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Psychologists and Torture

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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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