Do No Harm: The American Psychological Association wavers on its detainee policy

The American Psychological Association is wavering on a year-old policy designed to prevent psychologists from working with military or national security detainees.

Meeting in Denver for its annual convention, the nation’s largest professional association of psychologists this week considered and then postponed a decision on whether to allow members of the profession back to work at Guantanamo Bay, other military detention centers and CIA sites.

After a vote planned for Wednesday and then today, the group’s 173-member governing council tabled the discussion until February.

The debate stems from psychologists’ controversial role assisting the U.S. military and intelligence agencies in so-called “enhanced interrogation” efforts during George W. Bush’s administration. The post-9/11 program tried to squeeze information out of terror suspects detained at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Guantánamo in Cuba and other sites by waterboarding, isolation and sleep deprivation – methods that international law deems to be torture. Bush’s justice officials were able to legally justify the interrogations on grounds that doctors’ mere presence assured that the tactics were safe.

Psychologists’ role legally enabling the harsh interrogations gave a black eye to a profession that’s supposed to “do no harm.” Critics argued that psychologists can’t ethically work with detainees, even in providing basic mental health care, because the Pentagon and CIA are the doctors’ real clients, not the individuals being questioned.

Years after the Obama administration ended harsh interrogations, the torture controversy dealt another blow to the profession last summer with the release of a scathing independent study commissioned by the APA. The review, known as the Hoffman Report, found that the APA had long colluded with the Defense Department to ensure that the association’s policies wouldn’t hinder psychologists’ participation in “enhanced interrogation” programs.

The report led many APA members to quit the group in disgust.

Reformers tried to repair APA’s reputation by passing strict new policies at the group’s annual conference in Toronto last summer. The new rules bar psychologists from even tangential involvement in national security interrogations, including the type of non-coercive interrogations the Obama administration now carries out against terror suspects. They also ban psychologists from working with detainees at Guantánamo and other detention facilities that the United Nations says violate international human rights.

Many states include APA standards among their licensing requirements. Psychologists who break the group’s rules risk not only ethics complaints, but also losing their licenses. That’s why, shortly after the new rules went into place last year, the Pentagon yanked from Guantanamo its team of psychologists who worked with detainees.

Reformers had hoped last summer’s ban would put the torture controversy behind their profession. It came as a surprise to see a proposed policy reversal on the governing council’s agenda this week.

“The people proposing this bill were very smart and submitted it almost without anybody knowing it. It’s hard to believe, but this is happening without the rank and file membership’s awareness,” Dan Aalbers, who teaches psychology at Sierra Nevada College and helped spearhead the reform effort.

The proposed resolution comes at the indirect urging of the Pentagon, which last winter asked the APA to reconsider its new policies. The Defense Department has argued against what it calls “blanket prohibitions” on military psychologists. It and other critics say the new rules are so broadly written that they’ll make it tough for psychologists to work in almost any national security setting.

“I think last year we went a little bit too far,” said Larry James, a psych-ops expert who served as Guantanamo’s chief psychologist in 2003 and as Abu Ghraib‘s chief psychologist in 2004.

“I can’t fathom withholding care, regardless of a setting that someone is in,” James added. “Any psychologist should be able to provide care to those who are in need.”

Jeff Younggren, a California psychologist who also has ties to the Pentagon, asserted that, “Every military psychologist is not compromised by the chain of command.”

“Folks, they’re taking fire. They’re taking risks for us. We have kind of abandoned them,”  he said.

Former APA president Ron Lavant was named by the Hoffman Report as one of the chief colluders with the feds. He led the group in 2005 – the year it allowed psychologists to participate in national security interrogations as long as those interrogations were deemed legal under U.S. law. This year, he’s among the most vocal critics of the ban.

“I would urge you to consider the importance of making psychological services to the most vulnerable of people in these settings – the detainees,” he told the governing council.

Reformers aren’t against providing health care services to detainees, as critics like Lavant suggest. Rather, they argue, care should be provided by independent psychologists – not by those working for the detainees’ captors in the military and CIA. They point to records showing obvious signs that detainees had PTSD, but that military psychologists denied it. And they worry that the resolution being proposed this week is a Trojan horse, a ruse to erode the APA’s ban against professional involvement, however indirect, in torture.

“The APA has always had, from its founding, very close ties to the military and to some degree the intelligence community. For many in the leadership, it just seemed natural to make the military happy. Most weren’t really looking or thinking about the implications of what they were doing. It’s that they wanted to preserve their relationships with the powerful institutions,” said Stephen Sold, who runs the Social Justice and Human Rights Project at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis.  “And they still do.”

A few APA council members  questioned whether this week’s resolution is being proposed for the sake of detainees, to preserve military psychologists’ jobs, or to help the Defense Department keep its options open on how it deals with terror suspects in the future.

As for the former APA presidents and officials who are working to undo the new policies, reformers see their efforts as an attempt to clear their reputations and rewrite an uncomfortable chapter in the APA’s history.

“I think there has been a very well coordinated campaign, a deceptive one, involving many of the people named in the Hoffman Report as colluding with officials, to deny that the collusion occurred, to change the story,” Soldz said. “This is about revising history. It’s not really about the 70-some people left at Guantanamo.”

Psychologists being psychologists, some framed this week’s debate as “continuing the trauma of APA.”

“It’s not allowing APA to heal and move forward,” Aalbers said. “That’s what psychologists want to do. That’s what the public wants to do. “

Photo of APA reformers Dan Aalbers, left, and Stephen Sold, right, by Susan Greene.


  1. This seems like a no-brainer to me. If we expect other countries to abide by the UN International Human Rights rules, then we must abide by them ourselves. Pentagon has no business trying to dictate rules and ethics to the APA.

  2. I am writing to take issue with some assertions in your article “Do No Harm: The American Psychological Association wavers on its detainee policy” (Aug. 4). The resolution that was under consideration by our Council of Representatives would not have weakened the ban included in APA’s 2015 resolution prohibiting psychologists from participating in national security interrogations. Its aim was to amend current APA policy by allowing military psychologists to provide mental health services to detainees at sites that would be considered unlawful according to our 2015 policy. It would not have altered the 2015 resolution language stating that psychologists “shall not conduct, supervise, be in the presence of, or otherwise assist any national security interrogations for any military or intelligence entities, including private contractors working on their behalf, nor advise on conditions of confinement insofar as these might facilitate such an interrogation.”

    Furthermore, there was no secrecy surrounding the inclusion of this detainee treatment provision in the resolution that APA’s Council of Representatives considered. The item went through our standard governance review process and was considered by key governance groups prior to being forwarded to the council with their assessments and recommendations.

    Additionally, your characterization of the Hoffman report’s conclusions was not accurate. The Hoffman report states that the intent of the individuals involved was to provide APA ethical guidance for psychologists related to national security interrogations that was no more restrictive than that of the Department of Defense. In other words, Mr. Hoffman did not find any attempt to “ensure” – your word – psychologists’ participation in enhanced interrogations. It also bears mentioning that APA has had a policy prohibiting psychologist involvement in torture since 1986, and has expanded and amplified that policy many times since.

    Contrary to your article, the Pentagon did not ask APA to reconsider its policy passed in 2015. I urge you to read the letter we received from Brad Carson in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense; he indicated that DoD was reviewing its policies in light of the APA resolution and offered to “engage with the APA on its further work on this subject.”

    Finally, APA would appreciate your making a correction regarding the errors noted above. We would also appreciate the opportunity to talk to your reporters before they publish stories about our association. The individuals quoted in this piece were speaking for themselves only and not for the association.

    Sincerely yours,

    Cynthia D. Belar, Ph.D.
    Interim Chief Executive Officer
    (Posted on her behalf by Jim Sliwa, APA Director of Public Affairs)

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