Hoffman Report Says Ethics Standards Intentionally Loosened

By James Bradshaw, Senior Editor
October 13, 2015

Hoffman Report Says Ethics Standards Intentionally LoosenedThe much anticipated Hoffman Report released July 10 found that for more than 10 years the American Psychological Association (APA) fostered weak ethical restraints on psychologists’ involvement in terrorist detention facilities to curry favor with the Department of Defense (DoD).

Much criticism in the report focused on Stephen Behnke, JD, Ph.D., director of APA’s ethics office, as a central figure in steering the APA Council of Representatives away from adopting standards that would ban psychologists working at sites at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib even after “enhanced interrogation” methods, including waterboarding, were exposed.

But, it was also apparent in the findings that Behnke’s actions were in line with views of top policy makers on the council during those years, including two past presidents. They opposed any restrictions that would conflict with DoD policies because the department is a major employer of psychologists, provides millions of dollars in grants and contracts to other psychologists and benefits psychology in general through programs such as the 1990s demonstration project that trained 10 military psychologists to exercise prescription authority.

Chicago attorney David H. Hoffman was commissioned by the APA last November to investigate APA’s involvement at the detention centers after Pay Any Price, a book by New York Times reporter James Risen, was published. Risen contended APA was involved in devising “enhanced interrogation” methods and worked “assiduously to protect the psychologists who did get involved in the torture program.”

APA paid for the investigation, but specified that it should seek out the truth “without regard to whether the evidence or conclusions may be deemed favorable or unfavorable to APA.”

Hoffman and six other attorneys with the law firm of Sidley Austin LLP worked on the investigation. The report noted that the team conducted more than 200 interviews with 148 people in 14 cities and 10 states, reviewed more than 50,000 documents along with “an immense volume” of emails, electronic files, handwritten notes and communications on relevant APA listservs.

In short, the report said the review was as thorough as possible without subpoena power to require persons to submit to sworn testimony, security clearance to inspect classified government documents or “inside sources” that investigative reporters such as Risen had developed over the years.

In addition to APA sources, information was obtained from principal APA critics, “nearly 300” emails volunteered through a special email address and more than 30 phone calls. While the report was highly critical of the APA’s handling of ethics related to the interrogations, it also discounted many contentions critics had leveled at the association.

The investigators found no evidence that APA supported development of enhanced interrogation techniques, although the ethics staff was lax in pursuing complaints involving psychologists involved with detention facilities.

Also, while many psychologists benefit from DoD contracts, there was no evidence that the association was motivated by a specific contract or grant, and the APA itself did not receive any substantial DoD grants, contracts or other payments during the time period from 2005 to the present.

The report said the RxP program also was not a relevant incentive, since by 2005 there was no indication the government would take any action to expand the demonstration project or make any effort to disallow credentials of those already trained.

Key findings centered on the controversial report called PENS (the Presidential Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security) prepared in 2005 that led to adoption of ethical standards that allowed member psychologists to continue to work at detention facilities in contrast to bans other organizations, including the American Psychiatric Association, imposed on their members.

The nine-member task force was convened by then-APA President Ron Levant in June of 2005 following revelations in a government legal memorandum that reaffirmed the use of tactics such as waterboarding.

Investigators said Levant and other APA leaders were “intimately invol-ved” in aligning APA actions with DoD preferences. From the outset, task force membership was stacked in favor of imposing standards no stricter than the official government stance.

Six of the members were military/DoD psychologists: Morgan Banks, Ph.D., chief of psychological operations for the Army; Scott Shumate, Psy.D, chief psychologist for the CIA counterterrorism center; Larry James, Ph.D., an Army colonel who had been deployed to Guantanamo; Michael Gelles, Psy.D., a Navy Criminal Investigative Service psychologist; Bryce Lefever, Ph.D., a Navy psychologist and former instructor for the military SERE program (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape), and Robert Fein, Ph.D., a DoD contractor who had worked with Shumate in a counter intelligence unit. The remaining members were Jean Maria Arrigo, Ph.D.; Nina Thomas, Ph.D., and Michael Wessells, Ph.D.

The report noted that APA President-Elect Gerald Koocher, Ph.D., was appointed as a liaison for the APA board to the task force and was so aggressive in attacking proposals from the non-DoD members that “the split was effectively 7-3 while Koocher was at the meeting.”

The task force worked three days to produce a report largely drafted by Behnke that concluded psychologists could ethically play a role in such interrogations and spelled out guidelines for that. The investigation showed that Russ Newman, Ph.D., then head of the APA Practice Directorate, participated in the task force’s internal discussions despite the fact that his wife, Debra Dunivin, Ph.D., was among DoD psychologists who would be most affected by the guidelines. (Dunivin had succeeded James at Guantanamo.)

The result was a high-sounding set of 12 ethical guidelines that did little to restrict psychologists’ roles at detention facilities.

For example, while they were forbidden to participate in or condone any acts of torture, the official definition of “torture” by the Bush administration’s DoD was so narrow that practices as waterboarding were not considered torture. Using psychological stress in interrogations was acceptable so long as it did not impose permanent mental damage.

Once the guidelines were drafted, they were adopted by the APA board in an unusual “emergency” action even though they could have been taken to the full Council of Representatives that was to meet only six weeks later.

Critics also contended APA leaders devised a “Nuremberg defense” for psychologists at the detention camps with another ethics standard adopted in 2002 that allowed psychologists to perform research without the informed consent of subjects where “permitted by law or federal or institutional regulations.” The report said that criticism was off-base and the clause had been added to the draft code prior to the 9/11 attacks of 2001.

That change was among several considered as APA policy makers moved to protect psychologists when ethical obligations of confidentiality conflicted with legal directives in the form of court orders or subpoenas.

The investigative team also looked into the handling of two psychologists who were found to have actively participated in developing enhanced interrogation techniques, Maj. John Francis Leso, Ph.D., and James Mitchell, Ph.D. Ethics complaints were filed against both men but APA said it could apply no sanctions because they were not APA members.

The investigators found that Behnke erroneously told Levant in 2005 that Leso was not a member when he actually was, and the complaint languished until 2013 when it was closed without being forwarded to the Ethics Committee. A complaint was filed against Mitchell in 2005 but Mitchell resigned from APA while it was pending.

The report noted it is important to consider feelings of anger and patriotism raised throughout the nation following the 9/11 attacks. “There was a common, shared desire to help our national and local governments respond….”

The report said APA staff and members who worked most closely on ethics policies felt they “are (as they have told us) American heroes, and the fact that they have been attacked rather than thanked for their service to their profession and the country is a tragedy.”

The report concluded: “We hope that this report and APA’s response will over time allow the profession as a whole to feel that APA has properly dealt with its actions in the past, that it has properly defined the ethical obligations of psychologists on this issue for the future, and that vigorous discussions on this topic can occur in a culture of civility and mutual respect.”

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