If you are not a psychologist or an American, the extraordinary recent scandal involving the American Psychological Association (APA) may not seem relevant to you. But it should be, because what happened is, to my knowledge, the worst lapse in professional ethics by a professional organization in history. If you are a professional, there are important lessons here about ethics and social responsibility.

The APA is the principal professional organization for American psychologists. As the publisher of most of the leading scientific journals in psychology, it has enormous influence on the field world wide. The headline event is that Michael Hoffman, an independent investigator hired by the APA, has found that the APA’s leadership colluded with the US Department of Defense to create a space of ethical ambiguity that sanctioned American psychologists who participated in the torture of prisoners during the war on terror.

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I have previously discussed why members of healing professionals can never under any circumstances participate in torture. The US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program documented that the United States tortured prisoners and that psychologists participated in this torture.

Since then, the APA and its leadership have been accused of providing cover for psychologists who tortured prisoners. Above all, it was alleged that the APA’s 2005 Presidential Task Force on Ethics and National Security (the PENS report) ”” which sought to offer ethical guidelines about psychologists’ role in interrogations ”” was instead part of an effort to blur an otherwise absolute prohibition against torture.

To its credit, the APA arranged for an independent investigation of these charges by an attorney, Michael Hoffman. Here is the summary of Hoffman’s conclusions:

Our investigation determined that key APA officials, principally the APA Ethics Director joined and supported at times by other APA officials, colluded with important DoD officials to have APA issue loose, high-level ethical guidelines that did not constrain DoD in any greater fashion than existing DoD interrogation guidelines. We concluded that APA’s principal motive in doing so was to align APA and curry favor with [the US Department of Defense].

The 2005 PENS report had, on the one hand, affirmed that psychologists could not participate in torture. On the other hand, the PENS report also said that psychologists could participate in interrogations:

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.

In short, the APA’s view in 2005 was that psychologists can help interrogate but not torture. It is now clear that the interrogations did involve torture. Was the APA just naive about this? The independent investigator

did not find evidence to support the conclusion that APA officials actually knew about the existence of an interrogation program using ”œenhanced interrogation techniques.”

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However, if the APA was going to allow psychologists to interrogate but not torture, they had a responsibility to be sure that this line was not crossed. Unfortunately, Hoffman found

evidence that during the time that APA officials were colluding with DoD officials to create and maintain loose APA ethics policies that did not significantly constrain DoD, APA officials had strong reasons to suspect that abusive interrogations had occurred. In addition, APA officials intentionally and strategically avoided taking steps to learn information to confirm those suspicions.

So what Hoffman found that the APA leaders deliberately kept themselves a state of denial of the facts in order to shield themselves from responsibility. Therefore — and in a bizarre sense fittingly — they engaged in a distinctively psychological form of ethical misconduct.

It is particularly shocking that according to the independent investigator, the APA’s Ethics Director actively impeded efforts by other APA members to prevent psychologists from participating in torture.

We also found that in the three years following the adoption of the 2005 PENS Task Force report as APA policy, APA officials engaged in a pattern of secret collaboration with DoD officials to defeat efforts by the APA Council of Representatives 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. The principal APA official involved in these efforts was… the APA Ethics Director, who effectively formed an undisclosed joint venture with a small number of DoD officials to ensure that APA’s statements and actions fell squarely in line with DoD’s goals and preferences.

The APA has since rescinded the 2005 PENS report. On July 14th, the APA Board of Directors announced the resignations of the association’s Chief Executive Officer, Norman Anderson, its Deputy CEO, and its communications director. (The Ethics Director had previously resigned.) The resignations are entirely appropriate. If someone can think of a worse ethical scandal involving a professional organization, I want to hear about it.

So what are the lessons from all of this for other professional organizations?

First, we should be very cautious about writing professional ethics statements that allow people to walk right up to the border of misconduct. Second, if you do authorize conduct on the borderline, you need to be prepared to monitor whether that border is being respected. You KNOW there is a risk there, therefore as a body setting professional standards, you need to surveil it. Third, you cannot assume that because someone has the title Ethics Director that they will therefore behave ethically.

Finally, if you belong to a professional organization, you need to be involved in the organization. (I’m at fault here — I quit the APA long ago.) The truth about the APA only came out because the membership demanded it.

William Gardner
William Gardner is a child psychologist at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario and Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Ottawa. He writes professionally on children's mental health, on statistical methods in social research, on Canadian and US health policy, and on ethics. He also blogs at The Incidental Economist. @Bill_Gardner

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