Guest Column: Psychologists and torture – Lessons for Democrats & liberals

WaterboardingBy Dr. Bruce Borkosky 

Psychology made national news recently. Unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons. It is now clear that psychologists were intimately involved with the creation, design, and implementation of torture, in the name of the US government. For us psychologists, the scandal runs deeper still, because the American Psychological Association (APA) appears to have been complicit in this mess – or, at the very least, turned a blind eye, and covered for these psychologists. Since then, they have consistently avoided responsibility for their actions. I think this issue deserves wide dissemination; democracy cannot be found in political parties, candidates, or elections. Democracy is created by the willingness of citizens to stand up for a set of values. Something that has been lacking for the last 13 years.

I have deliberately chosen to use the word torture here, although others have used other terms, such as “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EIT), “waterboarding”, and “extraordinary rendition”. One of the reasons that people do this is likely because torture is legally defined as a criminal act – and no one wants to admit to having committed a crime. However, language also serves to place the action or event in context; use of euphemisms such as ‘EIT’ minimizes the perception of harm caused to the victims. It is akin to calling rape ‘alternative sexual behavior’. These minimization techniques have been well described by Dr. Ken Pope (past APA ethics chair). Moreover, internal CIA memos referred to it as torture; let’s call a spade a spade.

What did psychologists do?

Some psychologists (e.g., James Mitchell) have admitted personally torturing detainees. Psychologists were integral to the torture system, from creating policy, to designing techniques, to direct torturing of prisoners, to monitoring the results, to approving additional torture. Psychologists evaluated and treated prisoners before, during, and after torture. Their participation was used to legally justify the torture, because the psychologists said there was ‘no permanent damage’ to the prisoners, and because it brought a false sense of legitimacy (some people have asserted that psychologists were monitoring the condition of detainees, and could prevent harm from befalling them). Health care was withheld from the prisoners when it was felt that the prisoners were ‘not cooperative enough’. Psychologists failed to document much of the most brutal treatment, in an effort to conceal the torture and their involvement in it.

These actions enabled Department of Justice (DOJ) lawyers to pretend that the torture was not torture, because it was “safe, legal, and effective”. More details are available from Physicians for Human Rights. Psychologists earned tens of millions of dollars for their involvement, and these sole-source contracts were often awarded without seeking a bid from competitors. Psychologists sought and obtained legal indemnification from the government (making it much more difficult for them to be sued or charged with a crime).


What did APA do (or fail to do)?

The APA has never condemned the actions of any psychologist, nor has it disciplined any psychologist for their participation in torture. It rejected the findings of an APA task force that the Bush administration’s “war on terror” was, in fact, terrorizing Americans itself, subverting our democratic values, costing millions of dollars and leading authorities to overestimate threats. The most damning evidence against APA, however, was when it created the task force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS). APA handpicked members of the task force, which was dominated by military and intelligence officials. After only a single weekend meeting, despite complaints from two members unconnected to the national security apparatus, they said that it was ethical for psychologists to participate in the ‘interrogations’ (e.g., torture) of detainees. Instead of allowing APA’s elected officials (Council of Representatives) to vote on it, APA secretly ratified it as APA policy, and then lied about its having been approved by the COR. Despite more than a decade of complaints about its actions and unwillingness to take responsibility, APA long refused more than superficial renouncement of torture. These actions stand in stark contrast to other healthcare professions, such as the American Psychiatric Association, which specifically rejected torture and prohibited members from participation in detainee interrogations (even if they were not technically “torture”).


Why did APA do this?

I think psychologist and attorney Bryant Welch (who was intimately involved with APA until 2003) said it best: “it was neither greed nor financial corruption that brought the APA governance into alliance with the Bush Administration. Instead, it was a malignant organizational grandiosity that first weakened the APA and then, ultimately, allowed military and intelligence agencies to have their way with the APA throughout the Bush Administration.” Their ethics were “obscured by the headiness of being involved in high-level, important, clandestine government affairs”, creating a culture that actively discouraged dissent – they threatened dissenters with ethics complaints and sent them letters from APA attorneys. When the military/intelligence community came calling shortly after 9/11, “APA’s virtue was quickly seduced and ravaged. There was no need for the “secret deals” that some people now think transpired. APA was readily and freely available to the beguiling and determined military interests.” (Dr. Welch’s blog posts can be found at


Why is this unethical and morally wrong?

The APA, like most professional associations, has a formal code of ethics. These ethics contain both aspirational behaviors (ideals that we all aspire to reach) and minimum standards of behavior (that, if violated, could result in sanctions from the Association). Professional ethics codes came about, in part, due to the horror many people felt when it was revealed what the Nazis did in the name of medical research (e.g., creating lamp shades made of human skin), and then what American medical professionals did in the name of research (e.g., in Alabama, over 40 years, 500 poor, rural African Americans were deliberately infected with Syphilis without their knowledge or consent). Laws and ethics eventually came together to mandate that health care professionals must do no harm, protect the lives and health of patients, be honest, obtain informed consent for any procedure, and resolve moral / legal conflicts consistent with their code of ethical behavior. Because the psychologists collected and analyzed data from the torture, the torture should rightly be considered to have been illegal research with human subjects; it was illegal and unethical because it was done without the consent of the prisoners and because it harmed them. As Dr. Welch has so aptly described, psychologists took psychological principles and turned them on their head – to degrade the mental health of detainees and psychologically harm them.



The Results

The specific torture techniques included beatings, keeping detainees naked for weeks, sleep deprivation for up to one week, painful shackling of wrists and ankles, being shackled to the ceiling, near drowning (euphemistically called “waterboarding”), enemas of pureed hummus (euphemistically called “rectal rehydration”), rectal “examinations” (causing chronic hemorrhoids, anal fissures and rectal prolapse), death threats, extreme exposure to cold, keeping people in a coffin-sized box for long periods of time, keeping people in cells as small as 3 ft. by 3 ft., use of large snarling dogs, “systematic psychological abuse”, rape, sodomy, drenching the person with cold water then freezing them with air conditioning, allowing people to urinate and defecate on themselves. Psychologists turned information about detainees’ psychological weaknesses (such as when a 17 year old disclosed that he missed his family) into a weapon (by telling the detainee that his family had disowned him). This is not an exhaustive list; I’ve stopped researching the issue, as it’s so painful even to consider.

The tortured detainees “exhibited psychological and behavioral issues, including hallucinations, paranoia, insomnia, and attempts at self-harm and self-mutilation”. Nearly 200 of these torture victims have died directly as a result of their treatment by U.S. hands.


Arguments That The Psychologists’ Actions Were Not Wrong

Many persons have argued that these actions were not wrong, and have advanced several arguments. I’ve listed some of these arguments, and show why these arguments are not valid:


Legal Arguments

  • The actions were not torture, they were alternative forms of interrogation

Some people refuse to admit that the actions were torture. They admit that the treatment of these detainees was harsh, but did not legally meet the definition of “torture”. This argument avoids the moral /ethical issue – it conflates an inability to legally prosecute the torturers for criminal behavior with the question about whether such behavior is right or good. It’s a form of the defense offered by Nazi war criminals (the “Nuremburg defense”); the behavior should be excused, because they were ‘following orders’, or the behavior was ‘allowed by law’.


  • President Bush’s lawyers said it wasn’t torture.

Attorneys are advocates for the client. In effect, they will twist any text, to see if it could be interpreted to mean what the client wants it to say, and then they will argue that that’s the only possible meaning. Only the Supreme Court (or an international court such as the International Criminal Court) could have opined on the legality of the aforementioned actions. It may say something about the executive branch of the U.S. that they never requested a judicial opinion.


Practical arguments

  • Torture obtained useful information and prevented the loss of American lives.

The recent Senate report asserted that the torture did not obtain actionable information that could not have been obtained by other means.

Others have disagreed; however, regardless of how many people were ‘saved’, torture is immoral. This is a form of ‘the ends justify the means’ argument. Proponents of this argument would probably assert that genocide, child abuse, or use of atomic bombs is justified, in order to reduce harm to Americans. This argument overvalues Americans and devalues others. We cannot call ourselves American and act like barbarians; we stand for higher values, and we must live or die by those values. By stooping to barbarianism, we stop being “American”. Even if America one day disappears, the world will long remember the values and standards we fought for, and they will live on. If we lose our way, the world will forget us and what we stood for.

However, the scientific evidence clearly shows that torture does not work. Torture causes extreme, repeated, and prolonged stress, which compromises the brain functions that support memory and related behaviors necessary to relate information to captors. At the very least, there is no evidence that torture produces more truthful information. Senator John McCain, who has personally experienced torture, knows well that it produces more false information than true.


  • These people were terrorists, so they didn’t deserve to be treated nicely. They weren’t going to respond to being asked nicely ‘please tell us your secrets’.

Dick Cheney apparently believes that all Arabs and Muslims should be categorized as terrorists, stating, “three thousand Americans died on 9/11 because of what these guys did (emphasis supplied), how nice do you want to be to the murderers of 3,000 Americans”?

It surprised me that psychologists would be involved in designing interrogation techniques that involved harsh treatment, pain, humiliation, and physical force. The reason is that the psychological literature is completely clear that use of physical force or negative stimuli does not work to modify a person’s behavior. There are many techniques that do work, that are available to interrogators, and none of them are harsh or noxious. In fact, it is clear that befriending the other person is the best way to manipulate them into responding the way you want them to. This is what police interrogators, hostage negotiators, and even psychopaths do – they ingratiate themselves with the target, and manipulate the situation / facts, such that the target lets down their guard and gives in. The best interrogators are able to make the target think that they are actually acting in their best interest. Psychologists should have known better.


  • The worst actions were only done by a few rogue agents, and the actions were neither authorized nor learned about after the fact (therefore, how can you blame the government for bad actors?)

Dick Cheney refutes this characterization, stating that it was official White House policy, “The men and women of the CIA did exactly what we wanted them to do”. That’s good enough for me.


  • Yes, we tortured people, but we should not admit to it (by releasing reports or other facts), because that will just harden the minds of the people who oppose us.

In my opinion, this is another form of ‘ends justify the means’ argument. Proponents of this belief would have us lie about our actions and pretend to the world that we are beyond reproach. This policy appeals only to Americans – everyone else in the world easily sees through the pretense. All human beings are imperfect, and it is only by admitting when one has committed wrongs that one can seek forgiveness by others.


  • This is a political matter, and the APA cannot get involved in politics, due to our nonprofit status. At the very least, this is a public policy matter, not psychology. We should stay out of it.

The people making these arguments assert that this is not a matter of ethics, it lies outside psychology. However, both individual psychologists, and the APA as an organization were involved. As professionals, ethics lies at the heart of everything we do – it is central to our status as professionals and defines us as psychologists among other professions. Psychologists live, breathe, and argue about ethics, as perhaps rabbis debate the Torah. Thus, the treatment of detainees, when psychologists are involved CANNOT avoid a discussion of ethics. As such, our ethics are clear that we must uphold the rights of individuals, and avoid harming them. Even if the law requires harming people (thus violating our ethical code), we are required to make known this contradiction and attempt to resolve it. The actions of the psychologists involved here appear to have clearly violated the ethics code in the most egregious way, and the APA, to date, has never formally sanctioned anyone for torture (nor even their involvement in the abusive interrogations).


  • Terrorism and religious fundamentalism is the primary problem facing the international community today.

This is a myth. Neither terrorism nor religious fundamentalism has altered significantly in the last 15 years. What has changed is the frequency with which governments use the “T word” against people who they believe are opposed to their interests. Communism used to be used in the same way. Wars, like Vietnam, were started by the U.S., and the specter of Communism was floated as justification for doing so. Communism has disappeared, so terrorism is used in the same way. This plays into the baser instincts of human beings. We know from the psychological literature that having a group of people to hate (called an ‘outgroup’), brings people in the group closer together. As president Bush said “you are either with us or you are against us” – people want to be in the ingroup, they don’t want to be excommunicated from their country, so people generally accepted statements like this, and didn’t push back.


Lessons for Liberals

  1. We need to wake up, speak up, and act up. Liberty, democracy, and civil rights are only as strong as what the people demand; otherwise, they will be usurped by the dark side of humanity. Republicans are not afraid of advocating for the disregard of human rights and human dignity, and we can learn from them. We should not fear being criticized for advocating that others do the right thing. If we don’t, the result will be the slow death of the freedoms we most cherish. Witness, for example, the erosion of abortion rights and voting rights. Why aren’t Liberal voices being more strongly heard?
  2. When people gather in groups, it becomes very easy for the leaders of those groups to manipulate others, and much more difficult for the minority to be heard. This is the nature and design of human beings. Being in a group allows people to minimize their responsibility for acting morally. Individuals must remain on guard for group misbehavior, and speak up quickly, often, and loudly when they believe the group is going astray. Leaders of groups should create a policy of ‘anyone can call a time out’ (similar to the policy instituted by automakers, where anyone can stop the production line), so that group members feel free to speak up. Group policies should be designed to encourage power sharing, which is the essence of diversity.
  3. Advocate for cultural sensitivity by those in authority – government officials, police, judges, etc. See, e.g.,, and


In some ways, the APA’s actions can be understood in the context of a wider view of the American public. We Americans collectively decided to abdicate our democratic responsibility to the U.S. government, because the government promised to ‘keep us safe’. Terrorism has replaced the bogeyman, used from the 1950’s until the fall of the Soviet Union (“Communism”), but it has been used in exactly the same way – to justify U.S. government actions and to cast aspersions on those groups of people that the government wants to demonize. After 9/11, we desperately wanted to feel safe, and have been willing to pay nearly any price for that peace of mind. Some of the civil liberties we have given up have included:

  • 13+ years of war in Iraq & Afghanistan- $4.4 trillion directly spent, $8+ trillion projected interest cost, $3-6 trillion indirect costs, lost employment opportunity of 1-3 million jobs, 25,000 coalition deaths, 150,000+ coalition wounded, 1 million veteran disability claims, 30,000 local military deaths, 200,000-1,000,000 civilian deaths, and 5 million refugees.
  • Use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to wiretap 16,000+ Americans without warrant, and lying about having done that.
  • Monitoring of peace groups (not related to terrorism or Al Qaeda) by the FBI and Defense Department
  • Comprehensive surveillance of all U.S. electronic communications, including cell phone metadata and location, emails, instant messaging, digital voice communications (VOIP), and weakening of encryption standards.
  • Government detention of 200,000+ persons, in public and black sites, with no means to challenge their detention.
  • Appointment of 2 conservative judges to the U.S. Supreme Court, changing the balance of the Court from moderate to conservative, resulting in numerous decisions restricting the rights of citizens and increasing the rights of large organizations
  • Use of drones for targeted killings, killing U.S. citizens, many hundreds of ‘militants’ and untold foreign civilians.
  • Racial profiling of Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians, arresting 1200+ persons on immigration charges, and denying them bail, or communication with family or their attorney. The NSEERS program fingerprinted 83,000 foreigners (only from Muslim or Arab countries-none accused of terrorism) and arrested 14,000 of them.


APA has appointed an outside investigator to review the actions of the APA regarding torture. Unfortunately, the investigator’s mandate is to determine “whether there is any factual support for the assertion that APA engaged in activity that would constitute collusion with the Bush administration to promote, support or facilitate the use of “enhanced” interrogation techniques by the United States in the war on terror”. It’s unlikely that the committee will find any evidence of criminal conduct or overt actions by APA that would “constitute collusion”. However, whether APA committed any overt acts intending to cause harm is not the issue – the bigger issue is that people in groups support the degradation of the rights of outgroups and minorities by their inaction. For example, the Bush administration opened the door to torture by changing interrogation policies to permit harsher techniques (at the very least – if not directly ordering torture), and then looking the other way when torture and murder occurred. The APA opened the door to participation of psychologists in torture by similar acts of omission – by not forcefully forbidding participation in these activities, by pronouncing such actions as ethical, and by not sanctioning torturers. Dissent was strongly discouraged.

There are lessons available for Democrats in Florida. Over the past 10 years, we stood by as gay marriage was banned by constitutional amendment, Democrats have lost dozens of statewide elections, a million citizens were denied healthcare, high speed rail service with its billion$ in investment, education was defunded by billion$ …. I could go on, but you get the idea. At the same time, the Florida Democratic Party has failed to produce candidates, and Democrats don’t vote. The only way to prevent our rights from being taken over is to be willing to take the heat for criticizing the misguided policies of groups – both conservative and liberal.

Dr. Bruce Borkosky is a licensed psychologist in private practice. He has a diverse practice, especially focused on civil, administrative, and criminal law. He has been a candidate for political office and a consultant for others’ campaigns, since 2004. He can be reached at 800-919-9008, via Skype (BruceBorkosky), and his scholarly publications can be found at

Photo “Waterboarding” by Karl Gunnarsson – originally posted to Flickr as Waterboarding. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

One comment

  1. Millie Herrera · ·

    Excellent article! This is a topic that most people don’t want to confront, but it needs to be talked about, discussed openly, and the facts disseminated broadly. Otherwise, we will continue to repeat these atrocities, like the Nazis did, and the Bush Administration carried out. Because of the silence of good people like us.


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