Felt reluctant to post this on the day itself, but I do think it’s incredibly important for psychologists to acknowledge 9/11. Every psychologist should be taught about their profession’s role in torture at Guantanamo Bay. /thread
Guantanamo Bay is a deeply shameful episode in psychology’s history, and its comparative recency means that we cannot hide behind narratives of ‘things have changed’ or ‘we’d never do that now.’
There are parts of the story that are deeply relevant to psychology’s current relationships with Government institutions of detention, surveillance, and war.
The story itself is long & complex – see this article for a bare bones summary up to 2012. researchgate.net/publication/26…
In essence – psychologists were central to designing the regime of torture that was used on detainees. That included stress positions; waterboarding; sleep & sensory deprivation; extreme cold exposure; isolation; forced nudity & sexual humiliation.
An important part of the story is the actions of the American Psychological Association. Following years of criticism, it commissioned an independent review, which was published in 2015, and is known as the Hoffman report. Here: apa.org/independent-re…
Hoffman’s conclusions were: firstly, members of the 2005 APA Ethics taskforce convened to review ethical guidelines on matters of national security, deliberately colluded with the Department of Defence.
The goal was to ensure that the APA only issued ‘loose, high-level ethical guidelines’ that did not constrain psychologists’ actions any more than internal DoD guidance already did.
Second: that the APA engaged in 3 years of secret collaboration with the DoD to defeat internal APA efforts to ban psychologists working at Guantanamo & other US detention centres.
Third: that the APA had strong reason to suspect abusive interrogations were occurring, but that it pursued a deliberate strategy of not investigating that possibility.
Following the report, the APA voted to ban psychologists from working at sites deemed by the UN to be in breach of international law. It was described by the then president as ‘a chance to reset our moral compass’.
The Hoffman report did not settle matters. A number of people named in the report have sought to challenge it, & sue for defamation.
In 2018, a resolution was put forward to overturn the ban, & allow psychologists to return to such settings if solely in a ‘healthcare’ role. It was rejected. Some interesting coverage here: buzzfeednews.com/article/petera…
Pre-trial hearings are still ongoing for five defendants accused of the 9/11 attacks. The two psychologists principally involved in the torture programme testified in court in January 2020. Coverage here: theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/…
How & why did these things happen? Beyond a Twitter thread, but there are a few points that I think are important for psychologists to think about.
The core message of the Hoffman report is that professional interests trumped ethics. The DoD provided substantial benefits to the psychology profession through funding & employment. It was a gatekeeper who could recall those benefits, so currying favour became important.
Also,image mattered more than substance. Hoffman concluded that the APA wanted to portray itself as very concerned & engaged with the issue, while still fostering professional growth within the military. That manifested through wording of ethics guidelines that suited those goals
Next, words matter. They really matter. The US definition of torture was very narrow, & the ‘loose’ APA ethical guidance very wide. This created semantic space for arguing the legality & ethicality of psychologists' activities at Guantanamo.
Semantic justification was also helped by the euphemistic labelling of the various torture methods, to play down their brutality.
These justifications were made easier by a 2002 revision to APA Ethical Standards which allowed psychologists to follow a law or order that was in conflict with their ethics code, if the conflict could not be resolved. This was dubbed the ‘Nuremberg defense’ by critics.
Next: Normalisation & intellectualisation are important moral vehicles. One of the psychologists involved wrote a book about the programme. These activities were not perceived (in all quarters) as secret or shameful, but were written about, and ‘debated’ for many years.
Next: Some of psychologists’ most frequently claimed professional justifications lent themselves easily what happened.
‘Things would be worse without us there’, ‘our findings & work were misused’ & ‘we were working in the interests of national security’ (could substitute with ‘public protection’), alongside the more traditional Nuremberg style ‘we were just following orders’.
These moral arguments are not unfamiliar in any setting where the state and psychology interact. It is an arrangement that systemically creates space for abuses of power. I used all of the above justifications at some point in my practitioner career.
That’s not to say that state-psychology arrangements haven’t also had good outcomes, but that’s hardly the point here.
The point is that it is crucially, vitally important for psychologists to be well-versed in historic episodes where the state-psychology arrangement has gone horrifically wrong, to understand why, & to be disabused of the idea that ‘that will never happen here/now/to me.’
Doing psychology in service to the state is a moral minefield, & I’d really like to see episodes like Guantanamo being comprehensively taught, with an eye to maintaining and strengthening the profession’s moral safeguards. /end

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