Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Torture, APA, and the Hoffman Report: What Now?

What can the APA do to rectify the shameful legacy of psychology’s collusion?

Linda M. Woolf
Source: Linda M. Woolf

On July 2, 2015, David Hoffman and colleagues submitted the Independent Review Relating To APA Ethics Guidelines, National Security Interrogations, And Torture to the Board of Directors of the American Psychological Association (APA). If all of the elements of the Hoffman Report are accurate—and I have no reason to believe this Report is not accurate—then, several key points are quite clear:

  1. Members of the APA leadership/staff were indeed collusive with the torture policies of the Bush Administration following the attacks of 9/11 and the resulting wars.
  2. Before 2001, there was a push for the Ethics Office to be less aggressive in pursuing ethics policy and adjudication of ethics complaints. The failure of APA to maintain a rigorous Ethics policy paved the path for psychologist collusion in torture and other prisoner abuses.
  3. Key APA leaders/staff actively endeavored to weaken anti-torture Resolutions/Referendums through a pattern of manipulation, misdirection, and misinformation.
  4. Key APA leaders/staff engaged in a pattern of deception to hide their complicity in torture and abusive interrogation practices from other APA leaders, members volunteering in the Association, the broader membership, as well as the wider population.
  5. The fox appeared to be guarding the chicken coop. Under current APA procedures, all ethics- related policy and adjudication of ethics complaints must be coordinated with and through the Ethics Office. Yet, Dr. Stephen Behnke, Director of the APA Ethics office, was at times also on the Department of Defense (DoD) payroll. The Ethics Office should serve the membership of the APA and use the full resources of that office to maintain and promote ethics and the protection of human welfare and human rights. Unfortunately, it now appears that Dr. Behnke used that office to maintain and promote the goals of the DoD and, by extension, the government’s abusive interrogation policies.

Based on the findings of the Hoffman Independent Review and Report, APA Council of Representatives should undertake several actions immediately. These actions should be at minimum be three-pronged. First, and foremost, APA needs to further strengthen its policies related to torture, prisoner interrogations, and national security concerns. Second, the APA needs to clean house and address the wrongs of the past. Third, APA must review policies, procedures, and organizational structures to insure that human rights are moved to the forefront of APA values.

Three key action recommendations:

  1. Immediate ban on psychologist involvement in interrogations.
  2. Termination of APA staff and resignation of leadership identified as collusive in torture or engaging in a plan of institutional deceptiveness about such collusion.
  3. Creation of an APA Office and Committee for Human Rights.

Torture, Prisoner Interrogations, and National Security

Torture and abusive interrogations do not garner useful information. These destructive techniques may enable us to feel a little less helpless in the face of terror but ultimately only fuels the very hate we seek to snuff out. Most importantly, torture, abusive interrogations, cruel forms of incarceration, and imprisonment without due process are human rights violations. As such, the APA Ethics Code should demand opposition to such practices; the APA Ethics Office should actively promote, educate, and endeavor to maintain the highest ethical standards of psychologists. Sadly, according to the Hoffman Report, the goal of the Ethics Office became one of promoting prisoner interrogations at the expense of the detainees. The State became the client; the prisoner became a means to an end.

APA should immediately take additional steps to undo damage caused by psychologists post-9/11 and the 2005 PENS Report. As noted in the Hoffman Report, APA rescinded PENS and passed a comprehensive Policy Related to Psychologists' Work in National Security Settings and Reaffirmation of the APA Position Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and accepted the accompanying Task Force Report. The process to rescind PENS and adopt a strong anti-torture policy relevant to national security settings required two years of work and significant consultation with individuals and groups both within and outside of APA. This policy is the strongest, most comprehensive APA anti-torture policy to date. Nonetheless, in light of the serious violations within APA outlined in the Hoffman Report identifying systematic manipulation in the drafting of APA policy, several actions steps should be taken immediately, in relation to protecting prisoners:

  1. APA should institute immediately a moratorium on psychologist involvement in interrogations. Following the passage of the 2006 APA Resolution Against Torture, Neil Altman introduced a Moratorium Resolution before APA with an accompanying Justification Statement. Sixteen members of Council co-sponsored this Resolution. The Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence (Division 48, APA) Executive Committee endorsed this effort with a Call for an APA Moratorium Resolution. The Hoffman report made clear that the Ethics Office coordinated efforts to defeat this Resolution through a pattern of misinformation and manipulation. Consequently, APA should immediately institute a prohibition on psychologist involvement in national security interrogations. Moreover, a ban on interrogation involvement should extend to domestic law enforcement settings, as well. When a psychologist makes a decision to protect the nation-state, and not the individual, fundamental human rights suffer.
  2. APA also must implement the 2008 Petition Resolution immediately as ENFORCEABLE policy. As made clear in the Hoffman report, APA only allowed the Petition Resolution to go to the membership for a vote because APA Legal and the Ethics Office had declared the policy unenforceable—a mechanism designed to avoid implementation and meaningful action. With the Petition Resolution designated as enforceable policy, APA immediately should call for all psychologists to leave national security sites such as Guantanamo, “unless they are working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights.”
  3. APA should develop a Task Force composed of APA members and non-APA members including ethicists and human rights scholars to review and, if necessary, revise all APA anti-torture polices to insure such policies are in keeping with International Human Rights Declarations/Conventions and human rights law and policy. This review should occur whether such policies are applicable to National Security Settings or other settings (e.g., prisons, hospitals, communities; the 2006 Resolution Against Torture extends to non-military sites) in which abuse may occur.
  4. APA should develop a mechanism to provide care and treatment, as applicable, for detainees who experienced torture and abuse while a detainee in a national security setting.
  5. APA must immediately contact the DoD Medical Command to have the PENS Report removed from official policy regarding involvement of psychologists in interrogations.
  6. APA must clearly communicate any moratorium policy and/or implementation of the Petition Resolution to the United States government, including the President, Congress, Department of Defense, Department of Justice, and the Central Intelligence Agency.

Rectifying the Problems of the Past

I do not believe it is not enough for APA to simply acknowledge the errors of the past. Rather, APA must take steps organizationally to rectify the violations of the members’ and public’s trust and to insure that these disturbing events never happen again.

  1. APA should immediately terminate staff members clearly identified as collusive in torture or engaging in a plan of institutional deceptiveness. APA leadership identified as collusive in the same actions should be required to resign their governance positions. These actions should be made public to the membership as a first step in rebuilding trust in the organization.
  2. APA, in concert with outside human rights organizations (e.g., AAAS Human Rights Program), should organize a special conference to address, acknowledge, and learn from the abuses of the past. APA should publish conference proceedings and develop mechanisms for additional discussion/conferences aimed at future policy/organizational development, as well as documentation of past abuses.
  3. APA should re-open circumvented ethics complaints and appoint a special committee, inclusive of APA members and non-members, to evaluate those complaints. Moreover, APA should pro-actively be involved in pursuit of ethics/criminal complaints against non-APA members involved in torture at the state, military, or national level.
  4. APA should revise its Ethics Webpages to clarify and articulate APA policy related to torture as well as National Security settings. Until a review of APA anti-torture policy is completed, APA immediately should make its strongest and most comprehensive anti-torture policy, Policy Related to Psychologists' Work in National Security Settings and Reaffirmation of the APA Position Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the accompanying Task Force Report visible and readily accessible on the Ethics Office website, as repeatedly requested over a two year period by the Task Force authors.
  5. APA should evaluate and revise policies concerning leadership/staff conflict of interest.
  6. APA should evaluate and revise policies concerning dual employment for staff, particularly for staff in leadership position.
  7. APA should develop mechanisms for committee and task force appointments to avoid bias and reflective of broader Association interests.

Movement Towards the Future

  1. APA should immediately develop an Office and Committee for Human Rights. Such committees exist in a broad range of professional organizations (e.g., American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Anthropological Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Association of American Geographers, American Chemical Society, American Educational Research Association, American Mathematical Society, American Physical Society, American Political Science Association, American Statistical Association, National Academies of Science). APA should consult with and coordinate with Human Rights organizations in the design and development of such an office.
  2. APA immediately should evaluate its Web resources related to human rights and significantly expand its offerings/materials. All APA directorates should develop and disseminate information and materials concerning human rights relevant to the focus of each directorate.
  3. APA should support the development of books, curricular materials, and CE Programming aimed at the teaching of human rights, the recognition and report of human rights violations, as well as prevention, treatment, and recovery from human rights violations on both the individual and community levels.
  4. APA Convention should designate hours for human rights programming. APA should provide gratis vendor/exhibitor space at the Convention to the United Nations and other human rights organizations.
  5. APA should develop mechanisms to recognize psychologists (students, early career psychologists, scholars, and practitioners) and members of the public and other organizations nationally and internationally working in human rights arenas (e.g., awards, fellow status).
  6. APA should engage in educational endeavors aimed at teaching the public about psychology and human rights, inclusive of the dangers and harm associated with the use of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. Too often, the general public believes the myth—perpetuated on television—that torture is an effective and, at times, necessary form of interrogation. APA should lead the endeavor to dispel this destructive myth.
  7. APA should conduct a thorough review of the Ethics Code, Office, and procedures. This review should be conducted by a Task Force inclusive of APA members but also non-members and ethicists from outside of the discipline. APA must develop checks-and-balances to provide oversight of the Ethics Office as well as other vulnerable and significant positions/offices. Until this review is completed, the APA Ethics Office immediately should change procedures to share ALL ethics complaints with the entire Ethics Committee, as a check. Currently, the Ethics Office can dismiss complaints without the eyes and discussion of the entire elected committee.
  8. APA should review newly instituted governance procedures to insure the broadest level of member involvement in governance and the decision-making process.

Psychologist Carolyn Payton, the first woman and the first African-American Director of the United States Peace Corps, in a 1984 address to the APA asked, “Who must do the hard things?” She argued, “I would suggest that it is absurd for us not to make our stand clear on matters of injustice, that failure to do so does grave image damage to us in the public's eye, and that to continue to ignore damage done by social injustices that are readily apparent through use of our sense organs and consciences severely weakens our credibility.”

Unfortunately, the credibility of APA and the profession of psychology has been weakened. Although, over the past decade, there have been many within and outside of APA working diligently to fight against psychologist involvement in torture and for the protection of detainees, others individuals were working diligently to thwart such efforts. It is eminently clear from the Hoffman Report that there were those within the APA who endeavored to facilitate, promote, and collude in the gross human rights violations committed by the U.S. government in the name of national security. The Hoffman report also makes clear that there were others within APA who endeavored to hide this collusion and mislead the membership and wider population. We cannot ignore these violations. We must now do the “hard things.” I call on APA to institute the changes noted above and move towards making the Association and the profession a beacon for human rights and social justice.

More from Linda M. Woolf Ph.D.,
More from Psychology Today
More from Linda M. Woolf Ph.D.,
More from Psychology Today