed to be duped,” PENS Task Force member Jean Maria Arrigo told us on Democracy Now! She was the original whistleblower who exposed the task force as a rubber stamp for torture. “The manipulation began very early on. So, for instance, I was seated between, on the one side, Morgan Banks, who was the head of the BSCT psychologists (Behavioral Science Consultation Team), and, on the other side, the now-president Barry Anton.” Arrigo detailed how the task force was essentially run by Pentagon psychologists, some of them in uniform. While she was told not to take notes, she did anyway, and has since created the PENS Task Force archives at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Arrigo was lied to about the PENS process, suggesting future meetings would be held where her concerns about torture would be addressed.

The Hoffman report is sending shockwaves through the APA.  The director of the APA Ethics Office, Stephen Behnke, considered the “chief of staff” of the APA/Pentagon/CIA collusion, is out, followed by the “retirement” this week of the APA’s CEO, Dr. Norman Anderson, the Deputy CEO, Dr. Michael Honaker, and the executive director for public and member communications, Rhea Farberman.

When asked if there should be indictments, Stephen Soldz said, “There should be a legal investigation.” He is calling for the FBI and Justice Department to investigate. Stephen Benke, the ousted APA ethics head, meanwhile, has hired as his legal counsel the former head of the FBI, Louis Freeh. 


Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman

Amy Goodman is the host and executive producer of Democracy Now!, a national, daily, independent, award-winning news program airing on over 1,400 public television and radio stations worldwide.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

'How Many More Deaths Must It Take?' Barbados Leader Rips Rich Nations in Fierce UN Speech

"How many more variants of Covid-19 must arrive, how many more, before a worldwide plan for vaccinations will be implemented?"

Jake Johnson ·


To Avert Debt Ceiling Calamity, Democrats Urged to Finally Kill the Filibuster

"The solution is to blow up the filibuster at least for debt limit votes, just as Mitch blew it up to pack the Supreme Court for his big donors."

Jake Johnson ·


Biden Decries 'Outrageous' Treatment of Haitians at Border—But Keeps Deporting Them

"I'm glad to see President Biden speak out about the mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers. But his administration's use of Title 42 to deny them the right to make an asylum claim is a much bigger issue."

Jessica Corbett ·


Global Peace Activists Warn of Dangers of US-Led Anti-China Pacts

"No to military alliances and preparation for catastrophic wars," anti-war campaigners from over a dozen nations write in a letter decrying the new AUKUS agreement. "Yes to peace, disarmament, justice, and the climate."

Brett Wilkins ·


PG&E Charged With 11 Felony Counts—Including Manslaughter—Over 2020 Zogg Fire

"PG&E has a history with a repeated pattern of causing wildfires that is not getting better," said Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett. "It's only getting worse."

Brett Wilkins ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo