No Comment — October 15, 2010, 11:37 am

Psychologists and Torture

A former president of the American Psychological Association and the current director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, Martin Seligman is one of the field’s preeminent figures. (In his September cover story, Gary Greenberg noted the warm reception that Seligman received at a recent conference.) He is closely associated with the theory of “learned helplessness” now widely respected by professional psychiatrists. And, as the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reported, two of his adherents, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, crafted the Bush Administration’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” and apparently engaged with the theory’s author. Seligman has, however, denied any involvement in the program, insisting that his contacts with Mitchell and Jessen were innocent.

Now Salon’s Mark Benjamin reports that the Pentagon gave Seligman a fat no-bid contract:

The Army earlier this year steered a $31 million contract to a psychologist whose work formed the psychological underpinnings of the Bush administration’s torture program. The Army awarded the “sole source” contract in February to the University of Pennsylvania for resilience training, or teaching soldiers to better cope with the psychological strain of multiple combat tours. The university’s Positive Psychology Center, directed by famed psychologist Martin Seligman, is conducting the resilience training.

Army contracting documents show that nobody else was allowed to bid on the resilience-training contract because “there is only one responsible source due to a unique capability provided, and no other supplies or services will satisfy agency requirements.” And yet, Salon was able to identify resilience training experts at other institutions around the country, including the University of Maryland and the Mayo Clinic. In fact, in 2008 the Marine Corps launched a project with UCLA to conduct resilience training for Marines and their families at nine military bases across the United States and in Okinawa, Japan.

There are a large number of psychiatrists and psychologists with the skills and experience necessary to fill this contract, so there was no real justification for the no-bid approach. That fact is fueling speculation that the contract is a payoff to Seligman for some other valuable and secret service. Benjamin reviews numerous reports putting Seligman at meetings associated with the torture program.

Stephen Soldz of the Coalition for Ethical Psychology notes that Seligman would be the second former APA president in close proximity to the Bush-era torture programs. The other is Patrick DeLeon, who “was part of a Pentagon briefing on a highly classified Special Access Program involving detainee interrogations that centered on ‘deception detection.’” The group has called for a full investigation of Seligman’s relationship to the torture programs and of his no-bid contract with the Defense Department. In the meantime, it is becoming easier to understand APA’s awkward silence and inaction on the issue of psychologists involved in torture and acts of official cruelty.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

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The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

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