Open Letter in Response to the American Psychological Association Board

Today a number of psychological, health, and human rights organizations released the following statement criticizing the American Psychological Association (APA) Board of Directors failure to accept responsibility for the APA’s role in facilitating psychologists’ participation in abusive national security interrogations. The coalition statement responds to a June 18 open letter from the APA Board acknowledging for the first time that psychologists have engaged in torture, but making no reference to the APA Board’s own apparently unanimous support extending over several years for psychologists’ right to participate in detainee interrogations.

The APA letter follows years of reports that psychologists designed, helped conduct, disseminated, and legitimated the use of abusive interrogation techniques carried out under the Bush administration. While other health professional organizations adopted policies prohibiting their members participation in interrogations at Guantanamo, CIA “black sites,” and elsewhere, the APA stood alone in claiming, against evidence, that psychologists’ presence at the detention sites was necessary “to protect” detainees. In fact, the APA went further, allowing psychologists involved in these very interrogations to design APA ethical policy on interrogations.

Although recent revelations, including a Senate Armed Services Report, have debunked the claim that psychologists were preventing torture, the APA leadership still refuses to acknowledge the extent of the harm psychologists have done. Nor does it propose adequate steps to address past abuses by psychologists or to prevent psychologists from contributing to future abuse. The organizations’ statement ‘calls for the APA to take five immediate steps to begin this process of corrective action. Among these steps are a call for an independent body to pursue accountability for psychologists found to be involved in torture or abusive interrogation practices, and further, for an independent investigation of possible collusion between the APA and the military/intelligence establishment that may have contributed to the APA’s polices in this area.


June 29. 2009

Stephen Soldz

Open Letter in Response to
the American Psychological Association Board

On June 18, 2009, the American Psychological Association [APA] Board issued an Open Letter on the subject of psychologists’ involvement in abusive national security interrogations. The letter is among the first formal acknowledgements from APA leadership that psychologists were involved in torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. We welcome this progress.

Similarly, the letter acknowledges APA’s member-initiated referendum prohibiting psychologist participation in detention centers that are in violation of international law and overturning APA Council’s repeated refusals to do so. This is an improvement over very recent messages from APA officials that characterized press descriptions of APA policy as supporting psychologist participation in such interrogations as “fair and balanced.”

Nevertheless, the letter is profoundly disappointing. It continues the long tradition of APA leaders minimizing the extent of psychologists’ involvement in state-sanctioned abuse as well as APA’s own defense of such involvement. The authors speak as though the information about psychologist’s involvement in torture is fresh news even though it has been available for a long time. Even now, the Board relies on the Bush Administration tactic, employed in the Abu Ghraib debacle, of blaming the abuse on a “few bad apples.” This minimization of the greatest ethical crisis in our profession’s history by those who claim to lead the profession is unacceptable. Similarly the APA Board continues to take no responsibility for its own grievous mismanagement of this issue. Instead, the tone of the letter suggests we should all come together and “reflect and learn,” because this has been difficult for all of us, collectively. The Board also presumes the authority to continue to speak for psychologists in the future with neither redress nor evidence of remediation for what they have done:

This has been a painful time for the association and one that offers an opportunity to reflect and learn from our experiences over the last five years. APA will continue to speak forcefully in further communicating our policies against torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment to our members, the Obama administration, Congress, and the general public. [Board letter, June 18, 2009.]

Any meaningful approach to this issue must start by acknowledging the fact that psychologists were absolutely integral to our government’s systematic program of torture. When the Bush administration decided to engage in torture, they turned to psychologists from the military’s SERE [Survival, Evasion, resistance, and Escape] program for help in designing and implementing the torture tactics. This fact was first reported in 2005, within days of the release of the APA’s PENS [Psychological Ethics and National Security] report and was officially acknowledged by the Defense Department in its Inspector General’s Report, declassified in May 2007. Other psychologists monitored torture to calibrate how much abuse a detainee could tolerate without dying. Nonetheless, APA leaders continued, and still continue, to pretend that psychologists’ participation in abuse was the behavior of rogue members of the profession.

Similarly, the APA Board still refuses to acknowledge the evidence of apparent collusion between APA officials and the national security apparatus in providing ethical cover for psychologists’ participation in detainee abuse. This collusion was most notable in the creation of the military-dominated PENS task force. Only a policy that comes to terms with this APA collusion can begin to reduce the furor among APA members, psychologists, and the general public.

APA leadership has much work ahead to begin to repair the harm they have caused to the profession, the country, former and current detainees and their families. At a minimum the APA leadership should do the following:

1. Fully implement the 2008 referendum as an enforceable section of the APA Code of Ethics. This entails a public announcement that APA policy and ethical standards oppose the service of psychologists in detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, Bagram Air Base, CIA secret prisons, or in the rendition program.

2. Annul the June 2005 PENS Report due to the severe and multiple conflicts of interest involved in its production.

3. Bring in an independent body of investigative attorneys to pursue accountability for psychologists who participated in or otherwise contributed to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. APA should also: (a) clarify the status of open ethics cases and (b) remove the statute of limitations for violations involving torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, so as to allow time for information on classified activities to become public.

4. Develop a clear and rapid timetable to remove Sections 1.02 and 1.03 [the “Nuremberg defense” of following orders] from the APA Code of Ethics. [We note that the APA Ethics Committee has stated that they will not accept a defense of following orders to complaints regarding torture; this statement is a welcome improvement but it is clearly inadequate as it is not necessarily binding on future committees nor does it cover abuses falling under the category of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment.] Revoke the equally problematic Section 8.05 of the Code, which dispenses with informed consent “where otherwise permitted by law or federal or institutional regulations,” and Section 8.07, which sets an unacceptably high threshold of “severe emotional distress” for not using deception in the ethics of research design.

5. Retain an independent investigatory organization to study organizational behavior at APA. Due to potential conflicts of interest, independent human rights organizations should be enlisted to select this investigatory entity. The study should address, among other things, possible collusion in the PENS process and the 2003 APA-CIA-Rand conference on the Science of Deception, attended by the CIA’s apparent designers of their torture program [James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen] during which “enhanced interrogation” techniques were discussed. The study should explore how the APA governance system permits the accumulation of power in the hands of a very small number of individuals who are unresponsive to the general membership. It should also propose measures to return the APA to democratic principles, scientific integrity, and beneficence, including restructuring for greater transparency and the assimilation of diverse viewpoints.

These five steps will not remove the terrible stain on the reputation of American psychology. However, by taking these steps the APA leadership would make both symbolic and substantive progress toward accountability for psychologists’ contributions to detainee abuse and the APA’s failure to adequately respond to the public record. These actions would constitute an important step toward rehabilitating the Association and restoring the good name of the profession itself.

Signed by:

Coalition for an Ethical Psychology

Physicians for Human Rights

Psychologists for Social Responsibility

Center for Constitutional Rights

Bill of Rights Defense Committee

Network of Spiritual Progressives

National Lawyers Guild

Amnesty International USA

Program for Torture Victims, Los Angeles

American Friends Service Committee, Pacific Southwest Region

Physicians for Social Responsibility, Los Angeles

Massachusetts Campaign Against Torture (MACAT)

New York Campaign Against Torture (NYCAT)

Stephen Soldz is a psychoanalyst, psychologist, public health researcher, and faculty member at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. He maintains the Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice web page and the Psyche, Science, and Society blog. He is a founder of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology, one of the organizations leading the struggle to change American Psychological Association policy on participation in abusive interrogations. He is President of Psychologists for Social Responsibility and a consultant to Physicians for Human Rights. Read other articles by Stephen.

15 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on June 30th, 2009 at 10:41am #

    National Psychological experiments go on everyday here in the States. Just turn on your TV and turn to any channel and if that is not a psychological experiment I would like to know what is. The commercials to buy this or use this and if you don’t you are not a real person is that a psychological experiment. Glenn Beck, Hannity or Fox News in general is that a psychological experiment? Turn to c-span and watch the House or Senate and people who think like used car salesman but dress like new car salesman and talk nonsense is that not a psychological experiment. It’s almost like you can’t tell the truth because that could be thought of as a revolutionary act telling the truth. Amazing isn’t it.

  2. Don Hawkins said on June 30th, 2009 at 11:45am #

    Yes a grand National Psychological experiment is playing out right before your eyes and all done with something called stupidity. One big one is the climate change bill. If you turn to Fox News the climate change bill will hurt the little guy out there in America. Like Fox News cares about the little guy, remember you can’t tell the truth a revolutionary act. A secret the climate change bill is a joke on the human race as it does little to nothing to solve the problem. In the House you heard that climate change is a problem and we need to do something about it. A problem what it means is the end of the human race as we know it as a start. You never heard even once that we have ten years to level off CO 2 or we probably can’t slow it. Telling the truth is a revolutionary act. The other side said it will hurt the little guy and what they didn’t say was they have friends with lot’s of money and they have to do what there friends want or no more money and there friends are very concerned about there bottom line and enjoy the money and power and be damned to the human race. Telling the truth is a revolutionary act. On ABC the show they just did Earth 2100 showed very well what is to come and it isn’t pretty that is if we stay on this path and guess what we are staying on the same path. Telling the truth is a revolutionary act. During the show on ABC they would go to commercial and it was call call now then back to the end of the human race. In some way’s amazing to watch how this play’s out and very very sad to see this insanity. Telling the truth is a revolutionary act. I know what is the truth? Well if you watch the House or the Senate the news media you can be sure of one thing and that is you will not hear the truth the real truth and now a word from our sponsor who have the money and give some to us. Telling the truth is a revolutionary act. Seems to always’ come back to the money. The United States is broke in debt up to it’s eyeball’s and the fight now is to make sure the little bit left stay’s in the right hands and greedy little hands they are and be damned to the human race. Telling the truth is a revolutionary act.

  3. Melissa said on June 30th, 2009 at 4:45pm #

    I wonder if they’ll condemn their colleagues’ participation in advertising and other propaganda efforts . . . ? Seems unethical to me to sell their “expertise” to the detriment of public and political process.

  4. Stephen Soldz said on June 30th, 2009 at 4:52pm #

    Melissa, you raise a good question. Torture is just the tip of the iceberg with regard to abuses of psychology. We need to go much further in opening up a discusion of what uses are and are not appropriate.

  5. mary said on June 30th, 2009 at 11:18pm #

    Excellent Dr Soldz.

    Could I refer you to Jonathan Cook’s article on this site on the complicity of Israeli doctors in torture.

    Also I wish to mention Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith, a RAF psychiatrist who refused to return to Iraq, was court-martialled and imprisoned. A brave and honourable young man who stood up against the crimes that were being carried out in Iraq. Shame on Bush and Blair and their ilk and may their bloodied hands never become clean.

    He had served in Iraq on two previous occasions but probablly couldn’t stomach any more. I surmise that he had decided he could no longer participate in the methods employed to question suspects.

  6. Don Hawkins said on July 1st, 2009 at 2:37am #

    The other morning on something called Fox and Friends Glenn Beck was on the show and said this cap and trade bill is a tax on the American people and they seem to know more about Michael Jackson’s life than this bill. Well gee’s Glenn on your show don’t you ask people to buy your book or sign up for your new’s letter and join you in your fight against injustice and here is where I hear that laughter off in the distance again. So Glenn want’s people to listen to him and know the truth fair and balanced. Beck is right about cap and trade being the wrong way to go. I wonder what he might think about taxing carbon and taxing it hard and returning the money back to the people. Here’s where that fair and balanced part goes out the window. I sure hope Glenn is right about climate change being a hoax because if not tax’s are the least of our problems.

    What is it that does not compute here? Why does the public choose to subsidize fossil
    fuels, rather than taxing fossil fuels to make them cover their costs to society? I don’t think that
    the public actually voted on that one. It probably has something to do with all the alligator shoes
    in Washington. Those 2400 energy lobbyists in Washington are not well paid for nothing. You
    have three guesses as to who eventually pays the salary of these lobbyists, and the first two
    guesses don’t count.

    As a point of reference a fee equivalent to $1/gallon of gasoline ($115/ton CO2) would
    yield $670B in the United States (based on energy use data for 2007). That would provide a
    dividend of $3000/year to legal adult residents in the United States ($9000/year to a family with
    two or more children).
    A person reducing his carbon footprint more than average would gain economically, if
    the fee is returned 100 percent to the public on a per capita basis. With the present distributions
    of income and energy use, it is estimated that about 60 percent of the people would get a
    dividend exceeding their tax. So why would they not just spend their dividend on expensive
    fuel? Nobody wants to pay more taxes. They prefer to have the money for other things. As the
    price of fossil fuels continues to increase, people would conserve energy, choose more energy
    efficient vehicles, and choose non-fossil (untaxed) energies and products. James Hansen

    Oh Glenn what are your thoughts on this and why is it that it can’t even be considered wait don’t tell me it’s to simple it will work and money going back to the people is the wrong direction. Anybody that even brings this up needs a psychologist. I can hear it now, “when did you first start having these thoughts”? “Is it true that you people hug trees”? “Have you ever advocated the overthrow of the United States government”? “Do you watch the Glenn Beck show”? “Ok times up stay on your medication and come see me in two weeks”. “Oh I almost forgot here is how you go to my web site and did you buy my new book yet”? “Here’s a copy and do you like the snake on the cover”? “It’s only $19.95 just for you today”.

  7. take2la said on July 1st, 2009 at 9:18am #

    The APA has been nothing more than a lobby for the pharma industy for the last 30 years.

  8. Melissa said on July 1st, 2009 at 8:08pm #

    Resulting in a considerable amount of our population wandering around in a fuzzy-headed, drug-induced stupor. A new kind of happy slave is born . . .

  9. Jim Speer said on July 3rd, 2009 at 6:31am #

    It’s worth noting that the American Psychological Association is an uncomfortable amalgam of clinical psychologists, many of whom, in the conduct of their private practices, possess the mindsets of shopkeepers, and of research scientists, whose motives are quite different from those of the former group. Unfortunately, in recent years APA leadership has been dominated by the shopkeepers, and it has served largely as a trade association meant to promote the economic interests of self-employed psychological professionals. Although, given their professional orientation, there’s no reason to expect the current APA leadership to be any more ethically enlightened than the leadership of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce, a great many members, especially scientist-members, are more morally sophisticated than that. Their successful conduct of a an anti-torture referendum is evidence of their ethical enlightenment.

    What I don’t understand is why these enlightened psychologists continue to belong to, and lend their good names to, the APA. There is a perfectly good alternative scientific society they could rely on, and under whose aegis they could reconstitute their scientific journals, many of which are now published by APA.

    James Speer, Ph.D. Psychology
    Former Member of APA

  10. kalidas said on July 3rd, 2009 at 11:02am #

    Very superstitious…

  11. Don Hawkins said on July 3rd, 2009 at 12:59pm #

    Many people today need a psychologist. The government is about to control our lives. The government is only trying to help. Climate change will bring an end to the human race as we know it in less than 30 years or climate change is a hoax. California is broke and some will now get IOU’s. The United States is broke but China will still buy our debt. We are moving towards Fascism or Capitalism is still the best system. Girl’s are smarter than boy’s. The best way to lose weight is take a pill. Obama is a Socialist and I can see Russia on a clear day. The Earth is 8,000 years old and an apple a day keeps the doctor away. The Sun is what is warming the Earth. Poor people don’t like rich people because they have more money and dress nice. Fox News is fair and balanced. The moon is made of green cheese. The Greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge. Lobbyists help keep America strong. Lobbyists think like used car salesman and the people who give the lobbyists the money are kind and wonderful people. Anybody got any red’s man. Respect your leaders and watch your parking meters. Fight back. Take two of these a day and come see me in a month. Calm at peace. Stressed and war. Keep it simple. Faster is better. Why not active paranoiac thought, through which it will be possible to systematize confusion and contribute to the total discrediting of the world of reality. National Psychological experiments go on everyday here in the States. Just turn on your TV and turn to any channel and if that is not a psychological experiment I would like to know what is. Still time with a new way of thinking.

  12. Stephen Soldz said on July 3rd, 2009 at 1:12pm #

    James, I partially agree. But I do disagree on several points.

    1. The APA doesn’t do a very good job of representing its practitioner-members. It sold out to managed care and the insurance industry a long time ago.

    2. The opposition to the APA’s torture-interrogations policy involved all sectors of the organization. But, if I had to select a group who played the greatest role in the movement, it would definitely be the practitioners. In fact, the psychoanalytically-oriented practitioners were/are very overrepresented. For example, four of the six or seven psychologists most identified with this movement are from the psychoanalytic division, as was the founder of the withhold dues movement. Official support for the anti-interrogations referendum came largely from that division, among a very few others.

    3. If the APA leadership represents anybody,it is not the practitioners, but the military/intelligence establishment. This group is always highly represented on the APA Board. They love their secret meetings with intell officials.

    4. The “perfectly good alternative scientific society” you refere to, the APS [“S” = “Society”] is as tied in with the military/intell establishment. Unlike the APA, the APS refused to do anything whatsoever in response to US torture. When the issue was raised, the only thing they would consider was a forum on whether torture “works.” Hardly an ethical alternative. They, like the APA, are so busy lobbying intelligence and war officials that they would never bite the hand that feeds them.

    5. A major part of the scientist base of the APA, so-called “clinical
    scientists,” have just expelled a long-time member for criticizing the military and CIA ties of sectors of the leadership. Hardly a sign the greater moral sophistication of the “scientist-members.” After all DoD has tons of research support money money to divvy out.

    Torture has sullied all parts of the profession, and others from every sector have opposed this.

  13. Don Hawkins said on July 3rd, 2009 at 1:57pm #

    Never bite the hand that feeds you. Think Earth.

    NEW DELHI, India (CNN) — Pista Devi struggles to keep her toes from poking out through the holes in her shoes, as she pushes and pulls a wicked-looking farm tool. She is a widow, struggling to feed herself and five children.

    Pista Devi is struggling to feed herself and five children in a region with a rain deficit 85 percent below normal.

    She is bone thin but strong. She has to be. The soil is as hard as stone and as dry as the desert. Pista is trying to prepare the land for seeding.
    But her part of India is dealing with a rain deficit that is 85 percent below normal.
    “If the rains don’t come then these fields will remain empty,” Devi says.
    “No one will call us for work, and the children will have to go hungry. We won’t have anything to eat.”
    Devi is among roughly 600 million people in India who make a living off the land. That is about 60 percent of India’s population of 1.1 billion.

    Most of the country is suffering from a rain deficit. The monsoon has been delayed in some parts of the country. Usually the season begins around the first of June.

    The time to act is now. So why can’t we do that because of special interests and that never bite the hand that feeds you thinking. She is bone thin but strong. She has to be. The soil is as hard as stone and as dry as the desert. Pista is trying to prepare the land for seeding. Can’t happen in the greatest nation on Earth? It has already started.

  14. Jim Speer said on July 3rd, 2009 at 5:27pm #

    Interesting and informative, Stephen. Thank you. It seems much has transpired since I was last a member of APA.

  15. name said on November 18th, 2009 at 7:13pm #

    Comprehensive Work, I liked I,t Thanks,