Bradley Olson, Ph.D., was one of six American Psychology Association members who won a victory recently when the APA’s leaders voted overwhelmingly to ban psychologists from assisting the U.S. military with interrogations and subsequent torture of terrorism suspects.
“This vote represents the American Psychological Association’s movement from treating powerful sections of the government as the client to a state where the person’s well-being and human rights stand foremost,” said Olson, an associate professor at National Louis University, is co-director of the Community Psychology doctoral program.
The six psychologists, who call themselves the Council for an Ethical Psychology, have spent nine years opposing the APA leadership’s decision in 2005, and actions even earlier, to tweak APA ethics policies to allow psychologists to participate with U.S. government departments, including the CIA and Department of Defense, on national security interrogations.
The input of military-friendly psychologists allowed military officials to more effectively torture terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay and other CIA “black sites” in approximately 2002-2009, with the aim of extracting information from them. Techniques included sleep deprivation, extreme temperatures, solitary confinement and physically uncomfortable positions.
“While we were seen as dissidents against psychology, we kept with this because we love the field of psychology,” Olson commented. “We said, ‘No one is going to do this to our field, and use it for harm. Not when our first principle is Do No Harm.’”
The Council for an Ethical Psychology, including Olson, was both criticized and ignored by APA leadership until last October, when journalist James Risen of the New York Times released his book, “Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War.” It introduced new, unflattering information about APA leadership’s actions in the 2000s.
In July, Chicago attorney David Hoffman, of Sidley Austin LLP, who had been contracted by the APA’s board late last year to pursue an independent investigation into the matter, concluded in a 542-page report that APA leadership around 2005 worked with the Pentagon, adjusting the APA’s ethics policies so they would not prevent psychologists from participating with the interrogation program.
In the weeks since, psychologists have engaged in intense discussions about ethics.
The heightened interest culminated in a 156-1 vote in late July at the APA annual meeting in Toronto, in which the APA’s leaders voted to ban psychologists from being involved in national security interrogations. That effectively distances them from, and prevents them from contributing to, the torture which has often accompanied such interrogations.
National Louis University President Nivine Megahed, Ph.D., said Olson’s actions align with the university’s support for positive change and pluralistic perspectives.
“Standing by the courage of one’s convictions, particularly around human rights, is right in line with NLU’s mission,” she said. “This is a great example of academic freedom in action.”
Judah Viola, Ph.D.,dean of NLU’s College of Professional Studies and Advancement, who worked closely with Olson in the Ph.D. in Community Psychology program, put Olson’s accomplishment in perspective.
“Brad Olson has for over a decade been a consistent lead advocate for psychologists’ role as promoters of human rights,” Viola said. “His efforts serve as an outstanding example of persistence, social action, and advocacy producing progress that has the potential to improve lives, and will certainly improve ethical practices within our profession.
“He exemplifies the values of National Louis University’s College of Professional Studies and Advancement to work for social justice and be of service in the broader community.”
Olson is past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility and co-founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. He is past president of Div. 48 (Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence) of the American Psychological Association. His research and action-related interests include nonviolence, community organizing, and human rights. He was past chair of Divisions for Social Justice (DSJ), a collection of 12 divisions of the APA working on social justice issues in psychology, and has held a wide variety of positions on the Society for Community Research and Action (SCRA) executive board, including member-at-large and is the co-editor of the SCRA book series on community psychology.