Reflections on a Historic APA Convention and the Road Ahead – by Roy Eidelson Ph.D.

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Last week’s convention of the American Psychological Association in Toronto witnessed an unprecedented victory for advocates who have long called for the APA to prioritize our profession’s do-no-harm ethics in national security settings. At the same time, thousands of attendees have now returned home still uncertain as to whether the Association’s leadership will persevere in pursuing a course of transparency, accountability and reform – after a decade of collusion and cover-up.

Reason for Optimism

But let’s begin with the exciting news. Last Friday the APA’s governing Council of Representatives overwhelmingly approved – by a vote of 157 to 1 – a Resolution (link is external) that bans psychologists from involvement in national security interrogations. Furthermore, 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. The same Resolution also affirms, 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. This is a momentous step forward after years of obstruction from the highest levels of the APA.

The Resolution now requires the APA to notify U.S. government officials – including “the President, Secretary of Defense, Attorney General, CIA Director, and Congress” – of the new policy and to request that psychologists be removed from any roles or sites, including Guantanamo, that would place them in violation of the policy. It is noteworthy here that the Resolution includes restrictions that apply to psychologists at detention sites where interrogations are conducted according to Appendix M of the Army Field Manual, the current standard for government interrogators. That appendix permits the use of coercive techniques such as long-term isolation and sleep deprivation.

Although not required by the Resolution, it will be equally important for APA’s leadership to quickly, clearly, and publicly communicate the new policy to the licensing boards and psychological associations of all 50 states, in order to facilitate more effective oversight and enforcement of the profession’s ethics. As is well documented, the blanket failure of the APA and state boards to take disciplinary action against ethical misconduct in national security settings is among the profound disgraces of the past decade.

The Hoffman Report

The nearly unanimous support for this historic Resolution was in part a byproduct of the devastating findings of an independent review (link is external) conducted by attorney David Hoffman and his Sidley Austin colleagues. The seven-month investigation, authorized by the APA Board last November after publication of James Risen’s Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, included interviews with more than 150 people and the review of over 50,000 documents. Here is an excerpt from the Hoffman Report’s executive summary:

Our investigation determined that key APA officials, principally the APA Ethics Director joined and supported at times by other APA officials, colluded with important DoD [Department of Defense] officials to have APA issue loose, high-level ethical guidelines that did not constrain DoD in any greater fashion than existing DoD interrogation guidelines. We concluded that APA’s principal motive in doing so was to align APA and curry favor with DoD. There were two other important motives: to create a good public-relations response, and to keep the growth of psychology unrestrained in this area.

We also found that in the three years following the adoption of the 2005 PENS Task Force report as APA policy, APA officials engaged in a pattern of secret collaboration with DoD officials to defeat efforts by the APA Council of Representatives to introduce and pass resolutions that would have definitively prohibited psychologists from participating in interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. detention centers abroad.

The PENS Task Force

The Hoffman Report directed particular criticism at the APA’s 2005 Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS). As critics have long argued, APA leaders stacked that task force with military intelligence representatives in order to ensure that the Association would officially endorse the continuing participation of psychologists in detention and interrogation operations. The pretext offered was that psychologists helped to keep these operations “safe, legal, ethical, and effective” – despite early credible reports that they were among those involved in detainee torture and abuse. The task force proceedings were also rife with obvious but unacknowledged conflicts of interest. Most glaringly, then APA practice directorate head Russ Newman took a lead role in directing the weekend meeting even though his wife Debra Dunivin was a military psychologist stationed at Guantanamo.

As a cautionary reminder, it is important to note that, amid much fanfare, in 2013 the APA Council passed a resolution rescinding the PENS Report. The explanation given was that some PENS policies were “out of date.” That action, however, did not alter the APA’s permissive stance toward interrogations and it undercut a growing call for a full-fledged repudiation of the PENS Report and the collusion behind it. Wittingly or not, the rescission-without-repudiation path preserved a carefully crafted fiction: that the APA’s post-9/11 ethics policies in national security settings had evolved over time in a natural and uncompromised manner. This framing made it possible for APA leaders to maintain the cover-up and protect those who had participated in the collusive process. The Hoffman Report now embodies that long overdue repudiation – and Council should move to officially accept the report.

The One “No” Vote

The single vote against the Resolution passed last week in Toronto was cast by retired Col. Larry James. Perhaps this is only fitting. James was a member of the sham PENS Task Force. He was also the chief psychologist at Guantanamo when, according to a comprehensive complaint (link is external) filed against him, “abusive interrogation and detention [was] used to exploit prisoners’ mental and physical vulnerabilities, maximize their feelings of disorientation and helplessness, and render them dependent upon their interrogators.”

Eight years ago James flew in from Cuba to speak to Council members at the 2007 APA convention in San Francisco. As APA officials had planned, he helped to defeat a proposed moratorium on psychologist involvement in national security interrogations by ominously warning (link is external), “If we lose psychologists from these facilities, people are going to die.” But by last weekend, James’ persuasive powers had apparently evaporated entirely. Immediately before the vote, he cautioned (link is external) that passage of the Resolution would lead to “dire negative consequences for all federal employees.” His claim was dismissed by every one of his Council colleagues, a measure of just how far his star has fallen.

At the same time, there is little doubt that James’ opposition to the new prohibitions is shared by other APA members who view participating in the debilitation of detainees – within limits – as ethically appropriate behavior for psychologists. Not surprisingly, James and some of his fellow operational psychologists implicated in the Hoffman Report – including Morgan Banks and Debra Dunivin – are now trying to discredit the report, without offering any meaningful evidence pointing to errors in the key findings. Meanwhile, we should not forget that the APA’s military psychology division (Division 19) is comprised of many more members whose primary work is very different in its focus: providing critical mental health care for our country’s soldiers, veterans, and their families.

The Pentagon, the CIA, and Adversarial Operational Psychology

More broadly, beyond the specifics of the current Resolution, it remains unclear whether and how the APA’s relationship with the Department of Defense, the CIA, and related agencies will change. Undo deference to government preferences and priorities led directly to the collusion that sacrificed professional ethics for political expediency. What institutional safeguards can now be put in place to prevent similar channels of influence, opportunities for strategic deception, and enticements of power and privilege from carrying the day in the future?

One bulwark against such backsliding would be a thorough and unbiased examination of psychological ethics in national security settings – exactly what the PENS Task Force failed to do. Along with colleagues, Jean Maria Arrigo and I have proposed (link is external) a tentative framework for this purpose. It identifies the types of activities, which we call “adversarial operational psychology,” that we believe should be ethically off-limits for psychologists in these settings. These activities primarily involve participation in operations that involve coercion, manipulation, deception, humiliation, or assault. As we recently wrote (link is external) in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times:

Substantial areas of military and intelligence work are at odds with psychologists’ commitment to do no harm. Our profession has yet to address profound ethical challenges posed by national security operations and research where the intent is to cause injury, or where the targets of intervention have not consented, or where actions are beyond the reach of oversight by outside ethics panels. Without imposing ethical constraints in these contexts, psychologists risk the further loss of the public trust and the erosion of psychological science.

Who Can Lead the APA Forward?

At the convention’s Saturday afternoon town hall meeting, Nadine Kaslow and Susan McDaniel, the Association’s past president and president-elect respectively, confirmed that the APA Board has no plans to institute any further personnel changes. To date, ethics office director Stephen Behnke, identified by the Hoffman Report as the individual most thoroughly involved in the collusion, has been fired. Three other senior staff members are also leaving. Both CEO Norman Anderson and deputy CEO Michael Honaker are retiring early, and public affairs director Rhea Farberman has already resigned. The press release (link is external) announcing all three departures lauded these individuals and made no mention of their roles or oversight responsibilities in relation to the APA’s collusive enterprise with the Department of Defense.

APA general counsel Nathalie Gilfoyle and deputy ethics office director Lindsay Childress-Beatty remain in their positions despite serious concerns that have been raised. In regard to Gilfoyle, the Hoffman Report documents all of the following: she took no steps to disclose or resolve the serious and obvious conflict of interest involving Newman, Dunivin, and the PENS Task Force (described earlier); she was a participant in some of Behnke’s “extensive efforts to manipulate Council of Representatives actions…in an effort to undermine attempts to keep psychologists from being involved in national security interrogations;” she viewed media criticism of the APA as a legitimate basis for the 2005 Board’s emergency approval of the PENS Report without Council input; she participated in Behnke’s covert drafting of the rebuttal statement opposing the 2008 membership referendum; after the referendum had passed, she argued that it did not alter the ethics code; and she apparently took no action upon learning that Behnke was actively trying to obstruct other revisions to the ethics code that would eliminate the Nuremberg Defense and prioritize human rights. As for Childress-Beatty, the Hoffman Report raises numerous questions and doubts about how she handled an ethics complaint filed against Guantanamo psychologist John Leso. After seven years, and without even bringing the case to the full ethics committee for review, the ethics office decided that there was “no cause for action.” (link is external)

In regard to other personnel issues, the selection of a new CEO to replace Norman Anderson in January is obviously a critical test for the APA. The process by which potential candidates are identified, the personal background and characteristics considered most important, and the composition of the review and selection committee are all opportunities for the Association to demonstrate that the misguided priorities of the past have truly fallen out of favor. Most clearly, a CEO who is not legitimately seen as standing apart from the past decade of collusion – and from the worst actors who were part of it – cannot realistically restore trust and move APA to higher ground.

Setting Things Right

As participants in the Saturday town hall meeting made abundantly clear, thus far APA leaders have apologized to the membership but not to the many detainees who were the direct victims of the Association’s permissive ethics policies – policies that provided support for abusive detention and interrogation practices. When questioned, from the auditorium stage both Kaslow and McDaniel appeared uncomfortable and wary of an official apology, seemingly worried about the prospect of potential legal repercussions. But symbolic and material reparations are critical components of the transition from one era to another, for a nation or an organization. Financial contributions or a permanent fund to aid in the treatment and support of victims of torture are among the ways to meaningfully acknowledge the grievous and, in some cases, permanent harm that APA’s actions have caused.

Not everyone agrees that the APA and its leadership are moving in the right direction. Indeed, responding to others’ outrage over the Hoffman Report’s findings and their calls for accountability, one former APA president – who had served on the CIA’s professional standards board – wrote, “So let the Inquisition begin…” But last weekend’s key vote and the enthusiasm it engendered, especially among the students and younger members who represent the future of our profession, suggest that different voices and priorities are now ascendant. In my remarks (link is external) at the Psychologists for Social Responsibility gathering (link is external) in Toronto, I had the opportunity to recall the simple guidance offered by peace activist Daniel Berrigan: “Know where you stand, and stand there.” His words are well worth remembering today. We need to be vigilant, and prepared to challenge any efforts to turn back the clock or impede further progress.

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