A report contracted by and issued to the American Psychological Association (APA) that alleged staff and the military supported the torture of prisoners at terrorist detention centers after 9/11 is the focus of a defamation lawsuit. The suit was filed in Ohio in February and centers around the Hoffman Report that drew national attention in 2015.
The lawsuit was filed by three former military psychologists — Larry James, Ph.D., of Dayton, Ohio; L. Morgan Banks III, Ph.D., of North Carolina and Debra Dunivin, Ph.D., of Washington, D.C. — and two former APA employees: Stephen Behnke, Ph.D., of Washington, D.C., and Russell Newman, Ph.D., J.D., of San Diego, Calif.
Benhke was the staff ethics director until his firing after the report was released. Newman, who is married to Dunivin, was executive director for APA’s Practice Organization in 2005 when the APA approved the PENS Report (Psychological Ethics and National Security) that allowed psychologists to continue working at the detention centers. Dunivin at the time worked in the Department of Defense.
Benhke is represented by former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh who said the “APA board abandoned any pretense of fairness” by firing Behnke without giving him the chance to respond to allegations in the report.
Named as defendants are attorney David Hoffman, his firm, Sidney Austin LLP in Chicago, and the APA. Also named are up to 50 John or Jane Does alleged to be complicit in the defamation but whose identities couldn’t be determined before the lawsuit was filed.
The APA hired Hoffman in 2014 to review allegations raised in a book by New York Times Reporter James Risen. The book, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War, claimed the APA worked with the military to allow and condone torture of U.S. enemy prisoners after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Hoffman issued his report in 2015 saying the APA adopted policies that were too loose to stop abuses and blamed collusion between some APA officials and Department of Defense officials.
Those named in the Hoffman Report demanded retractions, saying they helped prevent abuse in interrogations, not contribute to them, but the APA refused to make a retraction and immediately fired Behnke. Two other staff members were forced to resign and another pressured into early retirement, but they are not party to the suit.
Following complaints that the Hoffman Report was one-sided, APA in 2016 again commissioned Hoffman’s law firm to, in effect, investigate itself to determine if the report was fair and unbiased. APA spokeswoman Kim Mills said via email that the second report was “postponed indefinitely” and the association did not pay anything for that report. APA’s cost for the original report is estimated at $4.1 million.
The suit was filed in Montgomery County, Ohio. One of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Bonny Forrest, said the effects of the Hoffman Report were so damning that the plaintiffs have been unable to recover. She said some lost their jobs and have been unable to find comparable employment and all have lost significant wages.
“We are not interested in harming the APA monetarily. We have tried to work this out with them. No one is trying to profit from this,” she said.
The plaintiffs were also damaged in other ways, she added. For example, the group had the distress of becoming the focus of a criminal investigation after the report. However, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) did not bring charges.
The lawsuit alleges 12 counts of defamation and false light and centers on three primary allegations outlined in the Hoffman Report:
- Guidelines used by the psychologists were too loose to constrain abuses.
- Plaintiffs tried to prevent the APA from taking action that would have banned psychologists from these types of interrogations.
- Plaintiffs mishandled ethics complaints to protect themselves.
The lawsuit claims that instead of doing an unbiased investigation, Hoffman blindly followed some in the APA who thought psychologists should not be part of interrogations. Their bias and conclusions are reflected in his report, the lawsuit claims.
This is believed to be the only lawsuit centered on the Hoffman Report, though Forrest said lawsuits by others are still possible.
APA officials declined to comment on specific lawsuit claims. However, the Hoffman Report was defended as an “objective examination” in a statement released by APA’s general counsel, Deanne Ottaviano.
“The independent review by Sidley Austin concluded that some longstanding criticisms aimed at the APA regarding these matters were inaccurate. Since the review’s publication, APA has taken steps to examine internal organizational policies and further the humanitarian objectives of the science and profession of psychology. APA will vigorously defend the suit,” Ottaviano said.
No trial dates have been set and in fact, attorneys for the APA are asking the court to delay some of the pre-trial preparations, saying they plan to have the lawsuit or elements of the lawsuit dismissed.
The lawsuit could not only prove to be lengthy, but costly. Plaintiffs could collect millions in damages if successful, though the suit doesn’t specify an exact amount of damages.
The Hoffman Report was also met with criticism from within the APA, including a vote of no confidence by Division 42, Psychologists in Independent Practice. Division 19, the Society for Military Psychology, said the report was “unprofessional, counterproductive and potentially unethical action.” Nine former APA presidents also wrote an open letter to the board saying it was apparent the report had not been properly vetted.