Psychologists and Torture

Today the New York Times reported that a 542-page study examining the involvement of the nation’s psychologists and their largest professional organization, the American Psychological Association (APA), in the harsh interrogations of the post-9/11 years “raises repeated questions about the collaboration between psychologists and officials at both the C.I.A. and the Pentagon.”  The report concludes that  

some of the association’s top officials, including its ethics director, sought to curry favor with Pentagon officials by seeking to keep the association’s ethics policies in line with the interrogation policies of the Defense Department, while several prominent outside psychologists took actions that aided the C.I.A.’s interrogation program and helped protect it from growing dissent inside the agency.

The association’s ethics office, the report found, “prioritized the protection of psychologists — even those who might have engaged in unethical behavior — above the protection of the public.”

Two former presidents of the psychological association were members of a C.I.A. advisory committee, the report found. One of them provided the agency with an opinion that sleep deprivation did not constitute torture, and later held a small ownership stake in a consulting company founded by two men who oversaw the agency’s interrogation program, it said.

The association’s ethics director, Stephen Behnke, coordinated the group’s public policy statements on interrogations with a top military psychologist, the report said, and then received a Pentagon contract to help train interrogators while he was still working at the association, without the knowledge of the association’s board.

The report includes a 72-page Executive Summary outlining in detail its methodology and conclusions, supported by hundreds of pages of background material.  It was commissioned by the APA and written by a team of attorneys at the prestigious law firm Sidley Austin.  It is available in full on the APA’s website.   The APA “is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States, with more than 122,500 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students as its members.” 

Today the APA released the following press release in response to the report:

APA Apologizes for “Deeply Disturbing” Findings and Organizational Failures; Announces Initial Policy and Procedural Actions to Correct Shortcomings

WASHINGTON — The American Psychological Association (APA) today announced an initial series of policy and procedural steps in response to findings of individual collusion and organizational failures in the group’s activities related to the Bush Administration’s war on terror.

The actions come as the APA released a 542-page report produced by attorney David Hoffman, of the Sidley Austin law firm, detailing the relationship between various activities of the APA and Bush Administration policies on interrogation techniques. Mr. Hoffman was retained by the APA Board of Directors last November to conduct a thorough and independent review, and the APA cooperated fully during the eight-month process.

“The Hoffman report contains deeply disturbing findings that reveal previously unknown and troubling instances of collusion,” said Dr. Susan McDaniel, a member of the Independent Review’s Special Committee. “The process by which the Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) was created, the composition of the membership, the content of the PENS report and the subsequent activities related to the report were influenced by collusion between a small group of APA representatives and government officials.”

The Hoffman report states that the intent of the individuals who participated in the collusion was to “curry favor” with the Defense Department, and that may have enabled the government’s use of abusive interrogation techniques. As a result, the 2005 PENS report became a document based at least as much on the desires of the DoD as on the needs of the psychology profession and the APA’s commitment to human rights.

“Our internal checks and balances failed to detect the collusion, or properly acknowledge a significant conflict of interest, nor did they provide meaningful field guidance for psychologists,” said Dr. Nadine Kaslow, chair of the Independent Review’s Special Committee. “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. Our members, our profession and our organization expected, and deserved, better.”

In response to the Hoffman report, the Board initiated several actions and made additional recommendations to the APA’s governing Council of Representatives.  The full list is attached.

The Board recommended that the Council:

  • Adopt a policy prohibiting psychologists from participating in interrogation of persons held in custody by military and intelligence authorities, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere, but allowing training of military personnel on recognizing and responding to persons with mental illnesses, on the possible effects of particular techniques and conditions of interrogation and other areas within their expertise;
  • Create a Commission to evaluate and recommend changes to APA ethics processes;
  • Adopt formal guidelines to ensure that all relevant policies are anchored in APA core values, including promoting human rights, human welfare and ethics;
  • Approve the substitute motion of Council New Business Item #23B, which clarifies the role of psychologists related to interrogation and detainee welfare in national security settings and safeguards against acts of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in all settings.

The Board voted to:

  • Increase the organization’s engagement around human rights activities in collaboration with other organizations;
  • Collaborate with the Council to create governance constraints on elected and appointed APA officials;
  • Evaluate existing conflict-of-interest policies regarding financial, policy or relationship-based conflicts to ensure the policies are understood and followed;
  • Adopt clear procedures for appointing members to APA Task Forces and Commissions;
  • Create specific criteria for emergency action by the Board.

The Hoffman report concluded that some longstanding criticisms aimed at the APA regarding these matters were inaccurate. Most notably, Mr. Hoffman concluded that counter to critics’ claims of APA collusion with the CIA there was “no evidence of significant CIA interactions regarding PENS.”

Mr. Hoffman also said his inquiry “did not find evidence” that supporting the Justice Department’s legal rationale for approving abusive interrogation techniques was “part of the thinking or motive of APA officials.”

Additionally, the report confirmed that the organization’s 2002 change in its Code of Ethics was not the product of collusion. Mr. Hoffman “did not see evidence” that the revisions “were a response to, motivated by, or in any way linked to the attacks of September 11th or the subsequent war on terror. Nor did we see evidence that they were the product of collusion with the government to support torture.” As the organization has repeatedly stated, the ethics code was revised to provide a defense for psychologists when their ethical obligations on client confidentiality conflicted with court-ordered directive ordering disclos[ur]e of confidential patient information.

“This bleak chapter in our history occurred over a period of years and will not be resolved in a matter of months,” said Dr. Kaslow. “But there should be no mistaking our commitment to learn from these terrible mistakes and do everything we can to strengthen our organization for the future and demonstrate our commitment to ethics and human rights.”


The actions below were approved by the Board or recommended for consideration by the APA Council of Representatives in response to the Report of the Independent Review Relating to APA Ethics Guidelines, National Security Interrogations and Torture.


  1. Recommend that Council approves the establishment of a Commission comprised of psychologist members and non-members, as well as experts from other fields, to evaluate and recommend changes to APA Ethics processes (including, for example, the establishment of a Chief Ethics Officer), based on an assessment of current practices and procedures, as well as benchmarking with ethics processes of other professional organizations.
  2. The Board will establish a mechanism for immediate oversight in the processing of filed ethics complaints including review of current adjudication and investigative procedures, and for ensuring transparency and accuracy in the disclosure of current ethics office practices.


  1. Recommend that Council adopts a policy to prohibit psychologists from participating in the interrogation of persons held in custody by military and intelligence authorities, whether in the US or elsewhere, but allowing them to provide training to military or civilian investigative or law enforcement personnel on recognizing and responding to persons with mental illnesses, on the possible psychological effects of particular techniques and conditions of interrogation, and on other areas within their expertise.
  2. Recommend that Council approve the substitute motion of Council New Business Item #23B.


  1. Council and the Board will collaborate to create governance constraints that address boundaries and appropriate oversight of elected and appointed officials, including Council, the Board of Directors, and boards and committees.
  2. Council and the Board will collaborate to establish civility principles and procedures that promote respectful space for all voices and perspectives and define professionalism, including through the establishment of a moderator role for listservs.
  3. The Board will evaluate conflict of interest policies regarding financial, policy or relationship-based conflicts, and other associated processes to ensure that the policy is understood and followed;
  4. The Board will create clear procedures for appointing the members of Task Forces, Commissions, etc., by including a standard conflict of interest assessment and procedure for assuring needed content expertise;
  5. The Board will create specific criteria and procedures for emergency action by the Board in keeping with the authority established in the Bylaws;
  6. The Board will direct the CEO to ensure an appropriate balance of autonomy and oversight in the supervisory process with respect to financial decisions, business processes and standards, and other activities, and if needed, adjustments in the workloads of administrators that may constrain their capacity for oversight and supervision.


  1. Recommend that Council adopts formal guidelines to ensure that all relevant policies are anchored in APA core values, including promoting human rights, human health and welfare, and ethics.
  2. Recommend that Council charge the Strategic Planning Advisory Committee with considering ethics, organizational restructuring, and human rights.  This will assist in re-setting the organization’s ethical compass, and re-asserting our commitment to “do no harm” as a core value.
  3. The Board will increase APA’s engagement around human rights activities and its collaboration with other organizations regarding these issues.

The full Hoffman report is available (PDF, 2.62MB) on the APA website.

The Chronicle of Higher Education also reported today that the APA had fired Stephen Behnke, its director of ethics.


4 thoughts on “Psychologists and Torture

  1. Obviously, there were some very serious ethical lapses at the APA. However, I disagree with a policy that bans all psychologists from participating in military or intelligence interrogations. If it’s unethical for psychologists to be involved in interrogations, then it should include all interrogations, not a small category. But I don’t believe that’s true. It’s quite possible to imagine an ethical kind of participation in a military interrogation. The ethics of such interrogations deserves careful analysis and discussion, not absolute prohibitions. I think that this could be a threat to academic freedom and professional freedom, and the past mistakes by the APA should not justify an overreaction that limits the freedom of all psychologists.

    • Like the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association, the APA is principally an association of practitioners. The AMA and the ABA include among their members medical and law school faculty, but their codes of ethics apply to the practice and not the scholarship of these professions. The same goes for the APA, whose ethical code is intended to govern the practice and not mainly the teaching or study of psychology. Hence I do not see how this ethical stricture on practice would restrict the academic freedom of faculty in psychology to conduct research, teach, or publicly comment on the psychological impact or effectiveness of interrogation techniques. Doctors may conduct all sorts of research on various poisons, but wouldn’t administering lethal injections to those subject to execution violate their Hippocratic Oath? Law professors may study and teach about the phenomenon of false confessions without participating in police interrogations, at least on the side of the police. Sociologists can study gang cultures, but should they ethically participate in gang violence; indeed, this is a question that has recently been raised (see

      But here is a small excerpt from the Hoffman report that I suspect led the APA Board to adopt this principle:

      “Through their training and experience, psychologists possess a special skill regarding how our mind and emotions work—a special skill that presumably allows psychologists to be particularly good at healing damaged psyches. As with others who possess a special skill, psychologists therefore have an enhanced ability to cause harm to the psyche as well.
      “One of the leading principles of the APA Ethics Code tells psychologists to ‘do no harm.’ But sometimes psychologists engage in legitimate acts that cause anxiety in a patient, or contribute to negative lawful consequences for a criminal defendant or employee if their client is a law enforcement agency or a company.
      “Our review has involved a very different situation—a psychologist using his or her special skill to intentionally cause psychological (or physical) pain or harm to an individual who is not the psychologist’s client, who is in custody, and who is outside the protection of the criminal justice system.
      “By explicitly declaring it ethical for psychologists to be involved in interrogations of detainees in DoD or CIA custody, while not setting strict and explicit limits on a psychologist’s involvement in the intentional infliction of psychological or physical pain in these situations, APA officials were intentionally setting up loose and porous constraints, not tight ones, on this particular use of a psychologist’s skill. This was especially true in the context of the time, which included (i) the government’s known legal contortions that sliced the definition of torture down
      to a fragment, (ii) the widespread and credible claims that this kind of abuse had occurred, and (iii) the existence of a large loophole in the Ethics Code that allowed CIA and DoD psychologists to follow explicitly unethical orders and still be considered ethical as long as they tried to ‘resolve’ the conflict.” (page 70)

      and further:

      “. . . however our government defined and will define the nation’s position in this debate [over the efficacy and morality of torture] – as the decades proceed
      and as administrations and foreign policies and world conflicts change – the profession of psychology must also define for itself whether it is ethical and legitimate for psychologists to use their special skill to intentionally inflict psychological or physical harm on individuals, especially those in captivity outside the criminal justice system.” (page 71)

  2. Pingback: Intelligence Service Veterans Denounce the Apologists for Torture | The Academe Blog

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