The use of torture to extract information from terrorist detainees continues to reverberate. But this time it is not the Bush Administration which is under fire but the American Psychological Association (APA). A searing report on collusion between the heads of the APA and the government has led to a crisis. This year’s APA conference in Toronto, which begins tomorrow, will be a fiery one.

The report, written by an independent consultant,  attorney David Hoffman, was scathing about the twisted ethics at the highest level of the organisation. Now the APA is busy apologising and reorganising itself.  

Dr. Nadine Kaslow, last year’s APA president responded to the report, expressing deep shame over “this bleak chapter in our history”.

“The organization’s intent was not to enable abusive interrogation techniques or contribute to violations of human rights, but that may have been the result. The actions, policies and the lack of independence from government influence described in the Hoffman report represented a failure to live up to our core values. We profoundly regret, and apologize for, the behavior and the consequences that ensued.”

The abuse meted out to Guantanamo detainees has been well documented. It included stress positions, sleep deprivation, threats, playing on phobias, degradation and waterboarding.

These were hard to sell, even in within the Defense Department and the CIA, so the presence of professional psychologists was essential. They reassured the military and legal teams that they could describe “enhanced interrogation” techniques as safe, effective, and legal. And above all, ethical.

In 2005 the president of the APA created a committee called the Presidential Task Force on Ethics and National Security. In short order it drafted a report with 12 ethical guidelines which were adopted as official ethics policy by the APA Board. Unhappily, these guidelines had been deliberately crafted to ensure that psychologists could continue to cooperate with “enhanced interrogation”.

The Hoffman report concluded that the principal motive for this was nakedly political: “to align APA and curry favor with DoD”. It was bending to pressure applied by military officials in the heated atmosphere after 9/11. And it found two other important reasons as well: “to create a good public-relations response, and to keep the growth of psychology unrestrained in this area.”

What concerns the APA rank and file at the moment is that the people responsible for working hand in glove with the government were not “rogue officials”, but psychologists at the top of the APA. The leading figure was the APA’s ethics director, Stephen Behnke. Others involved included the president, the president-elect, the CEO, deputy CEO, general counsel and the communications director.

“Rather than uphold the principle of ‘do no harm,’ APA leadership subverted its own ethics policies and sabotaged all efforts at enforcement,” said Donna McKay, executive director of Physicians for Human Rights, a persistent critic of the APA’s policy.

It also appears that APA officials may even have engaged in criminal behaviour by:   

  • Colluding with the US Department of Defense, the CIA, and other elements of the Bush administration to enable psychologists to design, implement, and defend the post-9/11 torture program;
  • Allowing military and intelligence personnel to write APA ethics policies regulating their own conduct to ensure they were “covered” for their roles in the torture program;
  • Engaging in a coordinated campaign to cover up the collusion and blocking attempts to oppose these policies within the APA; and
  • Obstructing and manipulating ethics investigations into psychologists involved in the torture program.

“As mental health professionals, our first obligation must be to our patients,” said Dr Kerry Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist with the Physicans for Human Rights. “The APA’s collusion with the government’s national security apparatus is one of the greatest scandals in US medical history. Immediate action must be taken to restore health professional ethics and to ensure this never happens again.” 

Amen to that.

There is another lesson to be learned from this scandalous episode which was over looked by all the media. If the leadership of the APA was suborned by a desire to “curry favour” with government in 2005 when it changed its ethical standards, does this happen in other areas? Was it currying favour with the homosexual lobby and same-sex marriage lobby when it endorsed a policy on sexual orientation and marriage in 2004?  

Perhaps not. But after its shameful role in a dark episode of American history, a cloud will remain floating over the APA and policies set down by professional organisations. Just like other institutions, they can be hijacked by weak, biased and unscrupulous executives. 

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He lives in Sydney, Australia.