Last week the psychology profession was hit by its biggest scandal ever.
A system of deception, subversion and betrayal in the heart of the American Psychologists Association (APA) was revealed in a devastating report by an independent external review. In short it concludes that the ethical standards of APA were tailor made for psychologist’s continuous participation in torture in the war against terror.
The revelations are a blow to the whole profession of psychologists in the world, and it destroys the legitimacy and credibility of APA.
Years of criticism
The report came after years of criticism against the APA for its lack of clarity in the organizations policy on psychologist’s participation in the “war against terror”. All internal reviews up to now have cleared the APA for any wrongdoing. Finally, they were forced into an external independent review after new and serious allegations in a book that came out last year.
The newly released Hoffmann report tell tales of the secret life of top officials in APA that are worse than even the harshest critics could have imagined.
Reading it makes me ashamed, it makes me unwell and almost speechless. The revelations of secret collaborations, deception and subversion to “design” the will of the members and governing structure of APA in a way that made it possible to continue taking part in the torture program of president George Bush is like reading a spy novel. But unfortunately this story is true. And it is grotesque.
The report tells shocking facts about how top officials were colluding with the CIA and Department of Defense (DoD) in preserving unethical detention and interrogation practices – practices that involved psychologists in torture and abuse.
Key people who gave the APAs governance structure advice and were preparing their decisions were on the payroll of DoD and CIA, and they secretly colluded to mislead the organization and its members.
Ethics tailor made for torture
The report says these people were deeply involved with DoD and CIA to change the ethical standards “based on strategy and PR, not ethics analysis”. And it goes on to conclude that the ethical standards, and the APAs attempts to develop new policies were in fact “tailor made” to be “as closely aligned as possible with DoD policies, guidelines, practices, or preferences, as articulated to APA by these DoD officials”.
The ethics office of APA “prioritized the protection of psychologists — even those who might have engaged in unethical behavior — above the protection of the public”. And the association’s ethics director, Dr. Stephen Behnke, coordinated the group’s public policy statements on interrogations with a top military psychologist. He then received a Pentagon contract to help train interrogators, without the knowledge of the association’s board.
All of a sudden it is much easier to understand why the APA have never really got to the point where they were able to make a clear policy on this matter that satisfied the critics.
Early Nordic concerns
As early as 2008 the Nordic psychological associations sent a joint letter to the APA raising concerns about their policy on psychologist’s participation in Guantanamo and other prisons set up in the “war on terror”. In the answer to the letter from the then president Alan E. Kazdin, he assures us that APA is doing everything they can to make sure that their policy is in line with human rights and ethical standards. But the problem was of course that the architect behind these decisions was Dr. Benhke, who was holding the pen for CIA and DoD.
I really have no doubt that the presidents and many other officials in APA have felt that they were doing all they could to address the critics to their policy on the involvement of psychologists in military interrogations. I know very well that you must rely on your advisers to give you the basis for decisions.
Still APAs leaders have never taken a clear stand against psychologists working in the military in prisons like Guantanamo. In 2008 I headed the Norwegian Psychological Associations delegation in a meeting with president of APA Dr. Kazdin in Berlin, to discuss our letter to APA. We raised concerns on several human rights issues and were critical to the handling of APA on these matters. The president of APAs response was to say “we save life’s by being in these prisons” and he was clear that there was a war on, in which psychologists should play a role to make USA and the world safer. Also defending this position in this meeting was Dr. Stephen Benhke. Later initiatives like this have been met by similar response, no matter how severe the critics have been.
APAs defence of policy
So the APAs leadership have all along been unable to say clearly that psychologists should not work for the military in a prison camp that is set up to systematically violate basic human rights, and where torture was part of the daily routine. As late as last year I debated this with Dr. Behnke during a screening of the film Doctors on the dark side in the Nederland’s.
To almost everyone outside of the APA it has been very hard to understand how the organization could conclude so different on such a crucial question. The Hoffmann report is also clear on this, saying:
“The profession of psychology must also define for itself whether it is ethical and legitimate for psychologists to use their special skill to intentionally inflict psychological or physical harm on individuals.”
The fact that the APA leadership have been deceived by their own does not exclude them from responsibility. That is why it is necessary with a serious re-booting for APA that will take some time. They have already started this by issuing an apology to their members and to the world saying:
“We sincerely apologize for the actions, policies and lack of independence from governmental influence detailed in the report. Our members, our organization, our profession, and the public expected and deserved better.”
“As a result of the report, there will be significant changes in the organization, in terms of both policies and procedures. Dr. Stephen Behnke is no longer an employee of APA as a result of the findings in the Hoffman report, and other personnel actions are under consideration.”
This is a necessary start of a process that must secure that nothing like this ever happens again.
The APA also owe a special apology to the people who has been their critics for so many years, and who has been saying something was wrong ever since the war on terror started. Several of these people have been accused by APA of being anti-American, unpatriotic, being communists, collaborators with terrorists, and has been ridiculed by the very people who has now been reveled as the spiders in the secret web of deception.
When APA now moves forward from this I do expect that the people responsible will be held accountable. Their actions have made it possible to develop and continue a program of torture. It would be unacceptable if this did not lead to prosecution.
And as we as a profession tries to move forward from this I think the organization which we have most to thank for never giving up in the search for answers, Psychologists for Social Responsibility, summarizes it well:
“It is therefore time for all of us in this profession to embrace and mobilize around a profound course correction that can help to reclaim and reinvigorate our profession. Reflecting on the damage that has been done, especially to the victims of torture and abuse, psychologists all over the world should reject the status quo as untenable and commit to a progressive vision for psychology, one that prizes human rights and human dignity.”
Lets make a better future together.