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Safe, Legal, Ethical, and Effective? It’s Time to Annul the PENS Report

The APA's troubling PENS Report.

Many viewers were outraged this past August watching NBC's Today Show interview with former Vice President Dick Cheney. Promoting the release of his new memoir, Cheney nodded in agreement when Matt Lauer noted that the VP continues to support waterboarding and other "enhanced interrogation techniques" (e.g., stress positions, hypothermia, sleep deprivation, fear induction). Lauer also quoted a key passage from the book: "The program was safe, legal, and effective. It provided intelligence that enabled us to prevent attacks and save American lives" (emphasis added).

Cheney's "safe-legal-effective" catechism is all too familiar to psychologists like me. It's three-quarters of a phrase that has defined professional psychology's decade-long ethical tailspin in the national security sector since the attacks of 9/11. And hearing these words again, I recalled an earlier interview with Stephen Behnke, Director of the Ethics Office of the American Psychological Association (APA). In August 2005, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! asked Dr. Behnke to explain the conclusions of the APA's then newly released Presidential Report on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS). The Report advocated the continuing involvement of psychologists in the interrogation of national security detainees. Dr. Behkne offered this summary: "The Task Force said that psychologists must adhere, and they used four words to describe psychologist involvement: safe, legal, ethical, and effective" (emphasis added).

In that same 2005 interview, Dr. Behnke also emphasized, "The Task Force states that psychologists have an absolute ethical obligation never to violate any United States law" (emphasis added). Here a similar point was made by President George W. Bush himself, a week before leaving the White House. In a Fox News interview with Brit Hume in January 2009, Bush explained, "I firmly reject the word 'torture'.... Everything this administration did...had a legal basis to it, otherwise we would not have done it.... Everything we did was in consultation with professionals in our government who understand... how to use techniques in a way that gets information... within the law, necessary to protect the American people" (emphasis added).

These two examples of parallel messages -- from the highest officials in the Bush Administration on the one hand and from the highest ethics official in the APA on the other -- may seem surprising. But this is no coincidence at all. The PENS Report was drafted by Dr. Behnke and hastily approved by an "emergency" vote of the APA Board that bypassed the organization's normal governance procedures. The Report was little more than APA's official endorsement of already operative military/intelligence guidelines. Indeed, all members of the PENS Task Force were made aware, on the first day of their meeting, that Department of Defense (DoD) standard operating procedures described the mission of Behavioral Science Consultants (i.e., psychologists) working at Guantanamo Bay in this way: "Provide psychological consultation in order to support safe, legal, ethical, and effective detention and interrogation operations" (emphasis added). Yes, that same phrase once again.

The "Do No Harm" principle is central to the APA's Ethics Code. Given prior reports that psychologists had been involved as planners, researchers, and overseers of abusive national security detainee interrogations, the PENS Task Force should have expressed grave concerns about the role of psychologists in such settings. But that would have required an unbiased, open, and honest deliberative process. Sadly, the actual PENS process was none of these things. From the start, the illegitimacy was rooted in the extreme bias represented by the composition of the Task Force itself. Six of the nine voting members worked for U.S. military or intelligence agencies (and five of them had served in chains of command involved in purported detainee abuse). This illegitimacy was further reinforced by serious, undisclosed conflicts of interest, including the unreported participation of high-level APA staff involved in lobbying military/intelligence agencies for psychology funding. In addition, the APA leadership prohibited the Task Force members from even discussing the PENS process or Report with interested APA members, media representatives, or the general public.  These and other irregularities have raised serious and unanswered questions about the purpose, independence, and integrity of the Task Force's agenda.

With the PENS Report, the APA departed from the international human rights standards that should guide the ethical conduct of all major healthcare organizations. In recent years, rank-and-file APA members -- not the APA Board or Ethics Committee -- have taken the lead in efforts to limit the damage from the PENS Report's endorsement of psychologists' involvement in detainee operations. Most noteworthy, a member-initiated referendum was passed in 2008. This new policy officially prohibits psychologists from working in settings that violate international law or the U.S. Constitution unless they are "working directly for the persons being detained or for an independent third party working to protect human rights" (or unless they are providing treatment for military personnel). However, the APA leadership has failed to actively pursue implementation of this membership referendum.

Despite the efforts of thousands of dissident APA members and non-member psychologists alike, the PENS Report continues to have significant operational influence within national security and psychology settings. For example, the PENS Report remains a standard reference in the instructions that the DoD provides to psychologists involved in intelligence operations. Similarly, the PENS Report is the foundational ethics document for some psychologists attempting to establish "operational psychology" as an official APA area of specialization, spanning counterintelligence and counterterrorism operations. And in the APA Ethics Committee's new online national security "casebook" commentary, the PENS Report is referenced repeatedly in guidance to psychologists on ethical decision-making

In recognition of the PENS Report's underlying illegitimacy and its ongoing destructive effects, the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology has organized a new online petition campaign calling for the Report's official annulment by the APA. The effort has already galvanized supporters in the psychological, medical, legal, military/intelligence, and human rights communities, and broader outreach to concerned members of the public throughout the world is now underway. To date, 16 organizations -- including Psychologists for Social Responsibility, Physicians for Human Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union, and two of APA's own divisions (the Society for Humanistic Psychology and the Executive Committee of the Society for Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology) -- have endorsed the annulment call. Over 600 individuals with diverse backgrounds have signed the petition as well. Included among the early signers are Philip Zimbardo, Stephen Xenakis, Noam Chomsky, Robert Jay Lifton, Daniel Ellsberg, Leonard Rubenstein, Tom Hayden, two members of the PENS Task Force (Jean Maria Arrigo and Michael Wessells), and two current candidates for APA president (Steven Reisner and Donald Bersoff).

APA leadership has a history of stonewalling on these deeply disturbing issues, and its resistance to transparency, accountability, and organizational change highlights the imposing challenge of overturning the PENS Report. But this annulment effort unmistakably has some early momentum.  Each day it aims to bring new voices and broader awareness to the critical choices upon which both the well-being of a profession and the protection of human rights depend.

All individuals interested in signing the petition can do so at, where they can read the petition and additional background documentation and review the complete list of current organizational and individual signers. Organizations interested in signing on should contact the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology at