Standing Firm for Reform at the American Psychological Association

Abolitionist and preacher Frederick Douglass once warned, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” Feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde similarly advised, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Their words are worth remembering as we now witness a coordinated campaign of intimidation, deception, and obfuscation targeting the American Psychological Association’s recent efforts to right its ship and institute meaningful ethical reforms in national security contexts.


To fully understand the duplicitousness of this campaign, some brief background is essential. Following the 9/11 attacks, the APA leadership sacrificed the profession’s do-no-harm commitments, lured by the power and prestige available to participants in the Bush Administration’s brutal “war on terror.” As a result, for over a decade thereafter, the APA’s primary response to evidence of psychologists’ involvement in the abuse and torture of detainees was a combination of stonewalling, denials, and attacks against critics.

In late 2014, however, the APA Board finally authorized an independent review of longstanding allegations of collusion between APA leaders and government officials. Seven months later, after more than 150 interviews and the examination of thousands of emails and other documents, attorney David Hoffman and his Sidley Austin colleagues completed their 500-page report. It confirmed that senior APA representatives had indeed colluded with Department of Defense (DoD) officials to support policies that protected and preserved the ongoing participation of psychologists in harsh detention and interrogation operations.

In particular, the colluders stacked the APA’s 2005 Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) with carefully selected military intelligence insiders. As designed, and despite contrary evidence, the task force quickly concluded that psychologists helped to keep these operations “safe, legal, ethical and effective.” Over the next several years, some of these same individuals worked secretly together to develop and vet statements and strategies aimed at maintaining the close alignment between APA and DoD policies, effectively disregarding the will of the APA’s general membership.

Among the APA officials most directly involved in the collusion were psychologists Stephen Behnke, Gerald Koocher, Ron Levant, and Russ Newman. Among the DoD personnel most directly involved were psychologists Morgan Banks, Larry James, and Debra Dunivin.

Following these revelations, last August the APA’s governing Council of Representatives overwhelmingly approved an historic resolution that incorporated three key policy changes. First, the resolution opposes psychologist involvement in national security interrogations. Second, the resolution adopts the UN Convention Against Torture and the judgments of UN representatives and other international bodies in determining what constitutes torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. And third, the resolution specifies, based on the 2008 membership referendum, that psychologists present at Guantanamo Bay (and similar international sites) are in violation of APA policy unless they are working directly on behalf of the detainees or providing treatment to military personnel.

That brings us to the current coordinated effort to undermine crucial reforms and the Hoffman Report that inspired them. Since the resolution’s adoption, various individuals and groups—many of them facilitators or bystanders during APA’s decade of ethical regress—have come forward, claiming that the methods and conclusions of the Hoffman Report are suspect and that careful review and reconsideration are urgently needed. At the extreme, two retired military officers, colleagues of Morgan Banks, have described the report as a “classic attack of cowards” and have asserted that the APA has now become “a willing co-conspirator to the likes of al Qaeda and ISIS.” That kind of rhetoric catches one’s attention, but it’s actually less worrisome than the strategic ploys from the more sober-sounding standard bearers in this campaign. It’s important to recognize that many of them—even those who were not directly implicated in the collusion—have self-protective and self-exculpatory interests in discrediting the Hoffman Report, overturning the new policies, and obstructing related reform efforts. Here are five such groups.

Banks, James, Dunivin, and Newman

Not surprisingly, several of those identified as direct participants in the collusion were among the first to disparage the Hoffman Report, describing the investigators’ work as biased and malicious. In their three co-authored reports, however, Banks, James, Dunivin, and Newman consistently fail to refute the evidence of many collusive acts documented in the report (e.g., emails with “Eyes Only” subject lines and instructions to delete immediately after reading). Instead they argue that the report intentionally disregards a key consideration: by the time of the 2005 PENS Report, they claim, military policies were already in place that prohibited abuses at Guantanamo. But that claim is disingenuous and readily contradicted by considerable evidence. For example, Appendix M of the revised Army Field Manual—the basis for lawful detention and interrogation operations—still permits cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, including sleep deprivation, extended solitary confinement, sensory deprivation, and the exploitation of fear and hopelessness. Likewise, in a 2009 report from the Center for Constitutional Rights, conditions of confinement for many Guantanamo detainees were recognized as “harshly punitive and violate international and U.S. legal standards for the humane treatment of persons deprived of their liberty.” And the ongoing indefinite detention of Guantanamo detainees is itself psychologically devastating and constitutes “a violation of the Convention” according to the UN Committee Against Torture. In sum, Banks, James, Dunivin, and Newman—not Hoffman and his team—appear to have a serious problem with bias and the misrepresentation of facts.

APA’s Military Psychology Division 

The APA’s military psychology division (Division 19) was quick to form its own “task force” to defend its members implicated in the collusion. This group also concluded that the Hoffman Report was deeply flawed and biased. But here it’s important to recognize that the predominant voices in Division 19 have long been fellow operational psychologists who’ve consistently advocated for and defended the weaponizing of psychology. The use of psychologists in ethically fraught and often abusive detention and interrogation operations is just one instance. Another is the recommendation from a former division president that psychotherapy techniques be used to train soldiers in “adaptive killing.” In short, we shouldn’t be misled into thinking that Division 19 is by any means a legitimate voice for military psychology as a whole. There are thousands of psychologists, for example, whose work primarily involves providing treatment and care for our soldiers and veterans. Only a small percentage of these professionals are members of Division 19; the vast majority have no affiliation whatsoever with that division.

Past Chairs of the APA Ethics Committee 

Several former chairs of the APA Ethics Committee have now also stepped forward to collectively cast doubt on the Hoffman Report. In two open letters to the current APA Board, they’ve raised questions about the independent review process and possible conflicts of interest. Here too, however, we shouldn’t overlook some basic facts. In particular, under Behnke’s leadership the Ethics Office was central to the entire collusive enterprise detailed in the report. Even if their participation was unwitting, several of these committee chairs were directly involved in the quick endorsement of the collusion-driven PENS Report; the years-long delay in revising Ethical Standard 1.02 to eliminate the just-following-orders Nuremberg Defense; the failure to produce a timely casebook on ethical issues in national security settings as promised; and the controversial decisions not to take action on ethics complaints filed against military psychologists Larry James and John Leso. This history obviously makes it difficult to now view them as credible, unbiased arbiters when it comes to evaluating the findings of the Hoffman Report.

APA’s Independent Practice Division 

Also part of this disparagement campaign is the Board of APA’s Division 42 (Psychologists in Independent Practice). This group recently announced a vote of “no confidence” in the reform-minded members of the APA’s Board of Directors, based on their handling of the Hoffman Report. Yet again, relevant history should not be overlooked because the leaders of Division 42 have been on the wrong side of these issues in the past. For example, despite all that was already known, the division gave Behnke its 2011 Distinguished Public Service Award. And the following year, in an open letter the division Board “vehemently oppose[d]” the call for annulment of the PENS Report from the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, and also accused the Coalition (of which I’m a member) of spreading “false and biased information.” At the time, the Division 42 leadership insisted that there was nothing wrong with the PENS process or with APA’s related policies (the Coalition’s response is available here). So their latest action is merely the continuation of a pattern. It is also worth noting that Gerald Koocher, one of the key colluders identified in the Hoffman Report, is the treasurer of Division 42; in recent days he has filed an ethics complaint against APA Board members who served as coordinators and liaisons for Hoffman’s independent review.

Past Presidents of APA 

The most recent addition to this campaign is a group of several past presidents of the APA. In their open letter, they too express doubts and concerns about the Hoffman Report and the current leadership’s reform efforts. But here too, it’s hard to view their stance as selfless and unbiased given aspects of the histories of some of the signatories. As a senior aide to a U.S. Senator who once chaired the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, one of these past presidents spent much of his career encouraging and coordinating relationships between the APA and the DoD, including a pilot program for prescription privileges for military psychologists. A second served on the board and owned a small financial stake in Mitchell Jessen & Associates, the firm that received $81 million to run the CIA’s interrogation program. A third had CIA ties as well, and met with James Mitchell on multiple occasions; Mitchell subsequently relied on his theory of learned helplessness in developing the abusive “enhanced interrogation techniques” used at CIA black sites and elsewhere. And a fourth was a paid member of a CIA “Professional Standards Advisory Committee,” for which Mitchell was an occasional consultant. None of these associations demonstrates involvement in APA’s collusion or detainee torture. But this kind of background information is certainly worth bearing in mind when considering recommendations from these individuals.

Standing Firm for Reform

With the APA’s annual convention now less than two months away, other groups may soon join the bandwagon. There’s no preventing that, but the rest of us must understand that this coordinated campaign is bringing together some of the very forces that betrayed the APA’s membership and the profession in the past. Relying on misrepresentations, distractions, and the sowing of confusion, they neglected ethics and human rights for the sake of expediency and narrow guild interests. And despite their current efforts, we mustn’t forget that the collusion identified in the Hoffman Report was real; the dire consequences for psychology have been real; and the irreparable harm to the victims of torture and abuse is real and everlasting.

For over a decade, APA members witnessed a tragic failure of leadership, one of historic proportions. The current attacks on both the Hoffman Report and today’s reform-minded APA leaders are vivid reminders of just that. To give the helm back to those who willfully ran the ship aground, and then let it sit rotting for years thereafter, is a nightmarish prospect. But it can happen if the APA’s Council of Representatives—and members of the profession more broadly—are not sufficiently vigilant and proactive in the weeks and months ahead. To anyone who wants to turn out the lights on hard-earned and long overdue progress, our message must be loud and clear: We refuse to let that darkness descend again.

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.