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American Psychology Association colluded with Pentagon and CIA to protect interrogation program, report finds

BMJ 2015; 351 doi: (Published 13 July 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h3805

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  1. Michael McCarthy
  1. 1Seattle

Officials of the American Psychological Association colluded with the US Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, and other officials of George W Bush’s administration to permit psychologists to participate in “enhanced interrogations” that used techniques such as waterboarding, widely considered to be torture, a new report has found.1

The 542 page report, released on 10 July, was commissioned by the association and prepared by a team led by David H Hoffman, an attorney in the Chicago office of the Sidley Austin law firm and a former federal prosecutor.

At issue was whether association officials worked with US government officials to formulate ethical guidelines that were aligned with the Bush administration’s policies so that psychologists could participate in the harsh interrogations of detainees held at the US Guantanamo Bay military prison and at secret CIA “black sites” set up around the world after the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001. The guidelines were drawn up in 2005 by a specially commissioned association task force, the Presidential Task Force on Ethics and National Security (“PENS”), and adopted shortly thereafter by the association’s board.2

Critics of the guidelines have long charged that they violated traditional professional ethical standards, put few limits on the types of interrogation in which psychologists could participate, and dovetailed so closely with policies formulated by the Bush administration that they seemed to have been drawn up in coordination with government officials.3 4 The association had repeatedly denied such collaboration.

The report, however, concluded that these critics were by and large correct: “Our investigation determined that key APA [American Psychological Association] 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.”

At the time, the US Office of Legal Counsel had defined torture in narrow terms that allowed the use of such measures as stress positions, sleep deprivation, and waterboarding in interrogations of detainees. A 2002 memorandum from the Office of Legal Counsel said that, to be considered torture, the pain inflicted “must be the equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.”

The American Psychological Association’s principal motive for adopting the 2005 ethical guidelines was to “curry favor” with the Department of Defense, one of the largest employers of psychologists, the report said. It said, “While we found many emails and discussions regarding how best to position APA to maximize its influence with and build its positive relationship with the Defense Department, and many emails and discussions regarding what APA’s messaging should be in a media environment it perceived as hostile, we found little evidence of analyses or discussions about the best or right ethical position to take in light of the nature of the profession.”

The investigators also found that, in the years after the adoption of the 2005 PENS task force’s report, association officials “engaged in a pattern of secret collaboration” with defense department officials to defeat efforts by the association’s Council of Representatives to pass resolutions that would have prohibited psychologists from participating in the interrogations. The report said that the chief association official involved in these efforts was its ethics director, Steven Behnke, “who effectively formed an undisclosed joint venture with a small number of DoD officials to ensure that APA’s statements and actions fell squarely in line with DoD’s goals and preferences.”

The report found that many of the association officials involved in formulating its policies on interrogations had close ties with the US military and the Central Intelligence Agency and that Behnke obtained a contract from the Pentagon to train interrogators while he was still working with the association.

In a statement Nadine Kaslow, a past president of the association and chair of a committee reviewing its handling of the controversy, said that the association’s “internal checks and balances failed to detect the collusion or properly acknowledge a significant conflict of interest.”

She said, “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 association said that it would adopt a policy prohibiting psychologists from participating in interrogations of people held in custody by military or intelligence authorities but would allow them to train military personnel on the possible effects of particular techniques and conditions of interrogation.

“This bleak chapter in our history occurred over a period of years and will not be resolved in a matter of months,” said 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 group Physicians for Human Rights, however, has called for the ousting of all association officials who were involved in the collusion and a federal criminal probe of its role in the US interrogation programs. “The APA’s collusion with the government’s national security apparatus is one of the greatest scandals in US medical history,” said Kerry Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist and vice chair of the group’s board of directors. “Immediate action must be taken to restore health professional ethics and to ensure this never happens again.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h3805


  • Editorials: Medical professionalism and abuse of detainees in the war on terror (BMJ 2014;348:g2947, doi:10.1136/bmj.g2947), Guantanamo: a call for action (BMJ 2006;332:560, doi:10.1136/bmj.332.7541.560); Analysis: Contrasting ethical policies of physicians and psychologists concerning interrogation of detainees (BMJ 2009;338:b1653, doi:10.1136/bmj.b1653)


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