American Psychological Association Under Fire

Popular Clinical Psychologist Returns Award

October 1, 2007

Mary Pipher, whose bestselling book Reviving Ophelia spotlighted an epidemic of cutting and anorexia among adolescent girls, has returned a presidential citation awarded her by the American Psychological Association. The clinical practitioner and author says she's protesting the an APA policy that allows psychologists to participate in military interrogations that involve torture and mind control experiments.

The professional association of caregivers held its annual convention at San Francisco’s Moscone Center in August. Controversy swirled over its leadership's refusal to ban its members from torture sessions at Guantanamo Bay and other secret prisons run by the United States.  When the policymaking council met to discuss the matter, it rejected the moratorium that many of its members were demanding and instead adopted voluntary guidelines which banned several interrogation techniques. They include water-boarding and the use of dogs.

According to Pipher, the presence of licensed medical personnel during coercive interrogations has allowed the White House to legitimize practices which violate international law. The American Psychiatric Association, American Medical Association and American Nursing Association all prohibit their members from participating in such activities.

The Geneva Conventions also expressly prohibit torture, which is broadly defined in the treaty to include cruel and inhumane treatment.   Critics of the Administration allege that the so-called ticking clock rationale – dramatized in the Keifer Sutherland TV series “24”- grossly misrepresents the reality of combatting terrorism.  According to former military interrogators, torture is unreliable because it generates false confessions, while less coercive techniques have historically produced far more actionable intelligence. In addition, many terror suspects apprehended or "renditioned" by U.S. authorities have been subsequently released without any charges after a year or more of being subjected to torture. Most experts suggest the psychological damage incurred from such practices are permanent.

“I realized that if psychologists weren’t in those sites, they could not exist, because we give those sites legitimacy,” Pipher told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman on August 29th.  “And the only thing that allows President Bush and the CIA to have a sort of veneer over what’s happening there and pretend as if they are different places than, say, the bowels of prisons in the Congo or Egypt, is that we supposedly have medical supervision.”

Pipher is the recipient of two presidential citations from the APA.  The first came in 1998 for her work in counseling adolescent girls,  which resulted in her writing Reviving Ophelia.   In 2006, she received her second award for another book, Middle of Everywhere, which charts the psychological journey of refugees who settle in foreign countries.  Dr. Gerald Koocher, the APA’s former president, presented the citation.

 “I feel like APA has been my friend, and Dr. Koocher, when I met him, was a very kind person to me, and he had personally written this award,” Pipher explained to Goodman.  “So it’s been a very difficult decision to -- I’m a total conflict avoider… but I felt like, especially in view of what I was given the award for, I needed to be a compassionate guider of our field at this moment in time.”

Pipher noted that the role of psychologists in torture has not been limited to observation and oversight.  “We were involved with the SERE project at Fort Bragg. We developed the protocols. And what our field has actually done is create through reverse-engineering, actually, some of the earlier methods for our captured [POWs]. We reverse-engineered them into a very rapid and heinous process by which almost anyone could be broken down and hallucinating and psychotic and, in a sense, destroying their mind within about twenty-four hours, forty-eight hours.”

SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, a standardized series of play-acting scenarios used to train U.S. military personnel and CIA officers in the event of being captured by enemy forces.

According to  Dr. Jean Maria Arrigo, founder of the Intelligence Ethics Collection, an archive at Stanford University, the APA formed  a committee in 2005 to analyze the role of psychologists in military interrogations and propose guidelines for the membership.  Arrigo spoke at a seminar during the San Francisco convention, explaining that as a member of the committee, known as the Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security, she was not allowed to take notes during meetings.   In fact, six of the task force’s nine voting members were employed by U.S. intelligence agencies, predisposing the outcome of the inquiry.   Captain Bryce E. Lefeve served as a Joint Special Forces Task Force psychologist to Afghanistan in 2002, where he trained personnel involved in interrogating prisoners of war.  Colonel Morgan Banks, another task force member, oversees the Army's SERE operations.

In a departure from normal protocol, APA public relations personnel also sat in on the sessions, and the names of the task force participants were ommitted from the group’s published report.   By that time both Arrigo and another civilian on the task force, Dr. Nina Thomas, had dropped out in protest.

Pipher was not surprised to hear about the whitewashed proceedings.  “I think that the APA has long been a clan; the top leadership, the people on the council have been there for decades. It’s a very ingrown group of people. And I think we probably need some new leadership,” she said in her interview.

Pipher recently released a new book called Writing to Change the World.


 Copyright 2007