Among the blockbuster revelations in Jane Mayer’s new book, The Dark Side, is that world famous psychologist and former American Psychological Association (APA) President Martin Seligman actively aided the development of the CIA’s torture techniques, based as they were upon Seligman’s “learned helplessness” theory. Apparently Seligman aided CIA consultant torture psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, in the development of these techniques.
Mayer’s book is due out Tuesday. But Scott Horton has read it and produced a summary, which is now posted on Andrew Sullivan’s blog. Here is the relevant section:
She traces the development of the torture techniques to the work of two contractors, Mitchell and Jessen, and disclosed the specific techniques they developed. She notes that the techniques rely heavily on a theory called “Learned Helplessness” developed by a Penn psychologist Martin Seligman, who assisted them in the process. All of this was done under the thin pretext of being a part of the SERE program. Seligman is a former president of the American Psychological Association. This helps explain why the APA alone among professional healthcare provider organizations failed to unequivocally condemn torture and mandate that its members not associate themselves with the Bush Administration techniques.
We should remember that Seligman is the second former APA President implicated in Mitchell and Jessen’s development of the CIA torture techniques from their SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) experience. Last summer it was reported that former APA President Joseph Matarazzo had a voting stake in Mitchell and Jessen’s CIA-consulting torture firm.
Strangely, out of the blue a few weeks ago an APA Board member sent an email out on Association listservs proclaiming that APA had no connection with Mitchell and Jessen:
I wanted to share the fact that APA is aware of the concerns that two Washington state psychologists were employed by the Department of Defense to reverse-engineer survival and resistance training (which is designed to help U.S. military personnel in the event they are captured) for use in interrogations. These two psychologists are not APA members so are out of the reach of the APA’s ethics enforcement process but, nevertheless, APA’s position on inappropriate interrogations techniques is very clear.
In making these statements this Board member ignored an extensive web of connections between APA and the CIA torturers that I recently detailed: As I wrote then:
The APA is intensely disturbed by President Matzrazzo’s possible involvement in torture as can be gleamed from these ethically-principled quotes from APA leadership when Matzrazzo’s involvement was revealed last summer.
Then APA President Sharon Brehm: “No comment.”
APA Director of the Ethics Office and APA point man on torture and interrogations: “No comment.”
But one official did have a comment, which says everything one needs to knopw about the ethics of APA leadership.
“Dr. Matarazzo was president of APA 18 years ago,” Rhea Farberman, the organization’s director of public affairs, said in a prepared statement.
“Since that time, he has had no active role in APA governance 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,” the statement said.
Matarazzo’s “professional activities are outside and independent of any role he has played within APA and APF,” the statement said. “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.”
Notice the deep concern for Mitchell and Jessen’s and, potentially, Matarazzo’s, actions expressed in this statement. Notice the (missing) promise to investigate and, if confirmed, discipline this former APA President. After all, while “torture is unethical”, this former President’s “professional activities” are no concern of the APA.
We are left to wonder if APA leaders had advance knowledge of these new reports about President Seligman contained in Mayer’s book. We can expect new claims that APA has no connection with President Seligman, who according to his bio:
In 1996… was elected President of the American Psychological Association, by the largest vote in modern history.
This means in 1997 Seligman was President-elect of the APA, in 1998, he was President, and in 1999 he was Past-President and Board member. (For the record, I voted for him with enthusiasm.) He is, of course, still an APA member. Further, Seligman is one of the most esteemed psychologists in the last several decades. In fact:
According to Haggbloom et al’s study of the most eminent psychologists of the 20th Century, Seligman was the 13th most frequently cited psychologist in introductory psychology textbooks throughout the century
It will be interesting to see the APA spinmeisters rapidly distance themselves from this second torture-connected former President. We can only wonder how many other former APA Presidents and officials will turn out to be connected to this sordid aspect of recent American history.
To remind readers of what is at stake, here is Horton’s summary of Mayer’s account of these techniques:
She provides a number of grueling examples of the application of the techniques including the brutal murder of Manadel al-Jamadi, the placement of prisoners in closed coffins for prolonged periods, and one instance in which a below-the-knee amputee with a prosthesis who had his prosthesis taken away and was forced to stand for hours on one foot, hanging from a rail.
We have already learnt from last Friday’s New York Times article that the Red Cross proclaimed these techniques to be “torture”, not just “tantamount to tortuer” or some such term.
We will undoubtedly be learning much more about Seligman, Mitchell, Jessen and the other torture psychologists in the days and weeks to come. Perhap APA members will finally take it upon themselves to demand radical reform of our professional organization that has closed its eyes to members’ aiding the torturers for far too long.
UPDATE: Seligman has sent a denial that he knowingly aided the CIA in the development of its torture techniques. I’ve posted it here.
7 comments July 13th, 2008