APA Resets ‘Moral Compass’ at Toronto Meeting

By John Thomas, Associate Editor
October 13, 2015

An empty chair and hanging light bulb in a dark roomToronto – The American Psycho-logical Association is counting on its “reset moral compass”  adopted at its annual convention here to try to end a decade of rancorous debate over the role of psychologists in national security interrogations and help stem the threatened loss of membership.

“Resetting our moral compass” was a phrase used several times by APA President-Elect Susan McDaniel, Ph.D., who, along with Past President Nadine Kaslow, Ph.D., presided over the APA’s 174-member Council of Representatives deliberation on three key areas identified by the Hoffman Report as needing to be addressed. APA President Barry Anton, Ph.D., recused himself from all deliberations over actions resulting from the report.

One of those issues, the one that has played a central and controversial role since the APA Council adopted the controversial PENS report in 2005, provided the most discussion before the assembly overwhelmingly approved a new ban on any involvement by psychologists in national security interrogations conducted by the United States government. The ban includes noncoercive interrogations now conducted by the Obama administration.

The vote, which came during a rare lengthy name-by-name roll call that council insisted on in the interest of transparency, was 156 in favor of implementing the 2008 petition resolution and to safeguard against acts of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishments in all settings. The lone vote against the motion was cast by retired Col. Larry James, Ph.D., the former top Army intelligence psychologist at Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the site of widely publicized torture. Seven council members abstained and there was one recusal.

During discussion, James warned of “unintended consequences” if Council adopted the new rule. “If international law supersedes United States law, all employees of the Veterans Administration and other federal workers will be endangered,” James said.  He also questioned how adoption of the new regulation would affect state licensing boards, which traditionally and historically have defined what psychologist can and cannot do.

James’s question reflected the decision to adopt the United Nations Convention against Torture and the Geneva Convention, both of which define cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The resolution commits the APA to inform the president and Congress of its new rule and requests that the latter repeal its 1994 ratification of the UN Convention that included reservations about protecting foreign nationals in captivity.

After the vote, members of the APA military division met and expressed anger and frustration. The group has lobbied the leadership to drop the resolution. Tom Williams, Ph.D., president of the military psychology division, said the language was overbroad. He said the group may consider splitting off from the APA.

By adopting the ban, the APA joins the American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association in prohibiting members from participating in such interrogations.

During a meeting of Psychologists for Social Responsibility one day before the vote, Steven Reisner, Ph.D., who once ran for APA president on a platform similar to the anti-torture resolution, said “We have to make sure that APA goes from leading us into the dark side, leading us into the torture room, leading us into the use of psychology for abuse to leading the way out of the interrogation room, out of the violation of international human rights.

“Psychologists have got to be the leaders in transforming the role of health professions away from standing by or perpetuating human rights violations into holding a standard that says: ‘No, we will not be present at places where this happens. If we are, we will protest it and leave.’”

Christine Jehu, the Council representative for the American Psycholog-ical Association of Graduate Students, said passage of the resolution would save her and other students embarrassment and stop an endless round of apologies for belonging to the APA.

“This resolution needs to be passed,” she said. “If it isn’t, all graduate students and early career psychologists will leave if our moral compass is not reset.”

Frank Worrell, Ph.D., ended the discussion by noting, “We are not politicians. We are psychologists. Let’s vote.”

Two days before the vote on the need to ban psychologists’ involvement in interrogations, the Council discussed the need for a new code of ethics, the second of the three items growing out of the Hoffman Report.

Following four hours closeted in executive session with Hoffman, Council voted to create a blue-ribbon panel to review APA’s ethics policies and procedures and issue recommendations to ensure the polices are clear and aligned with best practices in the field. The Hoffman report said there was undisclosed coordination between some APA officials and the Department of Defense psychologists that resulted in less restrictive ethical guidance for psychologists in national security settings.

Two members who asked not to be named said the cost of the Hoffman Report will exceed $5 million and severance packages will total $2.5 million.

Concern was expressed by many council members about philosophical changes that occurred several years ago in which the aim of ethical activities changed from disciplining violators to a more general educational function.

Jeffrey N. Younggren, Ph.D., a former member of the APA Ethics Committee, urged council to move slowly as changes are made to the ethics code. He said the real reason ethics adjudications were nearly stopped was because they were too expensive, not that they were no longer needed. One of the proposals that will be studied is the appointment of a chief ethics officer for the APA.

Reisner said that the new panel should find a way to revisit the cases that were not adjudicated or dealt with appropriately.

Other voices questioned how large the blue-ribbon committee would be, who would make appointments and how long it would continue to study the issue. Those questions reflected the apprehension about appointing another committee instead of dealing with the issue on the floor of counsel, mindful that appointing a pro-military PENS committee 10 years ago is what got the organization in trouble in the first place.

Before the discussion of ethics occurred, the APA presented Jean Maria Arrigo, Ph.D., with an award for the courage she has shown during the last 10 years because of her insistence of taking an ethical stand during her appointment to PENS in 2005. She was pilloried by some APA staff and members for her actions, which were part of the Hoffman report. She thanked the council for the award, but added that she suspects it was a public relations move on APA’s part to shut her up.

The third “moral compass” item was an effort to toughen the APA’s conflict of interest policies. Time was running out on council’s agenda and it was agreed that the Council Leadership Team would work toward presenting a resolution on the matter at its February 2016 meeting.

McDaniel said she was pleased with the work completed by the council in Toronto, but “we have much work ahead as we change the culture of APA to be more transparent and much more focused on human rights. In addition, we will institute clearer conflict-of-interest policies, all of which are aimed at ensuring that APA regains the trust of its members and the public.”

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