Protecting Psychologists Who Harm

Shortly after learning about the American Psychological Association’s (APA) new “Member-Initiated Task Force to Reconcile Policies Related to Psychologists’ Involvement in National Security Settings,” I found my thoughts turning to the School of the Americas, Blackwater and, perhaps even more surprisingly, the Patagonian toothfish. Those may seem like a strange threesome, but they share one important thing in common. All have undergone a thorough repackaging and renaming in a marketing effort aimed at obscuring — but not altering — some ugly truth.

The School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, had become infamous for training Latin American soldiers who would return home and engage in repressive campaigns involving rape, torture, and murder of political dissidents. To combat its negative image, the school was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, but the nature of its activities remain largely unchanged. During the Iraq War, Blackwater, a private military company supported by hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. government contracts, gained international notoriety on many counts, including its use of excessive and often deadly force against Iraqi civilians. The company therefore renamed itself — twice — first as Xe Services and then again as Academi, with essentially the same core businesses. As for the Patagonian toothfish, it’s wrong to blame the fish itself. But in an effort to spur sales, merchants renamed it Chilean sea bass (for similar reasons, the slimehead fish is now known as orange roughy instead).

Sadly, the same repackaging and renaming strategy of illusion and deception characterizes the APA’s latest gambit to both protect and disguise the role of psychologists as purveyors of harm. But to fully understand this new ploy — a “task force” to produce a comprehensive document of all APA ethics policies relevant to psychologists in national security settings — it’s helpful to first review some disturbing history.

There is incontrovertible evidence that in the years following the 9/11 attacks, psychologists served as planners, consultants, researchers, and overseers to the abusive and torturous interrogations of prisoners in the U.S. “global war on terror.” Multiple reports of wrongdoing emerged, such as one from the International Committee of the Red Cross describing psychological coercion techniques at Guantanamo Bay as “tantamount to torture.” APA members and others responded with outrage and clamor. It was immediately clear that the world’s largest psychological association needed to engage in a careful and transparent examination of whether professional ethics allow psychologists to serve in aggressive operational roles, such as detention and interrogation activities involving national security detainees. Tragically, however, APA’s leadership decided to take a very different path. They chose to rubber-stamp the status quo without any meaningful deliberation whatsoever.

More specifically, in mid-2005 the APA brought together a task force for a weekend meeting. It was dominated by representatives from the military-intelligence establishment, including several individuals who served in the chains of command publicly accused of detainee abuses. In short order, this “Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security” (PENS) issued the PENS Report, which asserted that psychologists may indeed “serve in various national security-related roles, such as a consultant to an interrogation.” With comparable speed, the APA Board called an “emergency” session and approved the Report, bypassing entirely the Association’s actual governing body, its Council of Representatives. APA staff and leadership then quickly followed by publicly promoting the view that psychologists help to keep interrogations “safe, legal, ethical and effective.” In sum, the Department of Defense and CIA obtained just the endorsement they wanted from the APA.

Since that time, further evidence has accumulated pointing to the entire PENS process as deeply flawed and corrupt. Newspaper reports and previously classified government documents have revealed distressing details about the physical and psychological abuse that were part and parcel of the “enhanced interrogation techniques” supported by psychologists. The release of emails from the PENS listserv has shown that Task Force member Colonel Morgan Banks promoted the view that psychologists help to keep interrogation operations “safe, legal, ethical and effective” before the Task Force ever met. As already noted, this exact phrase became the recurring public relations mantra of APA leadership after the Task Force meeting.

Skepticism regarding the composition of this “ethics” Task Force has been further strengthened by public statements from Task Force members themselves. As one example, Task Force member Colonel Larry James wrote a 2008 memoir in which he recounts an episode at the Guantanamo detention center where, as commanding officer, he poured a cup of coffee and watched for several minutes as an interrogator and three prison guards struggled to force a pink nightgown onto a detainee already unwillingly outfitted with pink panties, a wig, and lipstick (James never reported this incident to the appropriate authorities, even though he elsewhere described this kind of failure-to-report as a violation of military law). As another example, in a 2009 NPR interview Task Force member Captain Bryce Lefever defended the technique of locking an insect-phobic detainee in a small box with insects, explaining that “the things that are called…torture or exploitative are also therapy techniques.”

Despite revelations of this sort, the APA Board has consistently resisted efforts to re-open the crucial question of whether professional ethics support the use of psychologists in aggressive national security operational roles — roles that conflict with “do no harm” principles because they may involve coercion, deception, manipulation, humiliation, and other non-beneficent actions. In fact, it took a grassroots member-initiated referendum in 2008 — unwelcome by both APA leadership and the Department of Defense — to establish an APA policy that prohibits psychologists from working in national security detention settings operating outside of or in violation of the U.S. Constitution or international law. But even though voting members of the APA overwhelmingly passed this petition resolution, the association’s leadership has failed to take concerted action to implement the will of its membership, with psychologists’ ongoing work at the Bagram/Parwan prison in Afghanistan as a prime example.

The latest effort to challenge the legitimacy of APA’s stance in support of aggressive operational psychology is a broad-based campaign calling for official annulment of the PENS Report. Spearheaded by the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology (of which I am a member), this online petition effort ( has already garnered endorsements from 34 organizations (including the ACLU, Physicians for Human Rights, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, and several divisions of APA itself) and over 1,800 individuals. These individual signers include two members of the PENS Task Force, current and past presidents of APA divisions, psychologists who work with torture survivors, and psychologists who have spent their careers working with veterans at VA hospitals. At the same time, recognition of the urgent need for PENS annulment extends well beyond the profession of psychology alone. Also among the petition signers are psychiatrists such as Robert Jay Lifton (author of The Nazi Doctors) and Stephen Xenakis (retired Brigadier General, U.S. Army), scholar-activists such as Daniel Ellsberg and Noam Chomsky, attorneys who have represented Guantanamo detainees, former members of the military and intelligence community, and members of the general public.

What can annulment of the PENS Report accomplish? First, annulment will serve to indisputably repudiate the illegitimate process by which the military-intelligence establishment took control over the core ethics of psychology as a profession. Second, annulment will set the stage for a long-overdue transparent, broad-based, and independent examination – by psychologists, by human rights advocates, by national security experts, and by ethicists – of whether or not it is ethical for psychologists to serve in aggressive operational roles in national security settings. More than a decade has passed since the attacks of 9/11, yet this fundamental question has never been honestly and openly addressed. Indeed, the PENS Report was strategically designed to take this question off the table — by offering the mere pretense of meaningful discussion and debate.

This brings us back to the newly hatched “Member-Initiated Task Force to Reconcile Policies Related to Psychologists’ Involvement in National Security Settings.” Not surprisingly, the APA Board has already endorsed this initiative, giving an authoritative role to a handful of APA members who have opposed past efforts to restrict the actions of operational psychologists in national security settings. For example, one of the five “task force” members is William Strickland, president of HumRRO, a company that has received tens of millions of dollars in military contracts over the past decade. In 2010 Colonel Larry James (he of the pink panties episode noted earlier) thanked Strickland for his “hard fight on the floor of the Council of Representatives over the petition resolution and changes to the APA Ethics code.”

If this small group is successful, their actions will counter the push for annulment of the PENS Report and will thereby postpone indefinitely any careful examination of the ethics of aggressive operational psychology. Deceptively, the “task force” has actually claimed common cause with the annulment campaign by emphasizing that they aim to replace the PENS Report. Indeed, that’s the headline, and superficially it sounds encouraging. But a closer reading of the details quickly reveals the disturbing reality: key policies will simply be lifted from the PENS Report and placed in the proposed new “unified, comprehensive APA policy document.” This is the repackaging and renaming reminiscent of the School of the Americas, Blackwater, and the Patagonian toothfish. The PENS Report as a document may fall by the wayside, but its pernicious and illegitimate policy conclusions will be securely enshrined in APA’s “new and improved” replacement document — which means the presumption that it’s ethical for psychologists to serve in aggressive operational roles will continue to escape the inspection and evaluation it warrants.

If I seem to be describing a worst-case scenario, let me be clear: what I’ve just presented is really the only plausible scenario given the guidelines under which the new “task force” has said it will operate. Their announcement states that the new comprehensive document (months away from completion) will be “reflective of existing APA policy,” and that it will “not set new policy.” The announcement also states: “Some earlier policies are no longer valid as a result of subsequent policy statements.” Through a process of “reconciliation,” those old policies that conflict with more recent APA resolutions will be excluded from the final comprehensive document. However, the specific PENS policy asserting that it is ethical for psychologists to serve in aggressive operational activities such as interrogation consultation in national security settings does not conflict with any more recent APA resolution. Therefore, this policy’s safe transit into the new unified ethics document is already guaranteed.

So, a highly controversial policy with profound ethical implications, established solely through a corrupt process, will be repackaged, renamed, and preserved by this “task force.” They will give the policy a comfortable new home, from which it will retain its influence while also serving as the linchpin in efforts by some to promote operational psychology as an official area of professional specialization. There is no question that this new initiative is anti-annulment by design. Its supporters either knowingly seek to protect the policy prescriptions of the PENS Report or they have been misled by those who do.

At this point, it’s uncertain whether the APA’s latest maneuver will succeed. The Coalition for an Ethical Psychology has issued a statement expressing strong opposition to the new “task force,” and the petition campaign calling for annulment of the PENS Report continues to attract supporters. But there’s little doubt that clever marketing often carries the day (just ask the Patagonian toothfish), and APA leadership has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to resort to stonewalling and obfuscation when necessary to achieve its aims.

Such tactics are regrettable. It’s wrong to run away from a serious consideration of what’s truly ethical for psychologists working in the national security sector. We know that psychologists play valuable roles in such settings, including providing dedicated and expert care to our soldiers and their families. But with changing times, a profession committed to human welfare must be willing to look inward in order to honestly explore challenging and fundamental questions. Foremost among them is whether coercion, deception, manipulation, and humiliation should be part of a psychologist’s ethical work in support of his or her country. Answering this crucial question begins not with some diversionary new “task force,” but rather with annulment of the PENS Report.

Roy Eidelson is a clinical psychologist and the president of Eidelson Consulting, where he studies, writes about, and consults on the role of psychological issues in political, organizational, and group conflict settings. He is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, associate director of the Solomon Asch Center for Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College, and a member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. Roy can be reached at


Roy Eidelson, PhD, is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, a member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, and the author of Doing Harm: How the World’s Largest Psychological Association Lost Its Way in the War on Terror (forthcoming in September 2023 from McGill-Queen’s University Press). Roy’s website is he is on Twitter at @royeidelson.