Op-Ed: How the American Psychological Assn. lost its way

Satellite imagery shows the Salt Pit, a CIA "black site" prison complex located north of Kabul, Afghanistan, where detainees were submitted to harsh interrogations devised by American psychologists John Jessen and James Mitchell.

Satellite imagery shows the Salt Pit, a CIA “black site” prison complex located north of Kabul, Afghanistan, where detainees were submitted to harsh interrogations devised by American psychologists John Jessen and James Mitchell.

(DigitalGlobe / Getty Images)

The American Psychological Assn. is in crisis.

Last December, a Senate Intelligence Committee report laid bare the extensive involvement of individual psychologists in the CIA’s black-site torture program. Then, in early July, a devastating independent report by a former federal prosecutor determined that more than a decade ago APA leaders — including the director of ethics — began working secretly with military representatives. Together they crafted deceptively permissive ethics policies for psychologists that effectively enabled abusive interrogation of war-on-terror prisoners to continue.

These revelations have shocked and outraged not just psychologists but also the public at large. After all, the APA’s ethics code for psychologists governs not only its 80,000 members but also underlies the policies of most state licensing boards.

The fallout will be on full display next month as the APA — the world’s largest association of psychology practitioners, researchers and educators — holds its annual convention in Toronto. There, APA authorities will face members’ confusion and rage during three APA Council governance meetings, a three-day teach-in organized by Psychologists for Social Responsibility, and open town hall meetings. Can this soul-searching be channeled into fruitful reforms, not just for the organization but also the future of the field? A lot is at stake in the weeks ahead.


The APA got into this mess by holding tightly to a deeply flawed assumption: that psychology should embrace every opportunity to expand its sphere of influence.

The APA’s relationship with military intelligence dates back to its contributions in critical areas such as aptitude assessment and teamwork during World War I and II. After the 9/11 attacks, the APA sought to become an indispensable source of psychological expertise for counter-terrorism efforts at the Pentagon and CIA. Along with other health professionals, psychologists got placed in key roles in clandestine interrogation operations. When this made headlines, both the American Medical Assn. and the American Psychiatric Assn. issued declarations against their members’ participation.

But the APA’s response was different. It launched the Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security and stacked it with military intelligence insiders. In quick order, the task force reached a disingenuous, preordained conclusion that psychologists have an important role to play, asserting that their involvement kept interrogations “safe, legal, ethical and effective.” The Bush administration immediately used this made-to-order policy to legitimize and continue its abusive detention and interrogation programs.

APA leaders were particularly eager to curry favor with the Pentagon. The Defense Department was already a major source of jobs and research funding, and involvement in the war against terrorism gave psychology a higher profile and opportunities to expand its reach. Psychologists were given new positions as behavioral science consultants at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and other detention sites, as trainers of national security personnel, and as operational psychologists for military contractors. This was progress in the eyes of the APA leadership, and so for 10 years, the APA quashed any attempt to question its faux task force, loosened ethics, too-close ties to the military or its motivation to have psychologists play a central role in “enhancing” interrogations.

Along with colleagues, we personally spent years working to expose and reverse those transgressions. Throughout, the APA’s leaders adhered to the CIA’s informal motto: admit nothing, deny everything, make counter-accusations. After one of us (Arrigo) went public with details from her role as one of the token civilians on the 2005 task force, she was targeted with character assassination.

Can the APA regain its legitimacy? Those known to have colluded, covered up or ignored the wrongdoing cannot remain in positions of leadership. Governance policies must become more transparent and democratic. Old ethics complaints may need to be reexamined. Ultimately, a federal investigation may be necessary for adequate APA reform.


And the APA’s ethics code — especially as it pertains to national security settings — needs an urgent overhaul. For many reasons, it will not be as simple as just cutting ties with the Pentagon, not least because dedicated psychologists provide personnel and training services to the Department of Defense and critical care to our country’s soldiers, veterans and their families.

But substantial areas of military and intelligence work are at odds with psychologists’ commitment to do no harm. Our profession has yet to address profound ethical challenges posed by national security operations and research in which the intent is to cause injury, or where the targets of intervention have not consented, or where actions are beyond the reach of oversight by outside ethics panels. Without imposing ethical constraints in these contexts, psychologists risk further loss of public trust and the erosion of psychological science.

Psychology as a profession should not seek unbridled growth. That view is grandiose and misguided. The effective bounds of our professional ethics and expertise must limit our horizons. After the 9/11 attacks, the APA could have used its knowledge, reputation and influence to promote alternatives to the tragic choices our government made. Instead, it lost its way to war entrepreneurs, careerists and yea-sayers.

Roy Eidelson is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility and a member of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. Jean Maria Arrigo established the APA PENS Debate Collection at the University of Colorado Archives at Boulder and the Intelligence Ethics Collection at Hoover Institution Archives. She is a representative to the APA Council.

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