APA facilitated CIA torture programme at highest levels

The long-awaited independent report, commissioned by the American Psychological Association, into the role of the organisation in the CIA’s torture programme has cited direct collusion at the highest levels of the APA to ensure psychologists could participate in abusive interrogation practices.

Reporter James Risen, who has been chasing the story for some time, revealed the damning report and its conclusions in an article for The New York Times but the text of the 524 page report more than speaks for itself. From page 9:

Our investigation determined that key APA officials, principally the APA Ethics Director joined and supported at times by other APA officials, colluded with important DoD [Department of Defense] officials to have APA issue loose, high-level ethical guidelines that did not constrain DoD in any greater fashion than existing DoD interrogation guidelines. We concluded that APA’s principal motive in doing so was to align APA and curry favor with DoD. There were two other important motives: to create a good public-relations response, and to keep the growth of psychology unrestrained in this area.

We also found that in the three years following the adoption of the 2005 PENS [Psychological Ethics and National Security] Task Force report as APA policy, APA officials engaged in a pattern of secret collaboration with DoD officials to defeat efforts by the APA Council of Representatives to introduce and pass resolutions that would have definitively prohibited psychologists from participating in interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. detention centers abroad. The principal APA official involved in these efforts was once again the APA Ethics Director, who effectively formed an undisclosed joint venture with a small number of DoD officials to ensure that APA’s statements and actions fell squarely in line with DoD’s goals and preferences. In numerous confidential email exchanges and conversations, the APA Ethics Director regularly sought and received pre-clearance from an influential, senior psychology leader in the U.S. Army Special Operations Command before determining what APA’s position should be, what its public statements should say, and what strategy to pursue on this issue.

The report is vindication for the long-time critics of the APA who have accused the organisation of a deliberate cover-up in its role in the CIA’s torture programme.

Nevertheless, even critics might be surprised at the level of collusion which was more direct and explicit than many had suspected. Or perhaps, suspected would ever be revealed.

The APA have released a statement saying “Our internal checks and balances failed to detect the collusion, or properly acknowledge a significant conflict of interest, nor did they provide meaningful field guidance for psychologists” and pledges a number of significant reforms to prevent psychologists from being involved in abusive practices including the vetting of all changes to ethics guidance.

The repercussions are likely to be significant and long-lasting not least as the full contents of the reports 524 pages are fully digested.

Link to article in The New York Times.
Link to full text of report from the APA.

Context Is the New Black

The New Yorker has one of the best articles I’ve ever read on the Stanford prison experiment – the notorious and mythologised study that probably doesn’t tell us that we ‘all have the potential to be monsters’.

It’s a study that’s often taught as one of the cornerstones of psychology and like many foundational stories, it has come to serve a purpose beyond what we can confidently conclude from it.

Was the study about our individual fallibility, or about broken institutions? Were its findings about prisons, specifically, or about life in general? What did the Stanford Prison Experiment really show?

The appeal of the experiment has a lot to do with its apparently simple setup: prisoners, guards, a fake jail, and some ground rules. But, in reality, the Stanford County Prison was a heavily manipulated environment, and the guards and prisoners acted in ways that were largely predetermined by how their roles were presented. To understand the meaning of the experiment, you have to understand that it wasn’t a blank slate; from the start, its goal was to evoke the experience of working and living in a brutal jail.

It’s a great piece that I can probably do little to add to here, so you’re best off reading it in full.

Link to The Real Lesson of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

The thin white line of future drug control

CC Licensed Image from Wikipedia. Click for source.The UK Government have announced they want to change the drugs law and ban “[any] substance which is capable of producing a psychoactive effect”. It’s a fairly clumsy attempt to tackle the wave of ‘legal highs’ but there’s a little psychopharmacological gem, hidden away, in the Home Secretary’s letter that accompanies the proposed changes.

There’s been plenty of news coverage of the proposed blanket ban, both for and against, and you can read the official documents on the Home Office Psychoactive Substances Bill webpage.

From the government’s point of view, it’s pretty much all they can do. The list of banned drugs has got so large that they’ve decided it is easier to say what isn’t prohibited. So apart from the specifically mentioned exceptions (the respectable dangerous drugs: booze, nicotine, meds) they’ve decided to ban

“[any] substance [that] produces a psychoactive effect in a person if, by stimulating or depressing the person’s central nervous system, it affects the person’s mental functioning or emotional state”

It’s a vague and unhelpful definition that could include half the products in your cleaning cupboard. But it leaves a more interesting question which the Home Secretary is clearly aware of. That is – how do you know a substance is psychoactive at all?

In other words, imagine the police find a suspicious looking white powder but the drug isn’t in their database. New drugs are appearing at about one a week, so it’s a very likely scenario. Working out whether it is psychoactive or not is key for legal purposes.

This issue has clearly already troubled the Home Secretary. In her letter to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, the Home Secretary says “I would welcome the Council’s views on how best we can establish a comprehensive scientific approach for determining psychoactivity for evidential purposes.”

But what science tells us is that the only way of confidently working out whether something is psychoactive or not, is to take it.

This is because you can’t confidently predict what a drug will do to the mind from its chemical structure.

We can say some general structures are more likely to be psychoactive than others, but it’s never guaranteed. For example lots of tryptamines are psychoactive but even here structurally very similar drugs may have very different effects.

Some tryptamines – like DMT and psilocybin are powerfully hallucinogenic – other very similar tryptamines – like the drugs used to treat migraines, are not.

As drugs are essentially keys to the ‘locks’ of the brain’s synaptic receptors – even a tiny change might suddenly mean it won’t fit in the keyhole and has no psychoactive effect.

Interestingly, this means both the manufacturers of new psychoactive compounds and the UK government will have the same problem. Because you can’t do a chemical test on a new drug and say for sure it’s psychoactive, and animal tests won’t give you a definite answer, someone has to take it to find out.

Grey market labs in China and Eastern Europe solve this problem by, well, getting someone to take the drugs. Christ knows what the Government are going to do.

Cheeky line of as-yet-untested phenethylamine derivative Home Secretary?

The most unaccountable of machinery

The latest edition of intriguing podcast Love and Radio is on a lesbian who passed as a man to report on masculinity, writing a amphetamine-fuelled stream-of-consciousness biography of Virginia Woolf, and finding hope in suicide.

It’s an interview with writer Norah Vincent and it makes for compelling listening.

Love and Radio is an interesting project that attempts to capture diverse people’s take on relationships. It veers between the rambling and the sublime, but this is definitely towards the sublime end of the spectrum.

Link to episode ‘Eternity Through Skirts and Waistcoats’.

The CIA’s inner circle of white elephant specialists

CC Licensed Image from Flickr by The U.S. Army.  Click for source.The New York Times recently covered a report by long-term critics of psychologists’ involvement in the CIA torture programme.

It includes a series of leaked emails which suggests something beyond what is widely noted – that the US security agencies have been handing out key contracts to high profile psychologists on the basis of shared political sympathies rather than sound scientific evidence. The result has been a series of largely ineffective white elephant security projects that have cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

To back up a bit, this new report claims, on the basis of the leaked emails, that there was collusion between the American Psychological Association and the CIA to make psychologists’ participation in brutal interrogations possible through engineering the written code of ethics.

The allegations are not new but as part of the coverage The New York Times includes the full text of the report which includes the full text of key emails.

The APA have commissioned an independent investigation and have released a statement, quite reasonably actually, saying they’re not going to comment until it’s concluded.

But looking at the emails, you can see that the CIA was buddies with a select group of high profile psychologists who later get big money contracts from the US Government. You may recognise the names.

One email from Kirk Hubbard, Senior Behavioral Scientist for the CIA, notes that “I have been in contact with Ekman and he is eager to do work for us”, seemingly with regard to a forum on the science of deception. This is Paul Ekman famous for his work on facial emotions and micro-expression.

Hubbard notes that Martin Seligman, famous for his work on learned helplessness and later positive psychology, “helped out alot over the past four years”. Seligman hosted a now well-documented meeting in December 2001 for “a small group of professors and law enforcement and intelligence officers” who “gathered outside Philadelphia at the home of a prominent psychologist, Martin E. P. Seligman, to brainstorm about Muslim extremism”.

This meeting included James Mitchell, of the now notorious Mitchell Jessen and Associates, who developed the CIA’s brutal interrogation / torture programme.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that Ekman and Seligman were directly involved in CIA interrogations or torture. Seligman has gone as far as directly denying it on record.

But there is something else interesting which links Ekman, Seligman and Mitchell: lucrative multi-million dollar US Government contracts for security programmes based on little evidence that turned out to be next to useless.

Ekman was awarded a contract to train ‘behavior detection officers’ at US airports using a technique called SPOT (Screening Passengers by Observation Techniques) based on detecting facial expressions – part of a $900 million programme. It was widely criticised as lacking a scientific foundation, there has been not one verified case of a successful terrorist detection, and evaluations by the Department of Homeland Security, the Government Accountability Office and the Rand Corporation were scathing.

Seligman was reportedly awarded a $31 million US Army no-bid contract to develop ‘resilience training’ for soldiers to prevent mental health problems. This was surprising to many as he had no particular experience in developing clinical interventions. It was deployed as the $237 million Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme, the results of which have only been reported in some oddly incompetent technical reports and are markedly under-whelming. Nicholas Brown’s analysis of the first three evaluative technical reports is particularly good where he notes the tiny effects sizes and shoddy design. A fourth report has since been published (pdf) which also notes “small effect sizes” and doesn’t control for things like combat exposure.

And famously, Mitchell and Jessen won an $81 million contract to develop the interrogation programme, now officially labelled as torture, and which the Senate Intelligence Committee suggested was actually counter-productive in gathering intelligence.

Applying psychology to improve airport security screening, soldiers’ well-being and interrogation are all reasonable aims. But rather than reviewing the evidence to see what’s possible and contracting relevant specialists to develop and evaluate programmes where possible, they seem to have contracted supporters of the ‘war on terror’ for work that lacked an applied evidence base.

The outcome has been expensive and ineffectual.

Link to full text of critical report, full text of emails in Appendix.

Vice on mental health

Somewhat unexpectedly, Vice magazine has just launched a series of articles, videos and interviews on mental health, and it’s really very good.

The VICE Guide to Mental Health covers the science of mental illness, what it’s like being sectioned, recovering from suicide or being severely anxious, and the social issues in getting mental health care, to name just a few of the many articles.

It also covers sex and drugs (it is Vice magazine after all) but even those are pretty good.

The series has been done in collaboration with the mighty mental health charity Mind and is well worth your time.

Link to The VICE Guide to Mental Health.

Cognitive lives scientific

CC Licensed Image by Flickr user Charly W. Karl. Click four source.The BBC Radio 4 series The Life Scientific has recently profiled three four, count’em, three four, cognitive scientists.

Because the BBC find the internet confusing I’m just going to link straight to the mp3s to save you scrabbling about on their site.

The most recent profile you can grab as an mp3 was artificial intelligence and open data Nigel Shadbolt.

The next mp3 for your list is an interview with cognitive neuroscientist and teenage brain researcher Sarah-Jayne Blakemore.

And finally, grab the mp3 of the programme on spatial memory researcher and recent Nobel prize winner John O’Keefe.

UPDATE: Thanks to those nice folks on the Twitter who told me about another edition I missed. AI scientist Maggie Boden was also profiled and you can also grab that edition as an mp3.

That’s more than an hour an a half of pure cognitive science. Use carefully. Keep away from fire. Remember, the value of your investments may go down as well as up