Letter from the president

February 10, 2014

Lindsay Childress-Beatty, JD, PhD
Director of Adjudication/Deputy Director, Ethics Office
American Psychological Association
750 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002-4242

Stephen Behnke, JD, PhD
Director Ethics Office
American Psychological Association
750 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002-4242

Dear Drs. Childress-Beatty and Behnke:

I am writing on behalf of Division 39 to express grave concern over the decision of the Ethics Committee to exonerate Dr. John Leso, despite his role in directing the torture of Mohammed al-Qahtani. I note that the APA letter to Dr. Trudy Bond, explaining the decision, does not dispute Leso’s involvement in the torture that left al-Qahtani in an incoherent, hallucinatory state that State Department representative Susan Crawford acknowledged was a “life threatening situation.” No one disputes the fact that Leso consulted on and directed the torture of Mohammed al-Qahtani. At times Leso was in the room giving instructions to those implementing the torture. The barbaric treatment of al-Qahtani is the most well documented case we have of the US torture program begun under the Bush administration after 9/11 and the clearest, most indisputable evidence of the participation of a psychologist in guiding cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in a process of torture. As far as is known, al-Qahtani’s mental state has never returned to normal

The only rationales for the APA decision were: (1) Dr. Leso “did not request to become involved with detainee interrogations but was rather informed that he would be in the role of behavioral science consultant only after he arrived in Guantanamo Bay in the summer of 2002,”; (2) the military lacked a standard operating procedure for the BSCT role, and the APA did not yet have an articulated policy on interrogations; and, (3) there was pressure from the Bush Administration to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” and Leso reportedly spoke out against their deployment.

To excuse Leso on the grounds that he did not know he was going to be involved in interrogations is equivalent to saying that a psychologist who commits sexual misconduct is exonerated if he or she did not intend to abuse the patient sexually when beginning to work with the patient. Nothing in the ethics code allows an ethical principle to be violated with impunity because the intent was not there from the start.

The second alleged mitigating circumstance is that neither the military nor the APA had provided a policy for interrogations at the point that Leso was torturing al-Qahtani. But, the principle of “Do No Harm” was in operation since the beginning of the Ethics Code. The letter makes no mention of the fact that the APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct begins with Principle A: “Psychologists strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm. In their professional actions, psychologists seek to safeguard the welfare and rights of those with whom they interact professionally and other affected persons….” Absent from the Ethics Office letter is any mention of the harm Leso inflicted on Mohammed al-Qahtani.

Furthermore, the fundamental principle of “Do No Harm” is fortified in Standard 3.04: “Psychologists take reasonable steps to avoid harming their clients/patients, students, supervisees, research participants, organizational clients, and others with whom they work, and to minimize harm where it is foreseeable and unavoidable.” Standards, unlike principles, are enforceable. Standard 3:04 alone is sufficient to sanction a psychologist who participates in the torture of anyone, especially torture of illegally held detainees. To absolve Leso on the grounds that there was no policy on “enhanced interrogations” is equivalent to saying that a psychologist who locks a patient in a closet for two days without food or water cannot be sanctioned because the APA has no “closeting policy.” How can it be that Leso’s participation in doing egregious, possibly irreparable, harm to al-Qahtani, does not render Leso guilty of violating both Principle A and Standard 3.04, basic and explicit rules of the code? Similarly, the fact that Leso allegedly “argued against” Bush Administration pressure to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” in no way mitigates the fact that he tortured al-Qahtani any more than the fact that a Nuremberg defendant who once opposed the Nazi party would be found not guilty for crimes committed while a Nazi. The United States did not take seriously the defense of “I was just following orders” at Nuremberg and yet that same excuse seems to be invoked by the Ethics Office as a justifiable rationale for egregious violations of the Ethics Code in the case of involvement in torture by a psychologist.

The APA has maintained from the inception of this issue that it would investigate any charges that psychologists have been involved in unethical conduct. The Leso decision proves with undeniable clarity that is not the case. The refusal of the APA Ethics Office to apply even minimum standards of ethics and human decency to Leso’s participation in torture demonstrates with crystalline clarity that the APA Ethics Office, or the APA Administration that oversees it, has no serious intent of ever sanctioning a psychologist who takes part in torture.

The consequences of the Leso decision are far reaching. By refusing to hold responsible a psychologist who participated in a brutal, destructive torture process that clearly, dramatically, and starkly violates the most basic principles of APA’s own ethics code, the Ethics Office, the Ethics Committee, and the APA itself, have relinquished their moral authority to pass judgment on ethical malfeasance. In fact, it may hand down decisions, but those judgments have no ethical force now that the Ethics Office has refused to take action against egregious torture practices. Given that refusal to enforce the ethics code in a clear case of torture, what basis could the APA possibly have for finding any psychologist guilty of violating the ethics code for boundary violations or any form of ethical misconduct? For example, psychologists have been found to have committed ethical transgressions for accepting expensive gifts or forming dual relationships with patients. None would take seriously a judgment of ethical misconduct for such behavior by an organization that allows its members to participate in torture with impunity.

This is a sad day indeed for organized psychology, and I wonder how the Ethics Office and the APA can take itself seriously after turning its back on one of the most heinous examples of cruel, inhumane, and demeaning behavior committed by a psychologist of which we have any knowledge.


Frank Summers, PhD, ABPP
Fellow and President, Division 39
American Psychological Association