In 2005, the American Psychological Association formed a task force to address the role of psychologists in the interrogation of Central Intelligence Agency and Department of Defense detainees. The task force was formed at the request of psychologists consulting with both entities and their supervisors to address the ethics of psychologist involvement in shaping interrogation practices. The task force concluded that psychologist participation was allowed in order to ensure that the process was “safe, legal, ethical, and effective.” The Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) report drew immediate objection from within the organization and triggered a member-initiated movement to rescind the findings. Members alleged that those involved in the creation of the PENS report had conflicts of interest and that the task force was heavily weighted with psychologists who were already consulting with national security organizations.

These concerns were substantiated in a book entitled Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) by New York Times reporter James Risen. In the spirit of the Watergate investigation, Risen “followed the money” as it flowed from the U.S. government to national security and defense agencies, and into the pockets of select psychologists who took active roles in harsh interrogation techniques.

Armed with this new evidence, the American Psychological Association initiated an independent investigation of the association’s role in November 2014. The results of that investigation were published recently in a 542-page report synopsized by James Risen in the New York Times. Also known as the Hoffman report, it confirmed numerous conflicts of interest between psychologists involved in the 2005 revision of the ethics guidelines, and both the C.I.A. and the D.O.D. The full implications of the Hoffman report remain to be seen, but the history and process of this problem are informative.

Both the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association have position statements against participation in interrogation and torture. In 2006, the American Psychiatric Association issued a position statement in which it held that “that psychiatrists should not participate in, or otherwise assist or facilitate, the commission of torture of any person.” The American Medical Association similarly codified a prohibition against participation in interrogation in its ethical guidelines : “Physicians must oppose and must not participate in torture for any reason. Participation in torture includes, but is not limited to, providing or withholding any services, substances, or knowledge to facilitate the practice of torture. Physicians must not be present when torture is used or threatened.” Members who become aware of the practices are called upon to report them and to adhere to professional ethical standards.

But before psychiatry congratulates itself for its moral fortitude, we would do well to remember that the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of University Programs awarded $39 million to 12 academic institutions in 2011, to create “centers of excellence” related to cybersecurity, counterintelligence measures, disaster preparedness, prevention of terrorism, and research into the sociologic and psychological causes of radicalization. All mental health professionals should ensure that any research-related national security issues abide by international, ethical, and humanitarian standards, and should refrain from areas of investigation that target vulnerable individuals or groups.

The Hoffman report reminds us that everything that is legal is not necessarily ethical. It highlights the necessity of bright line standards over issues related to essential human rights and well-being. For these concerns, we should value internal challenge and dissent, and we must continually ask ourselves if we are on the right path. We must also create and protect avenues for our members who discover and report violations, even if this protection is given to the detriment of our organization. The purpose of a professional organization is to ensure the quality and integrity of its members and to protect the public from those members who fall short in either domain. As professionals, we are each responsible for ensuring that our organization carries out these duties.

Dr. Hanson is a forensic psychiatrist and coauthor of Shrink Rap: Three Psychiatrists Explain Their Work. The opinions expressed are those of the author only, and do not represent those of any of Dr. Hanson’s employers or consultees, including the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene or the Maryland Division of Correction.


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