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How Psychologists Helped Washington Crack the Code of Human Consciousness

by Alfred W. McCoy

The CIA’s Secret Research on Torture


In August 2006, U.S. Army surgeon general Kevin Kiley, dressed in full combat uniform, appeared before the national convention of the American Psychological Association (APA) to defend the participation of psychologists in interrogation at Guantanamo. “Psychology,” he declared, invoking a military maxim that many psychologists present may have found unsettling, “is an important weapons system.”

Indeed, for more than a half-century, psychology has served the U.S. intelligence community as a secret weapon in wars against its ideological enemies, first communism and then Islamic fundamentalism. Since the start of the Cold War, several generations of select psychologists have worked for U.S. intelligence agencies in the discovery and development of extreme interrogation methods that constitute nothing less than psychological torture. During the War on Terror, psychologists designed “enhanced” CIA interrogation methods, including the cruel technique called “waterboarding,” and participated in military interrogations at Guantanamo Bay that the International Red Cross condemned as “tantamount to torture.” In exchange for this service, the U.S. intelligence community has lavished rewards upon some members of the psychology profession, providing both generous funding for experimental researchers and employment for clinical specialists.

Psychology’s service to U.S. national security has produced a variant of what the psychiatrist Robert Lifton has called, in his study of Nazi doctors, a “Faustian bargain.” In this case, the price paid has been the American Psychological Association’s collective silence, ethical “numbing,” and, over time, historical amnesia. Indeed, Lifton emphasizes that “the Nazis were not the only ones to involve doctors in evil”; in defense of this argument, he cites the Cold War “role of . . . American physicians and psychologists employed by the Central Intelligence Agency . . . for unethical medical and psychological experiments involving drugs and mind manipulation.”

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