The Battle Over Psychologists Assisting Interrogations Won’t Be Settled In Court

—by Martha Davis, Ph.D.

In 2005, an APA Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) was quickly assembled to consider whether it is ethical for psychologists to directly participate in detainee interrogations. Driven by the horrific Abu Ghraib photos and news of psychologists and psychiatrists associated with “enhanced interrogation techniques,” three US professional associations deliberated on whether their members should be assisting interrogations. In an emergency decision, the Board of the American Psychological Association agreed with its PENS Task Force that the role was ethical because it aided national security and protected detainees. For ten years rank and file psychologists researched, debated, and protested against their decision. Then, in 2015, after damning revelations about collusion between APA and government officials, the Council of Representatives voted down the policy. It had taken the American Psychiatric Association and the American Medical Association far less time to declare the work unethical. Yet the battle within the APA continues.

In her article (“Hoffman Report’s flaws should be acknowledged,” The National Psychologist, Feb 5, 2020), Dr Sally Harvey describes the anger of Division 19 military psychologists against those who have actively opposed the PENS policy. But the “dissidents” were not opposing the traditional work of military or police psychologists, they were opposing the operational psychology practice of assisting interrogations conducted under conditions that violated due process, international law, and prisoner protections.

For ethical —and personal— reasons, I am among those opposed to participation of psychologists in interrogations, legal or not. For ten years before the 9/11 attack, I had conducted a study of criminal confessions at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and my consultant on this project was the NYPD detective who led training in interrogations and interviewing. It was a lesson in what constitutes an effective, legal, ethical interrogation — which is nothing like a Guantanamo interrogation. One day, a clinical psychologist emailed me of her concern that criticism of the psychologists assisting detainee interrogations might inadvertently offend police or forensic psychologists who assist legal interrogations in the States. Drawing on what I had learned from experienced law enforcement professionals, I assured her that psychologists in the States do not participate in police interrogations. The APA officials who argued that psychologists assisting detainee interrogations was similar to the work of forensic psychologists in the States were wrong.

Division within APA Divisions grew as, year after year, APA officials fended off objections with endless delays and patronizing arguments that insulted our intelligence. When APA members voted for a moratorium on the policy in an unprecedented referendum, it was buried in “implementation” committees. Those of us opposing PENS were up against not only APA officials who wielded enormous power over day to day operations and communications, but also officials of none other than the Department of Defense and CIA. It took articles by New York Times journalist, James Risen, to move the needle.

After the scandal behind the PENS policy became widely publicized, the APA Council of Representatives voted against psychologists assisting interrogations that violate legal protections. But their 2015 decision could still be reversed if newly-elected officials and Council representatives respond to current pressures. Also, there is concern that the Hoffman Report will be removed from the APA website. Aggrieved supporters of PENS have brought lawsuits against the APA and against a few who steadfastly opposed the policy and are now accused of bias and criticisms of military psychologists. It is not clear how one is supposed to oppose a policy for many years without strong conviction and bias, but no matter. The profound issues underlying psychologist participation in abusive interrogations and treatment will go ignored. The new guidelines of the special Commission on Ethics Processes will be buried under questions of “implementation.” And once again psychologists working pro bono for years to strengthen professional ethics will be up against psychologists backed in spirit by government agencies with roles for psychologists that weaken our Code of Ethics.

Download Printable PDF

Martha Davis, Ph.D.
Visiting Scholar (ret.), John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York
Director, Doctors of the Dark Side,
This article was published in The National Psychologist, Vol 29, #2 , and is reprinted with per-mission of the author.