In This Issue

President's message

The executive committee has prepared an open letter to the membership of Div. 19 on the outcome of the ethics complaint brought against former Army psychologist John Leso.

By Kathryn T. Lindsey, PhD

Dear Div. 19 colleagues, many of you may be aware that the APA Ethics Committee recently dismissed an ethics complaint brought against a former Army psychologist, Dr. John Leso. The complaint alleged participation in torture at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Both the complaint and its dismissal 7 years after the original filing generated intense debate within our discipline. In several instances, individuals and other groups within APA have challenged and questioned the APA Ethics Committee's determination in this case. In order to clarify the position of the Society on this matter, the Executive Committee has prepared an open letter to the membership of Div. 19. I am grateful to the members of the Executive Committee for their leadership and communication on this matter.

President, Society for Military Psychology, 2014
Div. 19 of the American Psychological Association
Kathryn T. Lindsey, PhD

Open Letter to the Membership of the Society for Military Psychology

One of the enduring concerns to emerge from military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq involved the ethical employment of psychologists within national security and defense settings. A number of important questions have been raised by members of the Society. Student members have also asked how they might respond to questions arising from discussions within the university environment. To address some of these issues, the Executive Committee of the Society for Military Psychology hereby documents the official position of the Society with regard to the employment of psychologists within national security and defense settings. We also summarize relevant information pertaining to the case of Dr. John Leso.

Official Position Statement of the Society for Military Psychology

The position of the Society for Military Psychology has been and continues to be that:

  • Society members are expected to adhere to the letter and spirit of the APA Ethics Code.
  • Society members should report Ethics Code violations to the APA Ethics Committee.
  • APA Ethics Committee is expected to investigate and resolve any allegations involving violations of the Ethics Code by any psychologist.
  • APA Ethics Committee is expected to follow established procedures, in a timely manner, ensuring that “due process” is exercised when handling any complaint.
Recent Developments Concerning the Matter of Dr. John Leso

Concerns regarding the treatment of detainees were brought to light when photographs depicting mistreatment of detainees by military personnel were made public by national media outlets and subsequently documented in several articles and books (e.g., Meyer, 2008). Of particular interest to the military psychology community was the fact that in some of these cases, psychologists were alleged to have participated in unethical treatment of detainees. In one of these cases, a formal ethics complaint was registered against former Army Psychologist Dr. John Leso.

The complaint against Dr. Leso, filed seven years ago, alleged that he violated the APA Ethics Code while assigned to a Behavioral Science Consultation Team at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. After careful review of the evidence, the APA's Ethics Committee announced that it found no grounds by which to bring formal ethics charges against Dr. Leso. Because the complainants made their charges publicly known, the Ethics Committee concluded that the complainants should be advised of the disposition of the case. Typically, the only time there is a public acknowledgement of an ethics complaint against a member is in the event that the member is found guilty of violating the Ethics Code.

Since the Ethics Committee's announcement, numerous letters decrying this decision and demanding further explanation have been sent to the APA Ethics Office, the APA President, the members of the APA Board of Directors, and the members of the APA Council of Representatives.

The APA Board of Directors has issued a statement to the Council of Representatives regarding the disposition of this case. A brief excerpt from that statement appears below: 

Each ethics complaint filed with the APA Ethics Office is individually and thoroughly reviewed based on the available evidence. In keeping with the committee's rules and procedures, and based on its commitment to due process, the committee moves to open a specific case against a member only if certain conditions are met. Specifically, the Ethics Committee bears responsibility for proving any charges of unethical behavior. Further, the committee must base its actions on specific evidence of individual wrongful behavior that can be shown to be directly attributable to the accused. In the matter related to Leso, the committee did not proceed with formal charges against Leso because it was determined that the allegations could not be proven consistent with the committee's burden of proof. . . . The review process continued for an extended period of time (seven years) in order to include additional information as it was released into the public domain. In other words, as complete and careful a review of the available evidence was undertaken as possible. The review consisted of evidence (as opposed to supposition) and was conducted in a manner to ensure that the ethics process was kept insulated from political pressures.

In addition to the APA Board statement, APA's Executive Director for Public and Member Communications wrote a letter to the editor of the online edition of Forbes Magazine in response to a series of articles looking at APA's position on interrogations and torture. An extract from that letter appears below: 

In the matter of Dr. John Leso, formal charges were not brought because the allegations, including those that Dr. Leso directed or participated in torture, could not be proven consistent with the Ethics Committee's burden of proof. Due process . . . requires that decisions be made on direct, substantiated information from primary sources, not secondhand accounts or supposition . . . . the committee must base its actions on clear evidence of individual wrongful behavior that can be shown to be directly attributed to the accused.

The Leso case was highly unusual in that the complainants had no first-hand knowledge of the facts of the case. For this reason, and to ensure that all possible relevant material was reviewed, the APA Ethics Office proactively sought information that had been released into the public domain that might be relevant to the allegations. Because much of the relevant information was classified, the process continued over a seven-year period while substantial, relevant information was released into the public domain. In other words, the committee had no access to classified information and therefore undertook as complete and careful a review of the available evidence as possible. Members of the Ethics Committee and committee staff reviewed actual evidence in the public record, as opposed to second-hand media reports.

Based on the requirements set forth by the Ethics Committee's Rules and Procedures, the record, read in its entirety, did not support bringing formal ethics charges against Dr. Leso. APA's responsibility was to determine, based on its rules and procedures, if a preponderance of the evidence suggested that Dr. Leso acted in an unethical matter. That preponderance of evidence of wrongdoing was not found.

Given the above actions taken by APA, and the APA Ethics Committee, the Society for Military Psychology as an organization stands firm in asserting our unequivocal support to the APA ethics code and the due process each member of APA has a right to receive in accordance with our code. We recognize that many individuals, both in and outside of APA, may not agree with the outcome of the APA Ethics Committee's decision. The passions inflamed by this case served to reinforce the need for an objective and deliberative process that carefully, with fidelity and prudence, weighed the facts and evidence before it; actions we trust the APA Ethics Committee to take in every other case that comes before it. The Society finds no meritorious interest is served by attempting to now question the Ethics Committee's decision in light of the differences of opinions being advanced by those who disagree with that decision. In weighing both the individual's interest and that of our profession, we believe the record shows that due process was followed in the investigation and ultimate resolution of this case.

For those interested in further reading, see APA's policies with regard to psychologists' work in national security settings and a timeline describing the evolution of APA's policies regarding torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

The Society for Military Psychology stands firm in our support of APA's policies and recent actions regarding psychologists' work in national security and defense settings.

Sincerely,

Executive Committee of the Society for Military Psychology for 2014

Kathryn T. Lindsey, PhD, President
Rebecca I. Porter, PhD, Past President
Thomas J. Williams, PhD, President-Elect
Eric A. Surface, PhD, Secretary
Scott L. Johnston, PhD, Treasurer
Nathan D. Ainspan, PhD, Member-at-Large
Kristin K. Woolley, PhD, Member-at-Large
Ann Landes, PhD, Member-at-Large
Larry James, PhD, Representative to APA Council