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APA to review role in interrogation program

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WASHINGTON >> The nation’s largest organization of psychologists will conduct an independent review into whether it colluded with or supported the government’s use of torture in the interrogation of prisoners during the Bush administration.

The American Psychological Association said in a statement released late Wednesday that its board had named David H. Hoffman, a Chicago lawyer, to conduct the review.

For years, questions about the role of U.S. psychologists and behavioral scientists in the development and implementation of the Bush-era interrogation program have been raised by human rights advocates as well as by critics within the psychological profession itself. Psychologists were involved in developing the enhanced interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects by the CIA. Later, a number of psychologists, in the military and in the intelligence community, were involved in implementing and monitoring interrogations.

In an interview, Hoffman, a former federal prosecutor and onetime inspector general of the city of Chicago, emphasized the independence of his investigation. "We will go wherever the evidence leads," he said.

Some longtime critics praised the move by the group. "The APA’s action is a long-needed step toward an independent review of their post-9/11 activities," said Stephen Soldz, a professor at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. "It is vital that this review be fully independent and comprehensive in nature."

Critics like Soldz have said the participation of psychologists allowed the Bush administration to argue that the interrogations did not constitute torture because they and other behavioral scientists were monitoring the interrogations to make sure they remained "safe, legal and effective." Psychiatrists were not as willing to cooperate with the interrogation programs.

In particular, the critics have cited the association’s 2002 decision to modify its ethics rules that in effect gave greater professional cover to psychologists who had been helping to monitor and oversee interrogations. The most important change was a new guideline that made it clear that if a psychologist faced a conflict between the APA’s ethics code and a lawful order, the psychologist could follow the law. Critics say this introduced the Nuremberg defense into U.S. psychology — following orders was an acceptable reason to violate professional ethics.

"It’s sad that the APA, rather than protecting its members from engaging in interrogation activities, bent its rules to allow their participation in those interrogations," Soldz said.

The association has long defended the profession’s activities as well as itself against critics who have questioned whether the organization helped make it easier for psychologists to remain involved with the government’s interrogation program, even after the Abu Ghraib scandal triggered a public debate about the program.

In its statement, the association said its decision to appoint an independent reviewer was prompted by questions raised about the relationship between the psychological profession and the government agencies involved in the torture program in the new book, "Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War," by this reporter. The book uses the email archive of Scott Gerwehr, a behavioral researcher with ties to the CIA and other agencies who died in 2008, to provide a glimpse at the network of psychologists, academic researchers, contractors and intelligence and Pentagon officials who formed the behavioral science infrastructure that grew up after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to support the Bush administration’s war on terror.

Most notably, the emails reveal that after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke in 2004, the association was eager to get out in front of the controversy by developing new professional guidelines for psychologists involved in interrogations. The group created a committee to study the matter and in 2005 issued a report that, in effect, enabled psychologists who were involved in the Bush interrogation program to continue their involvement. A number of psychologists and human rights advocates have been critical of the work of that committee, known as the PENS Task Force, ever since.

Gerwehr’s emails show for the first time the degree to which behavioral science experts from within the government’s national security apparatus played roles in shaping the outcome of the APA task force. The emails show that in July 2004, just months after the graphic photos of abuse at Abu Ghraib were publicly disclosed, association officials convened a private meeting of psychologists who worked at the CIA, the Pentagon and other national security agencies to provide input on how the association should deal with the "unique ethical issues" raised for psychologists in the wake of the Abu Ghraib disclosures.

After the APA task force effectively endorsed the continued involvement of psychologists in the interrogation program, one association official wrote, in an email on which Gerwehr was copied, that he wanted to thank an intelligence official for helping to influence the outcome of the task force. "Your views were well represented by very carefully selected task force members," the APA official wrote.

The association’s statement suggested, however, that Hoffman’s investigation will range far more widely than the relatively narrow questions raised by Gerwehr’s emails detailed in the book.

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