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How Six Rebel Psychologists Fought A Decade-Long War On Torture — And Won

They were ridiculed and sidelined by the leadership of the American Psychological Association, which they accused of complicity in human rights abuses. When the association voted to ban psychologists from these activities on Friday, the rebels scored an improbable — and emotional — victory.

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Steven Reisner, speaking after the vote

TORONTO — They call themselves "the dissidents." Officially, they are the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. In reality, they're just six psychologists united by a shared moral outrage at their profession's involvement in torture.

Last month, these tenacious rebels were vindicated by a damning independent report, which concluded that the American Psychological Association (APA) colluded with the Pentagon to allow psychologists to help U.S. military interrogators employing brutal methods on terrorist suspects.

On Friday morning, amid emotional scenes, the APA's governing Council of Representatives overwhelmingly backed the dissidents' proposal to ban psychologists from taking part in national security interrogations.

That the rebels stuck together for so long, in the face of the powerful forces ranged against them, is remarkable — especially given their own differences.

"We did not come together as like-minded people or friends," Jean Maria Arrigo, the whistleblower who the group coalesced around, told BuzzFeed News.

Arrigo is an independent social psychologist from California who has formed close ties with Army interrogators who oppose torture. Some of her colleagues, meanwhile, are pacifists who wouldn't dream of collaborating with anyone from the military.

"We have fights about this," Arrigo said. "We do not tend to ideological conformity."

The coalition came together in the wake of the APA's Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS), which issued the 2005 report that has thrown psychology into crisis. Arrigo was a member, but quickly came to the view that the task force was a sham.

It came up with no firm rules to prohibit psychologists from being involved in interrogations using the harsh methods — including sleep deprivation, isolation, and painful "stress positions" — that were being used at CIA "black sites" and the U.S. military's detention camp at Guantánamo.

"I was manipulated into the task force and then lied to with the result that I became complicit," Arrigo told the APA meeting on Wednesday. "Even though I'm an introvert and would rather be reading poetry, I had to take this moral stand."

Also driven by outrage about psychology's failure to distance itself from what was happening to detainees in the "war on terror" were Steven Reisner, a New York psychoanalyst, Stephen Soldz of the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, and Brad Olson, a psychologist at National Louis University in Chicago.

That core group was later joined by Roy Eidelson, a consulting psychologist in Pennsylvania, and Trudy Bond, a counselling psychologist from Ohio. She opened a new front by filing ethics complaints with the APA and state psychological associations against psychologists who had worked at Guantánamo.

The group came under repeated attack from the APA's leadership. In a 2006 column in the association's magazine, then-President Gerald Koocher criticized "opportunistic commentators masquerading as scholars" who were alleging abuses by mental health professionals.

The following year, after Arrigo appeared on the radio and television program Democracy Now, Koocher issued an open letter alleging that she was biased by the "sad emotional aftermath of a troubled upbringing" and the suicide of her father.

It was an astonishing claim, given Arrigo's father was alive at the time.

Realizing that any mistake they made would be seized upon, the coalition became obsessive in fact-checking its statements. "When Soldz and Reisner put something out, I know that it is right," Arrigo told BuzzFeed News. "I can put my life on it."

Worse than the attacks, Eidelson told BuzzFeed News, was simply being ignored. He took on the job of sending each of the group's statements to every member of the APA's Council of Representatives. "I'd send to 175 email addresses and wait for the silence," Eidelson said. "It would often feel like an exercise in futility, but I would do it anyway."

The rebels did have some key allies. They credit Physicians for Human Rights, which similarly opposed torture, for bringing them together. Bryant Welch, a California clinical psychologist and former APA insider, helped out for a couple of years.

Another ally was Dan Aalbers, a psychologist at Sierra Nevada College near Lake Tahoe in Nevada, who helped the group bypass the APA's leadership by appealing directly to its members. In 2008, rank-and-file APA members backed a proposal to remove psychologists from Guantánamo and CIA black sites by 8,792 votes to 6,157.

But as the years dragged by, it was never implemented.

"We thought we had lost," Reisner told supporters yesterday, at a town hall meeting on the sidelines of the APA's annual meeting in Toronto. "We thought that we'd played just about every card that we had."

But there was one more card to play, held not by the rebels but by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist James Risen. He had obtained emails supporting the claim that the APA had colluded with the military to ensure that the PENS task force would deliver a report that would please the Pentagon.

When Risen's book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, appeared in October 2014, the APA criticized him for "innuendo and one-sided reporting." But a month later, with the controversy refusing to die down, it commissioned Chicago lawyer David Hoffman to investigate.

"Many people in the APA believed this investigation was going to prove, once and for all, that we were a bunch of blowhards," Reisner told the town hall meeting. Instead, Hoffman's report confirmed Risen's claims — which echoed what the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology had been saying all along.

The APA's current leadership, rocked by the Hoffman report, backed the proposed ban on psychologists taking part in national security interrogations. But ahead of the vote, the rebels didn't know what to expect from the Council of Representatives — an unwieldy body whose deliberations are hard to predict.

Larry James, formerly chief psychologist at Guantánamo, led the opposition, arguing that the ban would put psychologists employed by the federal government in a "dire" position by putting international law above the U.S. Constitution.

"I think we need to slow down and think very carefully," he told the council.

But when it came to a verbal vote, James was the only member of the council to say "No." As the rebels' previous opponents lined up behind the ban, Soldz couldn't contain his emotion, fighting to hold back tears.

"This is the best thing to happen for psychology in decades and decades," an elated Olson told BuzzFeed News, immediately after the vote.

"The momentum of change is with us, and I think everybody realized that they wanted to be on the right side of history," Reisner told reporters.

But the job isn't finished, Reisner warned. "We have to make very clear that the American Psychological Association will be among the strongest voices for human rights," he said. "But until we do that, the public should be skeptical."

Peter Aldhous is a Science Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. His secure PGP fingerprint is 225F B2AF 4B8E 6E3D B1EA 7F9A B96E BF7D 9CB2 9B16

Contact Peter Aldhous at peter.aldhous@buzzfeed.com.

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