Letters

Psychological ethics and national security

The following is an exchange of letters between Psychologists for an Ethical APA and Melba Vasquez, APA President (2011)

Dear Editor,

On October 12, 2011, the following letter was sent to Norman Anderson, PhD CEO of the APA, Melba J. T. Vasquez, PhD, President, Stephen Behnke, PhD Director, APA Board of Ethics; APA Board of Directors, APA Council of Representatives.

As former and current members of the American Psychological Association, and authors of the referendum accepted by the membership in 2008, we view the recent publication of the Casebook, submitted by the Ethics Committee for comment, as yet another chapter in APA’s failure to take a meaningful stand against psychologist involvement in torture.

For years we have struggled with the APA over its complicity with America’s detention and interrogation practices in the “War on Terror.” That complicity began in 2002 when the APA’s Ethics Code was rewritten and changes were made that severely weakened the principle of “do no harm.”

In 2005, a Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) concluded that psychologists could assist interrogations at detention sites like Guantanamo Bay, even though the International Committee of the Red Cross had stated that prisoners there were being detained in conditions tantamount to torture.

Repeatedly, it has required activism on the part of APA members and other psychologists to hold the Ethics Committee and APA administration accountable to “do no harm.” In 2006, 2007, and 2008, membership pressure led the APA to issue formal statements opposing torture. Persistent urging by psychologists finally led to a change in Ethical Standard 1.02, which, after the 2002 revisions, had permitted a psychologist facing a conflict between ethics and an authority to consult with and submit to that authority, if the psychologist chose to do so. Standard 1.02 now effectively prohibits psychologists who violate international human rights laws from using a defense of “following orders.”

Despite the fact that the referendum drafted by Psychologists for an Ethical APA was voted for by members in 2008 and recorded by the Council of Representatives in 2009, the APA administration has failed to implement it. The referendum states that psychologists may not work in detention settings that violate international conventions against torture except if they are providing treatment to military personnel, or if they are working on behalf of detainees under the aegis of independent human rights organizations. At present, in 2011, psychologists continue to work on Behavioral Consultation Teams and as detainee counselors in Guantanamo Bay in violation of the referendum.

Now we are asked to comment on an APA Ethics Casebook that has finally been made public after a six-year delay. This Casebook treats the referendum as only one of many sources that psychologists may use to make decisions, rather than recognizing it as the APA membership mandate that unequivocally prohibits psychologists from working in sites that violate international laws against torture. To cite a few examples: in the response to submissions 2 and 3, in which psychologists ask how to proceed when they become aware that detainees are being ill treated, the Casebook cites the 2007 and 2008 resolutions against torture, but no mention is made of the referendum policy that superseded those resolutions. In response to submissions 8, 9, and 10, the Casebook correctly cites the referendum, but misstates it to read: “if a setting is illegal, a psychologist should not be involved in interrogations processes.” We repeat, the referendum prohibits psychologists from working in any capacity in sites that are in are violation of international law unless they are working directly for the persons being detained through a human rights organization or as counselors to the troops themselves. Unfortunately, by repeatedly overlooking the mandated referendum and its directive to psychologists, the contents of the Casebook stand as a document that once again appears to reflect the APA’s covert support for psychologist involvement in illegal detention programs. We are left to conclude that these reinterpretations of time-honored ethical principles in recent years do not reflect individual lapses of judgment but rather a consistent pattern of official behavior.

Thus, we call for:

  1. An independent investigation into the Ethics Office and recent ethics committees of the American Psychological Association.

  2. The official rescinding of the PENS report.

  3. Full implementation of the membership-passed referendum.

  4. Full review of the American Psychological Association’s Ethics Code. This review should be transparent and democratic; any revisions should be subject to a vote by the APA electorate.

Sincerely,

Psychologists for an Ethical APA
Dan Aalbers
Ghislaine Boulanger
Martha Davis
Diane Ehrensaft
Ruth Fallenbaum
Ryan Hunt
Brad Olson
Frank Summers


To Psychologists for an Ethical APA From Melba Vazquez

December 5, 2011

Dear Colleagues,

I am writing on behalf of the Board of Directors of the American Psychological Association (APA) in response to your letter dated October 12, 2011, from Psychologists for an Ethical APA. We have been giving serious consideration to the concerns that you raised. I would now like to address these critical issues, along with your request that specific actions be taken regarding the PENS report, the petition resolution, the Ethics Code, and the Ethics Office/recent Ethics Committees.

At the heart of your letter and the ongoing petition drive of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology is the request that the 2005 Report of the APA Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security (PENS) be rescinded. In this context, questions have been raised about the composition and workings of the task force. Concerns have also been expressed about the adoption of the PENS report as policy on an emergency basis by the then Board of Directors on behalf of the Council of Representatives. Given that the PENS report lays the foundation for important Council actions in subsequent years, some of the report’s content is now outdated and inaccurate (e.g., reference to the 2002 version of Ethical Standard 1.02). The Board of Directors encourages dialogue among our APA colleagues to determine how governance could best approach issues regarding the PENS report. Any possible Council action involving the PENS report needs to be considered in the context of our six other related policies (including the petition resolution), which date back to 1986. This will help to ensure that our policies in this area constitute, and are regarded as, an integrated and coordinated whole.

In response to your call for the full implementation of the petition resolution, I would like to direct your attention to the most recent Central Office annual report to Council. This report outlines the numerous steps that have been taken to address each of the recommendations (including the additional options) offered by the APA Presidential Advisory Group on the Implementation of the Petition Resolution, on which three of you served. (Please see the petition resolution.) As you may recall, the Advisory Group recognized that it was beyond APA’s expertise to determine which detention facilities would be deemed “unlawful” according to the terms of the petition resolution. To address this critical matter, APA’s Office of International Affairs has offered to provide assistance to our members in contacting outside experts through our UN representatives. These linkages could be to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and to key nongovernmental organizations (e.g., International Committee of the Red Cross).

With respect to the APA Ethics Code, I wholeheartedly endorse your request for a full review that is transparent and democratic. The APA Bylaws set forth the process for such a review. The last review occurred over a five-year period with a priority on openness, transparency, and member involvement. APA members were repeatedly requested to submit comments to the various draft revisions. This concerted outreach to our membership resulted in about a dozen drafts to ensure the serious consideration of all voices in the revision process. I anticipate that the next review will be every bit as transparent and participatory.

Your call for an independent investigation into the Ethics Office and recent Ethics Committees is also deserving of a response. In this context, it has been falsely asserted that APA colluded with the Bush administration in the harmful detention and interrogation practices of the “War on Terror.” There is a crucial point that needs to be made to counter this erroneous accusation.

Despite repeated claims to the contrary, there was absolutely no connection between the drafting and adoption of Ethical Standard 1.02 in 2002 and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The relevant aspect of Standard 1.02, which addresses conflicts between ethics and law, was drafted in the fall of 2000. It was circulated for public comment prior to September 11, 2001. This standard was written largely in response to conflicts regarding confidentiality that arise most often when courts issue subpoenas for psychologists records (e.g., test data) in custody disputes. It was intended to provide a means for psychologists to avoid being caught in a bind between a court and a licensing board or ethics committee. In essence, it enabled psychologists to follow a valid court order when their attempts to resolve the ethics/law conflict proved to be unsuccessful. Standard 1.02 provided a defense to releasing confidential information in response to a legal mandate. Neither the 2002 version nor the 2010 revision in any way provides a defense to participating in torture or other violations of human rights. Some of you have already been made aware of the erroneous nature of these assertions, and we believe that it is important in the interest of professional integrity that no such false allegations be further disseminated.

On a related front, you describe the recent release of the draft APA Ethics Casebook “after a six year delay” as “yet another chapter in APA’s failure to take a meaningful stand against psychologist involvement in torture.” You neglect to mention the Ethics Committee’s stated reason for this delay. This was to await the completion of Council’s multi-year process of policy development related to the role of psychologists in national security-related activities. This process was continuing from August 2005 through February 2010, when Council approved amendments to the Ethics Code. As the Committee clearly notes in its preamble, the vignettes proposed were those received in response to its December 2007 call for public comment. The comment period has been extended until February 27, 2012. This decision was made to provide those interested with ample time to respond to the commentary provided for each of the vignettes, as well as to propose new vignettes to address other issues or concerns. The current responses reference all of APA’s relevant policies in this area, including the petition resolution.

In closing, the Board of Directors seeks and welcomes the active participation of our members in the development of policies that draw upon our psychological science and practice to address critical issues facing our society. We highly value the important interchange of ideas and sharing of perspectives on issues and appreciate you sharing yours and considering ours. For those of you who are not currently APA members, we encourage you to join the association so that you can take part in these vital policy-related dialogues.

Sincerely,
Melba J. T. Vasquez, PhD, ABPP President


To: Melba J. T. Vasquez, PhD, Cc: President Suzanne Bennett Johnson, PhD, Norman Anderson, PhD, CEO; Stephen Behnke, JD, PhD, Director of APA’s Ethics Office; APA Board of Directors; APA Council of Representatives

From: Psychologists for an Ethical APA

February 5, 2012

Dear Dr. Vasquez:

On the 11th of January the world marked the 10th anniversary of the arrival of the first detainees at Guantanamo Bay, now a worldwide symbol of our country’s tragic turn toward the practice of torture, indefinite detentions, and abandonment of the standards of warfare established in the Geneva Conventions following World War II. This is, then, an appropriate time to respond to your letter of December 5, 2011, in which you address our letter of October 12, 2011.

While we appreciate your willingness to acknowledge some of our questions and proposals, a number of our fundamental concerns have not been answered. Most important, your letter does not address the main reason we initially wrote to you: that is, our concern that the 2008 referendum is consistently misinterpreted or overlooked by the authors of the Ethics Casebook. We offered several examples in our October 12 letter.

According to the 2008 referendum, APA policy states that psychologists may not work in settings that operate in violation of international law. The APA has, then, from our perspective, two simple tasks: (1) Identify detention sites managed by this government that are operating outside or in violation of international law; (2) Inform any psychologist working in any capacity other than as a counselor to US personnel or as part of an independent team working for the welfare of the detainees that they are in violation of APA policy and need to leave.

You state that APA is now ready to determine which additional sites might be in violation of international law. We appreciate that. However, it is important to note that the Association has already been informed, by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, that the naval camp at Guantanamo Bay is unlawful. Thus, it is APA’s obligation to ensure that psychologists no longer work there unless they are treating military personnel or working with an outside team such as ICRC. We also want to emphasize that the referendum was not just about removing psychologists from illegal detention sites; it was also about supporting psychologists who want to ameliorate the damage done by colleagues who collaborated with torture. If this is truly a turning point for the association, the APA should also work toward access for independent psychologists employed by human rights organizations into places like Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the prison at Bagram Airbase. Psychologists have done grievous harm, and it is time to show the world that they can also heal.

You also mention in the letter that the 2002 drafting and adoption of Ethical Standard 1.02 grew out of concerns around conflicts regarding subpoenas and confidentiality. We find it disturbing to imagine that no one on the Ethics Committee, including the Director of Ethics, recognized the most grievous consequence of loosening this standard, which is allowing a psychologist/soldier to claim, “I was following orders.”

For every day, week, month, and year that APA has delayed implementing the referendum, the psyches of men and boys detained at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere have been harmed, if not permanently destroyed with the complicity of our country’s largest and oldest professional association for psychologists. The APA has delayed too long. It is time to take action.

Again, we call for:

  1. An independent investigation into the Ethics Office and recent Ethics Committees of the American Psychological Association.
  2. The official rescinding of the PENS report.
  3. Full implementation of the membership-passed referendum.
  4. Full review of the American Psychological Association’s Ethics Code. This review should be transparent and democratic; any revisions should be subject to a vote by the APA electorate.

Sincerely,

Dan Aalbers
Brad Olson
Ghislaine Boulanger
Frank Summers
Martha Davis
Diane Ehrensaft
Ruth Fallenbaum
Ryan Hunt