Do No Harm – American Psychological Association and Torture

The American Psychological Association’s Principle A: Beneficence and Nonmaleficence  states that “psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm.” In fact, all doctors, psychologists, psychotherapists and clinical social workers are well aware of Primum non nocere, the Latin phrase meaning “first, do no harm.” We learn it, and abide by it. However, what we say we believe in, and what our profession says it believes in, and what it does, seems to be very different.

This past week the American Psychological Association (APA)  wrote in a letter that John Leso, a former U.S. Army reserve major and psychologist, would not be rebuked for participating in the post-9/11 torture of detainees at Guantánamo Bay, including the harsh and most brutal interrogations of Mohammed al-Qahtani in November 2002.

The APA did not deny Leso’s involvement in the brutal interrogation of Mohammed al-Qahtani, whose treatment the Pentagon official overseeing his military commission ultimately called “torture,” however the APA said that it had “determined that we cannot proceed with formal charges in this matter.” Consequently the complaint against Dr. Leso “has been closed.” It is more accurate to say that the APA has chosen not to proceed, not that it cannot, and in taking this position it has chosen to stand with torturers and against the oppressed and the marginalized. To be clear – torture is wrong. Whether or not Mr. al-Qahtani was guilty or innocent is not the issue here. Rather, it is important to note that how we treat prisoners says a lot about the type of society we have become.

Dr. Leso’s involvement surfaced in 2005, when documents mentioned that Leso (identified as “MAJ L”) was present while Qahtani was forcibly given liquids, denied use of bathrooms, resulting in him urinating on himself, subjected to loud music, and repeatedly kept awake while being “told he can go to sleep when he tells the truth.” Further, Dr. Leso’s role in the use of torture at Guantánamo was further proved by a series of documents presented at a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee  torture inquiry that highlighted his involvement with a special team at the prison that crafted torture techniques. Leso’s name, rank and membership on the team were cited in minutes of a Guantánamo meeting that was published by the committee.

Further, Dr. Leso also helped to write a 2002 memorandum detailing the use, at Guantánamo, of “stress positions,” sleep deprivation, dietary manipulation, isolation and exposure to extreme cold. This memo was used by U.S. army by applying the same abusive techniques to detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2003.

The APA spokesperson, Rhea Farberman, told The Guardian  that its investigation could not meet the burden of finding “direct unethical conduct” by Leso, and said it was “utterly unfounded” to fear the organization has condoned professional impunity.

Psychologist Erich Fromm  believed that an authoritarian and undemocratic society results in alienation leading to more emotional problems and a sick society. Fromm was concerned about mental health professionals helping people to “adjust” to that society, while ignoring the very structures that contribute to dehumanization and total control over one’s life. Today, his words are a constant reminder of how treatment can become oppressive. And how as clinicians we should ask ourselves whether we are we helping our patients to conform to oppressive systems, or are talking with them about liberation and democracy?

The Critical Therapy Center (CTC) unequivocally is speaking out against the APA decision not to pursue charges against Dr. Leso. Standing alongside the oppressed and the marginalized, while advocating for a better world, we are ashamed of APA decision, while speaking out against torture and the role of psychologists in the practice of that torture. In the spirit of psychologist author/activist Ignacio Martin-Baró  we urge you to join us as we continue to ask – is psychology contributing to the needs of the established power structure?

CTC does not support APA’s assistance in interrogation/torture in Guantánamo and elsewhere. Although we recognize that there are many psychologists and other practitioners of social science that help people every day, we are also painfully aware that the association that purports to represents us is failing. Committed to the stance of “doing no harm’, CTC urges clinicians to stop contributing to the APA – be it in dues, journal writings or conference attendance, and we urge all of you to continue to speak against torture and oppression, as in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

APA and Torture


For more about the torture scandal — how psychologists and physicians implemented and covered up the torture of detainees in US controlled military prisons – watch the documentary Doctors of the Dark Site by Martha Davis.




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