Coalition for an Ethical Psychology (CEP) has issued a press release on the eve of the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA), currently underway in San Diego, California. CEP announces that it has sent a letter (PDF) to Carol Goodheart, current APA president, charging the APA with "its own complicity in supporting and empowering psychologists" in the development, research, supervision and/or implementation of interrogation torture abuses during the Bush years.

The CEP press release states:

This complicity includes APA involvement in the cases of three psychologists – James Mitchell, John Leso, and Larry James – against whom ethics complaints have recently been filed with state licensing boards. APA complicity goes back to 2002 when the association amended its ethics code in a way that protected psychologists involved in government sponsored torture.

The Coalition is calling for an independent, impartial, outside investigation to study the APA’s collusion in the U.S. torture program. The Coalition also calls upon the APA to write letters in support of state ethics complaints against APA members Larry James and John Leso, and to initiate an APA ethics investigation of Larry James. The Coalition further insists that the association fully implement the member-passed referendum withdrawing psychologists from sites in violation of or outside of international law, specifically including Guantánamo and Bagram Air Base.

APA’s Letter in the James Mitchell Complaint

On June 30, the American Psychological Association (APA) wrote a letter (PDF) to the Texas State Board of Examiners of Psychologists. By APA’s own account, it was an unusual intervention into a licensing board complaint against former Air Force/SERE psychologist and CIA contractor, James Mitchell, who has been identified as involved in the abusive interrogation and torture of supposed Al Qaeda leader Abu Zubaydah in the spring and summer of 2002. The U.S. government has since dropped its assertion that Mr. Zubaydah was even a member of Al Qaeda, though he remains imprisoned as a "high-value detainee" at Guantanamo Bay.

The complaint against Mitchell was filed on June 16, 2010, and is signed by Texas psychologist Jim L.H. Cox. Attorneys Dicky Grigg and Joseph Margulies are also signatories to the document.

While the APA gives the impression that it is interested about intervening in a licensing complaint against Mitchell — the Complaint (PDF) cites Mitchell with violations of rules regarding competency, improper sexual conduct, exploitation of authority, research without informed consent, and more — an examination of APA’s letter and the context of their intervention suggests that APA’s action is disingenuous at best, and more likely, a continuation of APA’s attempt to rewrite the history of their own participation in the torture scandal.

According to their letter, APA was writing to the Texas State Board to describe how "its Ethical Principles for Psychologists and Code of Conduct as well as relevant Association policies, apply to facts set forth in the [Mitchell] Complaint." Even so, the APA states it will not comment on any of the facts submitted in the Complaint, explaining they will limit their "information sharing… to APA policies on torture" only. According to APA, it is the Board’s responsibility to adjudicate the matter according to its own procedures, including the responsibility to "consider Dr. Mitchell’s explanation."

Meanwhile, APA spokeswoman Rhea Farberman described the letter to an AP reporter as an unprecedented action for APA, which was compelled "to act" by the seriousness of the allegations. The subsequent AP story was widely reported, usually with a headline that explained the APA wanted Mitchell stripped of his license to practice psychology. Yet a close reading of the letter demonstrates that APA was essentially concerned by how "the allegations regarding Dr. Mitchell’s conduct… [and] the scope of misperception and harm regarding the public’s understanding of the profession of psychology" (emphasis added). In other words, the APA was mostly concerned about the image of professional psychology, and not by the fact the U.S. government had used psychologists to develop and implement experiments into the torture of prisoners.

An APA President on the Board of Mitchell’s Company

There are many different ways in which the APA’s letter is disingenuous. The CEP letter (PDF) to APA President Goodman goes into some detail on these. Perhaps the most immediately apparent is the way APA disappears the association of one of its own leading members with Mitchell’s activities. The letter never mentions, and the AP story by Andrew Welsh-Huggins never alludes to the fact that former APA President Joseph Matarazzo was a "governing member" of James Mitchell’s company, Mitchell-Jessen and Associates. Even more, Dr. Matarazzo was reported by New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer to be "on the CIA’s professional-standards board at the exact time when psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen were developing an interrogation program for the CIA, based on the US military’s SERE training program."

When APA was confronted in August 2007 with the evidence surrounding the links between Dr. Matarazzo and Mitchell-Jessen, Rhea Farberman, APA’s director of public affairs, released a statement that said Dr. Matarazzo had "no active role in APA governance [since he was APA president 18 years previously] but has been actively involved in the American Psychological Foundation (APF), the charitable giving arm of APA. Dr. Matarazzo currently holds no governance positions in either APA or APF." Farberman also stated that APA member Matarazzo’s "professional activities are outside and independent of any role he has played within APA and APF… We have no direct knowledge about the business dealing of Mitchell’s and Jessen’s company; however, APA’s position is clear — torture or other forms of cruel or inhuman treatment are always unethical."

Despite ample reporting on the activities of Mitchell and his associates at the time, APA had no problem disregarding even the associations of one of its own active members, while once again repeating its mantra that it was on the record as being against torture. At the time, few took APA to task for its hypocrisy.

The Fate of the Leso Complaint

In a final twist of irony regarding the APA’s letter on Mitchell, a complaint against registered APA member Major John Leso, filed by the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) last month, was dismissed, as announced in a July 28 letter from the Director of the New York Office of Professional Discipline, Louis J. Catone, to Kathy Roberts of CJA. CJA is expected to appeal that decision.

APA has not chimed in on the Leso case, despite the fact Leso is an APA member. He was also a prime figure in the propagation of the highly experimental interrogation "Battle Lab" at Guantanamo. From the CJA complaint:

Dr. Leso led the first Behavioral Science Consultation Team (BSCT) at the United States Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba (Guantánamo or GTMO) from June 2002 to January 2003. While at Guantánamo, Dr. Leso co-authored an interrogation policy memorandum that incorporated illegal techniques adapted from methods used by the Chinese and North Korean governments against U.S. prisoners of war. He recommended a series of increasingly psychologically and physically abusive interrogation techniques to be applied against detainees held by the United States. Many of the techniques and conditions that Dr. Leso helped put in place were applied to suspected al-Qaeda member Mohammed al Qahtani under Dr. Leso’s direct supervision, as well as to other men and boys held at Guantánamo.

Despite the self-evident participation as a "behavioral consultant" psychologist at the torture interrogations of al Qahtani — an interrogation labeled torture by no less than Judge Susan Crawford, the then-Convening Authority at Guantanamo — Catone, a former Democratic Party District Attorney in upstate New York, uses twisted logic to maintain that "Leso’s conduct did not constitute the practice of psychology," which he only defines as helping people.

I find no basis for investigating your complaint because it does not appear that any of the conduct complained of constitutes the practice of psychology as understood in the State of New York…. If Dr. Leso’s conduct did not constitute the practice of psychology, then he cannot be guilty of practicing the profession of psychology with gross negligence, with gross incompetence, etc., and he cannot be guilty of engaging in conduct "in the practice of the profession" evidencing moral unfitness to practice.

Redolent of the pettifogging apologia that DoJ maven David Margolis applied in clearing attorneys John Yoo and Jay Bybee from criminal misconduct in the writing of the August 2002 torture memos, Catone would have us believe that unless the action of a psychologist fit the category of the profession’s activities in New York legal code, then it cannot be misconduct. By this logic, no crime or unethical behavior could be misconduct, since misconduct is not part of the legally defined professional activities. This will be welcome news to psychologists who have been charged with sleeping with their clients, since having sex with patients is patently not part of a psychologist’s legally defined practice!

APA has never weighed in on the Leso complaint, and it is silent now in the wake of this immoral action by the New York authorities. The APA remains committed to its program of promoting "national security psychology". Their letter to the Texas Board on the Mitchell complaint may represent some second thoughts among some members of the APA hierarchy about their general position regarding enthusiastic support for the military and intelligence agencies, and their program of being major players in the expansion of national security and military activities in the wake of 9/11. But I wouldn’t count on it. Instead, it more likely represents a cynical ploy by APA to cover itself in case there is a possible indictment of James Mitchell coming out of the John Durham DoJ investigation, which many reports have indicated is wrapping up its work.

Correction: The letter to APA President Carol Goodheart and the press release for same was originally reported in this story as originating from Psychologists for an Ethical APA. The actual authors, as corrected, are Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. I regret any confusion from this error.