Much of my life over the last fifteen years has been devoted to two intertwined issues, the struggle against US state-sponsored torture and concerns regarding the appropriate ethical roles of those professional psychologists, known as operational psychologists, who act in furtherance of military and intelligence operations. These issues are intertwined because operational psychologists were central actors in the Bush-era torture program and are likely to play similar roles in future returns to torture. At the same time, operational psychologists are currently involved in other forms of ethically problematic activities. For a decade, the American Psychological Association (APA), the nation’s largest organization of psychologists, provided official professional cover for these psychologists by asserting that psychologist participation in national security interrogations was both ethical and desirable. In fact, APA leaders claimed with little evidence until 2015 that psychologists were uniquely qualified to prevent detainee abuse.
After almost a decade of struggles, I and other so-called “dissident psychologists” won major victories changing APA policies that had looked permissively at psychologist participation in detention and interrogations at the Guantanamo detention center and CIA secret prisons. These victories in turn led to the removal of psychologists from detention operations at Guantanamo.
With a sense of déjà vu, recent actions by the APA and the Department of Defense (DoD) are raising disturbing questions as to whether these reforms are being undermined. In this article I provide background to explain the issues at stake and why I am concerned that forces within APA may be covertly undermining, again, the APA’s public policy.
APA’s 2015 Reforms of Interrogation and Detention Policies
We begin the story at the August 2015 APA Council of Representatives meeting which by a 157 to 1 vote adopted a ban on psychologist participation in national security interrogations. This vote brought the APA, to some degree, in line with policies of the American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association. These medical organizations had banned their members’ participation in both national security and law enforcement interrogations in 2006.
At this 2015 meeting, the APA Council also voted to ban psychologist participation in any detainee-related activity at US detention sites, such as Guantánamo, that were deemed by United Nations committees or officials to be in violation of international law. Exceptions were made for psychologists treating US troops or working directly for a detainee or for a human rights group. This ban came seven years after a 2008 member-ratified Referendum on the issue that had been undermined by APA leadership. The 2008 vote culminated a four-year struggle following a 2004 Red Cross report that psychologists and psychiatrists at Guantánamo had engaged in “a flagrant violation of medical ethics” as they aided the development of a detention and interrogation system “tantamount to torture.” Relatedly, media reports from 2007 and a later Senate Intelligence Committee report described the central role of psychologists in the design and implementation of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” torture program.
The rationale for the policy banning all psychologist involvement at Guantánamo and other US detention facilities was that all military psychologists involved with detainees at the prison are inherently part of the unjust system that is detaining and abusing them—even those psychologists purporting to provide mental health treatment to detainees. For example, early reports revealed that information from detainee medical files, such as their phobias, was used to develop interrogation plans. In other cases, mental health personnel reportedly were used to convince detainees to give up hunger strikes. Additionally, psychologists at Guantánamo provided important ideological cover by denying the existence of detainee isolation and by portraying those suffering from mental health problems such as PTSD as instead being afflicted with pre-existing “personality disorders,” in contradiction of assessments by independent mental health professionals.
Passage of these reforms by APA resulted in an order in December of 2015 by Gen. John F. Kelly, the head of the United States Southern Command which oversees Guantánamo, removing psychologists from roles involving detainees. New York Times reporter James Risen cited Department of Defense (DoD) officials as explaining that the order “is intended to protect the psychologists from violating the new rules, which could expose them to losing their licenses. Many states use the psychological association’s ethics code in their professional licensing requirements for psychologists.” [emphasis added]
Hoffman Report on APA-DoD Collusion
Passage of these APA policies followed from the release that summer of a 500+-page report (accompanied by over 6,000 pages of supporting documents) by Chicago attorney David Hoffman and his team. Hoffman had been hired by the APA to conduct an independent review into claims by journalist James Risen, my colleagues in the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, and others that the APA had colluded—or engaged in secret back channel coordination—with CIA and Department of Defense (DoD) officials facilitating the Bush administration’s interrogation programs.
Hoffman did not completely confirm the suspicions we had regarding APA-CIA collusion. He found that while the available evidence of close coordination between the two was strong, he could not find evidence of more secret collusion. He added that his investigation into APA-CIA interactions might have been limited by possible efforts by the CIA to keep their interactions secret. Hoffman did find that an APA-connected individual was tapped by the CIA to evaluate the ethics of their “enhanced interrogation” torture program, which was designed and largely implemented by psychologists. That individual found that CIA torture was consistent with APA ethics, raising the possibility that a contrary finding might have ended the CIA’s torture.
While Hoffman’s investigation found only limited APA-CIA ties, it did expose a wealth of evidence that APA officials had secretly coordinated with officials from the DoD’s interrogation program. The release of Hoffman’s report generated headlines in major media outlets that were embarrassing to the APA. “Inquiry: Psychologists Group Colluded with Pentagon, CIA on Interrogations,” was the headline in the Washington Post. The Chronicle of Higher Education headlined the first of its four articles on the Hoffman report and its immediate aftermath, “Psychological Association Helped Justify Torture Program, Bombshell Report Says.”
The Hoffman Report focused on coordination between the DoD and the APA that created and preserved loose ethical standards for psychologists involved in national security interrogations:
“the collusion was done to support the implementation by DoD of the interrogation techniques DoD wanted to implement, without substantial constraints from APA; with knowledge that there likely had been abusive interrogation techniques used and that there remained a substantial risk that without strict constraints, such abusive interrogation techniques would continue; and with substantial indifference to the actual facts regarding the potential for ongoing abusive interrogation techniques” (Hoffman, p. 68).
A second finding of the Hoffman Report was that although APA leaders repeatedly asserted that they would vigorously pursue ethics investigations against any psychologists for whom there was credible evidence of participation in detainee abuse, four such complaints had been closed by the APA without anything resembling a thorough investigation.
Hoffman additionally found that, “APA wished to implement a media communications strategy in which APA could portray itself as very engaged in the issue and very concerned about ethical issues” (p. 11) when, in fact, APA systematically avoided the complex ethical issues raised by psychologists’ involvement in national security interrogations, especially under a government that had authorized torture and other abusive techniques.
For example, in late 2004, as APA staff discussed how to address concerns raised by a New York Times report that psychologists were helping construct a “system tantamount to torture,” APA’s then general counsel wrote in an email chain involving eight of APA’s top leaders:
[T]he tougher point to me is the question — which seems inevitable — of whether psychologists can legitimately/ethically work with interrogators to identify ways of ‘breaking down’ a prisoner that fall short of torture. I think the answer to that is probably ‘yes’, but that is quite tricky to get across without creating a sound bite that could be disastrous. (Hoffman, p. 208; emphasis added; email chain starts Binder 1: 598)
The response 20 minutes later, from APA’s Ethics Director, indicates how clever they had become at obfuscating issues to avoid the Association’s public commitment to its private positions:
I think our ethics program has gotten pretty good at avoiding ‘yes-no’ type responses (except in clear cases, e.g., it’s not acceptable to become sexually involved with a patient), and I think that should be our first line of approach here. I would encourage us to be mindful that we are a scientific organization, so that as an initial matter we look to the science (e.g., what data do we have to indicate that this technique is effective? Do we have data to indicate that this technique is more effective than other techniques that would present less risk of harm?) I would point out that since some of the research in this area is classified, we do not have all the information we may need for a complete ethical analysis. (Hoffman, p. 208)
In other words, in internal discussions, APA officials supported psychologist participation in interrogations that were known to cause harm to detainees, but publicly proclaimed that those same psychologists were bulwarks against detainee harm. Additionally, while there can be disagreement regarding the appropriate boundary of “torture,” APA repeatedly asserted that participation in “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” a far broader category, was also prohibited; these emails demonstrate that APA leaders understood that these categories could be made flexible enough to allow interrogation techniques aimed at “breaking down” detainees.
Eight of the most senior APA officials at the time were included in this email thread, among them the then CEO and Deputy CEO, the directors of three of the Association’s major divisions, and its top lawyer. This is noteworthy because, as public evidence of psychologist involvement in US government torture and detainee abuse poured out, many APA staff and other supporters promulgated the myth that the only problem was with two psychologists – James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen – who had consulted to the CIA on its “enhanced interrogation” torture program. This false narrative protected the military psychologists at Guantánamo and elsewhere. The email chain quoted above shows that APA’s senior leadership understood that it wasn’t just psychologists with the CIA; psychologists in the military were likely participating in doing harm to detainees as well.
Additionally, evidence in recent years has clearly established that a number of psychologists at the CIA, and not simply Mitchell and Jessen, were involved in the “enhanced interrogation” torture program. For example, the Summary and Reflections of the (CIA’s) Chief of Medical Services contains extensive discussion of the involvement of psychologists throughout the operational branch of the CIA in the agency’s torturous detention and interrogation program.
Another self-protective myth attributed the APA’s bad faith actions over the previous decade primarily to a single individual, the Association’s Ethics Director. That individual was quickly fired when the Hoffman Report was released, and an additional six of the eight people on the email chain described above were forced out of or left the APA in the weeks and months immediately thereafter. But to date there still has been little reckoning with how so many in senior leadership could have been involved in apparently abetting harm to detainees while claiming otherwise to the public.
APA’s Initial Response to Hoffman
In a brief period after release of the Hoffman Report, there appeared to be consensus that something had gone profoundly wrong within the Association. The August 2015 reforms prohibiting psychologists’ participation in certain national security operations and at Guantánamo and other detention sites were approved overwhelmingly by the APA Council, with only a single “no” vote from a military psychologist who had served as a Behavioral Science Consultant at Guantánamo. Various other reform initiatives were undertaken, including moves toward greater transparency in the Association and the appointment of a high-level commission to investigate the APA’s procedures for ethics investigations and recommend improvements. In addition to psychologists, prominent ethicists from outside the profession were recruited for the commission.
However, by the time the high-level Ethics Commission issued its report in August 2017, the tide of opinion had turned. The Ethics Commission’s report was politely “received” by APA’s Council of Representatives, the lowest level of affirmation allowed, which implied no resulting action. The Council was told that the APA Board would review the commission’s recommendations for potential action by Council. To date, there has been no serious response by the APA Board to the Ethics Commission’s report, except for a decision to radically curtail APA ethics enforcement, a position diametrically opposed to the commission’s recommendation for firmer ethics enforcement. The APA Board used the establishment of a high-level Ethics Commission as a rationale that ethical change was underway, while ignoring its recommendations.
One unimplemented recommendation of the Ethics Commission is especially relevant to understanding the significance of APA’s problematic actions that I discuss below. After passage of the 2008 member-initiated referendum that banned psychologist participation in detention sites that are in violation of international law, APA announced that such a policy could not be enforced under the ethics code for psychologists—only the APA Ethics Committee could make new ethics policy. Interestingly, public statements reading APA’s several anti-torture statements, never contained a caveat that they were unenforceable. By this means APA kneecapped the membership-passed policy as soon as it was adopted. The Ethics Commission dealt with this issue by recommending that APA policies adopted by member votes or votes of the Council of Representatives be considered as guidance on interpretation of the ethics code. If implemented, this would give these policies greater force. However, the APA Board ignored this recommendation, later allowing them to claim that the association’s policies are “unenforceable.”
Military Psychologists Launch Counterattacks
The apparent APA consensus after the release of the Hoffman Report quickly dissolved. Military operational psychologists — those psychologists aiding military operations as opposed to traditional health provider roles such as treating troops — and their allies launched a campaign to undermine the credibility of the report. The APA’s Society for Military Psychology (Division 19) issued its own disingenuous report, purporting to refute Hoffman’s major claims, which Steven Reisner and I then rebutted. The operational psychologists insisted that the military had banned all detainee abuse before the APA’s major decision-making process in 2005. Thus, they argued, the Hoffman Report’s determination of secret coordination between the APA and DoD was irrelevant. As Reisner and I documented in detail, this claim was spurious. Our position recently received further support from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). In an April 2020 decision on the treatment of Guantánamo detainee Djamel Ameziane, the IACHR ruled that:
Several of these [interrogation techniques to which Ameziane was subjected]… are widely recognized as rising to the level of torture. The Commission finds that, taken together and over the course of years of confinement (until 2008 or 2009 when he was cleared for transfer and thus, to the Commission’s understanding, ceased to be interrogated), and in his particular conditions of confinement… the treatment inflicted upon him for the purposes of interrogation undoubtedly rises to the level of torture.
The military psychologists continued to attack the credibility of the Hoffman Report and those of us whose work had helped instigate it. In 2018, three military psychologists filed an ethics complaint against my colleague Steven Reisner with the APA Ethics Committee. The essence of the complaint was that Reisner had acted outside his professional competence by commenting on military psychologists’ activities, since Reisner had not served in the military. The military psychologists thereby attacked the right of civilian psychologists to criticize any military actions, including torture. Their claims further attacked the fundamental basis of civilian-military relations in the US that the military exists to protect and serve civilian society (and not vice versa), from which it follows that civilians have an important role critiquing military policies and actions. The military psychologists’ complaint against Reisner was ultimately dismissed by the Ethics Committee some months later, but not before Reisner, with help from NYCLU attorneys, had devoted many dozens of hours to formulating a response.
These attempts to obfuscate and deny the Hoffman Report findings were soon complemented by legal action, beginning in February 2017, by five individuals named in the report—three military psychologists and two former staff members at APA. Together, they filed defamation lawsuits in two states (Ohio and Massachusetts) and the District of Columbia against the APA, David Hoffman, and Hoffman’s law firm. In their case in Massachusetts, they added me as a defendant. To date, the case in Ohio was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds and the case in the District of Columbia was dismissed as an infringement on freedom of speech (Anti-SLAPP, where SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation); the latter dismissal is under appeal. The third case, in Massachusetts, is currently stayed but ongoing.
As often happens in response to the filing of lawsuits, APA officials have mostly avoided discussion of the issues raised by the Hoffman Report. While problematic, this silence is understandable. What is troubling and not so readily understandable is the nature of the rare public statements APA leaders have made since then. Their comments have been more consistent with the stance of the abuse and collusion denialists than with the position adopted by APA in the immediate aftermath of the Hoffman Report’s release, suggesting that a revisionist history has been gaining ground.
For example, in October 2017, my colleague Roy Eidelson published an op-ed in the Washington Post that briefly summarized APA’s decade-long history of attempts to suppress criticism of its cooperation with the Bush administration—cooperation that had been documented in detail only two years earlier in the Hoffman Report. In response to Eidelson’s article, APA’s then new CEO wrote a letter to the Post in which he completely ignored that history of cooperation and falsely attributed psychology’s connection to the torture issue solely to CIA psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, writing “It is critical to distinguish between the actions of two rogue psychologists who designed and implemented the CIA’s notorious detainee torture program during the George W. Bush administration and the profession of psychology as a whole.” With this comment, APA’s CEO erased not only the Association’s problematic history, but also that of numerous other CIA psychologists involved in the “enhanced interrogation” torture program as well as that of the Behavioral Science Consultants who, according to the Red Cross, had helped construct an interrogation system “tantamount to torture” at Guantánamo.
The APA CEO’s statement was not an aberration or a one-time error. In January 2020, the website Mad in America published an interview with the 2019 APA President in which this president was asked about “APA collaboration with the Bush administration regarding the torture of prisoners” as documented in the Hoffman Report. Instead of forthrightly discussing the Report’s findings, she simply denied the extensively documented Hoffman findings:
APA was not collaborating. That’s a mistake.
We had two psychologists who were not APA members who designed the program, and they made money from it. It looked like maybe there were some folks who did training with parts of the defense department, but it was not APA. APA is 120,000 people, most of whom knew nothing about it, even the person who was the CEO of APA knew nothing about some of the training that was going on. That is a fallacy. However, APA was painted to look like that.
This president neglected to mention that the person who did the covert training of Behavioral Science Consultant psychologists for the Defense Department was reported by Hoffman to be none other than the recently fired Ethics Director, or that the Deputy CEO at the time worked with this Ethics Director to hide the training from the APA Board. She also failed to acknowledge that the Ethics Director sought pre-approval from his DoD contacts for potential APA interrogation policies, and that he and seven other senior APA officials discussed how to hide information about psychologists who were advising on how to harm detainees. Additionally, she ignored the hundreds of articles, statements, newspaper editorials, letters, and demonstrations over a decade that called attention to APA involvement.
In 2018, just three years after the devastating Hoffman Report, the APA Board went beyond rewriting history to actions and tried to partially reverse the Association’s 2015 policy reforms banning psychologists from sites in violation of international law, including Guantanamo. The Board surprised us by supporting an effort sponsored by the military psychology division to allow military psychologists to return to Guantánamo, under the guise of providing treatment to detainees. Despite the fact that the Board announced its support for this initiative only a few weeks before the Council of Representatives meeting in August that year, the effort to allow psychologists back into Guantanamo was met with an avalanche of opposition from the human rights community and dissident psychologists. I was one of those helping to organize this opposition. At the last minute, APA leadership realized that this effort was turning into a public relations debacle and used strong-arm tactics to try to coerce dissidents into agreeing to a “compromise” with military psychologists that would postpone the vote for six months, allowing the military psychologists to rally support. APA leaders’ delaying tactics were rejected by dissidents during the lunch break prior to this motion being brought to the floor. When the question of delay was brought to a vote of the Council of Representatives, it was overwhelmingly rejected. Council, instead, insisted on an immediate debate and vote on this attempt to reverse the 2015 reforms, resulting in the motion to allow psychologists back in Guantanamo being overwhelmingly defeated by a nearly two-to-one vote by the Council.
Prior to and during the debate, APA leaders repeatedly stressed the vital importance of psychologists returning to help the 40 remaining detainees at Guantánamo, talking repeatedly of their concern for the welfare of these detainees. In response, I pointed out that there were over 700 released detainees suffering profound mental health problems from their incarceration, who could benefit from psychological services if the APA was really committed to this cause. We dissidents were promised that after the vote the APA would create a committee to address how to provide mental health services to the released detainees. When the very same leaders who had made this promise were approached within minutes of the vote, they at first looked confused, and then said they would get back to us. They have not been heard from since and their concern for detainee welfare appears to have immediately dissipated once it was no longer useful in reversing the 2015 policy reforms.
After the defeat of the APA Board-supported proposal to return military psychologists to Guantánamo , there were worrisome indications that some within the APA may have decided to undercut the 2015 policy reforms through less transparent and deceptive means. On September 21, 2018, APA’s president sent a letter to the Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs that reiterated APA’s policy banning psychologists from involvement in national security interrogations and from detention sites in violation of international law. While similar letters reiterating APA’s stance had been sent annually to the President, Secretary of Defense, CIA Director, and other public officials, as mandated by the 2008 Referendum, this 2018 letter was different in that it included this sentence undercutting the force of APA’s policy statement:
As you may know, in a conference call held at the request of Mr. Carson in December 2015, our then APA President Nadine Kaslow, PhD, and several senior staff explained that APA Council resolutions are aspirational statements and are not enforceable, unlike the requirements of our APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (Ethics Code). [emphasis added]
The wording essentially gave the Defense Department permission to ignore the hard-fought APA policy reforms. It was not the first time we saw this language: a sentence to this effect had been included in drafts of previous post-Hoffman APA annual letters, but my colleagues and I had strongly objected, and the sentence had been removed. This time, however, we were not consulted beforehand, and the message was sent to the DoD. Remember that when Gen. Kelly ordered psychologists out of detention operations at Guantanamo, the reason given by DoD officials was the possibility of psychologists serving at the detention center losing their psychology licenses as many states require compliance with the APA Ethics Code as a condition of licensure. Thus, by adding this unnecessary sentence, APA appeared to be directly undermining the power of its own policy to constrain military operations.
DoD Issues New Guidance for Psychologists Consulting to Interrogations Ignoring APA Policy
It now appears that DoD officials, in fact, took this message from APA as a green light. In September 2019, they issued new policy guidance for psychologists. This document, entitled Behavioral Science Support for Detainee Operations and Intelligence Interrogations creates a new category called Behavioral Science Consultants, or BSCs, who are “licensed doctoral-level clinical psychologists” with responsibility to consult on interrogations and other detainee operations. BSCs also supervise paraprofessional Behavioral Science Consultant Technicians (BSCTs). These responsibilities are in direct violation of APA’s 2015 policy. (Note: For over 15 years prior, the acronym BSCT referred to Behavioral Science Consultation Teams which included psychologists and/or psychiatrists and technicians. The new acronym for this is BSS, standing for Behavioral Science Support. By this change of acronym, DoD appears to be attempting to sever these operational psychologists from previous reporting that suggested their involvement in detention abuses.).
More specifically, the psychologist BSC and paraprofessional BSCT “are authorized to make psychological assessments of the character, personality, social interactions, and other behavioral characteristics of interrogation subjects and provide consultation on these detainee assessments to authorized personnel performing intelligence interrogations” (p. 8). In addition to consulting on interrogations, BSS personnel make judgments “on the probability that the detainee will engage in terrorist, illegal, combatant, or similar activities against the interests of the United States.” At present it is unclear how many psychologist BSCs there are or where they are deployed. Months ago, I submitted an inquiry to the Guantanamo press office asking for information on BSCs in general and whether any were deployed at Guantanamo. I have not received a reply.
Previous guidance documents for Behavioral Science Consultants had contained discussion of the relationship of this activity to the ethics policies of the APA and the American Psychiatric Association. For example, the October 20, 2006 Memorandum for Commanders, MEDCOM Major Subordinate Commands: Behavioral Science Consultation Policy contained a detailed discussion of APA’s permissive policy making clear that APA approved of psychologists’ participation in detention and interrogation activities; in fact, this document included APA’s entire 11-page 2005 Report of the Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS Report) as an appendix.
Rather oddly, given that this 2019 guidance for psychologists is clearly in violation of APA policy, it contains no mention of the APA, the 2015 policy, the 2006 DoD memorandum discussing APA’s policy, or any other professional or ethical guidance. Apparently, the military intended to circumvent APA policy by affirming that BSCs are to be volunteer-only.
Did APA Coordinate with DoD on New Policy?
Interestingly, the 2019 DoD guidance document states that the Department “ensures that all policies and guidance developed pursuant to the DoD Detainee Program that relates to the use of BSS is coordinated with the ASD(HA).” The ASD(HA) is precisely the (Acting) Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs office, in other words the recipient of the September 2018 APA letter stating that prohibitions were unenforceable. The timing of APA’s communication to this office, followed by DoD’s reauthorization of psychologist involvement in detainee operations which had reportedly ended as a result of the 2015 APA policy, strongly suggests the possibility that there was, again, secret coordination between some officials within APA and the Defense Department.
To be clear, I cannot definitively confirm the existence of such coordination. However, several pieces of information strengthen my concern that coordination took place. First, it seems nearly unimaginable that APA policy staff, who keep in close contact with policymakers in the military and elsewhere, would not have been made aware of this new DoD policy. Second, it seems highly improbable that APA’s Society for Military Psychology was not aware of or potentially involved in the writing of this new policy. Third, starting in January 2020, I have personally communicated my concerns about this DoD policy to APA staff and top officials at least three times. At time of the January communication, I was told to expect a response within two weeks. To this point, over a year later, and after follow-up inquiries, I have still received no response. Fourth, given that APA has been aware of this policy at least since January 2020 and remains silent about it, one can only assume that they are comfortable with DoD actively working to undercut the expressed will of APA’s membership and Council of Representatives through this new policy guidance. Should APA wish to prove me wrong, all they have to do is condemn the DoD policy, provide a credible explanation of their silence to date (e.g., one not based on the implausible claim that they were unaware of the DoD policy), and present a plan to reverse it and to sanction psychologists who act in violation of APA policy.
At the February 2021 Council of Representatives meeting, APA leaders provided further evidence of their disdain for the Association’s own policy by awarding a Presidential Citation to a military psychologist who had served at Guantanamo prior to APA’s prohibition against any participation in the unjust system there. Furthermore, this same military psychologist was a leader of the defeated 2018 attempt to reverse APA’s 2015 policy banning service at Guantanamo. The citation announcing the award praises this psychologist for having “published several cornerstone books, including Military Psychology: Clinical and Operational Applications.” That “cornerstone book” defended the work of psychologists at Guantanamo. The issuance of this award demonstrates, at a minimum, that current APA leaders view the Association’s hard fought 2015 policy reforms as a minor nuisance rather than what they actually are: a nearly unanimous repose on the part of Council to the membership’s demand for operational psychologists’ ethical accountability.
Why This Matters
In addition to raising questions regarding continued connections between APA actions and DoD policy changes, the issue of psychologist involvement in national security interrogations is important for several reasons. First, eliminating psychologist involvement in potentially torturous national security interrogations is an essential part of the struggle against torture itself. In the post-World War II world, including in the nearly 20 years since 9/11, we have learned that US government implementation of torture has involved psychologists lending their expertise to the enterprise. At the same time, the participation of psychologists has been used by government lawyers to provide legal protections for torturers.
Second, the anti-torture efforts within the APA are a response to the development of an essentially lawless regime at Guantánamo, one that has allowed previously unimagined US government detention—without charges or trial—of people accused of involvement in terrorism. The existence of Guantánamo has been a challenge to the fundamental American concepts of the right to a fair trial based on the assumption of innocence until proven guilty.
Third, the struggle within the APA is also about the nature of the psychology profession. In its ethics code and public statements, the APA—and professional psychology more generally—claim to further the social good based on a “do no harm” principle characteristic of health professions. It has been our claim that involvement in interrogations is inherently at odds with this principle, even in cases where the interrogations are not torturous. Thus, the struggle over the involvement of psychologists in national security interrogations is also a struggle about what is the appropriate nature of psychology. Further, this struggle has implications for the vast majority of professional psychologists whose work depends on public trust, whether that be the trust of our patients in psychotherapy and other health care interventions, or the trust of those we request to participate in our research studies. If psychology is known as a profession that harms people, that trust will be endangered.
Ethics of Operational Psychology
Finally, while psychologist involvement in torture and national security interrogations more broadly has been the focus of the struggle, this is only a small part of problematic psychological involvement with the national security state. There is a range of other roles for psychologists that are, at a minimum, potentially problematic. The involvement of psychologists in military and intelligence operations, contrasted here with their traditional roles as healthcare providers to military personnel, is a contested area known as “operational psychology.” Included in the field of operational psychology are such activities as developing plans to destroy people’s reputations using false rumors on the Internet; hostage negotiations; research studies in which military service members are falsely led to believe that they are about to die; developing strategies to increase resistance to breaking under torture for military members at high risk of capture; consulting on drone targeting; and personnel selection for high-risk specialties, such as special forces or espionage.
In a series of publications and a workshop involving collaboration with ethicists and members of the military and intelligence community, my colleagues and I have attempted to delineate boundary lines between ethically acceptable and ethically problematic operational psychology roles. One of the principles we used is universality: any activity that is deemed ethical for a US psychologist to conduct must also be deemed ethical for psychologists working for our adversaries. For example, if it were ethical for US psychologists to develop strategies for manipulating voters in other countries, then we have no business crying foul if Russian or Chinese or Iranian psychologists aid their governments to manipulate American voters.
I believe this workshop and other ongoing projects on the ethics of operational psychology are vitally important as we face a future where our profession, aided by new technologies, has ever greater potential to influence psychological processes and behaviors. My colleagues and I believe that these possibilities for manipulation pose dangers to civil society that cannot be ignored. The question of the appropriate activities of operational psychologists is not one for psychologists alone; rather, it is also for society more broadly to determine whether or not we should put limits on the ways that psychological manipulation can be used to harm other people. If society does not address this question, then it will be left solely to psychologists and to the military and intelligence community to decide. That possibility should concern us all.
I also believe that it is vital for the profession of psychology to learn lessons from the involvement of APA leaders and some of its members in the abusive and otherwise problematic activities of the military and intelligence community post-9/11. This is why I and others have called for a truth commission to create a definitive account of our profession’s involvement with the Bush era interrogation and detention program and to develop a set of Lessons Learned. Further, this commission should present recommendations for how these lessons can be communicated to early career psychologists and future generations of psychologists. After the participation of over 80 institutions (including 44 colleges and universities and 100 behavioral and social scientists) in the CIA’s MKULTRA and related torture and brainwashing research programs was exposed in the 1970s, APA made no effort to learn lessons and communicate them to future generations. As a result, the profession was unprepared to confront the challenges posed by the “War on Terror” post-9/11. We owe it to future generations of psychologists and to the future of our society to not repeat this mistake.