The past decade has witnessed persistent claims that the American Psychological Association (APA) crafted its ethics policies in order to support the Bush Administration’s use of psychologists in abusive and torturous detention and interrogation operations. The standard response from APA authorities has followed the CIA’s unofficial motto: “Admit nothing. Deny everything. Make counter-accusations.”

That approach, however, finally changed last fall after the publication of Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War by New York Times investigative reporter James Risen. The APA’s immediate response was quite familiar: the allegations of collusion were dismissed as “largely based on innuendo and one-sided reporting.” But a month later the APA Board of Directors reversed course and grudgingly hired attorney David Hoffman of the law firm Sidley Austin to conduct an internal investigation of the APA. In so doing, the APA leadership offered the assurance that Mr. Hoffman would have full authority and cooperation in conducting interviews and in obtaining “all information and documents that he believes would assist in his work.”

Mr. Hoffman’s investigation is now underway and one focus is undoubtedly the APA’s controversial 2005 Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS). The review of PENS that follows highlights specific issues demanding careful scrutiny by the investigative team.

Background

Credible reports began to emerge in 2004 that psychologists—contrary to their do-no-harm ethical principles—were involved in the mistreatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, CIA black sites, and elsewhere. Removal of psychologists from these roles would have undermined the rationale the Bush Administration used to authorize its brutal “enhanced interrogation techniques.” As described in the infamous Office of Legal Counsel “torture memos,” the involvement of psychologists as consultants to and monitors of detainee interrogations purportedly ensured that these techniques were not psychologically torturous—and were therefore lawful.

As a result, from the perspective of the White House, the CIA, and the Pentagon, it was important that the APA legitimize the ongoing participation of psychologists in detainee interrogations and related operations. And from the perspective of the APA’s leadership, it was apparently a high priority to maintain the Association’s cherished seat at the national security table and to nurture psychologists’ lucrative ties to the “war on terror” agenda.

The PENS Task Force was the APA’s direct response to the reports of psychologists’ involvement in the abusive and torturous treatment of detainees. After a single weekend meeting in June 2005, the task force issued the PENS Report asserting that psychologists play a critical role in keeping interrogations and related operations safe, legal, ethical and effective. This language was drawn directly from the Pentagon’s Standard Operating Procedures for its Behavioral Science Consultation Teams. By adopting this stance, the APA—the largest association of psychologists worldwide—became the sole major professional healthcare organization to disavow the international human rights standards that many believe should be the benchmark for professional codes of ethics.

PENS Areas of Concern

The single most crucial factor in determining the outcome of the PENS meeting was the selection of the individuals who would comprise the PENS Task Force. Now ten years later, the APA has still never adequately explained that critical selection process. According to APA Ethics Office Director Stephen Behnke, who was the primary drafter of the PENS Report, well over 100 names were submitted in response to a call for nominations. But neither the identities of the decision-makers nor the selection criteria they used have ever been revealed by the APA.

In that regard, Risen’s Pay Any Price describes a troubling and previously undisclosed email from then APA Science Policy Director Geoff Mumford to psychologist Kirk Hubbard, an “enhanced interrogation” advocate who had recently retired from the CIA. Sent just days after release of the PENS Report, Dr. Mumford’s email thanked Dr. Hubbard—who was then working for Mitchell Jessen & Associates—for his key role in getting the PENS effort “off the ground” and assured him that his views were “well represented by very carefully selected task force members.”

The specific improprieties revealed in this email raise broader concerns. As part of his investigation, Mr. Hoffman should therefore obtain the names and correspondence of everyone who was involved—directly or indirectly—in the selection of the PENS Task Force members. He should also ascertain the basis upon which these individuals—including Dr. Hubbard—were given this weighty responsibility. Furthermore, the investigative team should obtain and thoroughly review the full set of task force applications, along with all notes and correspondence relating to why certain individuals were selected for the task force and why others were not.

It is difficult to imagine that any reasonable, unbiased selection process involving over 100 candidates could have produced a PENS Task Force in which a majority of the nine voting members—Morgan Banks, Michael Gelles, Larry James, Bryce Lefever, and Scott Shumate—were on the payroll of the U.S. military or intelligence agencies and had served in locations where detainee abuses allegedly took place. Yet the APA leadership has never acknowledged that this task force composition represents a source of legitimate and serious concern.

Nor has the APA acknowledged that most PENS Task Force members—as active duty military or intelligence personnel—were essentially spokespersons for the government. As such, their professed views were fixed and realistically could not change in response to deliberations. In particular, their support for the participation of psychologists in national security interrogations and related operations—as well as their accommodation to the Bush Administration’s permissive legal definition of torture—was firmly established from the outset. The strategic composition of the PENS Task Force thereby circumvented the group’s ostensible objective: an open-minded examination of the fit between psychological ethics and the roles of psychologists in national security settings. Mr. Hoffman’s team should therefore seek all materials and correspondence that can illuminate the actual purpose and the behind-the-scenes planning of PENS that took place in the months before the meeting.

One might reasonably argue that individuals with first-hand knowledge of national security operations were uniquely qualified to provide essential information. But expert consultants could have been called upon to inform the PENS Task Force about the official positions and standard procedures of the U.S. military and intelligence establishment. The APA’s inclusion of such insiders as members of the task force instead guaranteed a pre-determined outcome. A comparable situation might involve permitting individuals to serve on a jury even though their continued employment required them to support a particular verdict.

The active duty military/intelligence representatives selected for the PENS Task Force —again, a majority of the voting members—should also have been excluded on the basis of their clear conflicts of interest. Standard 3.06 of the APA Ethics Code on Conflict of Interest states: “Psychologists refrain from taking on a professional role when personal, scientific, professional, legal, financial, or other interests or relationships could reasonably be expected to…impair their objectivity, competence, or effectiveness in performing their functions as psychologists…”

Participation on the PENS Task Force was indisputably a “professional role” and it was certainly reasonable to expect that the objectivity and effectiveness of these members would be impaired. After all, the roles of psychologists like them involved in detention and interrogation operations were supposedly under review (thus, impaired objectivity) and they were not free to recommend ethical guidelines that diverged from their employers’ current practices (thus, impaired effectiveness). These serious conflict-of-interest problems seem so obvious that it is very difficult to fathom how APA leadership could have viewed the arrangement as appropriate. Mr. Hoffman should therefore insist upon an explanation from the individual task force members themselves and also from APA senior staff, including Dr. Behnke, the director of APA’s Ethics Office.

The PENS weekend meeting was also unusual in the number of high-level undisclosed participants and “observers” who attended. These included Susan Brandon, who worked for the Bush White House as a senior counterterrorism advisor (and is now a director of the government’s High-Value Interrogation Group); Russ Newman, Executive Director of the APA’s Practice Directorate; Steven Breckler, Executive Director of the APA’s Science Directorate; Geoff Mumford, APA Director for Science Policy; Heather Kelly, Senior Legislative and Federal Affairs Officer for the APA Science Directorate; and Rhea Farberman, APA’s Executive Director for Public and Member Communications.

According to PENS Task Force member Jean Maria Arrigo, Dr. Newman in particular played a lead role in facilitating the meeting, framing the task force’s work as damage control, and expediting the report’s approval by APA authorities. Unknown to Dr. Arrigo at that time (but apparently known to other task force members), Dr. Newman was married to military psychologist Debra Dunivin, who was stationed at Guantanamo Bay, where abuses “tantamount to torture” had allegedly taken place. Applying the APA’s own ethical standards, this personal relationship represented another serious conflict of interest. The decision to nonetheless give Dr. Newman a central role in the PENS meeting—and his acceptance of that role—is therefore another issue that Mr. Hoffman should carefully examine.

There were also a number of irregularities in the approval and dissemination of the PENS Report. Within days of the PENS meeting, the APA Board of Directors invoked its emergency powers and approved the report, preempting a standard review and vote by the Council of Representatives, the APA’s official governing body. As well, approval was not sought as customary from the APA’s Policy and Planning Board, the Board of Professional Affairs, or the Board for Advancement of Psychology in the Public Interest. In addition, there was no period for APA member feedback on the report.

In short, a variety of standard governance checks and balances were ignored or bypassed, and a plausible justification for the Board’s “emergency” vote has never been offered. Mr. Hoffman’s investigative team should therefore obtain and review all relevant correspondence relating to the manner in which the PENS Report was handled. The investigators should also interview all members of the APA’s 2005 Board of Directors—including current APA President Barry Anton—regarding their “emergency” vote.

Conclusion

APA spokespersons have consistently been quick to reject all allegations of collusion between the Association and the Bush Administration. Nevertheless, an argument can be made that the entire PENS process was a carefully planned and orchestrated effort to collude with the national security establishment in achieving a specific goal: the ongoing participation of psychologists in detention and interrogation operations—even though the operations violated fundamental principles of psychological ethics.

These are starkly contrasting views, and Mr. Hoffman’s investigation presents an important opportunity to illuminate where the truth actually lies. But to accomplish that, the investigative team will need to rigorously examine several interconnected domains, including the discussions and meetings that led to the development of PENS; the selection of the specific task force members; the potential conflicts of interest of everyone involved in PENS; and the swift trajectory of APA approval of the PENS Report.

Although concerns over issues of independence, access, thoroughness, and transparency are understandable and legitimate, this investigation finally offers at least the possibility of greater clarity regarding PENS and other related APA policies and actions. Mr. Hoffman’s report, scheduled for public release this spring, may therefore serve as a springboard for long-delayed accountability and reform within the APA.

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