Multiple reports, over a number of years, have confirmed the involvement of psychologists in the abuse and torture of war-on-terror detainees. Nevertheless, many members of the profession, the human rights community, and the broader public were stunned this past summer when an independent investigation uncovered an extensive history of collusion between leaders of the American Psychological Association (APA) and officials at the Department of Defense (DoD). As revealed in the July 2015 Hoffman Report, these secret dealings served to protect the participation of psychologists in national security operations and subverted the profession’s commitment to beneficence, nonmaleficence, and do-no-harm ethics.
But those accustomed to power and deference rarely react well to evidence that undermines their authority or calls into question their actions. So it is not surprising that a small, vocal cadre of psychologists – some with direct ties to the detention and interrogation operations of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld – are now pursuing an aggressive campaign to discredit the Hoffman Report. The report’s revelations threaten their reputations, their influence within the APA, and potentially their standing with fellow military psychologists and the DoD.
This is a campaign that should be neither ignored nor discounted. If successful, it will obstruct an already rugged path toward accountability and reform within the APA, and it will hinder a long overdue examination of the profession’s ethics in national security settings. But before turning to the campaign itself, it is useful to briefly summarize the Hoffman Report’s key findings.
In November 2014, even while asserting that they had already refuted claims of wrongdoing, the APA Board hired attorney David Hoffman and his team from Sidley Austin to determine whether there was “any factual support” for allegations of collusion between representatives of the APA and Bush Administration. After a seven-month investigation with over 150 interviews and review of thousands of emails and other documents, the Hoffman Report found extensive evidence of such collusion.
Of particular interest, the report provides details about how military psychologists Morgan Banks, Debra Dunivin, and Larry James secretly collaborated with former APA Ethics Office Director Stephen Behnke – and other APA senior staff and elected leaders – in a coordinated effort to ensure that the APA’s ethics policies did not constrain the DoD’s use of psychologists in its detention and interrogation operations.
According to the Hoffman Report, despite a clear vested interest in the outcome, Guantanamo BSCT psychologist Dunivin covertly guided Behnke and other APA leaders on the selection of members for the APA’s controversial Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS). Both Banks and James were chosen for that task force, which was stacked with military intelligence personnel. Banks then worked behind the scenes with Behnke and others to ensure that the PENS Report would support a DoD policy document that had already been drafted – by Banks and Dunivin themselves. The report also describes how, at various times thereafter, Banks, Dunivin, and James collaborated secretly with Behnke and his colleagues in developing and vetting statements and strategies designed to preserve the close alignment between APA and DoD policies, effectively disregarding the will of the APA’s general membership.
This is merely a snapshot of the much more detailed evidence and analysis provided by the 500-page Hoffman Report, which some now seek to discredit – apparently at least in part through a combination of intimidation, strategic deception, and obfuscation.
First, from a familiar playbook, we have the obligatory attack on the patriotism of Hoffman and those who have criticized psychologists’ participation in abusive detention and interrogation operations. The most outrageous example comes from two retired military officers, David Bolgiano and John Taylor. In a recent piece they described the Hoffman Report as a “classic attack of cowards” and also stated, “By the publication and release of this report, the APA becomes a willing co-conspirator to the likes of al Qaeda and ISIS.” In contrast, Banks and his colleagues were praised as “mature and reasoned voices of moderation and morality on the battlefield.”
Diatribes like this are not hard to find. Yet this one is especially noteworthy because it is featured reading on a new “PsychCoalition” website that presents itself as advocating for operational and national security psychologists and others who “do research, educate and train, and practice in…areas of applied psychology beyond traditional health and mental health.” The organizers of the website have chosen to remain anonymous, but two APA divisions – Military Psychology (Division 19) and Consulting Psychology (Division 13) – are among the groups that are given front-page recognition. It seems likely that most members of those and other APA divisions would repudiate the invectives of Bolgiano and Taylor, even though the leaders of “PsychCoalition” obviously do not.
A second line of attack on the Hoffman Report comes from Thomas Williams, the current president of the APA’s Military Psychology division. By his account, the Hoffman team has gotten it all wrong and corrective action is urgently needed. In a recent letter, for example, Williams asserted that Banks, Dunivin, and James (among others) “have been maligned as nefariously engaging in ‘collusion’ when their true motivations, intent and the outcome of their actions in concert with the APA Staff with whom they worked, all point to cooperation.”
But Williams presumably understands that those who collude together are simultaneously engaged in some form of cooperation. Indeed, collusion is defined as “secret or illegal cooperation or conspiracy, especially in order to cheat or deceive others.” So the distinction he makes appears to have little merit. Nevertheless, Williams has recommended that APA leadership retract all criticism of the PENS process and task force and also issue an apology to the individuals who are identified in the Hoffman Report as having been involved in collusion.
Finally, there is a concurrent effort to cast doubt on the scientific legitimacy of the Hoffman Report. Psychologist Richard Kilburg, for example, has argued that the report lacks “scientific validation” and suffers from systematic bias. But his claims distort the logic and methodology of investigations conducted in response to indications of possible misconduct, negligence, or corruption. When a frantic homeowner calls 911 about suspicious noises, the prowler and broken window discovered by police represent validation, not bias. When customers raise doubts about the cleanliness of a restaurant, the roach droppings detected by health inspectors represent validation, not bias. When mine workers report concerns about diminished air quality underground, the malfunctioning ventilation system found by safety inspectors represents validation, not bias. And when longstanding allegations finally motivate an independent review that uncovers extensive evidence of APA-DoD collusion, that too is validation, not bias.
It is also noteworthy that Kilburg and his colleagues did not issue a similar public call for scientific validation when Behnke, Banks, and others repeatedly asserted that psychologists play a key role in keeping detention and interrogation operations “safe, legal, ethical, and effective.” That was a claim, with profound consequences, for which there was never any scientific basis, and for which no meaningful research or evidence was ever presented. Yet the same voices that now seek to discredit the Hoffman Report offered no criticism of this central rationale for the collusion-driven PENS Report.
Taking a Stand for Change
Intimidation, strategic deception, and obfuscation have no constructive role to play as the APA tries to chart an ethical course forward after a tragic period of psychologist involvement in detainee torture and abuse. None of these ploys effectively counters the Hoffman Report’s key findings: that senior APA and DoD officials collaborated secretly to consistently push the APA’s ethics policies in whatever direction suited the preferences of the DoD. Even after the fact, the participants failed to openly acknowledge their covert activities to the APA’s membership or to the public. That is sufficient reason to be very cautious about trusting any narrative that now portrays these individuals as the victims of baseless allegations.
At the same time, we should not lose sight of the larger picture. Psychologists like Banks, Dunivin, and James are representatives of an exceedingly small contingent within the profession of psychology – and even within the field of military psychology. Their area of specialization – what some call adversarial operational psychology – involves national security operations designed to harm or exploit, where targets have no informed consent protections and where interventions are often classified and beyond the reach of outside ethical oversight. In short, these practices diverge sharply from the principles and expectations that guide the daily work of almost all psychologists – whether in the military or not – who work as healthcare providers, researchers, teachers, or consultants.
The weeks and months ahead are a crucial time for redeeming the APA and our profession. We must not let a small contingent create false divisions among us in their search for supporters. The real divide here is not between psychologists who are employed by the military and those who work in the civil sector. Nor is it between psychologists who are healthcare practitioners and those who work in non-clinical areas. The divide that matters is the one between psychologists who recognize the urgent need for accountability and reform and those who instead insist that no wrongdoing took place and that business as usual should prevail.