Inquiry will examine APA's role in torture of prisoners at Guantánamo and other U.S. military bases.

Inquiry will examine APA's role in torture of prisoners at Guantánamo and other U.S. military bases.

U.S. Department of Defense photo by Kathleen T. Rhem, American Forces Press Service

APA names lawyer to examine claims it aided U.S. government in shielding psychologists who tortured prisoners

The American Psychological Association (APA) last week named a former federal prosecutor to lead an investigation into its role in supporting the U.S. government’s interrogation of suspected terrorists.

A new book by reporter James Risen of The New York Times alleges that APA, the largest U.S. professional association of psychologists, bent its ethical guidelines to give psychologists permission to conduct such interrogations at the U.S. military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and elsewhere. The motivation, according to Risen, was to stay in the good graces of U.S. intelligence and defense officials. APA has denied the allegations and says that it worked closely with the CIA and the Pentagon "to ensure that national security policies were well-informed by empirical science."

David Hoffman, a lawyer with the Chicago, Illinois, law firm Sidley Austin LLP, says that APA has promised him its complete cooperation. “We will follow the evidence where it leads us," he told ScienceInsider. He added that his full report, "without modification," will be made public in March 2015.

Risen’s book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, draws heavily on more than 600 e-mails that chronicle an online discussion from 2003 to 2006 among officials at APA, the CIA, and the White House under President George W. Bush. The original source of the e-mails was Scott Gerwehr, a contract researcher for the CIA and an expert on "deception detection" who died in a motorcycle accident in 2008. Two years earlier at a psychology conference, Gerwehr shared his concerns about the enhanced interrogation program with Bradley Olson, a psychologist at National Louis University in Chicago. Olson had put Gerwehr in contact with Nathaniel Raymond, a human rights researcher now based at Harvard University. After Gerwehr's death, an archive of more than 600 e-mails from his computer were shared with the FBI, Raymond, Risen, and others by an unknown source. (There is neither evidence nor suspicion of foul play in Gerwehr's accident.)

"The significance of the Gerwehr files is not in what they say about him or in what he was doing,” Risen says in his book, which came out last month. “Rather, it is in what they help reveal about the tight network of behavioral scientists so eager for CIA and Pentagon contracts that they showed few qualms about getting involved with institutions that were using pseudo behavioral science to brutalize prisoners. They help reveal the close relationships between behavioral scientists and the government that made it easier for the CIA and Pentagon to develop such a large detention and interrogation infrastructure so quickly."

In a 12 November statement announcing Hoffman’s appointment, APA said Risen’s book “has created confusion for the public and APA members. This confusion, coupled with the seriousness of the allegation, requires a definitive, independent and objective review of the allegation and all relevant evidence.”  Hoffman’s work will be reviewed by three members of its board of directors. According to the statement, the board “will take actions … as it finds appropriate.”

Olson says he’s “pleasantly surprised” that APA will be opening its files to Hoffman. “He has a reputation as being a tough investigator.” But Jean Maria Arrigo, a member of a 2005 APA task force that examined the original allegations in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, is skeptical. Now a psychologist in Riverside, California, Arrigo helped form a group in 2006 that opposes the involvement of psychologists in what it calls “state-supported abuse.” "It's him versus the CIA," she says. “And he answers to an APA committee that does not include any critics."

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