America’s leading professional group of clinical psychologists has denied for years that it has been playing fast and loose with ethics. Now the American Psychological Association (APA) can no longer hide. A deeply troubling report, completed early this month, shows the association twisted its policies after the September 11, 2001, World Trade Center attack to allow members to help interrogate suspected terrorists, aiding the Pentagon and CIA in sessions that medical professionals have called harmful and abusive. The report’s author, former federal prosecutor David Hoffman, found the APA secretly “colluded” with the Pentagon to let psychologists work at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and other detention sites.
The presence of professionals who pledge to protect mental health at a detention site where practices such as waterboarding took place is a moral travesty. The association, which accredits psychology graduate programs and sets ethical guidelines for its 120,000 members, has apologized. But that is not enough. At its annual meeting next month, the APA must take strong steps to ensure this can never happen again.
The Hoffman Report, commissioned by the APA in response to a critical book by New York Times reporter James Risen, documents how the organization formed close, self-interested ties with the Pentagon. The APA’s ethics director Stephen Behnke, for instance, worked directly with the Department of Defense on the wording for ethical policies on interrogations “to curry favor with DoD”—a collaboration that, as the report notes, created guidelines that “went no farther than—and were in fact virtually identical to—the internal guidelines that were already in place at DOD or that the key DOD officials wanted to put in place.” The report states the APA wanted to ensure its members were included to the “the maximum degree possible and psychologists would not lose the lead role to psychiatrists” when DoD was developing its policy on interrogations and intelligence collection.
Hoffman did not find that APA officials were aware of specific instances of psychologists aiding in abusive questioning at Guantanamo, but the ethics director and others also made no inquires about members’ roles in waterboarding and other practices after press reports and other evidence began circulating in the mid-2000s. Meanwhile, the group strenuously denied that it condoned any harsh methods.
At its August meeting, the APA should implement a policy—now under consideration—barring psychologists from participating in military or intelligence detentions and interrogations. Psychologists need to leave this gathering with a new set of ethical standards comparable with those already established by the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association. Those groups adopted policies that ban the presence of physicians during national security interrogations after revelations about abuses at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq and Guantanamo. These associations were against physicians becoming involved in what the Red Cross had found were practices “tantamount to torture.”
The psychology association also needs to show more direct contrition. Three top officials retired after the report came out—with only vague references to the scandal. (Behnke was reportedly fired.) But the remaining leadership should make public apologies to individual psychologists who were pilloried for trying to stop these abuses. For instance, Jean Maria Arrigo, a member of a pivotal 2005 APA Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security, called for the organization’s ethics guidelines to incorporate the protections afforded by the Geneva Conventions and to proscribe certain interrogation techniques. She also warned that the panel was weighted to favor the DoD’s concerns. A member of APA’s board of directors attacked her criticisms but then went further. In an open letter to a radio talk show host, this director wrote that Arrigo’s “troubled upbringing” and other personal experiences influenced her views on interrogations
Finally, serious consideration should be given to the recommendations of critics like Stephen Soldz of the Coalition for Ethical Psychology who has called for the Hoffman Report to be forwarded to the FBI and U.S. Justice Department as the basis for a criminal investigation
The integrity of psychology is at stake. Faith in the profession will diminish quickly, the report observes, if psychologists “intentionally inflict pain on an individual with no ability to resist, regardless of the individual’s background or motives.” Professionals who help people deal with emotional trauma have no business as accomplices to torture and other forms of psychological duress.