Author-psychologist returns award from American Psychological Association for its refusal to disassociate from coercive interrogation

Psychologist upset by peers’ torture role returns APA award

Psychologist upset by peers’ torture role returns APA award

Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

A prominent psychologist and author of a best-selling book on restoring girls’ self-esteem has returned an award from the American Psychological Association in protest of the organization’s recent vote to let its members continue to take part in military interrogations at Guantanamo and other sites.

“I do not want an award from an organization that sanctions its members’ participation in the enhanced interrogations at CIA Black Sites and at Guantanamo,” Mary Pipher said in an Aug. 21 letter to the APA, referring to secret CIA prisons for terror suspects.

“The presence of psychologists has both educated the interrogation teams in more skillful methods of breaking people down and legitimized the process of torture in defiance of the Geneva Conventions.”

Pipher wrote the letter two days after delegates at the association’s convention in San Francisco voted down a proposal to prohibit psychologists from taking part in interrogations at facilities where prisoners lack the right to challenge in court their confinement or treatment.

Delegates approved another measure, backed by association leaders, that barred members from participating in interrogations that use abusive methods such as mock executions, sexual humiliation or the simulated drowning technique known as waterboarding. The ban also includes sleep deprivation, isolation or temperature extremes if any of those methods causes lasting harm.

Leaders of the 145,000-member association said the presence of psychologists prevents abuses at interrogations and promotes an approach that is ethical as well as effective, by relying on rapport and persuasion rather than coercion.

But dissidents argued that psychologists are responsible for devising coercive interrogation techniques and that their presence constitutes an endorsement of the system, especially since professional organizations of doctors, nurses and psychiatrists have enacted bans like the one the APA rejected.

Pipher, a UC Berkeley graduate who lives in Lincoln, Neb., is best known as the author of the 1994 book “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls,” which examines the pressure on teenagers to conform to sex roles in a culture fixated on physical appearance.

She received a presidential citation from the APA for her early works in 1998, and another one in 2006 that cited her writings on resettling refugees. She returned only the 2006 award, explaining that the association’s president at the time, Gerald Koocher, was a strong defender of psychologists’ participation in military interrogations.

Pipher also noted that the 2006 citation praised her for “compassionate guidance” of the profession.

“I wanted to be compassionate,” she said in an interview. “I know a lot about trauma and about torture. … Many innocent people are tortured, and torture victims never recover.

“We are not innocent bystanders at those sites, doing our best to protect people. We are responsible for training these interrogators. …We are the only people left, the only medical professionals, who are lending (the sites) legitimacy.”

Pipher said she let her APA membership lapse in 2000 when she ended her clinical practice to concentrate on writing. Since she returned her award, she said, she has heard from many psychologists, some of whom said they were considering leaving the association. Membership is voluntary.

Stephen Behnke, the APA’s ethics director, said the organization has lost some members and gained others since the Aug. 19 vote. He said he didn’t know the totals.

Behnke, who has debated dissidents on the interrogation issue, insisted the two sides have the same goals.

“The APA and Dr. Pipher are in complete agreement that the techniques that constitute ‘enhanced interrogation’ are unethical and should be prohibited,” he said.

The only difference between them, he said, is the question of “what is the best way to insure that interrogations remain ethical and utterly free from torture and abuse.”

E-mail Bob Egelko at

Read a September 2007 Gray Panthers Newsletter story on the fight within the American Psychological Association to disassociate it from torture interrogation.

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