American Psychological Association's New Torture Policy is UnenforceableIn a resolution that only people who love the intricacies of governance could appreciate, the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Council of Representatives voted on August 7 to institute a new policy for the organization. Namely, that APA psychologist members can no longer engage in enhanced interrogation techniques, or in any way be a part of them as a consultant or otherwise. (The new policy is the result of the Council of Representatives Resolution 23B (PDF).)

And while it made for some great headlines in the newspapers and on countless professional mailing lists, one important fact flew under the radar — the new policy is completely, 100 percent unenforceable. Today, no psychologist can be removed from the APA for violating this policy.

The APA governs its members through its Ethics Code, a set of statements about what is and what is not acceptable behavior for psychologists. If a complaint is filed against an APA member, the only way to do so is through the Ethics Office. And the only thing an APA member is held to is what’s found in the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct.

The last time the code was updated was more than 5 years ago, in 2010.

When the APA membership spoke out — quite vocally and firmly — about the issue of torture way back in 2008, members garnered enough signatures via petition to get a significant resolution passed. As the independent investigation into APA’s handling of torture interrogation — the Hoffman Report — makes clear, certain people within the APA worked hard to minimize the impact of that petition.1

Seven years after that 2008 resolution passed, there have been no changes reflecting APA members’ will regarding this issue in the Ethics Code.

The APA 2015 Resolution 23B vote

So is the new Resolution 23B any different? Will it have the force of “law,” in the sense that a member could be brought up on ethics violations for violating this new APA policy?

When questioned about this issue, the APA’s Associate General Counsel Jesse Raben wrote in an August 18, 2015 email to Ken Pope:

A policy passed by [the APA’s Council of Representatives (CoR)] does not become part of the Ethics Code, no matter what the policy says. Only the Ethics Committee can make changes to the Ethics code under the Bylaws and Rules.

So when CoR acts to pass a policy that says that psychologists cannot do X, there is no enforcement mechanism through the Ethics Committee and an enforcement mechanism cannot be built in to it unilaterally, as this violates the bylaws.

With regards to 23B (and therefore with the 2008 resolution) while this new Council resolution invokes Ethical Principle A to “take care to do no harm,” it does not amend the Ethics Code and is not enforceable as a result [emphasis added]. However, Council’s implementation plan for the new policy requests that the Ethics Committee consider a course of action to render the prohibition against national security interrogations enforceable under the Ethics Code.

The bottom line: Until the Ethics Committee actually puts this new policy into the Ethics Code, no APA member can be brought in violation of the new policy. This makes it as unenforceable as the original 2008 resolution.

If the 2008 petition is any indication of the kind of lumbering inaction we can expect, I’m not holding my breath waiting to see Resolution 23B making it into the official APA Ethics Code anytime soon. It could be years — or even never — to see the policy make it into something enforceable by the APA.

It’s a mistake to believe that by passing Resolution 23B, the APA is now compliant with international law and the ethics of other professional organizations around the world. Until the Ethics Code is actually changed, the organization remains tainted by its stance on torture.

 

9/8/2015 Update: The Past President and President-Elect of the APA replied to this blog post, but oddly chose not to post their reply here. We’ve posted their reply here and a response from Trudy Bond. We’ve not heard back from them regarding the points Dr. Bond has raised.

 

Footnotes:

  1. Only one person was fired as a result of the Hoffman report’s findings; others involved in the back-room behaviors identified in the Hoffman report remain happily employed by the APA. []