Jean Maria Arrigo, Who Exposed Psychologists’ Ties to Torture, Dies at 79

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Jean Maria Arrigo, a psychologist who exposed efforts by the American Psychological Association to obscure the role of psychologists in coercive interrogations of terror suspects in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, died on Feb. 24 at her home in Alpine, Calif. She was 79.

The cause was complications of pancreatic cancer, her husband, John Crigler, said.

A headline about her as a whistle-blower in The Guardian in 2015 put it succinctly: “‘A National Hero’: Psychologist Who Warned of Torture Collusion Gets Her Due.”

A decade earlier, Dr. Arrigo had been named to a task force by the American Psychological Association, the largest professional group of psychologists, to examine the role of trained psychologists in national security interrogations.

The 10-member panel was formed in response to news reports in 2004 about abuse at the American-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, which included details about psychologists aiding in interrogations that, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, were “tantamount to torture.”

Dr. Arrigo later asserted that the A.P.A. task force was a sham — a public relations effort “to put out the fires of controversy right away,” as she told fellow psychologists in a wave-making speech in 2007.

The task force met and deliberated for just three days in 2005, she revealed. It was stacked with members who had ties to the Pentagon and conflicts of interest. Its conclusion, written by the top ethics official at the A.P.A., was that psychologists had an important role to play in interrogations, keeping them “safe, legal, ethical and effective” — intentionally broad language supplied by an official at the Defense Department.

Though the proceedings of the task force, formally known as the A.P.A.’s Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security, were meant to be secret, Dr. Arrigo publicized what took place, spoke to journalists and turned over emails and records to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

She argued that the Geneva Convention, with its strict ban on torture, should guide psychologists, not the looser standards of President George W. Bush’s administration, whose lawyers had written secret memos indicating that “enhanced interrogation techniques” meant to break the will of detainees, including waterboarding, or simulated drowning, were permissible.

After Dr. Arrigo went public with her objections, a former A.P.A. president attacked her in unusually personal terms, claiming that a “troubled upbringing” and her father’s supposed suicide explained her dissenting views. (Dr. Arrigo’s father was alive at the time.)

“Without her participation as a whistle-blower,” Roy J. Eidelson, a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, said in an interview, “the A.P.A. in all likelihood would have continued to collaborate covertly with the Department of Defense and the C.I.A. in support of psychologists’ involvement in operations that we now know are abusive and torturous toward war-on-terror detainees.”

For years, Dr. Arrigo was part of a small group, the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, which criticized the A.P.A.’s close ties to military intelligence, which dated back to World War I, when psychologists were hired to test and assess recruits.

The pre-9/11 military employed hundreds of clinical psychologists and made large research grants. The A.P.A.’s critics said that it was motivated in the Bush years by a desire for career opportunities and lucrative contracts in military intelligence during the so-called war on terror. Defenders of the A.P.A. said the advice of psychologists in interrogations ensured that they were safe and ethical.

As reporting during and after the Bush years revealed, two psychologists developed the harsh interrogation techniques used by the C.I.A. at its black site prisons after 9/11, adapting a U.S. Air Force program to steel pilots in case of capture, known as SERE, for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. SERE, in turn, which included waterboarding and sleep deprivation, was based on Chinese techniques of the 1950s that had led to false confessions by American prisoners.

Though the Bush administration claimed harsh interrogations were justified, “there was a broad consensus among the professionals who knew best, who knew that SERE was torture,” according to the book “Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War” by James Risen, a New York Times national security reporter.

In 2015, an independent investigation of the A.P.A.’s work with the Pentagon vindicated most of Dr. Arrigo’s criticisms, documenting what it called “collusion” between the psychologists’ group and the Department of Defense. The A.P.A. had sought to “curry favor” with the C.I.A. and the Pentagon, the report found, which had the effect of giving cover to abusive interrogations.

The explosive report, commissioned by the A.P.A.’s board, found that its ethics office “prioritized the protection of psychologists — even those who might have engaged in unethical behavior — above the protection of the public.”

The objections of Dr. Arrigo, who is mentioned more than 150 times in the 542-page report, were suppressed in an “intentional effort to curb dissent,” the report added.

The investigation produced an upheaval at the A.P.A., including the departure of the ethics director and other top officials. In 2015, the A.P.A. banned psychologists from assisting in interrogations of prisoners held by any military or intelligence body. The group’s immediate past president at the time, Nadine J. Kaslow, told The Guardian that Dr. Arrigo was owed an apology. “I’m going to personally thank her when I see her,” Dr. Kaslow said. “I’m going to personally apologize to her for the fact that other people mistreated her.”

Jean Maria Arrigo was born on April 30, 1944, in Memphis to Joseph Arrigo, a career Army officer who worked in military intelligence for part of his career, and Nellie (Gephardt) Arrigo, a schoolteacher.

Besides Mr. Crigler, Dr. Arrigo is survived by two sisters, Sue Arrigo Clear and Linda Gail Arrigo.

Dr. Arrigo’s first career was in mathematics; she earned a B.A. in the subject in 1966 and an M.A. in 1969, both from branches of the University of California. For 11 years, she taught math as an adjunct college professor, including at San Diego State University.

She returned to school to train as a social psychologist, earning an M.A. in 1995 and a Ph.D. in 1999, both from Claremont Graduate University. Her doctoral research, she wrote in a résumé, explored the “ethics of military and political intelligence, a theme I inherited as daughter of an undercover intelligence officer.”

In 2004 she published “A Utilitarian Argument Against Torture Interrogation of Terrorists” in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics.

In 2016, Dr. Arrigo received the Scientific Freedom and Responsibility Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which cited her “courage and persistence in advocating for ethical behavior among her fellow psychologists and the importance of international human rights standards and against torture.”

Dr. Eidelson, the author of “Doing Harm: How the World’s Largest Psychological Association Lost Its Way in the War on Terror” (2023) said in an interview that Dr. Arrigo was a quiet person, one whom few people would have pegged as likely to stand up to the national leadership of her profession.

She was “unassuming, mild-mannered, careful, fact-oriented, no-nonsense,” he said. “Not everybody was happy with her, but the profession has benefited tremendously from her commitment to the truth.”


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