Reflections on the Hoffman Report: the Impact of Terrorism on the Terrorized

By Neil Altman

Prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Photo: AFP/GETTY

I was a member of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) governing body, the Council of Representatives (Council), for six years, from 2000-2006. During that time, I proposed a resolution that APA declare a moratorium on the participation of psychologists at Guantanamo Bay and other detention centers where human rights were being violated according to U.S. and international law. Holding people indefinitely without due process was “cruel and inhuman” according to the U.S. Constitution and the Geneva Conventions. By defining the settings to which the moratorium would apply in this way, I was referencing the APA’s ethics code according to which psychologists were not permitted to “participate” in behavior that was cruel and inhuman, while sidestepping the debate about which behaviors in interrogations amounted to torture, or were cruel and inhuman. The resolution was crafted in a way that any argument that psychologists were there to protect the detainees was irrelevant.   I remember clearly meeting with various candidates for APA President; where I would present the rationale for the moratorium resolution, and, in all cases, they said they thought a moratorium was clearly justified. In all cases, their support mysteriously evaporated once they were in office. I was also puzzled to find that many members of Council who habitually supported social justice initiatives were reluctant to co-sponsor or support my initiative. In a meeting of a coalition of Division representatives in support of social justice measures, one member said that support for the moratorium resolution would endanger other social justice initiatives. In the end, the moratorium resolution was defeated in Council. This occurred despite APA’s stated strong opposition to torture and cruel and inhuman treatment, and despite APA’s humanitarian stance on a wide range of issues, from Civil Rights to Gay Rights.

The recently released Hoffman report (Hoffman, 2015) details how APA’s relationship with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) influenced its support for psychologist participation in interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. This support ran contrary to APA’s ethics code and statements of principles regarding torture and cruel and inhuman treatment. The report makes clear that the stonewalling I encountered in trying to promote the moratorium resolution was a result of a widespread understanding in the Council that a core priority for APA was to serve the DoD’s interests. One simply did not challenge what APA did in this regard. In the case of “national security interrogations”, however, APA was not nearly as up front about what it was doing as the U.S. Government. Officials of the U.S. Government openly renounced international law in the form of the

Geneva Conventions (to which it had been a signatory) and released legal opinions according to which a number of cruel and abusive practices, including waterboarding, were redefined as not constituting torture. The APA however maintained, right up until the release of the Hoffman report, that psychologists participated in interrogations only to protect the detainees. In fact, at a Council debate about the moratorium resolution, Colonel Morgan Banks (who, according to the Hoffman report was only the day before accorded status to speak at Council by being appointed President of Division 38) said that if the resolution passed “people will die”. It was understood that psychologists were there to prevent interrogators from killing detainees.

In feeling stonewalled, the Hoffman report makes clear that I was encountering the discrepancy between APA’s stated principles and a tacit understanding that principles were over-ridden when it came to the relationship with the DoD. Why did this relationship with the DoD remain tacit? I believe that APA was not willing publicly to renounce its commitment to humanitarian principles, its commitment to the welfare of people, but even more so it was not willing to go against the interests of the DoD and the U.S. Government. This conflict being unresolvable, APA concealed it, or claimed that in the end psychologists were serving the welfare of the detainees. If pressed, APA stated they were serving the interests of the U.S. public, insofar as extracting information from detainees prevented further violence against the U.S. after 9/11/01. There was, and is, no evidentiary basis for believing that torture or cruel and inhuman treatment yields useful information for protecting the public, but in this case the evidence was not the deciding factor in justifying the belief, or the claim.

By covertly following the U.S. Government and the DoD down this disastrous path, the APA was continuing a long-standing policy of cooperation with the military (Summers, 2008), but it was also feeling and responding to the fear and rage that had been evoked in the U.S. populace by the 9/11/01 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. This compromise of ethical and humanitarian principles following an act of terrorism reveals an aspect of terrorism that we would do well to consider.

Fear and rage breed fear and rage. They also breed defenses against fear and rage, or more properly, defenses against the shame and guilt that are evoked when one finds oneself both narcissistically injured and possessed by narcissistic or retaliatory rage. Among these defenses are the denial and rationalization that we see among APA leadership with respect to the torture and cruelty to which detainees were being subjected.   The claim that psychologists were there only to protect detainees both reflects an effort to maintain a sense of goodness for APA and for psychologists. Euphemisms like “enhanced,” “interrogation,” and “national security”, reflect similar defenses via denial and obfuscation. At the same time these moves reflect a cynical and strategic effort to mobilize support from the membership and the U.S. population for psychologist participation in the mistreatment of those who had been defined, without due process, as the source of danger

Detail Of American Flag by Petr Kratochvil
Detail Of American Flag by Petr Kratochvil

and fear. By evoking fear and rage and retaliatory violence, the 9/11 terrorists had succeeded in their destructive ends in more than one way. Thousands of people died and were injured; additionally, the values and ideals that at times have served to make the United States a source of humanitarian inspiration, were gravely injured. In that way, the terrorists succeeded in luring this country, into abandoning the very qualities that made the United States, worth protecting. “APA” could be appropriately substituted for “United States” in these sentences.

Some would say the U.S. is worth protecting because of the freedom to compete and succeed economically. We must envision a balance with this freedom and humanitarian values, rather than a polarity. Sometimes a co-existence can occur (more or less uneasy), as when government regulation of business serves the protection of vulnerable people (e.g. government mandated unemployment or health insurance). Sometimes, when one or another value runs rampant over the other, there is irresolvable conflict, as with slavery or other exploitation of workers.

Isaiah Berlin has pointed out that values to which we adhere are inevitably in conflict with each other (1969). APA for many years managed an uneasy balance between the economic self-interest values reflected in ties to the government and lobbying of state and federal legislatures, and its advocacy for Civil Rights, Gay Rights, and other humanitarian issues. I believe the Hoffman report shows that the attacks on the U.S. of 9/11/01 shifted this balance. There was a confluence of fear and rage with an opportunity to carve out a lucrative role in “national security” interrogation work in what promised to be an endless war on terror. The result was the eclipse of humanitarian concerns, obfuscated by denial.

APA, along with the nation, had sought a balance between self-interest and altruism, between economic and humanitarian concerns. In upsetting this balance, terrorists accomplished their goal, at least temporarily: to disrupt the balance, the pursuit of which gives meaning to this country, and this organization.


One comment

  1. Thank you – I really appreciate and respect your voice in this matter. I quit my APA membership in 2007 as many others did but I am still stunned by the depth of collusion between APA and DoD. What is most galling is that the organization tasked with representing the integrity and ethical standards of our profession has, for years, lied to us.

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