Light on the Darkness
It took 10 years, but Jean Maria Arrigo exposed the American Psychological Association’s secret ties to U.S. military interrogations.
By Roberto C. Hernandez
When social psychologist and oral historian Jean Maria Arrigo sat down for the first meeting, things seemed odd. There weren’t any notepads. No minutes were taken. There wasn’t an agenda.
And everything was done in absolute secrecy.
In 2005, the CGU alumna (MA, Psychology, 1995; PhD, Psychology, 1999) was asked to participate in an American Psychological Association (APA) task force to recommend ethical guidelines for psychologists’ consultations to national security interrogations.
The process of adopting a final report was irregular—its contents seemed predetermined. Arrigo would later learn that a task force meeting participant who dominated the proceedings had a major conflict of interest. Other so-called “observers” had their own agendas. She began to suspect something was going on behind the scenes.
Despite attempts to discredit her, an independent investigation—and the APA itself—eventually confirmed Arrigo’s warnings: The senior leadership of the largest scientific and professional organization of psychologists had colluded with the Department of Defense to legitimize psychologists’ consultations to interrogations and conditions of detention, making it easier for military and defense-contract psychologists to “participate in abusive interrogations of foreign detainees.”
The Pursuit of Peace
Arrigo spent 11 years teaching mathematics—she has a master’s degree in that subject—at various San Diego universities and colleges. But as the daughter of a U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps officer who had facilitated undercover operations, she has also cultivated a scholarly interest in the intersection of human rights and social psychology, moral practices and the work of national security operatives.
When she wasn’t teaching, Arrigo meditated in a cabin near the mountain community of Alpine in east San Diego County. During this period, human rights issues captured her attention.
In winter 1985-86, she participated in the International March for Peace in Central America, successfully avoiding the attention of the Contras in Nicaragua. She also spent July 1986 with Peace Brigades International as a shield for indigenous human rights advocates in Guatemala.
Like other US citizens, Arrigo became aware of the CIA’s complicity in the torture of dissidents, labor organizers, and others considered threats to US-backed Latin American governments and dictators.
“When I heard about my country indirectly torturing people—we were supporting the death squads and all that—it really hit something in me,” she said.
A Big Deal
At a conference of the International Society of Traumatic Stress Studies, Arrigo heard prominent social psychologist and Holocaust survivor Ervin Staub speak about the social conditions, culture, psychology, and other elements that lead to genocide and mass killings, as well as bystander behavior and passivity in the face of such violence.
Applied Social Psychology, a textbook written by then-CGU Professor Stuart Oskamp (currently professor emeritus), also opened her eyes. Oskamp would later serve as a co-chair for Arrigo’s dissertation.
At CGU, she specialized in ecological psychology under Alan Wicker, enjoyed advanced statistics courses with Dale Berger (who retired in fall 2015), studied philosophy of science with Joel Smith and Alfred Louch, published two papers with cognitive psychologist Kathy Pezdek, and gravitated to moral philosopher Charles Young as her other dissertation co-chair.
Arrigo’s master’s thesis was a content analysis of author bias in the presentation of multiple personality in 84 introductory college psychology textbooks. Her doctoral dissertation (“Sins and Salvations in Clandestine Scientific Research: A Social Psychological and Epistemological Inquiry”) and subsequent writings investigated the relationship between epistemology and ethics of military and political intelligence, through the eyes of intelligence professionals.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Arrigo said. “I just started studying psychology, figuring that something would turn up.”
She began interviewing intelligence professionals and weapons developers about their moral concerns, and later collaborated with musician John Crigler (her husband) to create theater performances based on their oral histories. Arrigo brought together psychologists, ethicists, and intelligence professionals for various projects, including the 2000 CGU Pilot Workshop on the Ethics of Political and Military Intelligence for Insiders and Outsiders.
She established two archival collections, the Oral History Series on Ethics of Intelligence and Weapons Development at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2004, and the Intelligence Ethics Collection at Stanford University the following year.
In 2005, Arrigo was invited to serve on the APA’s Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS).
“I didn’t even think it was a big deal,” she recalled. “I thought we were all going to go there and talk about something as obvious as moral guidelines for playground bullying.”
But it was a big deal.
The 10-member task force was asked to formulate ethical guidelines for psychologists in a post-9/11 setting. It was established in the wake of a 2004 New York Times article detailing the physically and psychologically coercive interrogations that took place at US detention facilities, describing how the “handling of prisoners detained and interrogated at Guantánamo amounted to torture.”
Once the guidelines were defined, they would be drafted into a final report that, once adopted, would inform the APA’s ethics code and policies, creating the framework for how the US government, the country’s largest employer of psychologists, can deploy psychologists.
But from the very first meeting, something was askew. Arrigo noticed there was no agenda and no minutes were taken—standard protocol for APA meetings.
“When we got to the meeting—this was strange—the chair had a piece of paper, but we didn’t have any copies,” she recalled. “There was a boardroom table, but there was nothing on the table. Nothing. Nobody had anything.”
Arrigo appealed to two former army counterintelligence professionals, David DeBatto and Lawrence Rockwood, in 2007 to review the task force proceedings. Six out of the nine voting task force members, for example, worked for or had deep ties to military and intelligence agencies directly connected to interrogations at Guantanamo and elsewhere. Some task force members were in chains of command accused of torturing or abusing foreign detainees. An APA director—who had been selected to serve as a task force “observer”—was married to the lead behavioral science consultation team psychologist supporting interrogation operations at Guantanamo.
The task force successfully resisted efforts to align the PENS report’s definition of torture with Geneva Conventions standards, instead opting for the permissive US legal criteria. And when the report was adopted (with Arrigo’s reluctant accord), it was done during a hurried “emergency” session of the APA board of directors that bypassed the association’s governing body.
The counterintelligence consultants Arrigo had spoken with independently assessed the task force to be part of a secretly coordinated and predetermined effort to support Bush Administration interrogation interests, as well as APA senior leadership’s desire to strengthen its relationship with the Department of Defense.
“In fact, we hardly did any deliberations,” Arrigo recalled. “It was mainly wordsmith-ing and talking about other stuff. There was only one vote and that was on confidentiality. What people said happened there is not what happened, OK?”
Arrigo documented and made copies of all records. She began taking steps to establish an archive, but stopped short—Arrigo had agreed to keep task force business confidential. So she consulted an old mentor: CGU’s Charles Young.
Young told Arrigo, ‘“People have led you into a promise, and they lied to get you there, so the promise isn’t binding,’” Arrigo said, recalling his advice.
She decided to go public.
During the APA’s 2007 convention in San Francisco, for example, Arrigo showcased her discoveries in a presentation on ethics and interrogations. Journalist Amy Goodman videotaped the presentation and broadcast it on the Democracy Now! news program.
Around this time, Arrigo joined with colleagues Trudy Bond, Roy Eidelson, Brad Olson, Steven Reisner, Stephen Soldz, and Bryant Welch to develop a swift-response team of APA dissidents, the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. Without this vigorous team of researchers and operatives, Arrigo says her revelations would have come to nothing.
Certain APA officials sought to discredit Arrigo. One—a former APA president who was heavily involved in the task force’s proceedings—sought to cast doubt on Arrigo’s claims by alleging that a “troubled upbringing,” and the purported suicide of her father (alive and well at the time) were affecting her judgment.
In 2010, Arrigo collaborated with archivist Bruce Montgomery to establish the APA PENS Debate Collection at the University of Colorado Boulder as archival support for “historical accuracy and institutional transparency in the relationship between American psychology and national security.”
Spurred by the coalition and New York Times investigative journalist James Risen, the APA finally hired a former federal prosecutor to independently investigate the matter. In July 2015—10 years after the task force was initially convened—former Assistant US Attorney David Hoffman released a massive report that determined “there clearly was collusion between key APA officials who were acting on behalf of APA and key [Department of Defense] officials.”
Arrigo and the dissidents had been right all along.
A Bleak Chapter
“The evidence establishes that the composition of the PENS Task Force, the key ethical statements in the task force report, and many related APA public statements and policy positions were the result of close and confidential collaboration with certain Defense Department officials before, during, and after the task force met,” the Hoffman report stated.
The report continued: “Even though APA officials insisted at the time, and for years after, that all their actions were based on independent ethics and policy judgments about how to provide appropriate ethical guidance for psychologists who worked in this area, we found that this was not the case. Instead, key APA officials were operating in close, confidential coordination with key Defense Department officials to set up a task force and produce an outcome that would please [the Department of Defense], and to produce ethical guidelines that were the same as, or not more restrictive than, that department’s guidelines for interrogation activities.”
The organization that had questioned—and attacked—Arrigo made an about-face, calling the ordeal a “bleak chapter.”
In the wake of the scandal, the APA’s ethics chief of 15 years was ousted and other senior APA staff members, including the CEO and deputy CEO, retired early without admission of wrongdoing. The association made new recommendations, including evaluating existing conflict-of-interest policies and increasing the organization’s engagement with human rights activities. Last year, the APA banned psychologists from any involvement in national-security interrogations.
In 2015, Arrigo was awarded the Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in recognition of her “courage and persistence in advocating for ethical behavior among her fellow psychologists and the importance of international human rights standards and against torture.”
An article in The Guardian characterized Arrigo as a “national hero.”
But “hero” is not the word Arrigo uses.
Light on the Darkness
“The whole business of bravery—you can forget that,” she said during a March 2016 interview at her Irvine home. “People keep talking about courage. That’s not it. It’s grunt work, OK?”
Arrigo’s former CGU professors hold Arrigo in high regard.
“In graduate school and thereafter, Jean Maria Arrigo has been an impeccable researcher devoted to exploring critically important issues of social justice,” CGU’s Kathy Pezdek said.
Professor Emeritus Stuart Oskamp echoed this praise.
“Jean Maria was certainly one of the most dedicated, hard-working, and persistent graduate students that the CGU Psychology Department ever had,” he said. “She came to Claremont with deep ethical convictions and a single-minded concern for bringing social psychology to bear on mending many kinds of human rights abuses.”
Her old mentor said he was “honored to have worked with her.”
“For the 20 years or so that I have known her, Jean Maria Arrigo has worked with intelligence and vigor to shine light on the darkness,” CGU’s Charles Young said.
Was Arrigo ever tempted to just look the other way?
“No. There was never that moment. I OK’d that document,” she explained. “I was a party to this because I was made guilty. I had to stick it out.”
Despite recent changes, Arrigo isn’t convinced that the infrastructure and social networks that facilitated the PENS debacle are gone and that similar ethical lapses won’t arise again.
“That’s like believing that when the Russians shot down Gary Powers’ spy plane in 1960 that the US gave up espionage,” she said.