Psychologists in crisis over findings on ‘torture’ allegations

The American Psychological Association, or APA, under fire for its role in supporting the use of “enhanced” interrogation techniques by US national security agencies, vows it will address the numerous ethical breaches detailed in the findings of an independent investigation leaked this month to The New York Times.

But whether the association, the largest professional organisation for psychologists in the United States and arguably the most influential organisation for psychologists in the world, can salvage its reputation – or repair collateral damage – remains an open question.

Some of its harshest critics predict mass resignations from the association. But APA's reach extends far beyond its membership, which includes more than 122,500 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. It's the publisher of major textbooks and journals. It's also the accrediting body for university psychology programmes. And the episode has already been used as a case study in ethics courses.

"The APA as an institution has been fundamentally damaged in every possible way," says Steven Miles, a University of Minnesota professor of bioethics who has discussed the case as a guest lecturer across the country. "The question to be taught from an ethics side is the question of teaching health care providers to not only have a heart but to have a spine, which is to manage their conflicts of interests in a way that protects the primary obligation of the profession."

The seven-month investigation was commissioned by the APA board of directors following allegations in a book by James Risen, Pay Any Price: Greed, power, and endless war, that the APA colluded with the Bush administration to support torture during the war on terror.

Specifically, Risen alleged that the APA supported the development and implementation of “enhanced” interrogation techniques that constituted torture, and was complicit with the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, and US military to this end.

The investigation was led by Chicago attorney David Hoffman. HIs report for APA concluded that the association's ethics office “prioritised the protection of psychologists — even those who might have engaged in unethical behaviour — above the protection of the public".

Hoffman's findings

While Hoffman's 542-page report offers the most detail to date about the matter, the controversy has been brewing for years, set in motion by the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

Hoffman’s report found that key APA officials, principally the APA Ethics Director, joined and supported at times by other APA officials, colluded with important Department of Defense, or DoD, officials to have APA issue loose, high-level ethical guidelines that did not constrain the DoD in any greater fashion than existing DoD interrogation guidelines.

As the CIA, the DoDt and other government agencies sought clarity on then-president George W Bush's authorisation of "enhanced interrogation" techniques in its counterterrorism strategy, the APA revised its ethics code, and a task force created in 2005 crafted language in its code of ethics that would effectively permit members to use abusive techniques, such as water boarding, without violating the guidelines.

The Hoffman investigation concluded that APA’s principal motive in revising its code was “to align APA and curry favour with the DoD”. Another motive was to “keep the growth of psychology unrestrained in this area”.

It also found that in three years following the revision of its ethics code, 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 US detention centres abroad”.

APA apology

The APA followed up the Hoffman report's release with an apology for what it called "deeply disturbing" findings. It published recommendations for overhauling its policies and practices. It also has announced the departures of four officials who, Hoffman's report shows, played prominent roles in the controversy.

In comments responding to the report, two former APA presidents – both mentioned by Hoffman as being "intimately involved" in the effort but not reprimanded publicly by the APA – acknowledged problems with APA's handling of the issue, but added: "We believe that we did the best we could have done knowing what we knew..." They also said the report draws "unfounded conclusions" and stressed that torture, abuse or other cruel behaviours are "absolutely not" acceptable.

The issue is expected to dominate the APA's annual convention next month in Toronto, where organisers have set aside one and a half hours for members to air their thoughts.

"Obviously, this is the 900-pound gorilla," says Frank Farley, a Temple University psychology professor who sits on the APA's governing board, which is also expected to take up the issue in closed meetings.

"I think we'll start clearing the air, figuring out how to plan to move forward to lay out the parameters to deal with this thing," he said.

He also cautioned against moving too quickly or rashly: "If we're going to clean this thing up we have to be above reproach in our own conclusions."


Critics, including APA members who raised alarms about the activities, say they were impressed by Hoffman's investigation but have doubts about APA's response to it so far.

Stephen Soldz and Steven Reisner, members of the Coalition of an Ethical Psychology, called on the APA to fire eight members of staff and said the APA must commit to "contrition, accountability, transparency, inclusiveness and genuine change".

The tone of the APA's response "was basically that there were a few bad people tricking everybody", says Soldz, who also is president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility. "They don't seem to get it. They're treating this as a PR problem."

Organisations for psychologists, both inside and outside the United States, were quick to distance themselves from the APA.

"The American Psychological Association has abused its privileged position and failed miserably in its responsibility to protect the public," says Alan Kraut, executive director of the Association for Psychological Science, founded in 1989.

"It is unfair to the broader psychological science community to be tarred with this brush. APA does not represent the depth and breadth of the field or the interests of the many other psychological associations that exist."

The British Psychological Society similarly condemned the practices highlighted in the report, noting that there's no evidence that torture techniques are effective.

The content of the report "blemishes the reputation of the psychological profession worldwide", says Telmo Mourinho Baptista, a University of Lisbon psychology professor, speaking on behalf of the European Federation of Psychologists' Associations, or EFPA.

"EFPA is deeply shocked about what has happened and will follow APA’s way of dealing with the damage incurred with keen interest. The outcomes of this will be decisive for the standing of APA and future relationships."


The recent findings of the Hoffman report regarding the misconduct and collusion of the APA with agencies such as the Department of Defense have profound implications for the profession of psychology teaching of psychology. In short, it shows that a profound gap in ethical thinking and understanding exists in the discipline.

This inappropriate situation stems in part from the fact that current psychology undergraduate and graduate curriculi do not include sufficient attention to international human rights standards and their connection with professional ethics.

If the gaps in ethics teaching and action are not addressed, the profession of psychology will be unable to fulfil its ethical obligations and will likely continue to violate the Do No Harm ethical imperative.

Michael Wessells is a professor at Columbia University. He served on the APA task force but resigned over concerns detailed in the Hoffman report. He also was interviewed as part of Hoffman's investigation.