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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 6/20/16

Standing Firm for Reform at the American Psychological Association

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Abolitionist and preacher Frederick Douglass once warned, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will." Feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde similarly advised, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." Their words are worth remembering as we now witness a coordinated campaign of intimidation, deception, and obfuscation targeting the American Psychological Association's recent efforts to right its ship and institute meaningful ethical reforms in national security contexts.


To fully understand the duplicitousness of this campaign, some brief background is essential. Following the 9/11 attacks, the APA leadership sacrificed the profession's do-no-harm commitments, lured by the power and prestige available to participants in the Bush Administration's brutal "war on terror." As a result, for over a decade thereafter, the APA's primary response to evidence of psychologists' involvement in the abuse and torture of detainees was a combination of stonewalling, denials, and attacks against critics.

In late 2014, however, the APA Board finally authorized an independent review of longstanding allegations of collusion between APA leaders and government officials. Seven months later, after more than 150 interviews and the examination of thousands of emails and other documents, attorney David Hoffman and his Sidley Austin colleagues completed their 500-page report. It confirmed that senior APA representatives had indeed colluded with Department of Defense (DoD) officials to support policies that protected and preserved the ongoing participation of psychologists in harsh detention and interrogation operations.

In particular, the colluders stacked the APA's 2005 Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) with carefully selected military intelligence insiders. As designed, and despite contrary evidence, the task force quickly concluded that psychologists helped to keep these operations "safe, legal, ethical and effective." Over the next several years, some of these same individuals worked secretly together to develop and vet statements and strategies aimed at maintaining the close alignment between APA and DoD policies, effectively disregarding the will of the APA's general membership.

Among the APA officials most directly involved in the collusion were psychologists Stephen Behnke, Gerald Koocher, Ron Levant, and Russ Newman. Among the DoD personnel most directly involved were psychologists Morgan Banks, Larry James, and Debra Dunivin.

Following these revelations, last August the APA's governing Council of Representatives overwhelmingly approved an historic resolution that incorporated three key policy changes. First, the resolution opposes psychologist involvement in national security interrogations. Second, the resolution adopts the UN Convention Against Torture and the judgments of UN representatives and other international bodies in determining what constitutes torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment. And third, the resolution specifies, based on the 2008 membership referendum, that psychologists present at Guantanamo Bay (and similar international sites) are in violation of APA policy unless they are working directly on behalf of the detainees or providing treatment to military personnel.

That brings us to the current coordinated effort to undermine crucial reforms and the Hoffman Report that inspired them. Since the resolution's adoption, various individuals and groups--many of them facilitators or bystanders during APA's decade of ethical regress--have come forward, claiming that the methods and conclusions of the Hoffman Report are suspect and that careful review and reconsideration are urgently needed. At the extreme, two retired military officers, colleagues of Morgan Banks, have described the report as a "classic attack of cowards" and have asserted that the APA has now become "a willing co-conspirator to the likes of al Qaeda and ISIS." That kind of rhetoric catches one's attention, but it's actually less worrisome than the strategic ploys from the more sober-sounding standard bearers in this campaign. It's important to recognize that many of them--even those who were not directly implicated in the collusion--have self-protective and self-exculpatory interests in discrediting the Hoffman Report, overturning the new policies, and obstructing related reform efforts. Here are five such groups.

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Roy Eidelson is a psychologist who studies, writes about, and consults on the role of psychological issues in political, organizational, and group conflict settings. His most recent book is Doing Harm: How the World's Largest Psychological (more...)

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