by Chuck Ruby, Ph.D., Lt. Col. (ret.) United States Air Force Office of Special Investigations; Chairman of the Board of Directors, International Society for Ethical Psychology & Psychiatry 

A little more than a month ago, David Hoffman of Sidley Austin, LLP, released his independent report that was commissioned by the American Psychological Association (APA). His report revealed the deceptive deeds committed by representatives of APA, to include the Ethics Director, in order to curry favor with the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Bush administration in its “war on terror”. The thrust of these misdeeds was to mold APA’s ethical guidelines to allow psychologists to continue participating in torturous interrogations of suspected terrorists.

Much of the information contained in the Hoffman report had already been revealed over the preceding years in piecemeal fashion by the many dedicated people who tried to right this wrong. But as this information came out, the APA and DoD leadership continually denounced these accusations as baseless, defamatory, and false, and attempted to smear the reputations of the accusers. More over, despite the growing evidence of wrongdoing, and the crescendo of dissent among APA members who were resigning in protest, APA leadership even refused to enforce a 2008 member referendum calling on a ban on psychologists’ involvement in these interrogations.

Now, only weeks later, the APA Council of Representatives surprised many at the annual APA Convention in Toronto when it overwhelmingly passed a resolution that supported the 2008 referendum and finally banned all psychologists’ participation in any national security interrogations that fall outside international law regarding cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. The only no vote came from the Society of Military Psychology Division representative and former military psychologist at Guantanamo, who was one of the DoD representatives who colluded with APA.

What does this mean for the profession? It would be easy to rest assured that the work has been done and all will fall into place. But in bureaucracies such as the DoD and APA, there are certainly some of the old guard attempting an end-run around this ban. It is important for those who are interested in the ethics of psychology to stay vigilant for this and to make sure enforcement mechanisms are implemented. I remain cautiously optimistic about this development but do not intend to renew my APA membership until the organization is clearly on the path to change. Still, looking into the future, one other issue must be addressed.

This is the fact that the APA resolution does not apply to domestic law enforcement and penal activities, both military and civilian. Whether for political or more substantive reasons, the authors of the resolution carved out this area, making it still ethical for psychologists to participate in police investigative activities, including the interrogation of suspects. But the interrogation of criminal suspects can be just as cruel, inhuman, and degrading as the national security interrogations, and psychologists are being used as consultants in such interrogations.

The purpose of a criminal interrogation is to increase the suspect’s discomfort (emotional and physical) so that confession is seen as the only way to find relief. This context could encourage excessive means of creating discomfort, especially in high publicity and sensational cases. In addition, there are other investigative activities that could cause just as much emotional harm. Psychologists have consulted on how best to manipulate people during hostage negotiations, how to encourage people to inform on their families and friends, and how to exploit a person’s emotional distress. Further, psychologists work in prison settings in which cruel, inhuman, and degrading practices occur. For example, recent allegations from inmates at the Clinton Correctional Facility in New York accuse prison authorities of physically abusive interrogations of them in an attempt to locate the two men who escaped in June. Also, many prisons are using solitary confinement, a practice that can cause psychological harm. How should APA’s ethical guidelines apply to psychologists working in these police and prison settings?

To make matters worse, there is a fact of terrorism investigations that most do not realize. Prior to 9/11, terrorists were considered criminal suspects. They were investigated with all the rigor and due process of criminal investigations and afforded the rights of the accused contained in the 4th through 8th amendments to the Constitution. After 9/11, the Bush administration attacked the problem of terrorism as a war with “enemy combatants”, not as an investigation of criminal wrongdoing. Constitutional rights went out the window, and set the stage for the national security interrogations and “enhanced interrogation techniques”.

In response to the new APA ban, all the government has to do is rethink the status of terrorists, and treat them as criminal suspects again. If that were done, it would then be ethical for psychologists to again participate in their interrogations because it would become a domestic law enforcement matter not covered by the ban. Although they are not likely to reach the severity of national security interrogation abuses (due to the accused having Constitutional rights), psychologists may again be faced with the ethical dilemma of participating in interrogations of suspected terrorists that could rise to the level of cruelty, inhumanity, and degradation of human beings.

We are in a lull at this moment, rejoicing at the APA resolution and our profession’s return to sound ethical guidelines. But we will soon face the challenge of addressing to what extent psychologists can ethically participate in domestic law enforcement activities.