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Outrage of the Month: Leading Professional Psychologists Organization Colluded With Defense Department, Facilitated Participation in Torture

Health Letter, August 2015

By Michael Carome, M.D.


If you’re not outraged,
you’re not paying attention!

Read what Public Citizen has to say about the biggest blunders and outrageous offenses in the world of public health, published monthly in Health Letter.

In a scathing report released July 10, an investigative team commissioned by the American Psychological Association (APA) — the nation’s leading professional society for psychologists — found that in 2005 and for several years thereafter, senior APA officials colluded with officials at the Department of Defense (DOD) in issuing and defending loose “ethics” guidelines. These guidelines gave the green light to military psychologists to participate in harsh and abusive interrogations of detainees held at the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and other U.S. government-operated facilities.[1]

The highly controversial ethics guidelines dictated whether and under what circumstances psychologists who were APA members could participate in interrogations of detainees held by the DOD, the CIA and other government entities. The 542-page report examining their creation and subsequent defense by the APA was the culmination of a nearly eight-month investigation by a team of seven attorneys from a Chicago-based law firm.

Among the major conclusions of the investigative team were the following:

  • Senior APA officials — principally then-ethics director Stephen Behnke, as well as then-president Ron Levant, and then-president-elect Gerald Koocher — plotted with key DOD officials to have the APA issue loose ethical guidelines that allowed psychologists to participate in detainee interrogations and that did not “constrain DoD in any greater fashion than existing DoD interrogation guidelines.”
  • The principal motive for the APA’s actions in issuing the 2005 guidelines was “to align APA and curry favor with DoD.” Driving this motivation was the fact that the DOD “is one of the largest employers of psychologists and provides many millions of dollars in grants or contracts for psychologists around the country.”
  • In the three years following the adoption of the 2005 guidelines, APA officials engaged in secret collaborations with DOD officials to defeat efforts by the APA’s legislative council “to introduce and pass resolutions that would have definitively prohibited psychologists from participating in interrogations at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. detention centers abroad.”
  • In colluding with DOD officials, APA officials knew that detainees likely had been subjected to abusive interrogation techniques and that without strict ethical constraints, there was substantial likelihood that such abusive techniques would continue. APA officials also displayed “substantial indifference to the actual facts regarding the potential for ongoing abusive interrogations techniques.”

Psychologists, like other health care professionals, have an ethical obligation to use their knowledge, training and expertise to relieve suffering and to not inflict harm on others. By creating a policy allowing psychologists to participate in the harsh and abusive interrogation of detainees in order to satisfy the desires of the DOD, senior APA officials grossly violated this central ethical tenet. Notably, the investigative team “found little evidence of analyses or discussions about the best or right ethical position to take in light of the nature of the profession and the special skill that psychologists possess regarding how our minds and emotions work—a special skill that presumably allows psychologists to be especially good at both healing and harming.”

The independent report is filled with extraordinary revelations highlighting the level of corruption, including rampant conflicts of interest, that tainted the APA process for creating and defending the 2005 guidelines. Examples of that corruption include:

  • Six of the nine voting members of an APA task force established to write the guidelines were psychologists who were either military officers or contractors working for the DOD.
  • The APA’s then-ethics director led the behind-the-scenes coordination with DOD officials in drafting the APA’s guidelines, and his main partner within the DOD throughout this effort was Morgan Banks, the chief of psychological operations in the U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
  • In the three years following the APA’s adoption of the 2005 guidelines, the APA ethics director “regularly sought and received pre-clearance from [the DOD’s Banks] … before determining what APA’s position should be, what its public statements should say, and what strategy to pursue on this issue.”
  • Another DOD official who was deeply involved in the APA-DOD collusion was Debra Dunivin, the lead psychologist supporting interrogation operations at Guantanamo Bay at the time the APA guidelines were being developed. Dunivin also had “worked closely with Banks on the issue of psychologist involvement in interrogations.” Also, among the key APA officials who participated in the process of drafting the 2005 ethics guidelines was Russ Newman, “the powerful head of the APA Practice Directorate, the most influential unit within APA headquarters.” Shockingly, Newman was Dunivin’s husband. This obvious conflict of interest is even more egregious considering Dunivin “was highly interested in the outcome of this policy decision by APA and was one of the DoD psychologists who would be most affected, positively or negatively, by the ethical position about which APA was supposed to be deliberating.”

On the day the independent report was released, the APA issued an apology for the “‘deeply disturbing’ findings and organizational failures,” and announced that the APA Board of Directors had recommended that the organization’s governing legislative body adopt a policy prohibiting psychologists from participating in the interrogation of people held in custody by military or intelligence.[2]

In addition, the APA has purged its leadership of individuals who played various roles in the development or defense of the 2005 guidelines: Its CEO, deputy CEO, ethics director and communications director have either resigned, retired or been forced out.[3],[4]

These recent actions by the APA are appropriate first steps to address the egregious ethical lapses that occurred during the creation and implementation of the 2005 ethics guidelines. Despite these actions, the APA’s collusion with the DOD in issuing so-called ethics guidelines that allowed psychologists to participate in the torture of detainees held in DOD and CIA facilities has left an indelible stain on the organization’s reputation. The actions by the APA provided an aura of legitimacy to activities that are now widely recognized as having constituted torture. Such shameful conduct must never be repeated by the APA or any other professional organization representing health care providers.


[1] Hoffman DH, Carter DJ, Viglucci Lopez CR, et al. Report to the Special Committee of the Board of Directors of the American Psychological Association: Independent Review Relating to APA Ethics Guidelines, National Security Interrogations, and Torture. July 2, 2015. http://www.apa.org/independent-review/APA-FINAL-Report-7.2.15.pdf. Accessed July 15, 2015.

[2] American Psychological Association. Press release and recommended actions: Independent review cites collusion among APA individuals and Defense Department officials in policy on interrogation techniques. July 10, 2015. http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2015/07/independent-review-release.aspx. Accessed July 15, 2015.

[3] American Psychological Association. APA announces retirements and resignation of senior leaders. July 14, 2015. http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2015/07/retirements-resignation.aspx. Accessed July 15, 2015.

[4] Risen J. 3 leave jobs over psychologists’ involvement in terrorism interrogations. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/15/us/politics/3-leave-jobs-over-psychologists-involvement-in-bush-era-interrogations.html?ref=health. Accessed July 15, 2015.