'Pay Any Price'

The American Psychological Association objects to a new book's portrayal of its role in government-sponsored enhanced interrogation practices in post-9/11 years.

October 21, 2014

James Risen’s new book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War, is full of bombshell allegations about the post-9/11 years: domestic surveillance, billions of U.S. dollars gone missing from Iraq, the Pentagon’s attempt to create its own spy agency … the list goes on.

But one set of revelations in particular has the American Psychological Association up in arms. The APA released a statement last week disputing details of Risen’s account of its relationship with the Defense Department, Central Intelligence Agency and other government officials regarding enhanced interrogation techniques for detainees suspected of terrorism – what many critics have called torture.

What Risen Wrote

Risen, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for The New York Times, in his book alleges that the APA “worked assiduously to protect the psychologists who did get involved in the torture program” – primarily through its now-infamous 2002 policy change allowing psychologists to follow “governing legal authority” over its professional ethics code when potential conflicts between the two arose.

He calls that change “essential” to the President George W. Bush administration’s ability to use enhanced interrogation techniques, and to recruit psychologists for such work. The two psychologists who helped develop the administration's interrogation program, which was based on military survival training, were not APA members, however, Risen notes.

While the 2002 policy has been widely reported and critiqued, Risen's book says for the first time that the APA worked intimately and privately with CIA and Pentagon officials to create a 2005 task force that reaffirmed the place of psychologists in enhanced interrogations. That was in the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, which broke in late 2003, but before details of a more widespread program of enhanced interrogation were made public.

Much of Risen's account is based on emails belonging to the late Scott Gerwehr, a one-time terrorism researcher with the Rand Corporation who appeared primed to become a whistleblower on torture before his death in a motorcycle accident six years ago. The emails show that APA officials convened a June 2004 private meeting of psychologists from the CIA, Pentagon and other national security agencies to “provide input on how the APA should deal with the growing furor," Risen says.

Gerwehr allegedly received an invitation to that meeting from Stephen Behnke, director of the APA’s ethics office. Behnke wrote that the purpose of the meeting was to “bring together people with an interest in the ethical aspects of national security-related investigations, to identify the important questions, and to discuss how we as a national organization can better assist psychologists and other mental health professionals sort out appropriate from inappropriate uses of technology.”

Behnke also said that no one but the invitees would be told about the meeting, and that the content of their discussions would not be made public. He said the meeting would “neither assess nor investigate” the behavior of any specific group.

Risen says the nature of the meeting is problematic because the APA was “opening its door” to input on interrogation techniques from military and government officials before it “went to its own membership.” As an invitee to that lunch, Gerwehr also allegedly received a draft proposal for the APA’s Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security more than a month before it went to APA members. And in the end, six members of the 10-member task force had connections to the defense or intelligence communities, Risen says. He quotes one non-affiliated member of the task force, an independent social psychologist, referring to herself as a “dupe, purposefully.”

That psychologist, Jean Maria Arrigo, also said that Russ Newman, then head of the APA’s practice directorate, attended the task force as an observer and tried to shape the policy, saying it had to “put out the fires of controversy.”

Geoff Mumford, associate executive director of science policy for the APA, also allegedly copied Gerwehr on an email thanking a now-retired member of the CIA for his help in “getting this thing off the ground.” He added: “Your views were well-represented by very carefully selected task force members.”

Throughout the relevant portions of the book, Risen adopts a kind of “deal with the devil” narrative alleging that psychologists, including APA officials, provided the cover that the White House, Pentagon and CIA needed to continue their torture programs, all in order to maintain a mutually beneficial relationship.

He says that psychologists traditionally have felt “deeply insecure” compared to psychiatrists, and so sought to maintain close ties with the government agencies -- namely the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs -- that employ so many of their peers and could help grow their influence in the medical community. Risen cites prescription-writing privileges that the Pentagon has granted some psychologists as one example of that mutually beneficial relationship. (Prescription writing privileges are in large part restricted to psychiatrists, who were comparatively uninvolved in the government's enhanced interrogations and related discussions).

APA Response

Soon after the book’s publication, late last week, the APA released a statement accusing Risen of bad reporting and of several specific mischaracterizations and inaccuracies.

The APA says that Risen contacted its office about two years ago, at which time staff members said they would be willing to be interviewed. It says Risen never followed up on that opportunity, resulting in conclusions about the APA that “are largely based on innuendo and one-sided reporting.”

The statement continues: “If Risen had interviewed an APA staff person, he would have learned that the association has taken numerous steps in the last decade to reiterate our strict prohibition against torture, ensure that all psychologists and federal officials were aware of the policy, and address any misconceptions about our position.” It provided a timeline showing its attempts to address torture concerns, and noted its strongly worded July 2013 “Policy Related to Psychologists’ Work in National Security Settings and Reaffirmation of the APA Position against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.”

Addressing the 2004 private lunch, the APA says that while it did “host invitation-only meetings with psychologists and national security officials, the purpose of those meetings was to allow for frank discussion of the ethical and practice challenges facing psychologists working in national security settings.”

Despite the “innuendo” in Risen’s book, it says, “it is not in any manner unusual or inappropriate for the APA ethics office to offer a confidential venue for psychologists to engage in discussions regarding the ethical challenges in their area of practice.”

The APA also denies that money has ever motivated it to comply with the government, saying that it receives less than 2 percent of its funding from grants and contracts, none of which are Defense Department-related.

“APA is committed to fostering the highest ethical standards for the profession,” the statement says. “We are also committed to encouraging the highest ethical standards for all psychologists, whether they are APA members or not. We will continue to proactively communicate our strict and explicit no torture under any circumstances policy to federal officials so they are fully aware of the appropriate restrictions on psychologists’ roles.”

In an interview, Risen underlined the fact that the APA statement did not dispute facts in his account, and called it a “non-denial denial.” He said he never claimed that the APA itself was financially motivated by ties to the government, but that it represents the interests of its members – many of whom are employed by government entities or government contractors.

Risen said he did in the course of his reporting contact the APA for certain “facts,” but declined to pursue interview opportunities or send detailed questions because, in his opinion, Gerwehr’s emails “speak for themselves.”

“I guess they don’t like the fact that I have these emails,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the APA did not immediately respond to follow-up questions.

External Criticism

Risen’s allegations have jarred some in the medical and academic worlds, including Donna McKay, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights.

“Risen presents credible evidence that the American Psychological Association colluded with the Bush administration so that health professionals’ skills and knowledge could be used to justify the torture and ill-treatment of detainees,” she said in a statement. “The Department of Justice must immediately initiate an investigation into whether the APA and CIA engaged in any unlawful conduct related to this brutal torture program.”

Nathaniel Raymond, former director of the Campaign for Human Rights at Physicians for Human Rights and now a human rights researcher at Harvard Humanitarian Initiative at Harvard University, also said Risen’s account poses more questions than answers. He said that he wanted to know exactly what had prompted the APA to convene its 2004 ethics meeting, and that the organization should have launched then, and should begin now, an internal corruption investigation. (Note: This sentence has been updated from an earlier version to clarify the kind of investigation Raymond is seeking.)

“The stakes could not be higher,” he said. “This is right up there with Tuskegee in terms of severity of potential ethics violations.”


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