Read our COVID-19 research and news.

A 2007 protest denouncing waterboarding as torture; several psychologists guided the method's use on U.S.  military detainees.

A 2007 protest denouncing waterboarding as torture; several psychologists guided the method's use on U.S. military detainees.

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

APA overhauling policies and leadership after torture report

After years of denying that it had given scientific and ethical legitimacy to torture by the U.S. government, the American Psychological Association (APA) last week accepted the finding of an external investigation that concluded it had done just that. Now, with a public apology and sudden wave of high-level resignations or retirements, APA is struggling to craft an institutional response that will satisfy its members and long-time detractors, even as some of those pilloried in the probe defend themselves and their colleagues.

“This is a crisis,” says Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist at Emory University in Atlanta and a former APA president, who helped launch the investigation. “I regret that the organization didn’t listen to the critics earlier.”

The 542-page report from a former Chicago inspector general, David Hoffman, pulls no punches, concluding that APA officials colluded with the U.S. government to enable the torture of detainees. APA’s Board of Directors quickly released a response, promising among other things to recommend a new policy prohibiting psychologists from participating in interrogation of persons held in custody by military and intelligence authorities. APA then announced the departure of most of its staff leadership: CEO Norman Anderson, Deputy CEO Michael Honaker, public relations director Rhea Farberman, and ethics director Stephen Behnke.

“All of these people were in the know,” says former APA President Gerald Koocher, a psychologist at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois, and the editor of the journal Ethics & Behavior. Koocher himself is under fire, as two of APA’s staunchest critics have called for the body to censure him as well, after receiving a confidential briefing on the Hoffman report earlier this summer.

APA had commissioned the report last year after the publication of Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War, a book by New York Times reporter James Risen that accused the organization of providing cover for torture. The report’s most damning findings concern a 2005 APA committee called the Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS). The task force was created in the midst of revelations that detainees were subjected to “enhanced interrogation” at U.S. government facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and that psychologists were intimately involved in both the design and practice of these efforts.

As Hoffman discovered through interviews, medics within the intelligence community were “not on board” with such interrogations. To quell this internal resistance, the government hoped to enlist support from APA, psychology’s largest professional organization. And the PENS task force provided it, concluding in a 2005 statement that it was ethical for psychologists to take part in the interrogation program.

The PENS decision sparked protests by many APA members, some of whom called for withholding dues, but Hoffman found that they were ignored. “Being involved in the intentional harming of detainees … could do lasting damage to the integrity and reputation of psychology, a profession that purports to ‘do no harm,’” he writes, but “these countervailing concerns were simply not considered or were highly subordinated to APA’s strategic goals.” According to Hoffman, APA sought to maintain its privileged relationship with the Pentagon, a massive employer of psychologists.

Hoffman’s analysis of internal APA emails found that the members of the PENS task force were carefully chosen in a collaboration between officials at APA, the Pentagon, and the Central Intelligence Agency, and its conclusions were vetted in advance by insiders at both agencies. The goal of PENS, Hoffman offers, was not to examine the ethics of torture but to “curry favor” with the U.S. Defense Department.

Hoffman’s characterization of PENS is unfair, according to Koocher, who was one of the architects of the task force. (Koocher and another former APA President Ronald Levant have written a detailed critique of the Hoffman report.) “We solicited widely and openly for membership,” Koocher says. The fact that so many task force members came from the military is not evidence of collusion but good judgment. “If you’re focusing on interrogation in a military context then those are the people with the relevant expertise.” As for the allegation of currying favor with the Pentagon, Koocher is adamant that it was not his goal. “No way were we covering up for [Vice President] Cheney or [Defense Secretary] Rumsfeld, both of whom I cannot stand.”

Koocher says that he was unaware that the torture was ongoing. He points out that he, along with other representatives of U.S. medical associations, visited the detention center at Guantanamo in 2006. “I asked hard questions,” he says. When it was later revealed that torture continued at the facility, “I was extremely upset.” But by then, he says, “I was no longer an APA official. What was I supposed to do?”

That sentiment may not save Koocher from sanctions. He is on a list of APA members to be banned from APA governance “effective immediately”—just one of several recommendations from Steven Reisner of New York University and Stephen Soldz of the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis, who also urged that APA’s top executive, legal, and public relations staff be fired. Reisner and Soldz, persistent critics of APA’s role in the interrogation program, were invited by APA to review the Hoffman report in advance and give the society their feedbackAPA wouldn’t comment specifically on the pair’s recommendations; several people on their “staff “to be fired” list remain with APA, including APA's General Counsel Nathalie Gilfoyle, APA's senior policy advisor Ellen Garrison, senior legislative and federal affairs officer Heather Kelly, and science policy director Geoff Mumford. “A lot of change can happen, but it will take a lot of time to implement it,” Kaslow says.

APA’s 180° turn is only a start, Soldz says. “The APA and the entire psychology profession needs to grapple with the enormous scandal enveloping psychological ethics.”