After years of lying to its members, the public, and other professionals, the American Psychological Association (APA) finds itself in the awkward position of being a professional organization that no longer has a moral or ethical leg to stand on.
According to a new report by independent investigator David Hoffman, not only did individual APA members lie and cover up their extensive involvement with post-9/11 torture. But on behalf of these members, the entire APA organizational structure colluded to keep these lies going.
And not just a decade or more ago. No, the lies and justifications for the lies continued right up until last year. After a book critical of APA’s stance on torture was published last year (Risen, 2014), did the APA suggest the book had merit? Nope, instead the APA kept making excuses, discrediting the author and the book saying it was “largely based on innuendo and one-sided reporting” and “a thorough review of these public materials and our standing policies will clearly demonstrate that APA will not tolerate psychologist participation in torture.”
Here’s the Guardian’s take:
For more than a decade, the American Psychological Association (APA) has maintained that a strict code of ethics prohibits its more than 130,000 members to aid in the torture of detainees while simultaneously permitting involvement in military and intelligence interrogations. The group has rejected media reporting on psychologists’ complicity in torture; suppressed internal dissent from anti-torture doctors; cleared members of wrongdoing; and portrayed itself as a consistent ally against abuse.
Now, a voluminous independent review conducted by a former assistant US attorney, David Hoffman, undermines the APA’s denials in full — and vindicates the dissenters.
The problem started first with a relaxing of ethics by the APA in 2002, and then with an APA Presidential Task Force’s report in 2005, which stated in part:
It is consistent with the APA Code of Ethics for psychologists to serve in consultative roles to interrogation- or information-gathering processes for national security-related purposes. While engaging in such consultative and advisory roles entails a delicate balance of ethical considerations, doing so puts psychologists in a unique position to assist in ensuring that such processes are safe and ethical for all participants.
I’m not sure how anyone at the APA ever thought such a statement was in any way keeping with the role of psychologists. Or that a task force where 6 of the 10 members had connections to the defense or intelligence communities would be unbiased and objective. It took the APA over 8 years to rescind this report and completely renounce psychologists’ role in torture interrogations! All the while, APA’s leadership, press office, and even its members, were made to look foolish, reporting the same denials, year after year.
At the center of the controversy was Stephen Behnke, the APA’s ethics chief — you know, the same guy responsible for holding psychologists to the ethical standards of the organization. Apparently nobody ever bothered holding this guy to any ethical standards:
A University of Michigan-pedigreed psychologist, Behnke has held his position within the APA since 2000, and, according to sources, used it to stifle dissent. Hoffman’s report found Behnke ghostwrote statements opposing member motions to rebuke torture; was involved in voter irregularity on motion passings; spiked ethics complaints; and took other actions to suppress complaints.
After Psychiatric Times published an article critical of the APA’s stand on torture in 2008, Behnke penned this wordy defense of the APA’s position.
And nobody at the APA apparently realized a good house cleaning was needed, until Hoffman’s report was leaked yesterday. Even though, for years, independent psychologists and other members of the APA have questioned this behavior. Mary Pipher returned her Presidential Citation over the matter. (We covered this issue back in 2008, and I said I too was confused by APA’s unclear and bureaucratic response.)
It’s also not at all clear whether the policy and procedural changes recommended by the APA would prevent a future occurrence of this kind of collusion. Nothing quite as effective as closing the barn door after the horse has run away. And the horse didn’t run away yesterday — he ran away years ago.
My Membership in the APA
While I’ve enjoyed the collegiality of having other like-minded psychologists to turn to over the years of maintaining my APA membership, this report has made it clear that the APA in its current form is an organization that has lost the plot.
I feel that it is shameful that I’m a member of an organization that has stifled and dismissed dissent, while covering up its own unethical practices. If the APA were a professional of its own organization, it would have kicked itself out years ago for its unethical behavior and lies.
In short, my APA membership is actually a liability now. I refuse to be a member in any organization that has spent so much time, effort and focus on defending its unethical practices than in doing much of anything to help my profession. I can no longer trust it to act responsibly and ethically, nor can I any longer trust anything the APA tells me (or the public).
That’s why I’m resigning my APA membership.
Update: Upon further consideration, I’m holding off on resigning at this time. I want to see what the final outcome of the APA’s response is to the Hoffman Report within the next few months. If they make core changes to their leadership and governance structures to prevent an incident like this from occurring in the future, I may retain my membership.
For further reading…
Special Section: The Hoffman Report
Our full coverage special section delving into the details of the report. Stay tuned to this section, as we continue publishing new articles everyday throughout the week on the report and its shocking findings.
The Hoffman Report: Independent Review Relating to APA Ethics Guidelines, National Security Interrogations, and Torture (PDF)
The New York Times: Psychologists Shielded U.S. Torture Program, Report Finds